Zelophehad’s Daughters

Called of God

Posted by Lynnette

An acquaintance of mine was ordained in the Episcopal church last month. She’s a warm, lively person, probably around the age of my mother, who despite not knowing me well stopped to give me a hug the night before my comps defense. The path to ordination is a long one, with a lot of requirements along the way, and even for me as an outside observer it was kind of exciting to see someone finally make it to the end of it.

I remember when I first learned, perhaps around the age of eight or nine, that in other churches people chose to seek out ordination. This was explained to me as part of a lesson on the Fifth Article of Faith, and was somewhat startling information– I hadn’t realized that things were done differently elsewhere. I was left with the impression that there was something a bit shady about people who would make such a choice; after all, wouldn’t someone have to be rather presumptuous to select themselves for such a vocation, rather than allowing God do the choosing?

What I didn’t realize, of course, was that the idea that clergy are “called of God” is hardly unique to the LDS faith. Where generally we differ is in our belief that the call comes mediated through others in positions of authority, rather than directly to the individual herself or himself. (And, of course, in the fact that most LDS “callings” are temporary.) But the latter method is not without parallel in Mormonism–missionaries, though ultimately called by the Church, initiate the process themselves. Perhaps the most apt comparison would be the situation of sister missionaries, in which there is no blanket injunction to serve but some individuals feel inspired to do so.

I can understand feeling suspicious of someone who aspires to ecclesiastical office, and I’m not unsympathetic to the notion so common in Mormonism that if someone seeks after a particular calling, they’re probably not the person who should have it. It’s true that I’ve encountered people seeking ordination who’ve left me feeling uneasy. But this hasn’t happened often. On the whole, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the strong sense of vocation among the many of my friends and acquaintances who are ordained or on the way there. I’m impressed by the amount of study and practical work and time spent in discernment that I’ve seen people put into this. I rather admire them; from what I can see, the work of a pastor is often quite exhausting.

I find that those of other faiths are frequently more fascinated by how our church is run than by any of our unique theology. They often express surprise and even a bit of horror that we throw bishops into their jobs without training. They also often express admiration for the way in which the system of callings in a ward gets lay members involved–which, from what I hear, is an ongoing challenge for many congregations. Such conversations have given me greater appreciation for some of the strengths of how things are set up in our church (e.g., I think there’s something to be said for having people who work in a variety of careers serve in leadership positions). But they’ve also raised difficult questions about some of its costs (e.g., having bishops do forty hours a week of church work, on top of forty hours a week at another job, seems to exert a rather heavy toll on their families).

I’m still sorting out my thoughts on the question of professional vs. lay clergy. But I do believe that God calls people in all kinds of ways, to do a wide variety of things (and not only in the explicitly “religious” sphere.) And I’m grateful for the Catholic priests, the Mormon bishops, and the Protestant ministers who have in various ways helped me hear more clearly the voice of God in my own life.

17 Responses to “Called of God”

  1. 1.

    Something kind of aches inside me when I read about women being ordained. It brings up my own yearnings for those possibilities. I’m so happy for your friend and for her church. From your description it sounds like they are adding a wonderful person to their clergy who will no doubt do a lot of good.

    I just watched the documentary Jesus Camp. It was fascinating to learn a little more about the Evangelicals and to note some parallel thought processes with LDS. Learning about other faiths can hopefully foster more respect and also give us new lenses through which to view our own, particularly if done with an open heart rather than to judge whose way is better.

    Thanks for a lovely post, Lynette.

  2. 2.

    We have good friends who are Episcopal and we have a long running joke that if we weren’t Mormons we’d be Episcopal (my husband is British) (or Pagan or Jewish). Anyway, the priest who married, Barbara Brown Taylor, them wrote a book recently called Leaving Church that is really interesting. She tells the story of how she felt called to be a Priest, her ordination, what it was like to be a woman looking for a congregation of her own, and ultimately leaving it. Very good read.

  3. 3.

    They often express surprise and even a bit of horror that we throw bishops into their jobs without training.

    Of course our bishops don’t usually have a degree in divinity, but I think it would be overstatement to say that they aren’t trained. At least in the stakes I have lived in, bishops typically have years of leadership experience before their call, often having served as a counselor or elder’s quorum president. If nobody in the unit has sufficient training/experience, then the stake calls someone from outside the unit boundaries, to serve for a year or so training local counselors who will then step into the bishop/branch president role once they have sufficient experience.

    And there is a LOT of training in the first few months of the call (which is why it can be overwhelming at first until that all shakes out), and then ongoing training and regular visits with the stake president. So it’s not like anyone is left alone to figure it out.

