Motivation Toward Ministry, Part 3

In Parts #1 and #2, we created this chart and defined external/internal and history/future as dimensions of our possible call or deepest motivations.

Let me place myself on this chart and explain my deepest motivations, how I experience my call.

I put myself above the line in the "external" area. I experienced it as a "Call" from outside of myself. For the most part, I heard that call from  members of the congregation where I was a member. They kept telling me that I should consider ministry. When I audited a Winter Intensive class at Meadville Lombard (it was Ethics of a Democratic Faith, taught by Ron Engel), I was told by my classmates that I should not be auditing the class, but to jump in and go to seminary. 

I have to say that I never experienced this call as coming directly from God. I rebel against the thought that God does career planning. Jobs and careers all over the world are distributed along gender and race lines that are signs of oppression. If God is choosing our careers, then He should be sued. 

I do think that the proverbial "hand of God" is at work when a religious people call out one of their own for religious leadership -- some sort of spirit-filled discernment happening there. 

On the other hand, and this may be why I put myself so close to the line separating the internal from the external, is that I am aware that ministry is part of my family's traditions. I felt that pull when I was young. As I review my family's history, I can see that I carried the genes that favored public leadership, and that usually took the form, for men, of ministry. So when I was "called," it was no surprise.

I never engaged in that story of how I resisted the call as long as I could, and came to it reluctantly. That story seems a part of the standard narrative for many of my Methodist friends in seminary, a sign that their call was authentic, and not their ego talking. Sure, my ego is involved.

I place myself on the History/Tradition side of horizontal continuum. I think of entering the ministry as stepping into a long line of liberal ministers, marching rank by rank, out of the past and into the future, each generation with its own work to do. Just look at the name of this blog. I remember the men of my family who came before me, their mentors, and my own mentors within Unitarian Universalism. The strongest influence on me was my late mother, who was not a minister, but a devoted churchwoman and community activist. I still often check with her for what I should be thinking about.  

However, I have come to focus more on what the future requires of us who carry on this tradition. Earlier in my ministry, I think I was focused more on what it would take to keep old school Unitarian Universalism alive. Now, I try to think more about what the future demands of us -- what specific truths do we carry out of the past and into the future. 

That little star on the grid above is only where I place myself. Obviously, there is lots of room there for the stories of other ministers and religious leaders. Where would you place yourself?


  1. I don't think that experiencing a call from God is a faith claim that God does "career planning" for all human beings. It is simply a report of one person's experience. I heard a voice in my college dorm telling me that I would be a teacher. That same presence interrupted my life in a devastating way to send me into ministry. It hurts to hear a beloved colleague sniff that away as illegitimate just because the Spirit doesn't work as loudly and persistently in every life. There are stories from all over the world of people receiving a vocational call even in the midst of oppressive situations. It happens. I didn't know any ministers and was a sporadic and disappointed church-goer. I had no awareness of ministry as something anyone like me would ever do. It was as alien and distant to me as being informed I would be an astronaut or camel farmer.

  2. I've been looking at this conversation all week and whenever I try to place my own sense of call (such as it is) into this schematic I run into a snag with the internal-external axis which is - for me - an impossible oversimplification. If I may recomplicate it to my own level of satisfaction, I would put it thus:

    Rather than internal / external on a linear axis, I feel that the scale you're looking at there is on its own "plane" defined by three points: Individual (personal history, psychological needs, etc), Social (family, community, etc) and Metaphysical (God / Spirit / Higher Self, etc). For my own part I can't categorize the Metaphysical aspect of call as internal or external - if I am trying to figure out whether that incessant, undeniable nudge to do inexplicable life-transforming things is "really" my higher self, or the voice of God, -I- won't find an answer because I am asking the wrong question.

    So for purposes of the grid you have devised, I suppose I must be smack in the middle on the internal-external axis.

    I will say that I am on the "future" side of the orientation axis, but very close to the center there as well - each moment we are in is the pivot point between all that was, and all that is yet to be. We can neither wholly dismiss the past (however much we might like to ditch parts of it) nor remain stuck in it, if we are to remain effective and relevant.

  3. Claire, Thanks for taking up the invitation to think about the source of'that incessant, undeniable nudge." You identify three levels -- personal/psychological, social, and metaphysical -- a useful set of distinctions. The Biblical Call stories also assign authenticity to the metaphysical, yet one can clearly see other levels at work. Moses resolves his feelings of confusion of personal identity (cross-racial adoption, blocked communication, internalized racism) at the burning bush. He also identifies a path for his social ambition: he has passed from being a privileged person in the social order he has been drafted into, to be a murderer and an exiled goatherder, re-emerging as a powerful leader of a rebel nation. He experiences, though, a powerful call from the God of his birth nation.
    I don't think any of our motivations to UU ministry (or other ministries) are any less layered and complicated. What is not acknowledged but repressed comes back in unhealthy ways. Witness our deep confusions over authority, charisma, privacy, public leadership in our movement.


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