It doesn’t take a genius to know when something isn’t working. But it absolutely takes some genius, and a hefty bit of courage, to make radical changes toward what might, actually, work.
For a long time, the direction of my life has been driven by a singular idea, ingrained deep within my soul from a very young age and maturing later on: that I am inexorably, ineffably called to the ministry. Of course it’s always the ministry, right? Because in the singularity you can sense its heaviness, and in the definite article its definitiveness: that this is a full-time, all-or-nothing, lifelong proposition.
At a conference I once heard a speaker say something like, “Don’t get into the ministry if anything could ever get you out of it.” Well ok! Because nothing determines a healthy course for one’s life quite like a threatening dose of shame…
But what about when your calling, the thing you had sincerely and sacrificially committed your life to for so many years, dies?
I’m not talking about something becoming a little hard or a little inconvenient or a little too conflicting with one’s hobbies or a little bit intrusive on one’s substantial savings account. I’m talking about when you give your everything to something and it takes your everything and leaves you with nothing.
I’m talking about when that thing stabs you repeatedly in the back and then in the heart for good measure, only to toss you on the side of the road to be feasted on by frigging jackals for years after.
Well, when your calling dies like that, it doesn’t take a genius to see what’s going on. But man, it takes all the strength your broken body can muster to finally face the choice in front of you, and then drag yourself to your feet in order to make a move.
What You’re Not
The jackals had already done their thing for a good long while when my calling finally died. It died, really, when my father died. And that makes sense: the first seeds of a ministry calling originated with him, deeply implanted in my psyche, laced with threatening shame and disapproval and false hope throughout my younger life. Sure, I had taken those diseased roots, nursed them to health, and made the calling my own as I grew older, defying the disapproval and shame — and I’m deeply proud of the work I was able to do throughout that ministry season. But after a point, it simply stopped working.
And when he died, it hit me like an anvil crushing my already broken skeleton: this is not what I am anymore.
When your calling finally dies it is vital to first acknowledge what you are not.
I was good and capable at living out that calling. I served God and the people he brought into my circle of influence with everything I had — faithfully and sacrificially and well. When the church I had planted unraveled, I got raked over the coals and railroaded and betrayed for reasons so outside the realm of reason and so deeply embedded in other people’s own broken agendas to be made sense of. But it was not for my lack of commitment or skill or sincerity or innocence. It was bullshit, basically. (There is a good amount of bullshit in the land of the ministry.)
But though that calling was a living and legitimate thing at one time, and though I made it my own and gave it my all from a sincere heart for several years even after the end of the church plant, I now know that I am no longer called to ministry in the church. That calling is dead. As dead as my emotionally abusive father.
I am no longer a minister in that official sense. I am not meant to be a full-time pastor. I am not called to serve in that all-or-nothing capacity in the church institution.
I know this because whatever it was that drove me then is now dead.
I know this because I have been lying on the side of the road, trying to revive this old calling, trying to make sense of it all, for far too long.
I know this because it’s not working.
I know this because I can sense freedom and flourishing — life! — on the other side of any desire to make it work.
And I’m ready to choose life.
The question I have wrestled with most in letting this calling fully and finally die is, Am I still called to something? Will that deep sense of purpose and passion and direction leave me if I leave this dead thing and move on?
In Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken, the final stanza says this:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Most popular takes on the last two lines see choosing “the road less traveled” as going the uncommon or unpopular route which will make all the difference in the end! Endless inspirational Instagram posts tout this line to encourage you choose a way of sacrifice now that will someday pay off (hopefully with great abs).
For a long time this was how I saw ministry — an unpopular and uncommon and sacrificial path that would lead to flourishing someday if only I stayed the course.
The thing is, Frost’s poem isn’t so cut and dry, and you get that sense when he writes, “I shall be telling this with a sigh…” A sigh almost sounds like disappointment; it certainly sounds sort of sobered. It may be that the “less traveled” road he took was the wrong one or at least a mistaken path — and one he could not, in the end, take back because “way leads on to way” and he was too far gone.
All that to say: the forks in the road that we face sometimes come after we have made critical decisions to go “the road less traveled” — and have realized that that road is no longer taking us where we need to go. Now, we have to make another choice. Now, we need to correct that course and do what business folks often talk about: pivot.
But pivoting, it must be said, is not about renouncing a sense of calling altogether. The road we choose now, even after choosing the last road-less-traveled, may in fact make all the difference — and lead to our genuine flourishing.
And one day we may talk about it with tears of joy rather than sighs of disappointment.
For me, declaring one calling dead has allowed a new calling to evolve. It’s evolving into this: writing and creating in a way that brings people — you, and even me! — into greater flourishing. If the bullshit side of ministry taught me anything, it’s that choosing prolonged suffering is as pointless and heretical as indulging in excessive prosperity.
True sacrifice always brings about greater flourishing; and the good kind of death always leads us to resurrection. In short, to be true and real and good it has to work.
In my writing and creating life now, I am looking for the same kind of purposed, passionate, committed faithfulness to the call — and the same focus on serving God and the people he brings into my circle of influence. In that sense, there is a ministry happening here, however outside the church camp, however unofficial, it may be.
But it will never be a repeat of what was, nor a fruitless attempt to revive what is dead.
Because real resurrection is not mere resuscitation — it’s an entirely new kind of life.
What we need to do is pull ourselves up off the side of the road and make a courageous move toward the path that will take us where we need to go.
I’m making that move today and choosing a flourishing life — I hope you will too.