June, 1991. I was just finishing up another week, another year directing vacation bible school at my church. Sixty-seven kids participated that June, along with 15 volunteer teachers, crafts people, and snack planners, preparers. It had gone well. I was on a high, actually. Lots of good vibes on that last day of VBS.
Now at my church, Immanuel Presbyterian, in McLean Virginia, the sanctuary is removed from the classrooms and offices. Between the sanctuary and the classrooms and offices is a small courtyard. I was in that courtyard, walking from the sanctuary, where end-of-week VBS exercises had just taken place--toward the classrooms, to help with the-end-of-week clean up, when I felt it. That feeling was profound, overwhelming. I stopped walking and just stood there. You know the phrase, “time stood still?” Well, I suppose it did. I don’t remember hearing anything or seeing anything, although surely there were other people in that courtyard, talking, laughing. I was alone with my feelings, under a courtyard tree.
The best I’ve been able to come up with as a way to describe that feeling, is that I was suddenly me—again. Not that I hadn’t been me before, but suddenly, I had reconnected with the me I was in high school—the me I was before my parents died, before I went to college, before I got married and had children. All of a sudden, it was as if, —as the hymn goes, “I once was lost, but now am found.” Only I don’t know that I was ever really lost. Nevertheless, I had definitely been found—and by God.
I refer to that experience as my “call,” even though there was no voice or vision. I say it was a call, because after becoming me again, on church grounds, having just finished up a week of work at the church, I decided I MUST, with a capital M, I must go to seminary.
And yet, even though I MUST go, I did so reluctantly. I already had a full life, driving kids to music lessons, gymnastics, and play dates and all the rest; volunteering at church, teaching French part-time. I had self-doubts, too. I mean, who was I to go to seminary? Would I be any good at whatever it is people DO there? I dipped a toe into the waters of academia—enrolling in ONE seminary course. And then, and then-- It was as if I had been on a starvation diet my whole life, and now suddenly, pancakes, bacon, thick juicy steaks, and chocolate cake! Soon I was taking a full course load, raising three girls, and eventually working part time at a church, too. It should have been draining. Instead, it was glorious!
As I have thought about call this week, though, it occurs to me, that my call was more than just a brief moment in that courtyard. As one commentator has said, “Becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime.“ That is absolutely the truth. “Call” actually stretches forward in time, effecting all of your life after that one moment—but call actually stretches backward in time, too. There is a lead up to that one moment—that lead up is all that prepares you to receive the call.
Let me explain what I mean. First, as to what happens after a call-- So say you are a Presbyterian (like me, like some of you) and you receive a call to serve as a pastor, like I received my call. Just believing you have received a call, is not enough, at least in the eyes of the PCUSA it is not enough. A prospective pastor is required to take an interest inventory test, a personality test, meet with a psychologist, engage in monthly check-ins with a Presbytery committee, graduate from a reputable seminary, and pass a week’s worth of ordination exams. Only then are you ready to be a candidate for ministry in a church. So, there is the call, that one moment in time, but that precipitates four years or more of instruction, testing, and discernment to assure that the call is for real.
However, like I said, call stretches both ways, backwards and forwards. There is all that comes after the call, but there is also a lot that comes before a call, before that one moment in time.
In other words, before God plants the seed which is the call, God prepares the soil.
As I said just a minute ago, after I received my call, I was required to take the Strong’s Interest Inventory. That long, three-hour exam measures your interests—What floats your boat? What so engages you that time just flies? What is it that challenges you but also gives your life meaning? That’s what the test is supposed to get at. I took the test, and then, the results were revealed to me, when I met with a Presbytery-designated psychologist.
According to the Strong’s Interest Inventory, I am most suited to be …..a pastor! When I received the results from that psychologist, my response was: “You’re kidding! You mean I found it?” “It” meaning my vocation. “It,” meaning God’s plan for my my life. I mean I was already on the path, but still, what an incredible affirmation.
