24 February 2012

The Church's One Vocation

Posted in Emerging, Church, Tagged with church congregations leadership vocation

Matt Wilhelm"Let me just say, I am not an active member of my congregation. If I told you that I aspired to be an active member of my congregation at this point in my life, I would be lying."

This Sunday our church welcomed Matt Wilhelm, Chief Program Officer for Calling All Crows, and, as I like to say, a good Lutheran boy, who spoke to us about the intersection of faith, service, and vocation.

In this midst of our time together, he hit us with this line, which I found refreshing because he expressed what many people in church feel, but often feel uncomfortable saying in polite congregational company.

"Yes, I like being connected to the church, but I don't aspire to be really active, at least not right now." Matt's point, as I understood it, is that he feels called to live out his vocation on the road and in the world and not so much within a congregation, at least not at this moment.

While I found it refreshing, I was also aware that these might be a challenging words for the heavily involved church faithful gathered there to hear Matt.

"People are Busy"

I find that those of us deeply involved and committed to congregational life have a hard time hearing this kind of thing. We think, "Doesn't everyone live out their faith this way? Doesn't everyone want to?" If they don't, we usually we explain it away. We think that it must be a function of circumstance - "people are too busy," or that they just aren't churched enough - "well, they weren't raised Lutheran," as if this were some sort of character defect.

We have a hard time hearing and accepting this because we have equated following Jesus with being an upstanding member of the local congregation. We have equated "good Christian" with "active member."

Actually, people consiciously decide how they want to be connected to the church. They may want to participate, but its not the center of their lives - perhaps not even their central experience of God.

I can tell this bothers us because our response tends to be the opposite of what you might think. We tend to put more pressure on people to participate more, not because its what they need or want, but because its what we (the institution) need. We need other people to take up our leadership roles. We need people to pledge. We need people to continue our work. We need people to affirm that this way we have chosen to follow Jesus is indeed the right way, the accepted way, and still an appealing way. Of course, for an exponentially increasing number of people it isn't and I can see how this hurts when you yourself are so deeply invested in it.

One Vocation, Many Paths

I think the underlying issue here is a theological one. We have narrowed our understanding of following Jesus and virtuosity to being highly active in a congregation. We have also narrowed our expectations around leadership in the church. As I said to Matt afterward, back in the day, people would have tried to push him down a route to ordained ministry, because that's what a good Lutheran boy with leadership potential should do. It takes courage to take a different route, which he has done, combining his passion for music and service at Callling All Crows.

The Lutheran understanding of vocation is my favorite part of our tradition. It says our whole lives, not just our church lives - be they lay or professional - are part of a sacred and holy calling to be ministers in daily life. More, we find God right in the midst of daily life, not just at church.

I know we intellectually believe this and we say all the right things about it, but we don't live it out to its fullest potential and beauty.

Our own tradition calls us to see that there is actually only one vocation - loving God with all that we have and all that we are, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. How we get there - the "how" and "where" of it will vary, but it doesn't all happen in or through the congregations.

I'm not talking about jettisoning the idea of congregational life and the role of Word and Sacrament. I've devoted my life to them. But Word and Sacrament does not equal the the congregational models we have come to know. When we only have one particular idea of what involvement, leadership, vocation, and community look like, we can wind up missing, excluding, and potentially alienating those living out their faith and vocation in different ways.

So, church, can we live with this? Can we find a way of supporting people who are living out their faith beyond the congregation? Can we approach these questions from the needs of others rather than our own needs or the needs of our institutions - and, most importantly, the needs of the Kingdom of God?

We need to find a way. If we can't honor both the ways people are living out their holy calling in the world and what they are able to give to our congregations, even if it isn't as much as we do, we risk alienating them and losing them altogether.

I think we begin by taking vocation much more seriously and naming the ways people are ministering in their daily lives, helping them connect the dots, as Matt did for us, between faith, service, and call.

What do you think?

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