As of October 1, I have served in my current congregation – “my first call,” as we Presbyterians define it – for four years. This anniversary has got me thinking about why I pursued this audacious vocation. Has my “sense of call” and my identity as a pastor changed over these four years?
On my desk sits a small wooden figurine – one of the Willow Tree angels – called “Angel of Hope.” It was a gift from my mother during my first year out of college while working at a small nonprofit in Hollywood, California. The angel holds out a lamp: hope is a light to see by. Even at age 22, I wanted to be a light-bearer.
Not that I saw myself as the light, but I longed to remind myself and others, when caught in dark and dreary circumstances, that God, through Jesus Christ, is making all things new. Becoming a pastor was part of that overarching call to be a light-bearer, a person of hope.
This conviction continues to ground and shape my work; it’s why I enjoy preaching and praying with people. Yet my pastoral identity stretches and shifts the longer I serve this congregation. Hope is vital for spiritual formation. So is discipleship – inspiring people not only to hope for a better future when Jesus comes again but also to follow Jesus now. And following Jesus now is hard. Jesus demands sacrifice; Jesus demands risk; Jesus demands love.
The dichotomy I’m about to name is a false one, but I find that these two “identities” – that of pointing people to hope and that of daring people to become like Jesus – are in tension with one another. I much prefer to extend an encouraging invitation than to confront people with Jesus’ demands. We gobble up hope but nibble at discipleship. Hope makes us feel good; discipleship requires change.
If I limit my pastoral identity to extending the invitation of hope and not the challenge of discipleship, I risk 1) confusing myself, the light-bearer, with the actual light (e.g., believing that it’s my excellent prayer that gave a person hope, not Jesus), and 2) failing to lead the people of God into greater spiritual maturity and deeper discipleship. If we only focus on the hope and don’t risk the challenge of following Jesus, we get spiritually stuck.
Hope and discipleship; invitation and challenge. I’m not sure the pastoral vocation can function without both as its purpose. But, living both is hard.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Pres. as the Director of Contemporary Worship and Media. She blogs weekly at reverendrachel.wordpress.com.