I love biblical call stories. They are so dramatic! A burning bush, visiting angels, getting knocked off a horse—I’d be lying if I said they weren’t times that I felt a little short changed. My call story is not dramatic. I cannot point to a definitive moment when I knew I was called and what I was called to. Instead, I point to periods in my life that helped informed my very gradual calling. My calling has been a process. The call has defined and refined itself as I have tried to live into it, and it has been reaffirmed when I look back at my God-given passion and gifts and the fruits that have flourished when I live into the various aspects of my call.
I knew as a child that I was called by God for a special ministry that would shape the way I live my life. I can’t remember when I first knew or how I knew, but I remember my confirmation retreat where we were supposed to write letters to ourselves that we would receive months later. I wrote, “I think I am supposed to be a nun.” Part of me thinks that that is the route I went because as a Roman Catholic girl feeling called to a ministry that was the logical option. However, there was something more. The Franciscan nuns that served as my spiritual mentors lived the coolest lives my 13-year-old self knew. I saw women that were totally free to serve God where they felt called. The ministry of the nun seemed so freeing. They could teach, they could be missionaries, they could run catechism classes, and so many of them had been all over the world. The opportunities seemed endless. They also were very active in the community beyond the church walls, but it was very clear that their goal was to connect the church and the world. What my 13-year-old self saw was freedom to serve God. Another aspect that struck me in a powerful way was the nuns’ desire to care for the needy. Whether it was serving the homeless, visiting the nursing home, or setting up play dates with the local orphanage, the goal was to serve, and that spoke to me. As I continued to grow into the understanding of my call there are two things that stayed constant from those early days: a desire to be free to serve God where God leads and a passion for serving the poor.
These desires followed me to youth group. As the youngest of three, I looked forward to youth group. I wanted to tell stories of washing the church van, playing jump rope with orphans, and going on retreats where you were supposed to serve each other. When I was old enough, I just about ran to my first youth prayer meeting. There I discovered the power of youth energy. During my four years with the youth group, I learned the importance of youth ministry and my calling began to incorporate work with youth ministry beyond my own days of youth. I am drawn to shaping and nurturing youth energy and helping youth use that energy to grow closer to Christ and the work of the Church. However, I knew that the order of Franciscan Sisters was not quite where I needed to be, so I wasn’t quite sure how the new clarification of my call would manifest itself.
When I left college I knew I wanted to work with youth, so I went into high school teaching. It wasn’t long before I realized that I loved working with youth and I enjoyed teaching, but teaching high school was not where I was meant to be. There was also an interesting contrast happening in my week. Monday – Friday I taught rather privileged kids at an independent school in Princeton, NJ. Friday evenings and Saturdays, I ran a program in Trenton, NJ for youth that had been adjudicated by the court. These youth were from homes where the median income was less than the cost of tuition at my full-time job. My weekend kids were smart and gifted. One of the best student poems I have ever read came from a boy with an ankle tracking bracelet. I quickly learned that what separated these two groups were opportunity and training. This reignited a passion within me to work for those that do not have opportunities simply because they were born into particular circumstances. This passion for social justice was then combined with my passion for youth ministry. God placed within me a desire to have more of a theological understanding for youth ministry with poor and working class youth. So, I went to seminary.
I enrolled to receive an MA in Christian Education with an emphasis in youth ministry, but I still found myself not getting the theological underpinning I needed, so I switched to the M.Div. program. While in this program, two other components of my calling were clarified. At seminary is where I heard my call to preach. This calling is the one that scared me the most, and to an extent, it still does, but that’s OK because I feel that it should. Bringing forth the preached word is a serious mission that ought not to be taken lightly. So I don’t. I also received the call to the Ph.D. program. I remember sitting with my mentor, Kenda Dean. I was upset about the lack of youth ministry sources that spoke to my context and my kids. She asked, “So what will you write?” I never thought about writing youth ministry books before that moment, but from my lips came a list. “I will write for youth ministers who raise their own budget. The first line will be ‘You probably paid for this book yourself.’ I will write for those whose ministries are so small that they can’t divide into groups. I will write for those who go to youth ministry conferences and feel out of place because others don’t understand that in certain school districts, the church needs to hold SAT prep classes or the students are likely not to get it.” It became clear to me that an aspect of my calling was to speak to a void within the academy. I was called to write the books that I so desperately wanted to read and train others with the training I so desperately wanted to get.
It was also in seminary that the God began to refine my call to ordination. My days of wanting to be a nun were gone; I was a Protestant in a non-denominational congregation. I wasn’t quite sure what ordination would look like since I had no desire to be a pastor. Yet I felt called to ordained ministry; I became an ordained deacon, but believed there was more to my call. In the time of discernment, I left my non-denominational congregation and found a home in the United Methodist Church. I have also found more clarity of call with the order of deacon as understood by the UMC. So now here I am, an ordained deacon transferring my ordination to the UMC.
My call encompasses all of the passions and gifts that God has given me and taught me to apply along my journey. And I love the fact that it multi-faceted, messy, and yet so fitting to all of who I am in Christ. I am called to serve youth. I do that by working with youth ministries and training youth ministers that will work with youth. I am also called to a ministry of social justice with and for the poor which is why my work focuses on youth within poor and working class families. I am called to preach. I am called to serve inside and outside the walls of local congregations. I am called to serve Christ freely where ever He may lead, and that leading is to the order of deacon in the United Methodist Church. I find that deacon ordination as practiced within United Methodism really gives a freedom to connect the church and the world in so many different ways. As I see the different ministries of deacons within the denomination, I remember the freedom of the nuns. Although as an adult I recognize that nuns couldn’t do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, but there is still a sense of freedom within boundaries. Its been over two decades since I wrote, “I think I’m supposed to be a nun,” and I still think that the ability to focus on teaching and social justice while finding various ways to connect the church and the world is the coolest and best life I know.