“Children don’t judge their own lives. Normal for them is what’s laid before them day by day. Judgment comes later.”
-Charles Frazier, Varina.
A High Calling?
The church of my childhood graced me with priceless truths. But in church I also heard a half-truth. It is the notion that people who work in vocational Christian ministry have a high calling, and those who work in secular jobs don’t. This half-truth was more implied than overt, more caught than taught. It led me to choices I didn’t know I was making. Only later did I come to know how much this half-truth shaped my life, and how for countless others it has shut off whole worlds that might have been.
The Church of My Childhood
My father went to the University of North Carolina on a GI Bill to study accounting. He worked his career as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). He was shrewd with investments. My mother was an executive administrator in the Research Triangle Park’s Planning Commission in North Carolina. Both of my parents were successful and respected in the business community.
My mother and father grew up in nominally religious homes. They became more serious about the Christian faith in their late twenties. I was eleven years old when our family set out in search for a church. Week after week we packed into our Rambler station wagon to visit another church. This routine continued for months until we were invited to a “missionary convention” across town. The first night we showed up the sanctuary was full. We arrived just as the proceedings started, so the only remaining seats were four rows from the front. I was squeezed into the pew between my father and the center aisle. The music was lively. The missionaries, dressed in strange costumes, told exotic stories. Then the church’s pastor announced that a special offering would be collected to buy a Jeep and a horse for the missionaries.
It was all a bit much for an eleven-year-old boy. On the drive home, I said from the back seat, “I’m sure glad that’s over.” My father responded, “We’re going back.” The next Sunday I sat next to him in the pew as he made his first missionary pledge, a faith promise to support the missionaries’ work over the coming year. That church became our church, and the things I learned there have impacted my beliefs and choices over the past fifty years.
As a teenager, I learned in church that only what’s done for Jesus will last. Of course, the list of things that please Jesus the most included praying, Bible reading, witnessing, giving money, and – most important of all – serving in full-time ministry. And if I really wanted my life to count, I would surrender my life to go as a missionary to a foreign land. And if I couldn’t make it to the mission field, then the next best career option was to be a local church pastor. The Sunday School teacher told us that everything else we do in this life will end up in smoke and ashes when Jesus returns.
From the first night I entered the doors of our church, it was clear that missionaries were our heroes. Missionary convention was the most important week on the church’s calendar. Each year these special people would descend on our congregation with the latest news from Gog and Magog. They told stories of cannibal tribes who gave up their fetishes to follow Christ. They described traversing rickety bridges over rushing rivers in the jungles of Irian Jaya, evangelizing the heathens in Hong Kong, and preaching to thousands of Quechua Indians high in the mountains of Ecuador. My parents hosted these larger-than-life people in our home. They ate around our table. I slept on the couch during that week each year while they borrowed my bedroom. So when it came time for me to make career choices, my decision was to join their ranks.
Mom and Dad were my greatest cheerleaders. They paid the bills while I went to seminary. They waved a tearful good-bye when Tina and I boarded the plane with their young grandchildren for a missionary assignment to Indonesia.
In my church, I became one of the heroes. Whenever we returned home for furlough, our lives were celebrated as those who had pursued a high calling. We were doing significant work. Meanwhile, the vast majority of those with whom I grew up in the church went to work as carpenters, auto technicians, computer analysts, homemakers, CPAs, human resource managers, and retail associates. Their work was not celebrated in the church. These peers became the support cast for the few of us who had chosen to pursue a high calling with our lives.
Over the Decades
Over the decades I have been a missionary, local church pastor, and leader in various ministry organizations. A major part of my work through the years has been to motivate and mobilize the “laity” to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. In the congregations I pastored, I emphasized the importance of being a good spouse and parent, how to evangelize and disciple neighbors, and how to be a good financial steward (to support the church). I was often frustrated that men and women who spent so many hours at their mundane jobs didn’t seem to be sufficiently committed to the important work of ministry.
Where Did This Perception Begin?
Where did this perception begin? This mindset doesn’t seem to reflect the New Testament emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers.” So how did the idea that missionaries and pastors have a higher calling than the vast remainder of Christ-followers come to dominate churches like the one of my upbringing?