Can I do it again? Pleeease?

This weekend retreat came at a good time. Despite being scheduled over a year ago, it worked out that I’ve been in my new job long enough to be able to take a couple of days off to go. I’ve shed almost enough of my volunteer commitments to be able to focus on the preparation for the workshop. I was able to bring my whole family since it was nearby and child care was provided onsite, which meant I didn’t have to make special arrangements for them while I was gone. I have to say I feel like Way Opened for me around this workshop.

Perhaps the hardest part of the last week has been the realization anew that this is the work I want to be doing all the time.

I’m wrestling with the nagging feeling that God is calling me to this ministry of hospitality and encouragement: this work of bringing Friends together, convening learning communities, facilitating conversations and supporting Friends on their spiritual journeys, which brings me such joy and fulfillment and peace. Aren’t I really supposed to be doing this all the time? Am I disobeying God’s leading by spending so much of my time earning a secular living?

Or is the desire to devote myself to a full-time, "hireling" ministry a distraction? A temptation?

Actually, I think I am given both pieces of work to do. Just as God has called me to be a Quaker and not a Presbyterian, God is showing me what the Quaker path of ministry looks like. I have a “competency” as Friends have traditionally called it, and I am figuring out how to balance my household chores/family responsibilities, my paid employment and my religious vocation.

Apparently I am not called to singleness of eye or singleness of purpose. It wouldn’t make me happy to be a full-time writer/minister and watch my children go around with holes in their shoes. It wouldn’t make me happy to have a million dollar job that required me to work on Sundays or past my children’s bedtimes. And it wouldn’t make me happy to have a spotless house but no reason to ever leave it.

This vocational dilemma is a major issue for liberal unprogrammed Friends. We have a slew of new ministers, many quite young, with a tremendous fire to tend to the ailing Religious Society of Friends. But we don’t have a clear view of how to make use of their gifts.

If we look around to other religions, we see that they generally send their spiritually gifted young people to seminaries. And we have increasingly encouraged our young people to do that too. But other religions have a more defined career path for seminary trained ministers: right into paid positions in their church hierarchies, most of which have a broad need for entry level pastoral staff, along with a few positions in their central offices. Quakers also have those central offices and institutions, but there aren't that many jobs there.

What unprogrammed Friends don’t have, and sorely lack, is a large enough generation above us infant ministers (to quote Samuel Bownas) of men and women who are both living out a deep commitment to local ministry and working in some kind of trade or profession that financially supports their families. The closest examples most of us know of are academics from our grandparents’ generation whose writings have been published and preserved: Douglas Steere, Elton Trueblood, Howard Brinton for example.

There are a few Friends who are well known today who are in that same category. There are more who are mostly unknown in wider circles because while they may be ministering effectively to their local communities, they are not traveling in the ministry or writing for publication (much). (I can think of several examples in my own Meeting, and that’s probably why my Meeting is thriving today.) But there aren’t enough of them, God only knows why, and at the same time, so many meetings are struggling and many young people are floundering, not knowing how to proceed.

I wonder if, just as 150 years ago, Friends hired pastors to care for the influx of newcomers, today we might be headed toward hiring pastors in order to keep our young people and bring in newcomers.

Anyway, this is why I’m writing this here today: I want to record publicly that I too am struggling with this issue. I know I am not alone. And I know this struggle is not because of a mistake, or a failure to live out my calling.

It is part of the challenge of living as a Quaker in the 21st century.

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Blogger naturalmom said...

Interesting food for thought, Robin.

3/04/2009 7:55 AM  
Blogger Gil S said...

Yes indeed Robin - a lot of food for thought. What you say chimes with my own experience but also reminded me forcibly of my Friend Grace Chamber. She lived in the 18th century but I still feel she is my fFriend!

Anyway, inspired by your post, I will get back to my blog and try to write at greater length. I'm certainly sure that part of your ministry is encouragement!

3/04/2009 9:38 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

I'm packing my bag now, will you be at the airport again this Friday to pick me up for the run down to Ben Lomond? Seriously, yep, we had to throw out shoes with holes in them this week and we replaced them with $20 Payless shoes that won't last more than a few months. I have to not think about what all the time I spend on Quaker stuff would total out to at my hourly rate as a web designer. Short answer: a much better life for my family.

