A Red Thread: An overlooked and necessary part of ministry

Pic week 1

You can’t see it here, but after I read this paragraph I wrote in the margin “anxious,” boldly underlined. Church, why do you require so much effort in areas that I’m not very good at? In Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White, we read how the burgeoning church, just decades after Jesus’ resurrection, responded to the call to follow Jesus by engaging in these administrative efforts:

  • fiscal challenges
  • ecumenical relations
  • raising money
  • establishing and managing volunteers
  • creative communication (no cell towers or phones)
  • reconciliation among congregations
  • “[preserving] of the church as a Christian institution”

Oh boy. How is an ordained person, who often is one of two or less paid staff in the average ELCA congregation, supposed to do all that?

This is, of course, where I started. In a panic, thinking that I needed to gather all the information I could on a topic that I don’t have much strength in, so I can “do it all” and “be it all” to my future first congregation (God willing, I will be in a first call soon after internship). #superpastor (yes, I will reflect on my reflection).

If you know me at all, you know that I function from and believe in serving from a strengths-based place. God made and makes us all loved and worthy children of God who each have a unique set of experiences, stories, backgrounds, gifts and strengths (Luke 10:27). So why do we waste so much time fixing or filling the holes of places that we aren’t as good in, rather than asking for help and giving family, friends, congregants, or our fellow humans the opportunity to serve and lead from their strengths too?

I told my internship supervisor about this hidden assumption of mine. As I learn (and experience) my assumptions and questions on internship, we thought this was the best topic for my last class, a .5 online independent study with a hilarious, creative, and un-bounded vision caster for the church and the world, Dr. Terri Elton. So, I’m studying church administration. I will be walking through our main text, Church Administration, two chapters a week and interviewing church administrators along the way. I will post my weekly reflections here. I’m excited to book-learn and church-learn in my internship context, and I hope you also contribute in the comments on your contextual learning and questions. I have a feeling I’m not alone in my wondering about how to engage with administration while keeping myself from the temptation of doing it all myself.

Because here’s my starting point; my starting hunch (I know, hundreds of words later, but I’m getting there; you made it here, I’m proud of you!). Church administration is not something to visit or revisit only at times of crisis. It’s a red thread that is woven through every small group, every worship service, every quilters’ group, every late night council meeting, every community meal, and every staff and non-staff’s service experience.

You guys.

This is in everything. All the time.

And this isn’t something to panic about, like when you first learned about germs as a 1st grader; aahhhhh they’re everywhere! It’s something to reorient as a ministry alongside other ministries in a congregation. Bachor and Cooper-White explain that “administration” comes from the Latin ad + ministrare, meaning literally “one who ministers to.” To me, this means the ministries of a church are literally arranged and managed by those gifted in counting, governing, planning, and doing other administration-y things. These people are ministers.

“…[the] one whose work is primarily administrative is no less a faithful servant than those who mostly preach, teach or counsel…it is time for the church to reclaim the holiness of vocations that involve a major measure of administrative work” (vii).

This work, the behind-the-scenes of work of budgets, money, supervising, and schedules is holy work. This work is done by specific people in a congregation, but it’s also work that each leader does a little (or a lot) of in their role. In both ways, we’re reminded that all of our contributions are significant as we are each ministers, and part of the priesthood that God calls us to be (1st Peter 2:9).

You might be thinking, “Allison, but you went to school for and will make an awesome pastor-minister person! How can we all be ministers if you’re the minister?”

Good question. It’s both. A congregation has a minister or ministers (some have a synodically-authorized one if they’re tight on cash), and we’re all ministers. Those who are ordained in the ELCA administer communion and baptism and preach, and are in a separate space (or “office,” like the office of the president or the office of a superintendent) and get compensated. Those who aren’t ordained (or who aren’t on staff) don’t get paid by the congregation/synod/community.  There are other distinctions between ordained ministers and all other ministers (everyone else, as we’re all called and children of God), but the point is that this concept is not black and white. If you’re reading this, looking back at your phone or laptop screen, we’re the same and we’re not. All at the same time.

As you can see by all my parentheses in that paragraph, I’m not satisfied with my own answer, because to say “it’s a both and!” or “it’s just another Lutheran paradox!” is I think a cop-out. Are we the same or are we different? What is it? Where is the peace and justice in knowing that one of us gets all the Starbucks gift cards for our faithful public ministry, and one of us just doesn’t? (it always comes back to coffee, doesn’t it). We’ll leave this topic for another day. I can feel Terri looking at my word count so let’s move on, at least for now. Priesthood of all believers and ministers (the theme of), I’m coming back for you!


