This piece first appeared at Young Clergy Women International, for whom I am grateful for giving it its first home.
A year and a half ago, I left my full-time congregational ministry setting to take an intentional year off from full-time congregational ministry. I had been ordained a decade, serving congregations for a decade and a half, all of it as a program pastor in multi-staff churches. The congregation and I were no longer a fit and I felt something nagging at me.
The nagging had grown so loud and so restless that it eventually overshadowed my fears, which I lovingly named “the great untethering.” I was fearful if I untethered myself from full time congregational ministry, even for a short, determined, amount of time, that I would somehow untether myself from other things. I would lose my grounding, or my sense of self, or my understanding of what had brought me into this beautiful life of serving God in community through Jesus to begin with. I was afraid that like the little old man in the children’s movie Up, once I started to cut the strings to the things that had carried me thus far, it would all come crashing down.
I love to work, I love what God does in community. I love the messy dance of structure and unpredictability that gives movement to days and weeks and seasons of ministry. I didn’t want to lose those things. But I was also chafing in my current ministry setting–like an old, shrunken, itchy sweater, there were some things I knew could not be stretched back into place. I couldn’t tell if it was my setting or me but my suspicion was that it had become a combination of both.
Several months after my departure I was sitting at a judicatory gathering when the facilitator of our training said, “we’re going to go around the room and I’d like you to share your name and where you serve.” I didn’t have an answer, or at least not one that fit into the normal parameters of such gatherings. I quickly leaned over to the other three young clergy women at my table and whispered, half panicked and half joking, “what do I say? Freelance minister?!” “Hell yeah,” whispered back one of my fellow clergy women, “you should say you are a ‘ministerial entrepreneur.’”
Seeing the flicker of hesitation she added, “you know none of our male colleagues would hesitate to be so bold about their broad work,” with a knowing glance. Being forced for the first time in months to explain my ministry, my colleague’s encouragement cracked open something inside me. It wasn’t that I didn’t do ministry… My ministry was just far more expansive and harder to explain than it had been a few months ago.
That fall, I found myself at yet another judicatory gathering. One of the younger clergy in my area asked me what I was up to now that I wasn’t serving a congregation full time. I shared with him the different community projects I was involved in. My children attend a Title I school and I was volunteering in the classroom and serving on the Principal’s diversity committee to look at ways to be more inclusive and affirming of parents of color who make up half of the school population. I was mentoring two students in my neighboring school district one-on-one, once a week. I was preaching with the specific intention of giving my colleagues the gift of rest without the worry of who could competently fill their pulpit. I was editing a book for our denominational publishing house that featured and lifted up the voices of young clergy, and whose proceeds would benefit and support young clergy cohort groups.
This is not the kind of ministry that fits tidily on a business card, but it was giving me life and meaning while allowing me to be more present to relationships that had been neglected in preceding years as the church continued to take more and more of my time. I explained all of this to my younger colleague and finished by saying, “My calling has not changed. I still believe that God is calling me to use my gifts in the world. And I believe that God does some of God’s best work in the church. None of that has changed.”
I will never forget his response: “Well, I really admire that after your last call you still feel called and would still consider a church.” It surprised me because God’s faithfulness to me had not changed. My understanding of what my calling is hadn’t changed, only the context. But the conversation also gave me a gift of clarity that I would soon discover that I needed.
As the anniversary of leaving my full-time call approached, my partner and I discerned that it made no economic or logistic sense for me to return to full-time vocational ministry until the following year when our youngest child started public school. While it was the right decision for us, I struggled. I had given myself one year, with clear, set parameters. The year I had spent off, had been robustly filled with multitudes of ministry but nothing that was socially acceptable in ministry circles. I still didn’t have an official title for a business card or a tidy answer during introduction time.
I could feel again the strings of my “great untethering” snapping and letting go. What would a second year of discernment yield?
Around that time found myself at a Womanist Preaching Conference and as I introduced myself to the coordinator of the event, she asked me the dreaded question “where do you serve? What do you do?” This time I smiled and said, “I’m a freelance minister–I do a little of everything!” and then I hesitantly rattled off some of the things I was doing. She exclaimed “Ah!! I love it! Do not worry, you remind me of me three years ago. My ministry is expansive now!” My colleague’s words tightened a string, I could feel the vibrations of something true to who I was as a called child of God echoing in my heart.
While all of this vocational shaping was happening, the Spirit kept showing up in these brief but profound exchanges. There were also personal shifts happening as well. The “great untethering” started snapping or plucking the strings of things that either no longer suited me or, alternatively, aligned with who God was calling me and my family to be in the world.
We got a Christmas tree, but I no longer practice the suburban mother craziness of seasonal decorating or Pinterest-ing anything. I disassembled my raised garden beds and passed them along to someone for whom that brought great joy (because while I sometimes enjoyed growing our food, I was terrible at it). I bent my economic and ecological commitment of cooking “home-cooked and healthy” every night of the week, every week of the month–sometimes I order pizza or take my kids for burgers. I took box after box out of the attic, sorting, donating, and shredding my way through so much junk. I even dealt with the box full of tax documents from 2007! Slowly, I began slicing through the strings that tethered me to ideas that at one time served a purpose but had now become restrictive and lost in obligation, rather than joy.
Over the years, I have cringed at the phrases “bi-vocational” or “tent making” because implied in their modern use is an economic scarcity, a thinness that I didn’t want tethered to my ministry. They didn’t match my lived experience of God’s audacious generosity. Mary Oliver once wrote that “joy is not made to be a crumb,” but neither is our calling. My calling is not thin broth, but a rich feast.
When I heard God’s call to take my gifts and dedicate them to revealing God’s love in the world, this is the meal I was invited to feast from–one rich with nuance and grace, one filled with surprise and mystery. What I am learning in this season is about the rich, robustness of calling, the way it can take shape in every context and every season. Even when the context doesn’t fit tidily on a business card or as the answer to an introduction question.
I still don’t know “what’s next” for my ministry. I know what’s present for my ministry right now. I can now see a trail of debris behind me on this path as I have untethered from that which did not serve me or how God is calling me. I can see what survived “the great untethering”–the things that are essentially me, the things that matter: loving my neighbor in a local up-close way, seeking justice that helps my neighbor more than myself, being available to the friends and family I have been gifted to make this journey with, writing daily and meditating with the intent of listening deeply to God.
These are the through threads and as my colleagues remind me. They are expansive, not constrictive, because God is expansive, not restrictive. These are the things that tether me–not to who I was or who I will be, but to God and to my calling.