One of the most intriguing, unsettling, and exciting things about pursuing a call to ministry is the role that community takes on in your life.
So unlike my past experience.
When you decide to become a lawyer, that's what you do. You apply to law school and you go there and you graduate and you take the bar exam and you find a job. There is no advance crowd of men and women decked out in black gowns, three purple stripes on the sleeves, questioning or challenging or nurturing you. (In fact, in my own medieval time period, there was no crowd of women at all.)
The only attorney I knew before I went to law school at the ripe old age of twenty-three was my uncle, the senior litigation partner in a major corporate firm. And, while he complimented my abilities and potential, he never invited me down to the firm or offered to take me to a pretrial, and it never occurred to me to invite myself. It sounds ludicrous now, but at the time it seemed normal. I'm not sure that any of my law school peers had seen the inside of a real live courtroom until we went downtown for our initial moot court experience in the spring of our first year.
When I began to practice law, as a infintesimally junior associate in the litigation department of a large firm and, later, in other positions, I was almost immediately surrounded by mentors -- whom I did not recognize as such. I tend now to think of that as a woman thing, a woman thing of that generation, although I'm not entirely sure about that assessment. But it does seem to me that many of us who were young women venturing into new territory had no idea, no idea at all, with respect to how the professional world functioned or with respect to our need to find older, wiser, more experienced practitioners from whom to learn. So we tended to go it alone, sucking up our blunders, unsure how to react when our elders would point out alternative approaches and assessments. We didn't know how to take advantage of the guidance and opportunities they had to offer, or that they were eager to train us because they imagined us as the inheritors of what they were building.
Eventually, of course, we did grow up. And now here I am, a real grown up (sometimes in disguise), venturing into a new arena. The course of action is dramatically different.
First, I had to ask for a lot of help. This time I knew that. I wasn't much more comfortable with the whole enterprise than I had been thirty years ago, but at least this time I knew enough to do it. I needed the accountability and opportunities for exploration afforded by spiritual direction, I needed lots of advice, I needed explanations of "the system," and I needed recommendations.
What I found was generosity beyond measure. Nearly a year's worth of very early morning meetings with a priest who has no spare time in his life, at least none that has been apparent to me, but gave me space and time for breathing and talking and listening to God every week without the slightest indication that he had another care in the world. Countless breakfasts and lunches and hallways conversations with people who tolerated my endless barrage of questions and commentary. Genuinely gracious willingness to write letters.
And then there was all the other stuff, the official stuff. In the Presbyterian Church, at least, one does not just run off to seminary, become magically ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, and find a job. It's not like lawyering or teaching: school, license, work. The community is involved from the outset, first in the form of the Session (the governing body) of your own church and then in the form of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry of the Presbytery, the next-up regional governing body, both of whom have to approve your becoming an Inquirer, the first step in the process.
As an active member of our Session, I found the first meeting mostly fun -- with the lengthy fill-in-the-blank form and the eight single-spaced pages of essay writing needed to get there finally behind me, the meeting itself was a chance to talk with people with whom I work, some of them closely, all the time. A couple of people said some astonishingly lovely things to me. But probably the most meaningful moment for me occurred a few days later. We have a youth elder on our Session; this year, a young lady who is a junior in a local high school. On the Sunday following our Session meeting, her mom told me that her daughter had had a lot of homework that night and was planning to skip Session, but decided to come because she had been so interested in what I had written and wanted to hear more and provide some support. One of the things that never fails to amaze me in the context of church is how often you learn, after the fact, and sometimes long after the fact, that you have made some sort of connection with someone of which you were completely unaware.
I was a little more apprehensive about the CPM meeting. I only knew one person on the Committee, a representative from my own church, and I had every reason to believe that the committee membership would run the gamut of opinion in a church that, as a nationwide entity, is at present divided over a couple of significant issues. But what I found again was support, interest, and a bit of competely legitimate challenge in the friendliest kind of way. On the whole, ministers and elders are excited to welcome someone into the process, into the community in a new way.
I left the CPM meeting, which ran pretty late that evening, and drove home in a downpour, thinking over the entire process. Wouldn't it be something, I wondered, if you had to engage in something similar before beginning law school, or business school, or med school, or music conservatory, or an apprenticeship as a plumber or carpenter, or a training program to become a bank teller or an office worker, or anything at all? If you had to look back at your life, write your way through your reasoning process, think about your role models and experiences (which for a young 20-something, might mean finding role models and experiences in the first place), and articulate the joy unearthed in the sense of call?
I have no idea what the ultimate outcome of all this will be. I am no longer the 23-year-old who can go where the wind blows her, with little regard for other people, financial arrangements, and the livelihood of my plumber. But my own 22-year-old sons are seniors in college, and I would so wish this kind of a process on them.
Image (An unexpected mentor) : Brigid Window. Iona Abbey. Scotland. July 2006.
(*And yes, you may have read this elsewhere. I don't know what possessed me to think I could keep two blogs going. I concede defeat.)