God's Call Waiting
I keep a small rock on my desk with a single word painted on it: naviget. I cherish that rock. My wife gave it to me during a spell that was dry for me and hard for us; when I felt like my past was crumbling and I was not sure what the future held. And if you don't know Latin, keep reading; you'll eventually find out what it means.
I first came across this word in a wonderful article by theologian Gilbert Meilander called "Divine Summons." The article was about the notion of calling and vocation, which have long been vexing subjects for me, because I wondered if I would ever get one.
I have been a pastor for a long time now. When I was ordained in the Baptist church, one of the questions I knew was coming was, "Tell us about your 'call.'" In our tradition, if you became a pastor, you had to have a "call": a mystical, vivid, (but non-charismatic) experience in which you have an inner sense/compulsion/Voice (but never quite audible) that tells you to become a preacher.
"Only become a preacher if you cannot do anything else," the old-timers would say knowingly. And many people followed that advice, which may be why the competency bar for preachers got set pretty low.
I come from a long line of pastors. My great-grandfather, Robert Bennet Hall, got his call working in a small grocery store more than a century ago. He had run away from the orphanage where he grew up and married a grocer's daughter. He was sweeping out the storeroom when he got the call. My brother-in-law got the call when he was working in a grocery store in our old hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Possibly my problem was that I never worked at a grocery store.
Because I never got that kind of call, I could have done other things besides be a pastor. Probably not too well, but I could have done them. I was open to a call. I asked for one. But Heaven was silent. I had to figure out what to do myself. Being a pastor seemed like a good fit for what I understood of my gifts, and it seemed worth the effort.
But I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions. Another reason may be that I don't think God separates people into "pastor" groups that have to get calls and "non-pastor" groups that are call-free.
I have worked at churches where the expectation was that if you were on staff, you had "the call," places where everyone sensed that if they were not working at that church they would be guilty of disobedience. I never got that kind of call. I don't think it's necessary or (sometimes) even healthy. I think calling is much more God's business, often expressed through the voice of his community. I think someone can have a fabulous calling without knowing everything about it.
I also think that the whole language around calling can lead churches and pastors to be less honest than the people we serve. Presidents fire cabinet members. Football coaches switch schools to make more money or lead bigger programs. But in a church, we have a hard time talking honestly about why staff people leave. We paper over toxic cultures and power struggles with sanctified spin: "He got a call from the Lord" or "I just had this restless sense in my spirit—I couldn't explain why."
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.