August 2015 – Summer Sabbatical
Wednesday, September 23, 2015 – Preacher
Women in Ministry Conference – Westin Atlanta Airport
Sunday, October 18, 2015 – Preacher
Mt. Ennon Baptist Church
5 Helpful Tips for Those Who Sometimes Cry While Discerning a Call…
As a theological educator and a millennial clergywoman I have had the opportunity to work with many people of faith who are discerning a call to live lives of service in the church, academy, and society. Ministry is always complicated no matter what stage of life we find ourselves in, especially for those of us who live at race, gender, class, and sexual intersections that defy the status quo in religious leadership. This reality can be daunting to say the least! For those who are just beginning the vocational journey, here are 5 tips that I hope you will find useful along the way:
While many persons understand the importance of having a mentor in ministry, most do not understand the distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. And while seeking a “mentor,” many junior clergy dismiss the significance of securing a “sponsor” too. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett posits in Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, a mentor is someone who is readily accessible and available to guide you through the nuts and bolts of ministerial formation. In ministry, this is often a pastor, close friend, or spiritual confidante who is more established in ministry and/or religious leadership than you. Generally speaking, a mentor altruistically affirms your gifts and vocational trajectory and is actively present to guide you into the next phases of vocational development. Pedestrian vocational questions concerning call, discernment, formation, education, protocol, and ecclesial decorum are typically directed toward a mentor. They are often a phone call or email away and are willing to be leaned on as you explore your vocational development and trajectory.
A sponsor, on the other hand, is positioned to offer opportunities to junior colleagues and directly support their development by opening professional doors. The sponsor may not be as intimately related or easily accessible as the mentor, but is the person who will make the call, write the letter, pass your name along, and/or advocate for you behind closed doors when an opportunity that matches your gifts and skillsets emerges. Although a mentor and a sponsor are not always mutually exclusive, they are rarely one in the same. A mentor helps you get prepared for the doors that the sponsor will open for you. You need both!
It is easy to be distracted by the fast pace and hyper-accessibility of just about everything these days. In this context, it is always important to engage spiritual discipline that promotes clarity, focus, and restoration, most especially when discerning our next steps on the journey. The best mentors who are always present to help us think through various possibilities for the future and the best sponsors who are prepared to open the way for us when we are ready can never replace the significance of inquiring of the divine Presence for ourselves.
To be sure, finding time for regular prayer, meditation, journaling, and secret devotion that is propelled by the singing of psalms and the recitation of scriptures and sacred texts of all kinds, is especially challenging when there are always so many other things to turn our attention to. In fact, there are times when we can be estranged from the spirit and diverted by the noise of the world that we may begin to think that our prayers are void and meaningless, or worse yet, we cannot even pray. In Listening for God: A Ministers Journey through Silence and Doubt, Renita J. Weems reminds us that it is in the times when we most feel that we cannot pray – when we feel most scattered, undone, alone, and without direction – that we must “pray anyway.” The ability to separate ourselves (for reasons of spiritual health) from the chaos of everyday, gives us space to hear from God, process our learnings, and strategize next steps.
Only God knows everything, which means that we don’t. But when we fail to position ourselves to receive new revelation, even if incomplete, we abdicate our responsibility and authority to effectively guide others in the knowledge of the spirit. Many clergy persons come from traditions that do not emphasize the significance of education, let alone theological education. In fact, some traditions spurn seminary training as an affront to the “anointing” as primary evidence of the Spirit. If we can shout the people, line a hymn, and “whoop our close” with rhythmic sagacity it is assumed that we can “PREACH” and that we have all it takes to effectively serve the diverse needs of our community. Hogwash! To be sure, strong preaching in the cadenced tradition of the elders goes a long way especially in African American churches, but unique tonality, choreographic virtuosity, and pulsing meter alone do not substantiate “good” preaching. Inspired proclamation should offer robust evidence of “good news” that is solidly rooted, not so much in the charisma or flamboyance of the human instrument, but in the “old, old story” that is new every time.
While theological education is never a replacement for innate spiritual gifting, it does offer access to many reflective tools and models, as well as exploratory time to support clergy and aspiring religious leaders in mining the depths of spiritual things and considering the great breadth of the command of God in the world. As a theological educator I am a strong advocate of the degree of Master of Divinity (acquired at an accredited institution). I recognize, however, that the current economic climate does not make its attainment feasible and/or a reasonable option for everyone. That said – take time to do your research. Connect with mentors and prayerfully discern what you are being called to in this season. Consider the multiple educational options available to you, including Master of Arts programs in Christian studies, Christian practice, certificate programs in social justice, and interfaith engagement, among others. Teaching is a primary responsibility of the clergy. It goes without saying that we ought to learn something first!
I believe it was Michael Hyatt, leading blogger and author of Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, who once said, “you lose your way when you lose your why.” The great charge of ministry is not for the faint of heart. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the many church/institutional tasks and acts of service that compel us around the clock. This is why it is so important to regularly inventory your “why.” Years ago when I danced professionally I remember reading about the creative process behind the choreography of black dance pioneer Alvin Ailey’s classic Cry – a modern ballet dedicated “to all black women everywhere.” Known around the world as a solo piece performed by a woman of black African descent, full-skirted, and adorned in all-white from head to toe.
Cry depicts Mr. Ailey’s stories of growing up in the Black church in Rogers, Texas. The “why” of his greatest artistic work was rooted in the Black church and the faith instilled in him from childhood by Black women who wore brown sackcloth in fields, white robes for baptism, and come Sunday, adorned themselves in their yellow best. You may not ever create a masterful ballet for the stage, but it does not mean that you can afford to lose your “why”. Maybe your “why” is the fruit of Nana’s prayers, or Daddy’s songs, or Auntie’s tears. Whatever it is that has brought you to today, always remember that it is the “why” of your ministry that will propel you toward beauty even amidst the ashes of life.
It has been said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but it can also be a colossal act of fraud that robs the church, academy, and world of your unique contribution – one that only you can make. Although, as junior clergy in the African American Christian tradition we are enlivened by the great legacies of preachers and religious leaders like Gardner C. Taylor, Prathia Hall Wynn, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Samuel Dewitt Proctor make no mistake about it – God has called you – with all of your brilliance and promise, all of your imperfections and liabilities. So what if you can’t preach like C.L. Franklin or teach like Mays? Who cares if you never sing like Jackson (Mahalia or Michael) or exhort like King? Be you!
Find people who love, appreciate, and value YOU. YOU are good enough – just what God needs for such a time as this. Focus on the work that has been given to YOU to do and get it done. In the good words of my former professor now mentor and friend, James Hal Cone, father of Black theology, “sit your ass in that chair and write what YOU think!” In other words, kill the background noise and get busy doing what you have been called to do. And let God do the rest.
What are some other helpful tips that can support junior clergy in the work of ministry?
Eboni Marshall Turman is an expert in American theological liberalism and African American religion. She teaches at Duke Divinity School and is an ordained minister in the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. She is the author of Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon. Follow her on Twitter @ebonithoughts.
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