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.

Millennials & the Church: What does the research tell us?

Look around a typical Sunday morning congregation and chances are you won’t see many college students.  Is this a new trend?  Is it getting worse?  What do we really know about college kids and their religious practices and beliefs?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has done some extensive research on Americans and religion, interviewing 35,000 adults and reporting on their religious beliefs and practices, as well as social and political attitudes.  The resulting report, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, includes a full section on the religion among Millennial age group (age 18 to 29). 

There is, somewhat predictably, good news and bad news.

The report subtitle categorizes Millennials as “less religiously active than older Americans, but fairly traditional in other ways.”  Specifics issues  include:

  • One in four (25%) in this age group are unaffiliated with any religious tradition, describing themselves instead as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”
  • Nearly one in five (18%) in this age group say they were raised in a religious tradition but are now unaffiliated with any particular denomination.
  • More young adults in this age group are unaffiliated now than young adults were in recent decades.  (Compare the current 25% with Generation X at 20% in the late 1990s and Baby Boomers at 13% in the late 1970s.)
  • Less than half of adults under age 30 said that religion was very important in their lives.

There are, of course, some brighter (or less dark?) spots:

  • Among the Millennials who claim affiliation with a religious tradition, the intensity of that bond is as strong today as in previous generations.
  • Young adults in general attend religious services less frequently than older adults but this generational difference is fairly small between young and older adults with a strong religious affiliation.
  • Millenials engage in a number of religious practices (reading Scripture, prayer, and meditation) less frequently than older adults; however, these numbers are in line with what Gen-Xers and even Baby Boomers reported at the same time period in their lives.
  • More than three-quarters (76%) of young adults believe that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Interestingly enough that percentage is almost identical in older age groups (77%).
  • More than half of young adults (55%) think that churches should speak out on social and political issues.  (49% of older adults said the same.)

There is much more information available on the Pew Forum website on this topic!  The Millennial report concludes with the following recommendations for further reading:

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell (2009)

After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion by Robert Wuthnow (2007).

And this in a review of this last book from Publisher Weekly: “Wuthnow argues that our society provides lots of structural support for children and teens, but leaves younger adults to fend for themselves during the decades when they’re making crucial decisions about family and work.”

Food for thought indeed…..

Thanks for reading!

P.S. You may have noticed that I’ve added a blog roll.  (It was a bit of a challenge for me and I’m rather proud of the accomplishment.)  I’ve started with just a few Episcopally relevant blogs/sites.  If you have recommendations for more, please let me know!

Jazz in the Liturgy & More: Canterbury House at University of Michigan

Recently I reviewed Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz, a new resource on creativity in worship written by Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush, chaplain and music faculty advisor at Canterbury House at University of Michigan.  I was delighted with the book, wanted to learn more, and consequently contacted the authors, who were every bit as gracious and welcoming as their book had led me to expect.  The following is from my phone interview with Fr Reid, as well as information gleaned from the Canterbury House website, which is a great introduction to their people and programs.  The CH mission statement summarizes pretty well what they are all about:

  • A progressive alternative for Christians and other spiritual seekers
  • Devoted to the spiritual growth of the students, faculty and staff at the UofM
  • Committed to integrating the intellectual, spiritual, emotional and socially responsible dimensions of student life and culture
  • Dedicated to finding God without twisting arms or sacrificing reason
  • Combining new artistic expressions with ancient wisdom and tradition
  • Friendly to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people
  • A student organization and a ministry of the Episcopal Church

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved with social justice at CH.  Service projects include:  Casa Materna, a home and educational resource for expectant mothers in Matagalpa, Nicaragua;  Episcopal Relief & Development disaster relief work; and Brewing Hope, a fair trade coffee partnership.  A fundraiser is currently underway to help rebuild Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  Mass services frequently honor specific saints of the church, commemorating social activists and raising awareness within the U of M community.

It is in the area of music, as you might expect, that CH is really unique.  They are fortunate enough to have a full time chaplain—few Episcopal campus programs do—and are therefore able to provide both a jazz mass on Sunday night and either an Evensong or Taize service on Wednesday. The Chapel is heavily utilized by music students for senior recitals, as well as providing a quiet spot for piano practice. Typically six concerts are scheduled each semester: these are ticketed events whose proceeds are used to pay the musicians.  Fr Reid said that some students who come to concerts later come back for church services; others may come only for the concerts.  The music itself is a ministry and that is reason enough to do it.