What I wanted to land on as I reflect on these first two chapters of Church Administration is that when a group of motivated people gather to serve and discern God’s call, administration is a pair of glasses that they need to wear in order to carry out that service and discernment effectively. Bacher and Cooper-White write that administration and governance are enacted, “when two or more persons engage in a common purpose” (1).

When two brains, or two hearts, or two strengths connect and say:

  • “Let’s try this new church thing.”
  • “What if we try this church thing like this?”
  • “I wonder what it would be like if we did church this way?”

…there is one purpose. There is a common purpose. Administration is a color in that new portrait of what the church looks like today. We could leave out that color, but we could be leaving out the color that ties all the rest of the colors together, or makes all the other colors work together. They just work.


I think Paul had this hunch about administration when he was first leading congregations who were sorting out what it meant to follow Jesus; a resurrected savior with an unpredictable, unbelievable story. How do you spread that message? How do you engage an entire community around a faith in Jesus that doesn’t peter out, but blazes a new path and direction in a world that is ripe with possibilities for new life, second chances, and new growth for all? That’s the urgency. That’s the call. So how does a congregation utilize the gift of administration as a red thread that helps us do our diverse ministry and work, and respond to God’s call most effectively?

That’s what I hope to learn more about in these six weeks with you. When was a time when you felt in over your head with administrative tasks (yes, “conflict” is a topic that will be explored in the weeks to come)? What pushed you to ask for help in administrative stuff, or what are you hoping to find help in, as an ordained, otherly-rostered or non-official pastor person, when it comes to administration?


You are not Jesus: this was a weird sermon

Hello friends! I preached this last weekend at my internship site. My sermon’s based on Mark 10:35-45:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

I don’t know about you, but I had a ton of fun at the blessing of the pets last week here at Messiah. Did any of you come? It was awesome. So many fun furry creatures // and one snail. But perhaps even more awesome than seeing the animals and their owners, was my triumphant welcome home by my cat at the end of the day. See it was my husband who brought our mildly-social cat, and as I came home our cat scrambled toward me for a snuggle, as if to say “Did you know what he did to me today?” All of the sudden I was the greatest pet owner, and it was an awesome feeling.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are scrambling to be the greatest, and to feel awesome.

Jesus and the disciples are struggling to make this whole discipleship thing happen, and the disciples just want more. Jesus has just predicted his death for the third time, or described what’s to come. The disciples are becoming increasingly agitated and anxious. Their fear is keeping them from listening, which happens to all of us when we are afraid.

So to find some security, James and John ask Jesus a weird request: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus entertains the question, and they go on to say they want to sit at his right and left hand in glory. To this, Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup, and be baptized in Jesus’ baptism. Which to us – a church that baptizes and do communion, it’s like okay – John and James are like ‘Sure, why not!” But Jesus says that these seats of glory aren’t his to grant. Then to all the disciples Jesus says “Whoever wishes to be great, must be your servant… for I came to serve, not to be served, to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Even as I write this, and now preach this, I can’t help but feel for Jesus. Yes, the disciples are lost, figuratively and literally, they hear their leader they left their former lives and former worlds for is really really going to die. But think about Jesus. Once again, his people don’t get it. He’s saying that you can baptize, you can commune, but to sit with me in heaven? To live in the same presence of me, in the paradise, that is now and not yet? That’s not mine to grant. And it’s not yours to grant either. You’re not Jesus. This is where you end, and I start. You do not have the capacity to save people. Jesus says: That’s my role, and not yours.

You are not Jesus.


I think sometimes we get tricked into thinking that we’re Jesus. We’re the saviors. We’re the greatest. We’re the most free. We win.

But we both know, winning, freedom, greatness – is that what a life following Jesus is all about? Jesus says no. Jesus says “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” Whoever wishes to be great must be radically not free. Must be bound. Must be dependent. If this sounds like things you don’t want to be – you’re not alone. This life doesn’t look all that great to me either.

But what’s the life that is constantly marketed to us? Did you know that you see anywhere from 300-3,000 brands or logos each day? They say: Be more free! Be independent! Be perfect with this product! Save all the children!

