Last weekend on NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” host Peter Sagal was interviewing the author of Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier. Sagal remarked that Frazier had accomplished what many in the US only dream about: writing the Great American Novel and becoming a wildly successful author.
Confession: this is my dream.
Except my dream has two slight differences:
- I’m not going for the Great AmericanI’m going for good young adult fiction – à la Harry Potter (a totally realistic goal, right?), and
- I want it to be so wildly successful that I wouldn’t have to depend on a salary for the rest of my
Here’s why: I really love serving small churches (and I mean small) full time. Short of being independently wealthy (which I’m not), having a spouse with enough of an income to support the whole family (which I don’t), or working a second full-time job (which I haven’t ruled out), it seems like it’s pretty hard to do that. Hence my dream – write the next hit young adult novel, make it big and work with teeny tiny churches for the rest of my life. Or to put it more simply: be a successful author and a full-time pastor.
This is not a practical dream.
Just in case I hadn’t already figured this fact out for myself, there are many people who remind me of the improbability of becoming the next J. K. Rowling on a relatively regular basis. And there are many more who point out that my dream is wildly unsound because it is predicated upon two professions that are far-from-sure in today’s world. The odds of my being successful in achieving this goal are one in a million if not one in 100 million. Not practical at all.
But then, I’ve never been great at practicality.
In college, for a brief moment during a freshman-year drawing class, I wanted to major in art. Mind you, I was never going to be the next Picasso – not by a long shot. And I was not attending an art school, but rather a university that was strong in the sciences and humanities – for which my parents were generously footing the bill. When I told them this plan of mine, they responded with less enthusiasm than I might have hoped. “Why don’t you minor in art?” they asked. It was a suggestion, but you couldn’t miss the subtext, “this doesn’t sound like a practical plan, Honey.”
I didn’t miss the subtext. I declared international relations as my major and decided that I would go into the incredibly practical field of intelligence analysis for the government. I graduated, applied for grad school and didn’t get in. Oh, and did I mention I was miserable?
Not long after, my dad sat down to talk with me about my future. I was 21 and in tears, my pride still wounded from being rejected by so many schools. I asked him why it had happened.
“Because you don’t love your subject,” he said. And then he said something else that made me think that he – a self-pronounced atheist – had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a look-alike. “Why don’t you think about ministry?”
Turns out, my dad knew me better than I did. It was a terrifying thought, giving up everything that I had worked and studied and planned for. Giving up what was surely a safe career with a good pension. But things weren’t turning out as planned anyway, so I took an internship in youth ministry just to check it out. It was like waking up from a life-long sleep that I hadn’t known I’d been in. I loved the work – and I felt really, really alive – more alive than I’d imagined someone could feel. But…it’s not a practical profession, not by the world’s standards. I don’t know if I’ll have a job in ten years. Still, I don’t regret this decision. I don’t regret giving up the practical.
I relay this story not because I think I’m in any way special – precisely the opposite, actually. I relay it because I am meeting more and more people in my own generation – apparently we’re the very beginning of the Millennials – who have made a similar decision. They decided to give up a practical, lucrative careers in order to pursue something about which they were passionate, something that made them feel alive.
One gave up a job in the field of chemical research to become a carpenter.
Another gave up a job in nursing to work as an au pair.
And one quit her job as a public school teacher. It was stable, with good pay and benefits, but it was draining the life from her. If she had stayed one more year, her student loans would have been forgiven. She didn’t stay, though. Why? “Because it’s not worth the money,” she said. The job had changed her in ways that she didn’t like. And she was miserable. So now she’s trying to break into cinematography. It was always her passion, but she had written it off as impractical. And it is, I suppose. But at least she feels alive now. It certainly beats feeling like you’re some sort of zombie – walking, but dead.
Knowing these stories, knowing my own story, I can’t help but wonder – has this overwhelming drive to be practical seeped into our churches to their detriment? Are we so caught up in playing it safe so that the money doesn’t run out, that we’re neglecting our passion? Are we so caught up in trying to keep the institution alive – all the while watching the life ebb slowly away from it and us – that we’re missing the joy-filled work of following the great, life-giving call that Christ is whispering into our ears?
As a church, do we remember what our passion is?
I ask this, not because I see a bunch of passionless people filling our pews, but because of something that happened at a session meeting not that long ago. We asked ourselves these questions: What does the resurrection mean for us in our lives? How have we experienced its power? Why does our faith matter to us? The truth is, most of us had a hard time articulating answers to these questions. Most of us had a hard time telling our own gospel story. And if we can’t tell the stories of how Christ worked in our lives to ignite our passion, to give us new and abundant life, to lead us back from the zombie land of the walking dead; if we can’t say why this Jesus fellow matters to us in a real, life-changing sort of way; if we aren’t passionate about our faith, then is it surprising that those beyond our walls aren’t either?
Of course, I know that not every congregation is in the same place we are. But I also know that we are not alone. And I wonder how things would be different if our decisions as a congregation were driven not by considerations about what is safe and prudent, but by our passionate faith in this God who took hold of us in love and raised us to new life. I wonder what would happen if we thought a little less about what’s practical and a little more about how the Spirit might be leading us to follow our God-given passion, even if that means pursuing a vision that might seem to have a one in a million or one in 100 million shot of being successful.
As for me, well, I hear that young adult novels don’t write themselves – so I guess I’d better get to it…
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.