    But they’ve also raised difficult questions about some of its costs (e.g., having bishops do forty hours a week of church work, on top of forty hours a week at another job, seems to exert a rather heavy toll on their families).

    Do you really know bishops who work 40 hours every week? Some weeks are gonna be tough since nobody can control funerals and disasters, but hopefully not every week of the year is that busy. My stake president has a philosophy that you can never get it all done, so you decide how much you are going to spend in each area, and let the rest go.

    To me, 20 hours a week sounds minimal for a bishop, but 40 seems high, even in our ward with the 4.5 hour block (sacrament meetings in both English and Spanish) and larger-than-typical boundaries due to being the Spanish unit for the stake.

  4. 4.

    I haven’t seen this as foreign to our tradition. Just overlooked perhaps. D&C 4: 3 clearly states “Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are acalled to the work;” I have always seen this a a personal call, not a church calling.

  5. 5.

    It’s also useful to note that the Savior’s method during his mortal ministry was to call untrained, unschooled leaders. Both in the old world and in the new.

    Likewise, most of the scriptural prophets were thrown into their duties with no other training than their righteousness and devotion to the Lord.

  6. 6.

    This reminds me of Elaine Pagels’ writings on early christian gnostics. From my reading of her work it seems one of the most essential distinctions between orthodoxy and gnosticism is the belief in a division between laity and clergy. I really like that we lean towards the gnostics in rotating callings through the members of the congregation.

    Now if we could just keep indulging our gnostic tendencies and stop restricting women from serving where God might call them…

  7. 7.

    Good post, Lynnette.

    I had a childhood experience much like the one you describe. It was explained to me that people in other denominations “call themselves” to be ministers, and in my imagination I envisioned a man sitting in a chair, raising his hands to place them on his own head, and pronouncing a blessing for himself, lol.

    I find it admirable in every way that people feel called to dedicate their lives to the service of God. The problem arises from the two definitions of the word _vocation_. It can mean not only a calling from God, but also a job, an occupation. I have a friend whose pastor left for a larger congregation (read: pay raise), and he was on the search committee to find a new shepherd for the flock. They advertised, solicited resumes, viewed videotapes of the candidates preaching, and interviewed the finalists. They extended an offer to their favorite candidate, and after some haggling over pay, sick leave, and benefits, he finally accepted. It was a lot of work, and my friend expressed envy for the Mormon way of doing things. My first impression was that it is terribly crass for a person who purports to be called of God to make decisions based on who offers the best 401(k) plan. But on the other hand, if God’s will can manifest itself through the muzzle of Balaam’s ass, why not through the invisible hand of the marketplace? They are happy with their new pastor, and I am happy for them.

    The question of training is interesting. My guess is that there is not much of a difference in the quality of pastoral care when we compare professional and lay clergy. For instance, I’ve been told that professional marriage counselling has a very low rate of success, less than 20%. It is hard to see how someone with no training at all would do much worse. And usually, people who get called to positions of responsibility in wards have already had lots of on-the-job training serving in presidencies, as missionaries, and so on.

    I’m grateful for the Catholic priests, the Mormon bishops, and the Protestant ministers who have in various ways helped me hear more clearly the voice of God in my own life.

    Me too.

  8. 8.

    Mark- your childhood image of calling oneself gave me a good chuckle.

    I’m a little curious where you are getting the 20% number with professional marriage counseling, and on what “success” is based. It’s a personal soapbox of mine, but I don’t think bishops should be in the counseling business- most of them don’t know enough to know what they don’t know and where they might do considerable damage. In addition, they are bound by no code of ethics and have little training as to what would be ethical behavior in a counseling situation. Stepping off soapbox now. Sorry.

    The question of training is indeed interesting. It’s my impression that a very large part of a bishop’s job is administrative. It seems different than the job of a pastor or minister of a congregation- who I think are more trained in knowledge of scripture, theology, etc. My only point is really that I wonder if we are comparing apples and oranges.

  9. 9.

    What strikes me about this thread is the incredible amount of faith that we have, as Mormons, to allow “lay” clergy to lead our church. I have never really thought of it that way until I read this thread.
    I mean, my bishop could be a plubmer, or a trial attorney, or a teacher. Perhaps the amount of faith the ward needs in a bishop is commensurate with the ammount of faith a bishop needs to lead the ward.
    It does seem like a much different dynamic than a paid-clergy where the congregation can pick someone else, or just leave to another church if they don’t like their leader. They seem to lack the element of faith to support their clergy.

  10. 10.

    Not to worry about the soapbox, AmyB. I enjoy the exercise now and then myself.

    As to my source for the 20% number, it was from a professor who trains therapists at a large state university and who also has a private practice. His point was that he keeps seeing the same people over and over again, and that often he is able to help in ways that are only marginal at best. He was frustrated because his best efforts were often futile. I don’t think he was devaluing professional training so much as recognizing the intractable nature of some of the problems we humans find ourselves in.

