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One of my very favorite things to do is listen to stories of God’s calling in other people’s lives. Sometimes they are stories of the time someone knew some kind of ministry was in the future, or stories of conviction about becoming a missionary. Other times it’s the exciting story of being called back to graduate school, to another career, or to adopt or foster children.
That moment when you have even the tiniest amount of clarity about what to do next is a precious gift, and it’s a privilege to listen to people talk about the times when they’ve experienced it.
My story of being called into ministry is a strange one that I’ve told before. It doesn’t read much like the calling of the prophets who responded at once; it is one that involved a whole lot of feet-dragging, kicking in protest, and a little bit of screaming.
If I’m honest, I’ve often felt guilty for the way I responded to God’s call. I have always admired the way the prophets got right up and went when God called, or the way missionaries left everything behind to bring the gospel to people all over the world. My story reads a lot more like the story of Jonah than the stories of the prophets and missionaries I would much rather emulate.
God called, and I said, “Who, me?”
After eight years of serving in pastoral ministry, I look back on my reaction to God’s calling and sometimes I feel embarrassed about how I responded. I always wanted to be one who responded in faith right away. The fact that I was reluctant – to put it very mildly – frustrates me.
But, I’ve realized there was more to my response than simply a lack of faith.
I’ve realized that my response had something to do with my life experiences, my childhood understanding of the roles of men and women in ministry, and a whole heap of cultural conditioning.
Throughout the years I have heard many stories from many people about the way God’s call became evident. I have heard many people talk about the moment they realized they were called to be pastors. When I tell my story, it’s less of a moment of realization and more of a process of acceptance.
I have heard many men (though I do not want to generalize and say all men experience calling in this way) talk about being called into ministry, and assuming that ministry would mean pastoral ministry. For many, calling into ministry is synonymous with being called to be a pastor.
“When God called me to seminary, I knew I’d be a pastor, because that’s just what you do.”
Honestly, when God called me, I had no idea that “be a pastor” was just what you do when you are called.
My story goes more like this: “When God called me into seminary, all I knew was that it couldn’t be pastoral ministry. That was off-limits.”
And my process of being called into ministry was a journey of unpacking all of the cultural conditioning and beliefs that went into thinking that pastoral ministry was off-limits for me.
What I resisted far more than the idea of being called into ministry was the reality that following the call would mean going against all I had ever known and experienced in the church.
In my undergraduate studies, I was a communications major, focusing on interpersonal relationships and communication theory. Interestingly enough, as I was wrestling with my calling into ministry, I was also studying about Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance is a troubling mental state when people do things that do not fit with what they believe, or when people have opinions that do not fit with their other opinions.
Leon Festinger believed that “the need to avoid dissonance [is] just as basic as the need for safety or the need to satisfy hunger. It is an aversive drive that goads us to be consistent.” [1] This discord between belief and behavior requires change, either of the belief or the behavior. For many women who were raised in systems that did not permit women to serve in positions of leadership, being called into ministry creates a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance. Either the calling is erroneous, or the stance against women serving in leadership is. Something has to change, and the turmoil this causes cannot be ignored.
As someone who is terribly conflict-avoidant, I wanted desperately not to be called, and so I exerted a tremendous amount of energy trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t be a pastor. I thought it would be easier to change the calling than it would be to accept it and make waves. Rather than having to defend my calling, I would just pretend I wasn’t called at all. Easy, right?
Not so much. Because, as we also see in the story of Jonah, God’s calling doesn’t let up so easily.
My struggle to accept and embrace my calling helps me sympathize with Jonah, who had probably spent considerable time in his life assuming that the people of Nineveh were too far gone to be saved. He thought it’d be easier to avoid the calling altogether than to face it and change. But running away from the calling led to the darkness in the belly of the fish. Running away from the calling was death.
Even as I studied Scripture, and even as I became convinced that women could serve as ministers while still viewing Scripture as authoritative, I resisted embracing a new way of viewing the relationship between men and women because it meant becoming someone I never imagined I would be. It meant becoming the person I had once ridiculed, the person I once thought “I’ll never become like that” about.
Experiencing God’s calling and being forced to examine beliefs that I had previously just accepted as fact shattered my worldview, and I was frantically trying to superglue the pieces back together. Once I realized that the shattered glass gave me access to a beautiful world, change began to be possible.
And, while I’m not always proud of my call story, I do think it has given me greater empathy towards others who hold beliefs that are contrary to mine. I used to be there, convinced I would never change (and convinced I would never need to!). Change is hard. As much as it gives us something new, it also causes us to lose something.
So, yes, I suppose my story is a lot like Jonah’s, but rather than be ashamed about that, it has made me realize that many women who are called by God may be feeling exactly the same way as they wrestle with what their callings might mean. I long for the day when women can be called into ministry and know that they are called to preach and teach because that’s just what you do.
[1] Em Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory, 5th ed., p. 209.