But we’re not Jesus.

I’m not Jesus.

I can’t say that from now on I will never try to fix or save someone, but I certainly won’t forget the last time the universe told me that saving a person’s soul was not a cure I could grant.

As a seminary student in the Master of Divinity program, this summer I finished a credit or a class in which I got to learn in whole different kind of classroom – a hospital in downtown Minneapolis. I was on the staff of a spiritual care team as a chaplain. I got to visit with patients, their families, their friends, and the awesome, awesome staff of my assigned space – a medical/surgical unit/wing.

At the beginning of the day, the team of our unit – nurses, staff, coordinators, and the chaplain (me) have rounds – sort of like an update meeting of the last 24 hours.

Now as a chaplain, a ministry person, and not really a morning person either, I was lucky if I caught one or two words of medical words thrown around in that fast-paced meeting.

But when I heard the phrase, “…he doesn’t know that yet…” I knew I had to ask. I put my elbows on the table and asked “What was that again?”

We’ll call him John. John doesn’t know upon discharge (healthy enough to go home) he was going to jail. He was found overdosing on drugs while in rehab, and he was detoxing in the hospital on his way to immediate incarceration. John didn’t know that when he was healthy again he wasn’t headed home.

Now, no one told me I had to visit him. But when there’s a 22-year old patient on your unit who is headed on a dark path, who came from a dark path, it’s hard not feel tugged by the Spirit’s call.

The police officer floating on the unit kept an eye on me as I entered the room, and with the encouragement of his assigned nurse, I knocked and entered John’s space.

He was kind. The supervisor in the room quietly read her book as John and I talked about his family and friends, and why he was there.

Now, I don’t claim to be some miracle-worker, but I felt like I was getting through to him. He even brought up his questions about the Christian faith. I felt like the coolest chaplain – even a drug user talked to me about God – awesome!

But he kept asking me if he could take a walk. And his phone rang while we were in there and he tried to talk quietly, suggesting to me that he wasn’t cured of his dealing habits.

But he was just a kid. 22. He just needed someone to believe him, right? He just needed someone to care for him, and love him, and give him everything he needs, right?

The next day, as I talked with my supervisor and other chaplain interns about this interaction, it became clear that I had an intense feeling of wanting to save John.

I just wanted him to feel like someone believed in him. I just wanted him to feel like someone believed him.

I just wanted to save him.

He even told me what he believed about God! Or – perhaps he emotionally manipulated me, because that’s what users do. They search after what they want at any cost, and ultimately, what they want is something deeper than drugs, but the result is often what harms them the most. Because John wants what we all want – To feel loved. To be told he matters. To know he’s missed. So maybe we’re not that much different?

In his disease, I was on the cusp of being swept into his swirl of masking and manipulation.

But he just needed to be saved, right?

And I could save him, right?

The funny part is that no one else was really prompting me to think this. I don’t remember anyone specifically telling me “Allison – you’re awesome, you can save people, you can fix people, go for it!” No – but this does come from messages in our culture that have squirrelled their way into our bank of wisdom. So in some ways, I expect myself to save people. That inner voice is just so loud and I can’t find the volume knob sometimes.

But I bet it’s in you too. You hear inside yourself that you can save people and fix people. That you can be Jesus.

Where does that come from?

The part of you that says ‘I don’t need anybody.’ The part of you that says ‘I’m independent. I’m free. I’m the greatest.’

The part of the disciples that steers their decisions and requests when they’re afraid.

My hunch, is that we’re so afraid as individuals, as a country, as a world that we don’t trust each other or another presence to save us. I’ve got to do it, it has to be me. Jesus saves me? Jesus saves you? That’s nice. I’d rather save myself, thank you very much.

The good news that Jesus gives us – is that we are not bound by the responsibility to save, liberate, and redeem ourselves.

We are free to not be Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we are freed from the task of being the name above all names. Because being the most independent and the most free is exhausting.

But we’re not totally off the hook – It’s not up to us to save the world, but it’s up to us to do the best we can.

We are given opportunities and gifts and strengths not to save people, not to fix people, but to serve.

We are truly freed, or you could say, “freed up” to serve our neighbor.