    I agree with the points you make about bishops and counselling. But it is a difficult challenge to decide where being a friend and confidant stops and where therapy begins. And of course we often have unrealistically high expectations. Since the bishop is inspired, shouldn’t he know the answer to my problem? That attitude is very common, and needs to be curtailed.

  11. 11.

    It’s a personal soapbox of mine, but I don’t think bishops should be in the counseling business- most of them don’t know enough to know what they don’t know and where they might do considerable damage. In addition, they are bound by no code of ethics and have little training as to what would be ethical behavior in a counseling situation. Stepping off soapbox now. Sorry.

    I totally agree. Thank you for the soapbox. It’s a personal one of mine as well.

  12. 12.

    Naismith said:

    And there is a LOT of training in the first few months of the call (which is why it can be overwhelming at first until that all shakes out), and then ongoing training and regular visits with the stake president. So it’s not like anyone is left alone to figure it out.

    Huh. It’s just occurred to me that we could make bishops’ and stake presidents’ tenures much easier by giving them a training period supervised by their predecessors…

  13. 13.

    I’ve been a bit slow to get back to this discussion (school seems to be getting in the way of my blogging– I know, where are my priorities? ;)) But thanks for all the comments. Just to clarify, in case it didn’t come across in the original post, I really wasn’t meaning this as a critique of the way the LDS church does things– I was just contemplating what some of the costs and benefits of our system might be in comparison with others. I don’t actually have strong personal views about the best way to set things up, but I do find it fascinating to see how different churches run things differently. And there’s a lot that I like about the LDS approach– such as that it draws on the strengths and talents of a wide variety of people, and that it avoids at least some of the sharp “clergy” vs. “member” distinction that I’ve seen cause tension in other faiths (though the issue may come up in different ways for us). You probably all know what I think about gender-exclusive priesthood, but I will say that I really like that all males– not just some– get ordained.

    I don’t know if the bishops working forty hours a week figure is accurate– I pulled that from a vague memory of a study I’d once seen on the subject. But regardless of whether the figure is closer to twenty or forty, I do think it’s one of the costs of having a lay clergy who also have careers to keep up with– that they end up spending a lot of time away from their families. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t also professional clergy who work eighty hours a week, of course. (That’s actually one benefit I can see to having celibate clergy, though I generally see more disadvantages than advantages to that system.)

    The question of training, particularly how it relates to spiritual guidance, is an intriguing one. As AmyB and others have noted, sometimes bishops have been inappropriately cast in the role of psychotherapists, based on the assumption that such training isn’t necessary if one is listening to the Spirit (though my impression is that this attitude is becoming less common, thankfully). I can’t imagine anyone suggesting that bishops perform heart surgery based on their access to the Spirit. But I think this raises interesting questions–in what areas do we see formal training as necessary, and in what areas not? Are there times when spiritual direction can substitute for such training, so to speak?

    Anyway, I should say that when I describe to others the way we do things, it sometimes sounds crazy even to me. Yet I also think that on the whole, it works remarkably well.

  14. 14.

    But regardless of whether the figure is closer to twenty or forty, I do think it’s one of the costs of having a lay clergy who also have careers to keep up with– that they end up spending a lot of time away from their families.

    But if time away from families is the only consideration, then it does put a wrinkle into the “professional clergy” discussion. When I was a ward Relief Society president, I spent about as much time away from family as my husband did as bishop. For him, being stake clerk was more time consuming than serving in a bishopric.

    And yet RS presidents and clerks do not fall under a definition of “clergy” that most outside the church could relate to.

  15. 15.

    That’s a good point–I’ve been focusing on bishops because they’re the most obvious comparison, but it’s true that wards (and stakes) have a number of time-consuming callings, many of which involve work that would be part of a paid position in a lot of other churches.

  16. 16.

    About time-consuming callings–my sister once clocked how much time she spent as primary president of a newly created ward with 90 plus children, and she added up more than 20 hours a week. Around that time she saw an advertisement for a children’s director for another religion, offering 40K a year for 20 hours a week. It was interesting to see a dollar value for church service–it made her feel like the work she was doing for her ward was valuable.
    As for Bishops doing marital counseling–I knew a woman who went to the church for marital help, and had the untrained “counselor” tell her husband privately, without her, that she was manic depressive and all their marriage problems must be a result of that. This man had no medical degree and no other way of diagnosing her except one session in which her husband did all of the talking. So I definitely agree that counseling should be left to professionals.

  17. 17.

    […] this trip to the ZD archives, Lynnette discusses those of different faiths who see their church […]

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