Just because you have gifts doesn’t mean you’ll get to use them. I’ve taught this many times. But it’s not an easy lesson to learn. I remember clearly one particularly member of a church, saying to me after a service, that he wasn’t sure how well I’d go if I wasn’t in ministry, dealing with the challenge of being a Christian when it wasn’t part of my profession.
Well, here I am, post-vocationally employed. After seminary I spent 2.5 years in ministry positions, and 3 years overseas in academic-ministry. And then 3 more years completing a PhD which was mostly conceived as an extension and a stepping stone to further academic ministry.
These days? You know, technically I have 2 employers who are seminaries. One a reformed protestant one, the other an Orthodox college. But I don’t conceive of my self as in a vocational ministry. I think for 2 reasons:
Firstly, I very much grew up in a theological tradition that was practically a-vocational. No one had a ‘call’ to lifelong ministry, and our ordination practices reflected that – people were ordained to positions, and if you didn’t have a position, they wouldn’t ordain you (though you certainly weren’t stripped of ordination if you subsequently didn’t have a position). So for me, ordained ministry was about taking up ordained ministry positions, and signing on to a party platform. Which I never did.
Secondly, the employment dynamics of ministry, including the positions I always held, were never “you are being paid to do X”, but rather “you are being given a stipend to set you apart to do X, rather than having to do paid employment”. I think that’s a right conception of how to pay Christian ministry staff – you are enabling them to be set apart from other forms of employment to focus on gospel ministry.
As much as I care about the students in my care, and approach my jobs with diligence and a sense of stewardship, and as much as the people I liaise with (work with is probably too strong an expression) are genuine and caring, the work I now do is the academic equivalent of day-labouring. You turn up to the agora in the morning and hopefully someone picks you up for the day. And if they’re honest, they pay you at the end of the day. Except in my case it’s a digital agora, and the contracts run for 3.5 months. But it’s the same principle. And I’m mostly disposable – sure, I’m unique, but the role I play is designed to be interchangeable. If I didn’t take a course, someone else would. That’s what casualisation does to our academies (and our seminaries)
So I don’t think of myself as ‘in the ministry’ in particular. Even though much of the labour I do is ministry oriented. But it’s not because I’m a-vocational. It’s because I’m a-vocationally paid. And that has involved a very long process of identity shift. As much as we talk about not being defined by your work, it very much was the case that I ‘was’ a minister, and I ‘was’ an overseas ministry worker, and now I’m not. And I’m 100% sure that some of my former colleagues wonder why I’m not “in” ministry anymore.
I was an above average preacher, but I don’t preach much these days. I was, and could be, a pretty fine academic teacher and researcher, but I don’t have the means to exercise those gifts much either. Having abilities is no guarantee, let alone right, that you’ll get to use them. Our world and our histories are full of people who never ‘developed their potential’. The two or so years, getting closer to 3 now I suppose, have been a slow process of grief. I was encouraged, more than once, to pursue further studies, to get into patristics, and I can honestly never remember a conversation that warned me there were no jobs at the end of this pipeline. That awareness came along the way, from peers and from social media, not from advisors. And the grief comes from letting go of a dream that is less and less tangible. I wasn’t a great job candidate at the end of my PhD, and I’m essentially worse off now, 3 years on, then I was then. My PhD is old news, and unpublished, my referees out of date, and my track record full of lots of non-research things. I’ve come to terms with that, for the most part.
So, here I am, post-vocational, perhaps. Though, the work that I do now, with languages, I still very much conceptualise as a vocation of a sort. There aren’t that many people doing what I’m doing with language. In Latin, sure, a sizeable minority. In Greek, very few. I’m not the best at this, either, but I keep drilling away. Because the general ability of people in historical languages is actually woeful. It is an open secret that most professors in classics and historical theology cannot, actually, language their way out of a paper bag. And there are clear pedagogical and linguistic reasons for that. Causes that we could change, if we fundamentally altered the way we approach historical language education.
And I guess that’s something I wouldn’t be doing unless I was where I am.