Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Ambition

At a recent continuing education event for 2030 clergy in the UCC (holla!), a question arose about "ambition."  How ambitious do we have to be?  How ambitious are we allowed to admit to being?  What does ambition mean in the context of ministry?

These were all great and wonderful questions, and inspired wonderful conversation.  But it also definitely tripped something inside of me, in part because I wrestle a great deal with other people's expectations of what my ambitions should be.

I don't want to sound vain, but I know that I am a fairly gifted minister.  I have lots of different kinds of skills and I really love what I do.  So some people in my life, even mentors and dear friends, seem to be a little disappointed that I am "stuck" in a small church in a small town in a small state.  People often ask me, "How long do you plan to stay where you are?" - and often it's not an innocent question, but the tone conveys a clear implication that I should be moving on to bigger and better pretty soon.  Occasionally people imply that I'm wasting significant gifts where I am.  (Sometimes, to be fair, people are just curious.)

I, quite frankly, could not disagree more strongly.  The church I serve is uncommon in its acceptance of diverse viewpoints, its expectation that the minister will challenge them in preaching and life, and its desire to be the "progressive alternative" in town.  They are small, but mighty!  They are also uncommonly kind to me, to our Intern, and to each other.  Only some of this can be attributed to "Iowa nice," a great deal more of it has to do with their commitment to staying together and not letting their differences divide them.  Some clergy never have the privilege to serve such a great congregation, and I was lucky enough to land here in my first call!!  Why would I be in a hurry to leave?

Secondly, I rather resent the implication that bigger = better.  That's the world's attitude, but I'm not persuaded that it's God's attitude.  Not that all large churches are terrible (I know many great ones!), or that all smaller churches are automatically better (oy!), but at this point, I think my gifts are really well-suited to the context in which I currently find myself.  

There are things I get to do in a small church that I'd never get to do in a large church.  For example, a typical week has me crafting the liturgy, writing a sermon, planning and leading a Sunday School lesson for a one-room schoolhouse that consists of children ages 4-12, leading a youth group for 4-6th graders, visiting people in their homes or at the hospital, doing some ecumenical work, plunging the toilet, coordinating one meeting or another, trying to get that "Bible and Beer" study started at a local bar, and extensive community outreach.  (and probably some other stuff, too!)  In a large church, my portfolio might include only 2 of those things - albeit for a much larger group of people.  I'm kind of a dabbler; a "Jane-of-all-trades" - maybe not a master at ALL of them, but at a minimum, I want to be excellent at a few and very competent at all.

What's more, I rather see myself as a missionary, spreading the good news of progressive Christianity in forgotten places.  (Of course, I don't do this work "for" others so much as "with" others - at least, that's my goal!)  The privilege of being a married straight white woman means that I can go a lot of different places and say a lot of things about race, sexuality, morality, etc. - things that need to be said - and those things can be heard and received more readily because of my identity.  I can go some places that my equally (or more-) gifted colleagues can't, and say what we both know is true, and it can be received more openly than it might otherwise.  And I feel rather a responsibility to the church to do that work, and to hopefully open some hearts and doors for others to walk through in the future.

So, given my negative response to people's expectations of what my ambitions should be, during the course of our conversation at the end of April, I realized that I am really ambitious.  I want to be a well-regarded small-church minister, known for it and good at it.  I also want to be like the Rev. Debra Haffner, who works at the intersections of spirituality and sexuality.  I want to write about the work I'm doing, and I want people to read (and like, and be challenged by) what I write.  And, I'd really love to write for The Christian Century.  I also wouldn't mind getting that Great American Novel published, and get a nice desk jacket recommendation from Marilynne Robinson for same.  I'm not sure I want to give up full-time ministry to do this stuff, but I do want to do it.

This got raised up for me again today as a result of something that might be brewing in the near future - something that is NOT a new call, for those who might be wondering - and I hope to be able to say more about that in the next couple of weeks.  I must say, while the question first made me mad, now I'm so grateful for the opportunity to reflect on all this.  So, thanks, Liddy!  (And everyone else who was with us in Chicago in April.)

1 comment:

Lucky Fresh said...

Thanks for this, LG! It's funny, because I was about to write something similar on my own blog. I will link you when I do. My reasons are a little different, but so many of the same dynamics are at play.

I'm proud of you and the incredible work that you do, and I know that your people appreciate what a blessing you are!