No, really... Have you?
Every once in a while someone asks me about what being a minister is actually like. People are curious. Some people are even interested in exploring it as a career. I must confess that at least sometimes (okay, most of the time) I probably sound discouraging. This is because I care about the people who ask me these questions. Also, I care about the ministry so I spent a great deal of time thinking about its future. Parts of that future can sound pretty bleak.
In conversations with prospective clergy folks, I usually point out that we have no solid idea of what organized religion will ultimately look like. In many ministry settings there is a great deal of anxiety, conflict, and dysfunction brought about by the larger challenge and by local ones. I also tell folks that if financial rewards are part of one's concept of success, than the ministry will only bring frustration. In the future (as in the present) we will be in the position of re-making the profession. In your early settlements you will struggle to be solvent. In your later ones you will probably never "keep up with the Joneses". In the material world we live in, you will always feel a little bit behind.
HOWEVER, I would like to set the record straight about what the profession has meant to me personally. I absolutely love being a minister! There are hard times, sure, and some of the specifics can stink. Still, in general I have never felt the need to question my call. So if you--dear reader-- have ever considered taking the plunge, here are some reasons to do so.
1) You Are Called to Directly and Consistently Help People: This is a big deal. Many, many folks go to jobs in which "helping" basically comes down to convincing someone to buy something. They find other ways (at least most of them) but their impact is lessened because of those hours doing something else. The ministry is not like that. Sometimes one can get overwhelmed with the number of ways to help and the number of individuals needing assistance. That said, if you want to make a difference in the lives of friends, enemies, frenemies, and strangers, the ministry might be for you. You may not always feel like you did enough, but you will pretty much always go to bed feeling like you did something to change people's lives for the better.
2) You Want To Impact Your (Our) World: Maybe you want to do more than comfort individuals. That's fine, part of the ministry is about standing up for the oppressed. Have you heard of the "Religious Left"? Google it. There are religious leaders of every faith tradition providing moral, intellectual, strategic, and practical support to what is sometimes referred to as "The Resistance". If you want to never be in the position of being unable to speak out against the evils and sins of this world, then grab yourself a pulpit! Join one of many justice ministries or start your own. Be a chaplain to young people, old people, the sick, the well, to activists, students, the military, and many more groups besides. If you want to be relevant in the conversations and debates of this dark time, the ministry may be the place for you.
Now, of course, these two first points call people to a great many professions. I know. Trust me. I am married to a clinical social worker. My congregation, my extended family and my collection of friends are filled with other people who--like clergy people--would be classified by The Rev. Mr. Rogers as among "the helpers" that folks in need should seek out. That is cool. None of these are unique to the ministry. Still, it take all kinds and the pastoral approach is unique and essential.
3a) You Are Interested In Your Own Spiritual Growth and Religious Tradition: One of the most important facts of clergy life is that it occurs for the most part in community. That community-- even if some members are more interested in the topic than other members-- is dedicated to the spiritual dimension of our identity and walk through life. As clergy, part of our job is to develop our own spiritual lives. That is, we practice what we preach to the best of our ability. This kind of religious discipline may not be for everybody, Yet I have found, both as a church member and a church leader, that I have grown spiritually and religiously from the work that I do. Sometimes this is through my own efforts. Sometimes it is through the in-breaking of the spirit. Sometimes I learned through my failures or through the advice of someone else.
That regular practice is important. It is also part of the job. Whenever I end up in the thicket, I know that I have the obligation and the tools to get back on the path.
3b) You Are Interested In Other Religions: It is popular these days to think of religious groups retreating into their own corners and sniping at each other. Certainly there are plenty of examples of this! However, the opposite is also true. In many circles, in fact, opportunities for cooperation and dialogue are growing rapidly. As a minister I have had many chances to discuss theology, spirituality, justice, family and current events with representatives of other world religions. See that picture at the top of this post? Those folks meet monthly for lunch. We genuinely enjoy each other's presence. Clergy of all stripes tend to end up hanging out together. We influence each other. Who else would we talk to? We are interested in the world around us and in each others' perspectives about that world.
4) You Want To Delve Deeply Into A Variety of Subjects: One of the great parts of my job is that every week I am expected to stand in front of my congregation and talk about something. Sometimes these issues are explicitly religious or philosophical. Sometimes (as you may have gathered) they are about how we should act in the world both as individuals and as a society. Every week I set aside time to study. Sometimes the topic is one that excites me. At other times it is one that my congregation is excited about. Most of the time both of these statements are true. In any case, I always find the process of learning and exploring these topics to be a fruitful one.
This opportunity for study and for delving into an issue exists outside the pulpit as well. I lead and attend workshops, classes, and seminars for adults and children on a variety of topics. I also learn by participating in community and by conversing with others. Many people go to church in part to keep their hearts, minds, and souls strong. As a minister I get to be part of that.
5) You Get To Exercise Your Creativity (And Encourage Creativity In Others): One of the things that people expect from their ministers (parish or otherwise) is that they bring their own passions and interests to the community. For me, this has meant a number of things. Elsewhere on this webpage you can find references to the church's ukulele-based music ministry (the "Ukestra"), it's garden, and it's justice and outreach work (among other things). I have also mentioned the Dungeons & Dragons Club I run for our youth (and for the youth of a local learning community). In worship we try to be creative every week.
This is a cooperative process. I have ideas and projects and so do others. Much of the time we work and grow things together. Since I have arrived at this place we have made and re-made the congregation every year. It is a workshop and a family. Our core, our spirit, is always the same. How we manifest that spirit keeps up with the times and with our interests.
Of course, there are ways to be creative in the broader conversation. The great advantage to being a minister at this time is that the old rules and ways are failing us. We get to explore the ruins and build the new faith communities of the future. Who wouldn't want to do that? If you are worried about joining profession that is old, fusty, boring, and wearing the chains of conformity, don't be. Every day clergy are striding into the temples and turning over the tables. We would love to have you join us!
6) You Get To Hang With The Most Interesting Folks: Now a lot of those interesting folks are, in fact, the lay people you will work with. That said, I want to say something about my colleagues. I could not ask for better, more interesting people to spend my time with. Most of my friends are clergy people, their partners and children. They are all writers, artists, poets, academics, deep thinkers, and eccentric individuals. They are never boring. They always have something to say or do. They all tell great stories and play great music. They support each other with an openness that the rest of the world would do well to emulate.
Clergy also provide each other with accountability. Yeah, we have rules "for the good of the order" but I've never found them to be a burden. Instead they are a gift. After all, we try to structure our lives in the way that we encourage others to live their's. My community of religious friends helps me to do that.
I could go on, but I promised myself that why would only share six reasons today. We are in a time of transition. The whole culture is. Our religious institutions need to decide where they (we) will stand. My desire is that we will stand for inclusion, justice, forgiveness, and hope. To do this we need people of all kinds to form faith communities. We also need professionals to help these people realize their dreams.
As many of you know (I just mentioned it after all!), I am a Game Master for a variety of role-playing groups. At the table we GM's try to be in conversation with the other players. When they have an idea (or we have an idea they like) our job is to say "yes...and". This attitude helps us to collaborate in building the world we are imagining together. So I ask you again, can you be a "yes...and" person for faith communities? If the answer is yes (or yes,..and) then please give a clergy career a closer look. It is as much a way of life as a job.