This is the kind of service that doesn’t involve the expectation that we’re going to get something back

This is the kind of service that makes other people wonder, “Why is that guy so willing to go into these dark places and shine a light of hope, and help people out?” To this he might say, “Because Jesus has freed me from the task of saving myself so I can serve my neighbors.” This is the kind of service that makes other people wonder “Why is the girl so excited to serve a meal or clean tables to people who seem to constantly be out of luck?” To this she might say “Because I get to serve my neighbors since I don’t have spend my time worrying about how I’m going to save myself.”

Out of the darkest moment that Jesus is walking toward in Jerusalem, out of the crucifixion, comes his resurrection, not only of our body, mind, and soul, but a resurrection of this world. This is our joy – that we now live in a kingdom, in a paradise now, and not yet, and we as freed people get to share that joy with the world. That is the challenge and the mystery and the beauty of following Jesus – we get to share the good news that a savior has come and it’s not you. We’re not Jesus. That burden has been lifted and we are free to not serve ourselves but serve our neighbor with this good news propelling us into those dark places where the light is dim, but our hope is fierce and speaks a word of life and light into spaces that we thought deserved left to be dead.

Jesus listens to the disciples request today to sit at his left and right side in glory. A bold request, I’ll give them that. But Jesus doesn’t give them an answer they like – and once again the disciples are at a loss for where they went wrong. They’re so afraid of what will happen next that they want to claim a piece of Jesus before he is crucified. All they can see is Good Friday. All they see is their need to be free and be saved and forget that Jesus is Jesus, and they are not. They are blind to the joy of being a disciple which is being freed up to serve their neighbor – not to save, not to fix, but to serve their neighbor. And that just might be the best news of all.

Showing up & being present in our differences

My blog will keep going, but my reflection series from my “Adults and Lifelong Learning” class is done! This post is a little long, but stay with me! It’s been so fun to learn, laugh, and reflect with Prof. Mary Hess this Spring as I complete my Master of Divinity degree. What’s next? I’ll give an update when I have a clear update, ha! … serenity prayer, anyone?

This class has been a significant place of learning in my brain and heart, so thank you Mary! Thanks to Timothy, my spouse, for our conversations that often have been the impetus for many of my blog writings, and bigger life thinking – we’re shaping our story together, Timothy, and my gratefulness is too deep for one sentence (and I thought you were the one who uses run-on sentences). Thanks too to YOU, my friends and family in learning and leading, here in Minnesota, in Washington, in between, and in farther off places than that! Stay in the arena and keep asking questions and leading out a place of hope and passion. I can’t think of a better quote to sum up my hope, and for us, as big-hearted, broken, beautiful people:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. – Teddy Roosevelt.

I shamelessly pulled this from Brene Brown‘s TED talk, and this quote inspires me to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I think for her too. I think I can safely say that if you read my blog with any regularity, you saw that coming. Oh Dr. Brown. I cherish your email reply to me, even though it was only 12 words long: “Hi Allison, Check out Grounded Theory by Glaser and Strauss. Thanks, Brené.” Yes, she put an accent mark above the “e”. I literally just sighed. Some day we will change the world together, Brené, some day.

Anyway, as Mary and I were batting around possible topics for this final reflection, she suggested looking at a parable through the lens of what I’ve been learning about how people make meaning an all sorts of varied and different ways.

We literally were sitting like this (not really) when we dreamed up this post. But this is Mary & me!

I said parables are cool, but what about the experience of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well? Talk about two worlds smashing together. A male, a Jewish religious leader in an authoritative position. A woman, unaccompanied, who has been married five times, from Samaria. Running into each other at a well during the hottest part of the day in the Middle East. In the spirit of the Major League Baseball season starting, this is a pickle.

Just so you know, this isn’t an attempt to put a Jesus-bandaid on lifelong learning. I could quote the Bible with glowing images of our beautiful creation, or little smiling children running to Jesus. But I don’t think Scripture was meant to be cherry-picked in order to support a point. At least, I don’t think that gives Scripture enough credit, or really, it’s own voice.

The Samaritan woman at the well is important to consider as we wrap up this class on how people learn and make meaning, because it shows our insatiable desire to be known by our people and by God (and yes, I’m using the Bible to make a point, but as a wider, frequent theme of the Bible I’m going to say it’s ok). This is not a Bible study or a one-size-fits-all reflection. I want to show that there are a lot (a bajillion?) of points of views on the Bible, and as people in the buzz of spiritual questions/reflection, our task is to be empathetic with each other’s ways of making meaning, no matter how well thought out, complex, or black and white they might be. Why? Because your neighbor wants to be loved (spoiler alert: and is worthy of love), just as much as you are.

