I ran across a striking statistic recently—90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field. (I wish I could remember the source. I'm pretty sure it was reliable, though I know our subculture is filled with what Christian Smith calls "evangelicals using statistics badly." And 80 percent of all statistics are just made up. You can quote me.)

Of course, lots of folks who didn't start in local church ministry will end up there. And we live in a day when job change is a way of life; "40 years and a gold watch" stopped a long time ago.

But it got me thinking about the notion of calling.

There is something sacred about being called.

And a sense of calling needs desperately to be guarded.

My daughter and I were re-watching Lord of the Rings before Christmas. At one point, on the last part of the journey through Mordor, Frodo turns to Sam and tells him how badly he wishes he did not have to be the one to carry the Ring. Being the Ring-Bearer was a difficult and dangerous role. He took it up voluntarily; he knew it was a worthy task; he understood in some dim way that he was suited for it—even his weakness was part of his gifting, and yet the cost of it wore him down.

Scholars sometimes speak of a distinctness that Christianity added to the idea of a vocation. The Greeks gloried in achievement; heroism was much to be aspired to. However, it was generally understood as a way to express the strength and greatness of the hero. The hero chose what army to lead and what battle to fight.

In the story of the Jesus movement, accomplishment was a more complex journey. From the history of Israel came the notion of a life not so much planned for glory as interrupted by God: "And the word of the Lord came to …" Having the word of the Lord come to you is a little like bearing the Ring—you may know it's a glorious and powerful thing, but the task can wear on you after a while.

In ancient Greece, heroism was a chosen path.

In the Jesus story, it became a calling greater than oneself; both a glorious quest to be achieved but also a spending of oneself for Something larger.

"But you have been chosen," Gandalf says to Frodo. "And you must therefore use such strength and hearts and wits as you have."

You have been chosen. I don't know if you (or I) am in exactly the perfect fitting job. But that's not the issue.

You have been chosen.

And this sense of having been called—the worthiness of it, the glorious goodness of a life lived beyond an individual's agenda—is a precious thing. It is sometimes subverted into grandiosity. It is perhaps more often lost in the ministry of the mundane. It needs to be guarded.

Sometimes, in the quest, we get to visit the House of Elrond; the Fellowship is united and strong, the plans are glorious, hope is fierce, and hearts beat fast.

But you don't get to spend every day there.

All ministry involves slogging through Mordor.

Sometimes Mordor consists of opposition. I talked to two different pastors last week who each spoke of a sense of being "beaten up" in their church ministries. Paul would occasionally use boxing metaphors, he said he "beat his body"—but he didn't ask anyone else to take a few shots at his torso.

Sometimes Mordor is general criticism. ("They have vilified me, they have crucified me, they have even criticized me," the old Mayor Daley is supposed to have said.) Sometimes it is self-doubt—is what I'm doing really making a difference? Even if there is visible gain—will that really further the cause of an invisible kingdom?

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Burnout  |  Calling  |  Discouragement  |  Energy  |  Perseverance  |  Purpose  |  Renewal  |  Suffering
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