But here's the thing. As you know, I spent eight years as a staff with two well-known liberal Quaker organizations and I've had dozens of professional Quaker Friends. What I saw very clearly is that the higher you rise in these jobs, the more proscribed your language becomes. It gets vague to the point of uselessness. Most professional Friends I know are much more interesting to talk to one-on-one than their public output would lead you to believe.

In my short year as an outreach staffer, I was criticized for not spending more time schmoozing with insider Quakers. "What are you doing with your time?" was a question asked and my answer ("I'm corresponding with seekers and isolated Friends and helping them identify opportunities") was not considered good enough. Huh?

It's not a coincidence that some of the freshest articulation of Quaker faith is coming out of the blogosphere. We're not writing about what Friends believe (in language inclusive enough to satisfy every dingbat theory in our yearly meeting) but instead writing about what we understand Quaker faith to be. I get so sad when I see a promising young Friend take a staffing position or get heavily involved with committee work because I know it's usually a matter of time before they close their blog and start talking in Quaker-speak.

It's also not a coincidence that the best outreach unprogrammed Friends are doing is happening on the independent level. When I think of the tens of thousands of dollars the Quaker Quest program wants to donate to public radio and think of what I could do with that money... Ahh! Our own studies have shown most newcomers are 20- and 30-somethings and it should be obvious that the web is where they come looking for information. But I can only think of two really good outreach-oriented and interesting websites coming from professional Quaker bodies (Barclay Press and the Quaker Information Center) and only QIC is coming out of unprogrammed Friends.

So yes, I like what you're saying. There should be support for us. Do I want to be poor and put my family through this? Of course not. Do I wish I had the money to travel in the ministry? Sure. But right now I don't see the mechanisms (or frankly: the interest) for this to happen in the unprogrammed Quaker world.

3/04/2009 10:55 AM  
Blogger Hystery said...

My father, a recovering clergyman, refers to the church as "the society for the preservation of the clergy." I must echo Martin's cautions about becoming too immersed in the system and thus losing your role as a source of hospitality as a freelancing Friend. Yours is one of the first blogs that welcomed me when my interest in Friends grew beyond academic. Your voice, often challenging, always authentic draws me like no official voice ever could. I am sure I am not alone.

By all means, take advantage of other opportunities to serve in a capacity that suits you well but be mindful that the difference between passion and profession is sometimes deadly.

3/04/2009 11:54 AM  
Blogger Imperfect Serenity said...

All good food for thought. My major income at this point comes from my university teaching, and I feel I have been able to live out my Quaker beliefs in that role, even though I don't talk much about Quakerism. (I teach one class on South Africa and one on Race in the US, so seeing that of God in the Other is a major theme, even though I don't use that language.) There are still times when I wish I could just write full time, though mostly I feel I'm where I'm meant to be. A key is saying no to the volunteer stuff that isn't my ministry. Years ago I read the book The Path by Laurie Beth Jones (also author of Jesus CEO). It was a little self-helpy, but she gave exercises to help you write a personal mission statement that encompasses all areas of your life. Now when I'm not sure if I should be doing something, I remember my mission statement, and that usually helps to make things clear.

3/04/2009 2:16 PM  
Blogger Hystery said...

Robin, I'm sorry to post again so soon but I realized I left my last comment on a negative note that may have sounded like I didn't trust that any new step you take would be taken with faith and care. I only meant to indicate that you should not merely be cautious but that you might consider how to further your already powerful and innovative approach to ministry. Perhaps this is not a choice between "this or that" but an opportunity to meld two things to create something entirely new.

I also wanted to mention Amy Kirby Post who is one of my favorite historical Friends and who exemplifies Quaker hospitality to me. Perhaps she you and she are spiritual sisters.

With respect and thanks for all you have already done and all you will do,

3/04/2009 2:26 PM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Meet you at
the swing with the boys. What time should we get there?

3/04/2009 4:28 PM  
Blogger Ashley W said...

Thank you for posting this, Robin. It is so nice see someone else's thoughts on trying to balance ministry and "competency." And thanks again for the workshop. I think we will be seeing the results of the seeds planted there for quite some time.

3/04/2009 4:46 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Great post, Robin, and I too feel for your dilemma.

