After nearly forty years as a “professional Christian,” i.e., one who makes his/her living from Christian ministry, I’m no longer a vocational Christian. Twenty-three years in cross-cultural ministry provided (I had hoped) a platform for re-entry to local church ministry. I desired (and was supported – a great cost yet again – by my wife) to find a community of faith with which “to do life together.” After supporting and facilitating the ministries of others, after hearing their stories of God at work in and through them, I wanted to participate in my own stories. [To clarify, God had used me – at least this was the feedback from many I’d served. Normally, however, that ministry was long-distance and episodic, limited to occasional visits. I was hungry for day-to-day connections.]
In June, 2007, I stepped into the pastoral role in a small church in “down east” Canada, yet another cross-cultural situation. Long story short – a story to be recounted another time – it was less than a complete success. Some victories, some defeats, and the strong sense that the latter would mount more quickly than the former, I resigned in April, 2010. As residents in Canada whose residency was job-dependent, we began to plan our return to a place we’d only visited (for no more than two months at a go) over the previous quarter century. I also applied for any and every pastoral position that approximated who I was and what I felt called by God to do. Interesting time to say the least….
Discovery #1 – in the application/interview processes in which I made the first or second “cut,” I learned that my application had emerged from as many as 300 others. Clearly, much was happening in the US church scene, exacerbated no doubt by the financial crises that had forced more than one church to terminate one or more of their staff in the interests of financial stability.
Discovery #2 – at age 61, I was clearly at the high end of the demographic searches by churches. For many, I was excluded by age.
Discovery #3 – the majority of church situations about which I read were simply more of the same old, same old: come and help us do our thing; come and run our programs; come help us be successful at drawing new members from the large pool of already-Christians who are looking for a better “deal,” in terms of their own church experience (this latter situation was obviously never stated overtly). There were few churches indicating any level of interest in or success at actually engaging a culture that no longer saw church as an option of any sort. It seemed few even realized that a growing majority of Americans did not wake up on Sunday mornings and ask themselves, “I wonder if I should go to church today?”
Discovery #4 – many changes in my own biblical and theological conclusions, wed to a number of formerly-answered questions whose answers I’d begun to doubt, meant I was a less-than-ideal candidate for any position. In fact, I was precluded from applying to a majority of churches by their doctrinal statements. I no longer hold to anything that suggests a pre-millennial understanding of history and requires me to swear a blood oath to support and defend current Israel.
A commitment to an inerrant Bible (has anyone ever really asked themselves why we have to subscribe to an inerrant-in-their-original-manuscripts Bible when we have no autographed copies?) also no longer carries necessity or value for me. Obviously, that’s the litmus test (at least, the non-political, non-social litmus test) for the majority of evangelical churches. For most American evangelicals, you’re either “in the camp” or “beyond the pale” when it comes to inerrancy. And, if beyond the pale, then perhaps not even saved. My own take on things is that many are closet bibliolaters without knowing it. And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that the issue is less the Bible’s inerrancy than it’s the Bible’s interpretation. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Interesting, since many who make such an utterance actually find themselves on diametrically-opposite sides of a huge number of theological issues.
Discovery #4b – my movement away from the evangelical understanding of inerrancy has created a need to learn a new way to read and understand the authoritative-in-all-things-pertaining-to-salvation Scriptures. More later on this.
Discovery #5 – I didn’t have the “pastor’s heart” I thought I did. In fact, in my own growing self-awareness, I discovered that I have a hard time loving people in the church. I discovered (and continue to discover) that there are many things about myself that I simply don’t like.
Discovery #6 – this may already be self-evident: there are many things you don’t allow yourself to think when you’re a professional Christian. After all, when you make your living from your beliefs, your beliefs better not change, at least not if you want to continue in your job. So, you never let those issues rise truly to the surface of conscious thought.
Discovery #7 – forty years of vocational ministry does not qualify one for many, if any, jobs in the marketplace, especially when you’re over 60. Perhaps I should say they haven’t qualified me. I shouldn’t speak for others whose avocations and training may well provide a platform for a job outside ministry.
Discovery #8 – a necessary corollary to the previous discovery is that, when faced with the alternatives, one must find a job, any job, at least if one wants to eat. This discovery has taken me into a whole new socio-economic situation and many new acquaintances among a group I’d never really thought about, namely, the working poor. I’ll also come back to this later.
Discovery #9 – it’s a whole new thing to engage in and with the gospel when no longer a “professional.”
To be continued….