What impressed me in my conversation with Fr Reid was the wisdom of finding that “one thing.” (Remember Jack Palance’s advice to Billy Crystal in City Slickers?)  Among all the various activities expected of a college church, perhaps what we need to do is to find that one ministry which, as Hamilton and Rush have said of music, “resonates” with your campus community.  Decide who you will be and what makes you unique.

Of course, the next step in establishing your identity is getting the word out to others.  Fr Reid said that it had been very helpful at CH to invest in creating a distinct and easily recognizeable logo.  That image has been used consistently for everything associated with CH: letterhead, brochures, posters, tee-shirts, and even–and I love this one–temporary tattoos!  (How about that for “branding”?)

The door is open at Canterbury House at U of M:

If you are exploring your faith, creating your ethic, looking for a safe place to ask hard questions, need a welcoming and open community, like new and interesting art and music, or are wondering how you can make a difference in the world, then Canterbury House is ready for you.  The atmosphere is relaxed, the worship is informal and accessible, and the teapot is on the stove….Come and be involved, be challenged, be fed, be comforted, or just be! We are happy to see you.”

More to come!  Thanks for reading!

Better Get It in Your Soul:What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz

  I’m a long time accompanist/church musician but have absolutely no experience performing jazz music, so I was initially more than a little intimidated by the idea of adding jazz to the liturgy.  So, when my copy of Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush’s book arrived, I did the sensible thing: I started at the back and checked out their bibliography. (This is my standard way of deciding whether I have wandered into foreign territory with a new author.)  In this case, the expansive suggested reading list included works by Annie Dillard, John Bell, Meister Eckhart, Madeleine L’Engle and many more, with references to music ranging from Southern Harmony to Taize, from Bach to Coltrane.  I was instantly hooked.

Authors Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush are the Chaplain and Music Director of the Canterbury House at the University of Michigan and their Sunday night services do indeed include jazz and much, much more.  They compare the liturgy of the service—the order of worship—to a jazz musician’s chart, a starting point and framework for creativity, improvisation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Their aim is to have liturgy and music “work together as a cogent and coherent whole.”  The choice of music is not limited to jazz; in fact, “jazz” is used as a metaphor for any music that resonates with a congregation and engages participants.  Depending on the parish, a “jazz mass” could just as easily be based on folk music, bluegrass, hip-hop, or even polkas!

From this premise, Hamilton and Rush proceed to address a variety of topics including musical style, liturgical planning, utilization of worship space, and, in particular, clergy-musician partnerships.  They emphasize that this relationship is at the heart of collaborative liturgical planning: “Priests and musicians seeking a meaningful liturgical experience for their congregations are encouraged to start first with their relationship to each other–nurturing respect, love, sharing, and a common language to discuss their faith.”

The role of the church musician is explored more specifically in Chapter 10 (“Church Musician—Gig or Calling?”).  Stephen Rush discusses an eclectic grouping of three great church musicians—Johann Sebastian Bach, Olivier Messiaen, and Thomas Dorsey—as well as his own journey as a church musician. 

Along with the more philosophical considerations of liturgy and music there are plenty of “nuts and bolts” takeaways in the generous appendices, including sample Rite II outlines from Canterbury House services, a list of musical resources indexed by liturgical theme, as well as a Blues Mass and series of Psalm tones composed by Stephen Rush.

This is a valuable text for church musicians and clergy in any parish setting but it  particularly provides a fresh view on liturgical planning for college campus services.  As the authors suggest, college students are, after all, the Church’s best “beta testers” and campus ministry is a great place for a “liturgical laboratory”!  This closing quote concerning church music is perhaps applicable to campus ministry in general:

“Great things take a lot of work, and this work is God’s.  It’s worth it.” 

Highly recommended:
Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz
by Reid Hamilton & Stephen Rush
Church Publishing (2008)
ISBN: 978-0-89869-574-8

Available at Amazon:

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