I would also remind you--my guess is you already know this--that the practice of seeking to be a "released Friend" still exists (John Calvi, Vanessa Julye, and Margery Post Abbott all come to mind).

There is more that this post calls out in me, but I cannot quite grasp it. Perhaps I'll be able to return to it and respond then, but for now, I'll let it work on me.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

3/04/2009 7:59 PM  
Blogger Peterson said...

Well, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one wrestling with how one is supposed to live in a world that both inspires ministry and (usually) requires secular work.

I've followed a path that's sort of a negative-image of yours (like photograph, not like bad): I have my M.Div. from Earlham School of Religion. I went there because I felt a calling to ministry, wanted to explore it further, and wanted support / education / spiritual formation as I did so. Since Earlham is a Quaker school, however, I was affirmed in my sense that ministry work doesn't necessarily happen as a pastor in a church, that callings to other forms of ministry are equally valid (though as an evangelical Friend, I'm familiar with pastors).

Then I graduated. Many of my peers, both at ESR and at Bethany (a Church of the Brethren seminary on the same campus) were headed for pastoral positions. And it felt pretty bad not to have a career track like that waiting for me. Equally bad was the realization that the student loan system is basically built on the assumption that your graduate education will make you X dollars more marketable as an employee each month. That earning power is what you borrow against when you borrow money for graduate school. And, of course, my degree from seminary when I didn't plan to be a pastor did not provide this earning power. (Honestly, though, it's not like choosing to be a pastor is a high earning career track either. Why in the world does the government give loans for seminary education? Financially, I don't know that it's a sound investment.)

I don't regret my seminary degree. It's changed my life, shaped who I am, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it sure was weird to realize how the assumptions of our economic and educational system clashed with the assumptions of Friends ministry in a place like a Friends seminary.

3/05/2009 12:12 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I think I've touched a nerve.

Peterson, your story is a really good example. Can you say here what you're doing now?

Thank you everyone for your encouragement and compassion. Obviously many of you are in this same boat too.

I started writing this essay while feeling really sorry for myself. In the course of writing it, I found some truth I had lost sight of. I'm really not looking for a full-time Quaker job right now. For one thing, I probably make more money right now than 99% of the staff in any Quaker church or organization. (That's not hard to do.) Secondly, some of you know that I felt strongly called to a specific Quaker job last year and I didn't get it. I'm not going to discuss that further here, beyond saying I'm still not over that sadness. And last, maybe I can one day be a model for the next generation of Friends as someone who did manage to balance these different obligations, in the manner of Friends.

And I'm going to look for something about Grace Chamber and Amy Kirby Post. Any specific book suggestions?

3/05/2009 1:28 AM  
Blogger Linda J Wilk said...

You have indeed touched a nerve, Robin, in me as well as others. I felt a tug at my heart as I read your story, as I have been struggling with this issue, much in the same way as Pederson.

I have a seminary degree an pastoral counseling, and have felt a calling to a more active ministry of pastoral care among Friends for many years, but have struggled with how to put it into action in balance with the rest of life. I believe there is a real need for community building within and between various groups of Friends today.

Our meeting was evidently split many years ago over the issue of hiring a pastor to care for the needs of the community. We are united today, but I have to say that this has colored my thoughts and efforts to answer that calling.

You ask, "am I disobeying God's leading..." and I crane to hear the answer.

My call has not diminished, only strengthened, as sometimes happens in worship when I am reluctant to deliver a message. I am appreciative of your post, drawing me towards some new dialogue with others.

3/05/2009 6:23 AM  
Blogger Hystery said...

I too was called to ministry then went to grad school to fulfill my calling despite the fact that there is no specific role for me in today's economy and culture. I'm having to make it up as I go along. I think a lot of us are there. Maybe that's a good thing. In a world that needs radical new solutions, maybe that's a very good thing.

Robin, I mentioned Amy Post. There are, as yet, no full length biographies on her although someone is writing one now. I've forgotten who but she is a prominent historian. If you google Amy Kirby Post, you can find some primary sources on her. You can also find information on her in the book Radical Spirits by Ann Braude.

I will add that you may not have nearly as much in common with her theologically as you do with her personality. Hospitality was at the heart of her ministry and she was living in the heart of the abolitionist movement. Though few hear about her today, she provided the welcome and safe place for escaped slaves, abolitionists and women's rights activists to get their footing. Frederick Douglass wrote that he would rather be in her home than just about anywhere else in the world.