The Northern Lights, in a diversity of color like our diversity of reflections on the Bible.

Curiously enough, this is the space and complexity that Jesus finds himself in when he runs into this woman at a well thousands of years ago. Jesus and the Samaritan woman aren’t just neighbors from different sides of town (80-90+% of US citizens live in urban spaces, think about how hard it is to wrap our heads around this?). They are from different nomad, rural traditions and cultures – Jesus, a Jew from Bethlehem, and this woman from Samaria who the writer of John shares little about. These are cultures with deeply embedded communities and practices, and histories that root them not only in centuries but in millennia.

As much as I am scared for them as a former camp counselor (for legal reasons, rule of three), I’m scared for them if their people, or their neighbors, or their family comes and finds them: a woman and a man from differing and clashing cultures speaking alone. Jesus’ crucifixion (and this woman’s almost-sure stoning to death) could have come quicker than we know them to be. I know, the Bible’s gross, but who are we kidding, isn’t our world now, today?

In case you print this out, have fun coloring this inaccurate portrayal of the Samaritan woman! Ok that’s my sass, now we can move on.

This is a text that comes up in a lectionary (a widely published rotation of Bible passages assigned for each Sunday) that somewhere around 4 million+ ELCA Lutherans and other Christians hear every three years. Many of those people hear in the sermon that the point of this story in the 4th chapter of John is that Jesus saves, even adulterous women.

I don’t want to belittle this perspective, but with some deeper digging into this Scriptural text, I realized that this woman was a survivor of a system that punished women. This kind of thinking that men are good and women are bad is the black and white thinking we find in 3rd order thinking (according to Robert Kegan, the author of In Over our Heads which has informed my learning this semester). Just to refresh our thinking, here’s what 1-5 orders of thinking/consciousness means:

To be clear I’m not saying that those in a more 3rd order of thinking are sexist. Not at all. I am saying that having a 3rd order frame of mind, and perpetuating systems that function in 3rd order frames, provides a fertile environment for victimization, “us vs. them,” and over all “othering.”  I think the frequent sermon on this text screams that our church, its cultures, communities, leaders, and conversations, are often functioning in a 3rd order space. There is only room for the conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate good, and therefore this woman is the ultimate bad that Jesus was merciful enough to pardon and save.

We have to remember that the point of this model is to provoke empathy in each of us for those using the same frame as us, and for people who are at different frames. Me saying, although I am tempted to, “The conclusion that ‘The Samaritan woman has committed adultery and is therefore only just barely save-able by Jesus, and bless her heart she is’ is stupid and I’m never coming back when this preacher is preaching again,” is not empathetic nor pushing us toward being in community like God calls us to be.

So what do we do? What do we do when we go to a church, for the 1000th time or the 1st time, and hear a sermon that is close-minded and so black and white that we couldn’t even stay to the end of the service?

Do we shake the pastor’s hand at the end and say “Good sermon” or “That was a terrible sermon! How about you try living as a first-century woman who is only valued for her slave labor and ability to give birth as she gets shuffled from brother to brother”? Or, do we come back next Sunday, say nothing, and instead connect with your friend back home via Facebook Messanger, only using Pusheen emoticons?

If you were wondering, yes, this was a very intense conversation.

Honestly I don’t like any of these options. They scream anger, passivity, insecurity, and isolation. This isn’t what Jesus wanted for his followers 2,000 years later, this isn’t what Kegan would want as people use his model to examine how we make meaning, and this isn’t what I want as someone who doesn’t know what the future holds but knows that we are made our fullest selves together, working toward one mission, not apart in isolation.

Hey, do you have time for coffee? I’m often free Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons…

We meet at Starbucks (of course), and instead of undercutting their sermon with historical critical analysis, cultural appropriation, and gender dynamics in first-century Palestine, I ask:

Where are you from? … Does your family still live there? … How did you meet him/her? (if relevant) … What brought you to where you work/study/lead/learn now? … Wait, how did you get from there to here? … This might be an odd question, but why is that important to you?

My point is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. I wonder if a significant percentage of pastors and people-oriented roles have experienced hurt in one way or another in their life. This is why they serve, which is beautiful. But it’s also why they sometimes find comfort in 3rd order thinking, in black and white paradigms, because their structured thinking gives them comfort. It gives safety.


