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Jonathan Orbell. Photo by Jill Orbell

My messy vocation

No amount of schooling prepares you for everything you’ll encounter as a minister. Most of the learning happens on the run.

By Jonathan Orbell

In 2002, Atul Gawande, a staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote an essay entitled “The Learning Curve,” where he reflects on his experiences starting out as a surgical resident. Contrary to popular belief, Gawande writes, one does not become a skilled surgeon because of some inborn tactile gift. In fact, when recruiting new residents, attending surgeons repeatedly say they are looking not for the candidates with the “best hands,” but the ones willing to engage in the necessary practice, to train their talents into being.

“Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught; tenacity cannot.”

That said, Gawande also reminds us that, unlike other trades, a would-be surgeon practises on real people. And while this must instil a sense of humility, an awareness of the audacity of the profession, it cannot paralyze a resident in fear. This is because the resident has something the patient needs, and while the risks may be perilous, the reward is often life itself. So the resident must practise, and be willing to occasionally make mistakes that inflict pain in the hope that one day the accumulated errors might result in the ability to restore life.

Ministers — whether they’re pastors, priests, chaplains or spiritual directors — might already see the connections between Gawande’s profession and their own vocation. At their core, surgeons and ministers are in the business of healing, of bringing life to places where death once lurked.

What’s more, for ministers, just as with surgeons, the information is incomplete, the science unsure (if not non-existent) and one’s abilities, imperfect. And yet, the only way for us to learn is to practise, to jump headfirst into the messy work of shepherding, fully aware that God may not have entrusted us with supernatural pastoral powers. We too must acknowledge that our attempts to bring about healing can unwittingly cause great pain. Indeed, our learning virtually necessitates the infliction of pain. However, like surgeons, we cannot afford to hide from our mistakes, nor can we allow them to immobilize us. We must learn from them so that we too may become forces of restoration. After all, someone else has paid the price for our learning.

I entered seminary convinced that I was not destined for a life in ministry. Whatever God had in store for me, ministry was not a part of it. This determination was rooted not in some inherent distaste for the job of a minister, but in inadequacy. I’m not gracious, kind, compassionate, charismatic or pious enough to do that work, I thought. I’m simply not made of the raw material out of which God sculpts spiritual leaders.

And yet, when people ask me what kind of work I want to do once seminary is complete, I find myself telling them that I’m pursuing ordination.

What gives? Why am I now chasing a life in ministry?

In the Christian tradition, vocations — particularly those relating to ministry — are often discussed in terms of “callings.” I’m not entirely opposed to that language, but some treat the phenomenon as a one-way street. God calls, and we obey. Unequivocally. But if this were truly the way God operated, would I be struggling over the issue of vocation at all? Would I not have already responded to God’s all-powerful call with robotic obedience? Or is the presence of such a struggle evidence of the fact that, in Thomas Merton’s words, discerning our particular place in God’s Kingdom “is the work of two wills, not one?”

Merton recognized the importance of individual will. While we seek out signs of God’s will for our lives, “the soul that loves [God] dares to make a choice of its own, knowing that its own choice will be acceptable to love.”

So, what called me to choose ministry?

Simply put, it is the meaning I find in walking alongside others during life’s more difficult seasons — whether it’s grief over the loss of a family member, doubt in the underpinnings of one’s theology or anger at a supposedly omnipotent and loving God who allows either in this world. I have felt the potency of each, and I long to serve as a calming voice.

I am not so naive as to think that is all a minister does. I’ve listened to too many clergy complain about the humdrum realities of pastoring a group of Christians (we really can be insufferable). However, as ministers, we have the immense privilege of being with the suffering, the marginal and the broken. Once in a blue moon, we might even ease their burden, allowing the light of God to shine into the dark recesses of a defeated soul. In doing so, we enact the very love of God. And that, brothers and sisters, is the heart of ministry. 

Surgeons don’t start their residencies having mastered the art of the tracheotomy or the appendectomy. As Atul Gawande describes it, behind his veneer of competence lay a mere mortal, but a mortal with the confidence and the humility to wield a scalpel in situations where life and death is decided by millimetres.

So it is with me. The path to vocational ministry needn’t begin with all my kinks ironed out. I don’t need to fashion myself into some perfect image of kindness and generosity and charisma to be worthy of God’s blessing. I don’t need to be able to give a gripping sermon right off the bat. These are qualities that can be cultivated. What I need — and what I believe I have — is the tenacity to engage in the necessary training, a willingness to unwittingly cause hurt so that I might one day bring life.

Jonathan Orbell is a writer in San Francisco.

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