I sense that like her, one of your gifts may be the ability to use hospitality to make people feel safe and loved so that important conversations can take place. You may be able to introduce people to each other and therefore to new ideas. Due in large part to her activist hospitality, abolitionists, Friends, and Spiritualists combined their efforts to create the women's rights movement. Not too shabby. Perhaps your work surrounding the concept of convergence will be similarly unifying and progressive.

3/05/2009 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my years as a Quaker I have noticed that the Meetings that felt most "alive" to me had two or three (or sometimes one) couple or individual who were truly hospitable. hosting simple gatherings, lunches, contacts etc. I felt that they were often the "glue" that held the meetings together. When an individual or couple with this ministry moved away, meetings struggled to refind their equilibrium in my observation. I think this is an important ministry for the local and the wider community and I encourage you to pursue it as you feel lead.

3/06/2009 4:30 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Haven and Hystery, thanks for sharing more of your stories.

I hope it's clear by now that when I ask "am I disobeying?" the answer I'm hearing today is No. This is how it is meant to be.

I have heard similar things before. I'd like to think that my husband and I are one of those hospitable couples in our meeting, although not as often in practice as we would like in theory.

3/09/2009 1:05 AM  
Blogger Gil S said...

You have inspired me to write something on my blog about my experience of the Ministry/Life balance.

On Grace Chamber - there's not much extant about her but I did put together most of what survives of her writing in my book Stength in Weakness published by Altamira Press [this is a plug!]

However you have also inspired me to make a start on my blog with a series of short biographies of Quakers from the past who I think have much to say to us in the present. It's called Let me introduce you to my Friends and I've begun with Grace.

Thanks so much for spurring me on - that's part of your ministry too I think.

3/10/2009 1:36 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Hipp said...

Thanks so much for this post, Robin. I've struggled at times with the ministry/competency balance for a while now. For the past 5 years, I've worked for a non-profit organization that I love. I (mostly) do a good job, and contribute some unique skills to the effort. But it isn't my ministry. My connection to this work isn't the spark that animates me in the morning.

Sometimes, I feel bad about this — I'm sure there are other do-gooders who could be more motivated and fulfilled by this job, and could maybe give more of themselves to it than I do.

For a while, I was considering a professionalized Quaker ministry. But after seeing how many of my young-ish peers have struggled in this path, I know that isn't right for me (for now).

To stay true to my ministry, I'm finding I have to find conduit for the spark of my ministry within my competancy. I tried to find intellectualized ways of doing this for a long time, but God has recently taught me that it's fairly simple: at the core of my ministry is the need to nurture and point to the Seed of God within myself and others. My office is my prime laboratory for doing this (even though I might not use those particular words with my colleagues). It just so happens that being in this paticular laboratory means I also get to do some awesome work helping homeless men and women. Bonus! May I have the focus and openness to do this work and bring its fruit back to the RSoF.

See you in Oregon for FWCC!

3/11/2009 7:47 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Out of curiosity, how many of you have ongoing committees that support you in the ministry? (anchor committees, care-and-accountability committees, committees of elders, etc.)

And how many of you provide some form of report that is shared with your meeting?

For example, I have been appointed a committee of elders, but neither M&C nor the meeting requires or requests a report. I am the one who asks my committee to send a report to M&C...

I'm beginning to wonder if this is typical or unique and so I thought I'd start asking folks what there experience is.

Not to create a tangent here, so feel free to email me directly at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.


3/11/2009 12:35 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Gil, I went over and read your very interesting story about Grace Chambers and look forward to reading your book one of these days!

Jeff, Thank you very much for sharing your story - it is very helpful to me. See you next week!

Liz, I have an anchor committee that I meet with regularly. It was every month for a while and now more like quarterly. We have worked together on providing an annual report to the Ministry and Oversight committee and to the Meeting for Business, but that has never been officially requested or required by the Meeting. (I don't think this is too off topic.)

3/12/2009 1:17 AM  
Blogger cubbie said...

thanks for posting things like this. for me, your posts are a little like... "hm... if i live up to the light and more is given... for awhile... this is what might be there."

3/18/2009 9:48 PM  

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