I’m learning that the biggest way that I can change someone’s hurtful, harmful, or dark behavior, theology, mind, or way of thinking is not through teaching, nor sermon-ing. It’s by example. It’s by showing up. It’s doing little things when I think no one is watching. It’s preaching when I don’t think anyone is listening (accentuated by a little girl last year asking me after a service, “Who made God?” and I had no answer); it’s recycling when I could have just dumped it in the trash; it’s writing when I think no one is reading, it’s dancing when I think no one is watching, it’s caring for my body and eating/buying healthy when I think no one is paying attention, it’s caring for and filling with pride for my spouse, one of my most cherished vocations, when I it feels like too few people care what lies in his future.

Lecturing someone who has preached from a 3rd order frame of mind about the “adulterous” Samaritan woman will probably not make a huge impact. It might. But I think what’s more impactful, in lifelong friendship, in lifelong collegeial relationships, in lifelong communities (we’re just a small portion of the church!), in lifelong learning, is showing a different frame of mind, not lecturing about a different frame of mind.

Growing into a 4th order frame of mind looks like venturing into the unknown with questions, wonderings, and possibilities.

This looks like me offering my historical/cultural analysis in my own leading, designing learning experiences, and preaching, and going back to school to get the credential that shows my church my value and leadership. Yes, there is a tinge of hurt in that last sentence, that it’s only through ordination that I am entrusted with leading in sermon-ing, and leading a community in experiencing communion and baptism, and leading in other ways… so far. Times might change. Systems might change. Expectations might change. It’s through showing up for coffee and modeling a different kind of meaning-making that might be prompt perhaps the most significant learning of all.

For reference and varying views on the Samaritan woman:
John by Karoline Lewis, Fortress Press: 2014. The Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, Westminster/John Knox Press: 1992. John by Gerard S. Sloyan, John Knox Press, 1988.

Do you see it?

I graduated from college with the conviction that I wanted my life to make a difference. So when I turned to my church to see if they might help, I was given a copy of this book:

ELCA resource text by Walter Bouman & Sue Setzer

My former classmates are probably rolling their eyes – yes, this is a book any ELCA seminary-bound person has skimmed or read. But here I found the basics of vocational discernment (something not just for to-be-pastors, but for everybody, weird I know) and the basics of what it means to do ministry, i.e. make a difference in the world because I feel so moved because of my faith. Vocation is not just about your job, but about your relationships, your gifts, how you serve, and what makes you feel like “this is what I feel called to do.” Discernment is thinking, wondering, and praying about it.

But the problem of this picture of vocational discernment is that it doesn’t honor different ways to vocationally discern. If you put me in a room with a Bible and say, “vocationally discern!” I would probably stare at the white walls with boredom, hoping that the door was unlocked and wondering when I would get lunch soon. But I fear this is the picture many people imagine when they approach “vocational discernment” that the church so fiercely endorses.

Here’s the problem. We have bodies. We have brains that allow us to question and identify when the wool is being pulled over our eyes. We have feelings and the capacity to thrive and fail. We feel good when we help people or animals or the environment. Vocational discernment is not just thinking: it’s getting lost, adventuring, experimenting (which is what the church is anyway, is it not?), protesting, learning, leading, sharing, trying, failing, trying again, capturing the high moments and trying again.

Not one person has the same equation that adds up to “this is what vocational discernment looks like.” No two people are carbon copies, therefore no two people vocationally discern the same way.

This means the church has the opportunity to welcome and embrace people who think about what makes them tick and serve joyfully in a million different kind of ways.

Vocational discernment is not for the weak. It’s for the courageous. It’s for the failures and the beautiful moments of learning. It’s for those who say to leaders, CEO’s, pastors, bishops, “This is not working, but I have an idea of how to make it work.” It’s for those who look around and see people blinded by insecurity and fear, and can’t do anything but want to rip off their shades and help them see the beauty around them. Not just “ooh, pretty!” beauty, but true, real beauty – when people make amends; when organizations say “Oops, we messed up, and we want to make it right;” when a friend invites the truth by insisting “But why is that the case?” or when a partner admits, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question?” and identifies the advent of a new chapter.

Beautiful & colorful picture from Brazil, on Pinterest.

