June 12, 2012

Why Serve?

This past Friday I headed to Virginia Theological Seminary to take part in Why Serve 2012, Vocational Discernment for Young Adults of Color. Upon my arrival, I immediately regretted how short my visit would be; I loved meeting everyone who had gathered there to discern where God was calling them.

As you might expect, there was a significant amount of discussion around the priesthood, but there was also a sizable contingent who were drawn to the transformative yet frequently marginalized role of the laity. Yet even there, the clericalism runs deep. In one workshop on lay identity called Empowerment 101, attendees were asked to identify the head of the Church. It took the group a long while to get to ‘Christ.’ ‘Bishops’ and ‘priests’ were the first responses.

On Saturday afternoon I had the opportunity to give a workshop which I entitled “Working Together, Getting Things Done.” The title reflects the fact that these are two of the most challenging aspects of being a part of the Episcopal Church. We are called to do both. Whether lay or ordained, I believe we are called to transform the Church and world. Yet to put a finer point on this, I also believe that we are called to do so by working together, by helping to build one another up, by supporting one another along the way.

All that said, I wasn’t entirely pleased with how the workshop went. I made the rookie mistake of trying to cram too much information in to a one-hour presentation. Not surprisingly, the best part of the workshop was the question and answer session, a time where the group heard from one another. One of the questions, from a young adult serving on the vestry of her church, remained with me on the long train ride back to New York.

What if vestry meetings are so locked-down by process and routine that there’s no way spontaneity or inspiration could squeeze through? What should we do then?

I have no recollection of what I said in reply. On the train ride back to New York, however, a few things came to mind. The first is that we should always expect to be surprised by the ways in which the Holy Spirit does squeeze through. Right now, across the Church, there’s a certain amount of cynicism regarding the intricacies of our governance, our committee structures, diocesan conventions, etc. And yet, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that inspired and even courageous decisions have come through (and as a result of?) this structure. Certainly, change is needed. It always is. Yet we can also abide in the fact that God frequently finds a way when it appears there is no way.

That said, I also think we should be prepared to find and follow God beyond the confines of our ecclesiastical systems. Several of the young adults were struggling with stalled ordination processes or outright rejections. Others, including a few whose potential was blindingly evident, were having their enthusiasm and creative energies sapped by their church's hesitancy toward change and desire for control. It appeared to me that their vocation had outgrown the churches they found themselves in, and in such cases I don't think it benefits anyone to ask folks to stay put. Insomuch as we frequently encourage folks to "stick it out", we should also encourage folks to follow God beyond our red doors, toward the margins of our various systems, where the Spirit is blowing more freely.

Do you find yourself in a similar situation? What would you advise?