By Colton Lott
Over the past few years I’ve become skilled at talking about my calling to ministry. For example: unless I am directly asked, I don’t mention I am going to be a pastor at the fish-fry/quasi-family reunion. Because, once I do that, the person I'm not actually related to finds it necessary to apologize every time he grabs a beer from the cooler. When a guy is trying to plow through a twelve pack, my meek, “I don’t mind/even like beer,” is drowned out by the incessant plea of, “Please forgive me, brother Lott!”
There is also that part of my calling that makes me kind of freaky. I first discerned that I was headed for ordained ministry at thirteen. I hadn’t even started shaving! I went to church camp in junior high, got the obligatory calling like all the good Christian boys and girls, told all my counselors, and then seemingly forgot that I was supposed to forget about it by fall break and resume saying I wanted to be something practical when I grew up again. My family was rooting for something like a doctor, or a lawyer, or an insurance salesman, you know, something that actually makes money. I think ballerina-astronaut would have been a more convincing career path.
So bit-of-a-freak me went through junior high school, where I learned to tell peers reluctantly that I wanted to be a minister when I grew up. I remember being backstage of my teenaged, theatrical debut in Disney’s: Mulan (Junior) with my peers, who were asking very pressing questions between scenes. “Can you get married?” “Can you say cuss words?” “Why do you even have to go to college? I didn’t think ministers needed any special education.” “Will you ever have sex?”
High school was a different ballgame because we all knew that I was ‘unusual’ and my sarcasm had developed nicely. While my friends were looking at state schools and maybe a research institution or two in Texas, I was fervently emailing Disciples colleges, asking if any of them had money for weird high school kids who knew they wanted to be a minister.
“No, sorry.” “No, but is your parent a minister?” “No, but we can get you half off!”
And then… “YES!”
From a little school in the godforsaken cornfields of the Midwest. EUREKA! I hit the jackpot with… Eureka College. So, off I went on a scholarship designed for students who knew at seventeen they desired to go into ordained ministry (HA! I had that beat by four years, suckers!).[i]
As devoted readers of my article know, because my “devoted readers” are mostly friends and family, I graduated from Eureka this past May and am now in the last few days before my M.Div. program begins in Divinity School. After nine years, I am sitting where I always wanted to be.
Foolishly, I am now realizing something embarrassing, albeit inconsequential:
I never really imagined what this time would be like.
I started researching seminaries before looking at colleges, which I’m pretty sure is not the correct way to do it. High-school-me saw college as a stepping stone and college-me (thankfully) was busy living in the moment, so the projected images of my life that I created in those tumultuous years of adolescence start cutting out…now. Now that I am where tape one ends and I need to insert tape two, I’m not sure where I exactly left tape two.[ii]
This is not bad, per se, but does create an interesting season for my life. I don’t have a playbook that is as solid and fool-proof anymore. Now that I’m actually knocking on the door, I forgot what happens when the door is opened unto me.
In some ways, I think our churches are like this. We set arbitrary goals and wishes with no expectation of how these goals and wishes actually help with God’s mission in the world. Oh, how lovely this sanctuary would be when it is full again! Or, how revitalized we will be with 100 in worship on Sunday! Or, if we could just afford a full time pastor again!
I continually struggle with figuring out what’s on the church’s tape two. I get tape one—working toward this goal that will bring happiness and awesomeness—but what would the church do if that actually happened? What’s on tape two that everyone is so jazzed about?
My sinister suspicion is that, just like for me, there is no tape two! (*Lightning crashes in the background while I manically stick my index finger high in the air.*) Churches have spent so much energy imagining life up to a certain point that they have forgotten why that certain point exists in the first place.
Am I bothered by my first realization of the day: that I didn’t imagine in crystallized detail what my graduate experience would be like? No, I’m actually grateful. It’s still weird that I’m in this long term relationship with the church and that next summer will be a decade of my discernment in a prayer labyrinth made of flour at church camp. I know, and am comforted, that I still have the goal of ordination on the other side and the opportunity for life in public ministry in some form.
But I do worry about the churches I love. I hope they are really thinking of the story they want to write and that they begin gathering up their second and third cassettes. Because maybe, just maybe, they’ll realize that tape one gets boring. We don’t need more people or more money or more staff hours. Maybe we just need to see what life is like on tape two, heck, I’d settle with just moving to Side B! Maybe we need to re-dream and loosen the ties.
I don’t know. But today I sit in a bit of stupor and am continually thankful for the churches that prayed for me up to this point.
[i] This scholarship has since evolved into the Disciples Leadership Program. A full-tuition scholarship for four years, it is open to any Disciples of Christ student who has a record of academic success, service, and leadership. Candidates no longer need to be ministerial in nature, just committed to a life of faith-based service and a deep love of God’s church. Visit: http://www.eureka.edu/admissions/doc/ for more information.
[ii] For younger readers “tapes” are VHS or cassette tapes. Long movies, or books ‘on tape,’ have two, or more, cassettes.
Photo credit: http://www.undertheradarmag.com/news/sony_unveils_185_terabyte_cassette_tape/