This is the kind of beauty that’s all around us if we only open our eyes to see. Young people are starving to hear their church say “I see it, too.” We want to hear that the way we think about God’s presence in our lives is beautiful and needed; we want to hear that our vocations are weird and beautiful and strange and just right – especially in a market where contract work dominates and part-time or full-time work with benefits is difficult to find or keep.

This is vocational discernment:

  • Noticing every time you have the thought, “I really should blog about that.”
  • Reaching out to a church administrator about an HR question and being asked, “What’s new with you? Can we get some coffee to catch up?”
  • Insisting on scheduling informational interviews around a certain class or community-based game.
  • Not looking at your phone for 48 hours as you explore a new part of the state you live in.
  • Realizing that you keep pinning the same kind of quote on Pinterest. It happens. I call it the Pinterest fog.
  • Hanging out with friends, and through the laughter hearing “I know! We could start the…”

Do you see it? This what I see: Authenticity without strings attached. Experimenting with people you trust. Creativity for the sake of play. Being vulnerable and praying it’s met with a connection on the other side.

This is one picture of vocational discernment, but one that echos the qualities that young people are starving to feel when they ask their church, the community in which their faith was first sparked, “Is there anything out there for me?” We want coaches, mentors, colleagues. We want churches to find the same beauty we see in the world, the beauty you can only see if you get lost.

Do you see it?

Just Wait

This is the sermon I preached this last weekend at Trinity. I try and focus on one Bible passage when I preach, but this time I couldn’t help myself. They flowed really well (at least in my head), and I trust that you can chew on two big theological concepts in one sermon. We’ll see… enjoy!

1. Hello!

Hi! my name is Allison Siburg. I’ve been on staff at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN since January, and my official title is “Ministry Associate & Church Collaboration Developer” – which basically means that I get to teach and serve in a lot of different ways with Lifelong Learning and On Purpose ministries – I love hearing people’s stories about meaning and vocation, and times when they learned about themselves and God.

I grew up in the Seattle area in Washington, so I’m still kind of new to Minnesota, as my husband Timothy and I graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul in 2012 with our Master of Arts degrees for non-ordained ministry leadership.

And Timothy’s mom and dad and brother are here today, feel free to welcome them. All 6 of us on the Siburg side just ended a mini-van trip to Disney World and back, so I hope they don’t recall stories of how I’m not a morning person, even in Disney World.

2. Luke

So as we turn toward the assigned reading from a set, a lectionary, that a lot of Lutherans read from, the assigned gospel reading for this Sunday comes from the book of Luke, in chapter 12. Jesus’ popularity has caught a lot of traction at this point. Like, the first verse of chapter 12 starts with “Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on each other…”

Luke writes that various people are shouting questions and requests at Jesus – like as Luke writes someone asks, “Teacher [Jesus], tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” and other questions that all seem to evolve around the questioner – What should I do about my half of my family’s money –what should I do about this or that in my life? All these questions of – what should I do about me, me, me?

And to each person Jesus answers in a similar way that seems to cover all of the questions – “DO NOT WORRY.”

Jesus says – “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… [Jesus goes on to say] You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Luke 12:32-34, 40).

This isn’t a parable or a story, but Jesus’ short answer to a growing crowd. If you listen especially to this last sentence, it’s as if he’s leaning down to us and whispering in our ear “JUST WAIT!”

Just wait – Jesus says, for my Kingdom is coming, and God’s happy about this – as Luke tells us “it’s God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.” As Christians we celebrate the Kingdom of God and live in this hope that just as Jesus rose from the grave/tomb, he will again come to redeem all, heal all, and save all.

3. The Great Cartwheel

Now this idea of “the Kingdom of God” is kind of foreign language to us, at least it is to me. When do we hear about kingdoms in the news? So – what is the Kingdom of God?

The Kingdom of God as I see it is when God breaks into the world and our reality to bring about a new creation – we see it talked about all over the gospels in different ways. We see glimpses of this in our world – when the corrupt are pointed out and justice is served, when a homeless person is not only fed but is given a chance & a job and finds a self-sustaining situation; when a woman is paid equal to men doing the same job, when a child adopted in a forever home. This is when the Kingdom of God happens and breaks into our reality.

In the gospels, especially in Luke, the Kingdom of God is identified as “when the high are brought low and the low are brought high.” Paul talks about how “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1st Cor. 1:27) We see the Kingdom happening in Mary as she celebrates that Jesus will be her child, saying “You [God] have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart. You have filled the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part.” (1986 Holden Evening Prayer Marty Haugen interpretation of Luke 1:46-55).

