Recently, I have been reflecting on a series of related but changing questions that I have been regularly asked during my life. The first one I remember in the series came very early, as people around asked me “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The idea behind the question was that people needed to pick their life occupation and prepare to spend the next 40 years or so doing whatever they picked. I don’t really know if people ask that question as much–given the cultural reality that most people these days will have several different occupations in life, we should probably be asking people what they are going to start with.
Anyway, the next question came after I had finished university and was actually involved in ministry. The common question I would get was, “Where are you now?”, especially if I was in a context where I wasn’t wearing a name badge giving my occupation and location. I was involved in ministry and although I didn’t move around as much as some people in ministry, I tended to make some large moves, involving extended periods of time in Kenya.
Since I tended to stay in pastorates for a long period of time, some people began asking me a different question: “Are you still there?”. Sometimes, the question was asked from genuine curiosity and other times, well, I am pretty sure that were subtly asking what was wrong with me since I appeared to have very little interest in climbing the ecclesiastical success ladder. I have to confess that with some of those people I took some secret delight in subtly slipping in the fact that I was also an adjunct professor at our seminary or was involved in several denominational projects or was just back from a short-term trip teaching in Kenya. I know–I was bragging but that question did tire me sometimes.
I have noticed that I am being asked a different question these days. I have reached the stage where people want to know “When are you planning on retiring?”. People in the churches I serve aren’t asking that question–they simply tell me I can’t retire. But people I have known for a while and haven’t seen recently seem to want to know the answer to that question. My answer tends to be non-committal. I plan on retiring someday but right now, I am not sure when. A few people don’t like that answer, especially when their subsequent (somewhat invasive) questions lead them to discover that financially and chronologically, I can retire anytime.
A few people who know me well find the answer confusing for another reason. Although I have been involved in pastoral ministry for most of my working life, I have never really liked pastoral ministry. I think I bring some skills and abilities and gifts to ministry that congregations appreciate and which help individuals and congregations and I get a fair amount of gratification from using these gifts and helping people, but pastoral ministry itself really isn’t a joy-filled, deeply gratifying part of my life. It is challenging, it can be interesting, it is demanding, it has significant rewards but for me, the real joy and deep gratification has always come from teaching, something which has ultimately been a minor part of my overall ministry.
So here I am–at a stage of my life when I could be retired and I am still at work, still involved in the kind of ministry that I have done most of my working life. It is a ministry that is important and valuable and which makes a difference to people, but a ministry which has likely done a lot more for other people than it has done for me. And yet, I am committed to what I am doing for a while–I don’t know how much longer but am pretty sure that it is measured in years not months, although there times when I would like it to be days.
So, that brings me to another question, one that no one has actually asked me but which I needed to ask myself. And that question is, “Why are you still doing what you are doing?”
But since the answer to that question is going to require some serious staring at the trees and marsh outside the living room window (and ignoring the lawn and wires), I will postpone the answer until the next post.
May the peace of God be with you.