Another test I was required to take was the Myer’s-Briggs personality profile. Turns out I am an ENFJ. I will save you a long explanation of what those four letters stand for. A one-word synonym for that acronym is idealist. So, ENFJ equals Idealist. Most pastors are Idealists. ENFJ’s or Idealists, represent only 2% of the US population but 70% of pastors are ENFJ’s. Another affirmation.
And then there was a dear friend, I hadn’t seen him for awhile. When, I did I was hesitant to tell him about the new trajectory I was on. But, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m not surprised. It fits.” One more affirmation.
So, before I received my call in that courtyard, I already had interests and personality characteristics that were pastor-ish, even though those weren’t clear to me. God had prepared the soil. I didn’t do anything.
Or did I?
That is what has been consuming my thinking this week. Is there something I did, that improved my odds for receiving a call from God? And by extension is there something YOU can do to improve your odds of receiving a call from God? Not just a call to be a pastor, but a call to serve God in whatever capacity that might be—deciding on a profession, a career--working for Meals on Wheels, tutoring children at the Boys and Girls Club, whatever.
I think that there is. Here is what I have come up with:
First, don’t be afraid to struggle. I travel in religious circles. I know pastors whose fathers were pastors, and whose grandfathers were pastors. I am wary of pastors who are part of a lineage like that—unless they have left the faith for a time. Maybe even given up on religion for awhile. Until you struggle with the faith, you don’t really own it.
As a pastor, I taught confirmation classes for many years. Disturbing but true, most youth rubber stamped whatever I said. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the trinity, I get it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus was resurrected. No problem!” Really? Really? There were a few youths, though, who challenged me. “Why are we put on this earth?” asked one. Another admitted, “I’m not sure I believe that Jesus is the son of God. Tell me how that is.” Some few, even decided at the end of the five month’s long confirmation process, they were NOT going to be confirmed. That was ok by me. They were wanting to dig deeper still. Five months of classes, that’s just scratching the surface! If and when they eventually accepted the faith, became a church member, it would mean something to them.
Know thyself. You won’t find that sentence in scripture. It’s a quote from Socrates, but it’s true, nevertheless. However, Knowing thyself is a difficult task. it’s difficult to have an objective perspective when the thing you are studying is YOU! The Strong’s Interest Inventory and the Myers-Briggs personality profile are helpful. So, too, are friends, relatives and teachers. Ask them for feedback: “Do you think it is smart for me to…fill in the blank.” “I’m confused. Can you help me sort this out?” “What do you think I’m good at? What are my gifts?” Weigh their responses as you come to know yourself better.
Renew your minds. “Know thyself “is not scriptural, but this is—it’s from Romans: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God: What is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect.” Breaking that down into more manageable sentence fragments: Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to this world.” That is, don’t be quiet and accepting. Neither be complacent. Don’t chase after comfortableness and don’t be content with sameness.
Paul also says in the scripture passage I just read: “Renew your minds.” Do that constantly. God is always, always doing a new thing. You have to renew your minds, then, in order to keep up with God. Learn new things. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges—to put yourself in uncomfortable situations; to acquire new skills.
So, to recoup: Don’t be afraid to struggle, Know thyself, don’t be conformed to this world, and renew your minds so that you may be in a better place to discern the will of God for your life.
There is one more thing you can do, though, to give yourself better odds of receiving a call from God. It is this: Be part of a church—I know I’m prejudiced here. But, participating in a church, even if it’s just once a week, allows you an incredible opportunity. In church you have the opportunity to take time off from your life, and listen for God.
I hope all of this leads you to at least consider, as it has led me to consider this: Jesus offered the call to Peter and Andrew, but maybe he offered the call to lots of other people, too. Those others, though? They just were not suited for discipleship. Their soil was not prepared. Peter and Andrew were two among many called—these two out of dozens, maybe hundreds, actually accepted and followed. They accepted because 1) God had prepared them and they accepted, because 2) they had prepared themselves.
The way is before us, then: Prepare, listen, receive, and then go and do.