Calling, Vocation, & Choosing the Smaller Box
For a very long time, I resisted reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, not because I don’t like her writing but rather because I’ve always been a huge fan. I discovered her published collections of sermons (Gospel Medicine, Home By Another Way, Bread of Angels) years ago and found them to be engaging and imaginative, always helping me to see familiar scripture in a new light. I suppose I always hoped I’d have the opportunity to hear Rev Taylor preach in person: I was saddened to learn that she had left her pulpit and lovely small town church, that she had in fact left the Church.
When a student from the Chapel Center noticed my copy of the book and commented that it had been recommended to him as he explored a possible calling to the ministry, I was a little surprised. “Leaving church” seemed like an odd choice for a potential seminary student, I thought, and as I continued to read I began to look for what the author might have to say on the subject of vocation and call.
The book is divided into three parts: Finding, Losing, Keeping. The opening section tells the story of Rev Taylor’s call to ministry:
“If you talk to most clergy long enough, you can usually pinpoint the moment when they first received a call to ministry. Nine times out of ten, it did not come straight from God. Instead, it came from a grandmother, a father, a sick sibling, a wounded bird. Sometimes the call came with spoken words, such as, ‘You’re good at this,’ or ‘I need your help badly.’ Other times the words arose inside, such as, ‘This needs fixing and I think I know how.'”
She recounts the advice she was given in her discernment journey and the decision to “choose a smaller box:”
“‘As a lay person, you can serve God no matter what you do for a living, and you can reach out to people who will never set foot inside a church. Once you are ordained, that is going to change. Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box.'”
I suppose the smaller box image bothered me a bit. As the author described her call, there is an increasing sense of burden and heaviness. In fact, at her ordination she is almost overcome with the sensation of weight as hands are laid on her in the service.
I wondered about that.
I certainly don’t discount the difficulty or necessity of narrowing your vocational focus. Commitment and dedication necessitate the choice to limit one’s freedom. Consider, for example, a professional musician who chooses the “smaller box” of self discipline in a life dedicated to performance preparation. It is hard work–no doubt about it– but there is ultimately “deep gladness” in the music making, joy in doing and being what God created you to do and be.
Frederick Beuchner says of vocation that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.” Finding the vocation for which you are divinely fashioned and which serves God’s kingdom should allow you to say with the poet: “What I do is me: for that I came.” Perhaps I would rather see Leaving Church as a cautionary tale of burnout than of a calling found and lost. The privilege of actually discovering your vocation is just too great a gift for me to think otherwise.
Of the many students on today’s college campuses, there are surely some who do know what their calling is and have already felt that tug toward vocation, always knowing “what they wanted to be when they grow up.” But there are also many many more students who do not know or, worse, are only following what others expect from them in terms of career paths and life choices. As a society we tend to emphasize “making a living” at the expense of “making a life.” (The two should not be mutually exclusive.) An important role for campus ministry is being present for students as they seek to discover what it is that God has purposed for them. Not a smaller box but a deeper gladness.