It is at Christ’s second arrival that we are promised that all will be fed, all will be fulfilled, healed and liberated for service in God’s Kingdom. Even those of us who might think we have it all, we’ll discover that we might have lots of things and savings, but we still needed healing, we needed redemption. We might find that we were rich in money or belongings, but we were poor in spirit.

4. Stranger Danger

When I was a sophomore in high school I got to travel outside of the US for the first time.


It was a mission trip when I was 16 through my home church Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. We helped with a local Vacation Bible School a constructing a fence around a school in Barahona, in partnership with an American non-profit.

On one of the mornings we did the construction work, a friend, Chance, and I had to get more supplies up the road for our concrete mixing. And when I say “up the road” I mean, up the clay, bright orange dusty path that weaved up the hill-side in between shacks that looked like they were about to fall apart. As we were walking back we got stuck in the rain. From Seattle, I know rain as mist, drizzle, showers. This was not rain. This was sudden, torrential downpour.

A man and a woman emerged from the nearest home on the road. They motioned for us to come and find shelter in their home. At first we were like no, no, no thank you, we’ll run back to the school. But they insisted, in Spanish, which, Chance and I did not speak a word of (well, I knew “Número seis, por favor”). We ran and stood barely out of the rain under the edge of a wavy foil-roof. So we stood outside and they kept motioning us to come inside. My “stranger danger” senses went up- but honestly, what else could we have done? These American 3,000 miles away from home stumbling down the road and get caught in a flash flood – these people were saints, but at the time I was shaking, not from the rain but from the nerves.

They finally convinced us to come inside. Their home was one room. The kitchen, living room and bedroom were separated by long veil-sheets hung from the ceiling. They had us sit in white plastic lawn chairs, and in Spanish they talked to us and motioned toward a framed picture of a young man.

To this day I have no idea what they were saying, but I can tell you this – they were proud of their home and their family. They were quick to invite us into their home and show us that it’s not expensive furniture or a huge marble staircase that make a home beautiful – it’s the pride and love that you fill it with.

5. Letting it Sink In

And reflecting on this in the 10 years since – it’s really starting to sink in, that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, what kind of health benefits you have (if you’re lucky enough to have them) or how big your retirement portfolio is – what matters is how you use what you have –whether it’s a lot or a little- to make this world a more peaceful and a more loving place. In my abundance – growing up in a middle-to-high class family, mostly Caucasian with heterosexual parents – my family paid my way to go on this tropical trip and bring Jesus and bring love to these poor, destitute people in the Dominican Republic (who have “so little”). But these Dominicans did not need me or anyone to bring God and love to them – they brought God’s love to me.

See this is what the Kingdom of God is all about – God brings about a new creation and a new order, in which our preconceived ideas about power, about what is most desirable gets turned upside down. God breaks into our world as neighbor serves neighbor, friend serves friend, stranger serves stranger – and it’s something that as people of the resurrected Jesus, we live in hope that we are participating in God’s larger love, redemption and liberation for all.

We see glimpses of this love in the “now” – like when that couple taught me tons about what it means to serve & love and be proud of your family & your home. The Kingdom of God is ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ – meaning that these glimpses happen, but we also live in the hope that Christ will come again to reconcile and heal and love all in the most unconditional way that we have ever seen.

I mean, talk about the world’s, or the Western world’s order of individualism, and instant gratification – this humble and hospitable couple in the Dominican Republic, by our culture’s standards (no running water and no electricity), have nothing. But Anne Frank once wrote “No-one became poor by giving.” Those are the glimpses of God working in the world – in a way that we are so unprepared for. And yet God continues to show up.

The Kingdom of God is most fully known to us through the person of Jesus, and Jesus gave us the ultimate example of the flip-flop – Christ, the awaited messiah, the king, came in the form of a tiny, weak, vulnerable baby.

We expected a big, tough, masculine king? God gave us a small, tiny baby you could hold in your arms.

We expected Jesus to save us all by a sweeping gesture of glory and strength and power? God liberated us from sin and death by suffering with Jesus on the cross as the kings of the world publically tortured and killed him by crucifixion.

The Romans expected Jesus, the man, to remain dead (like most people)? God raised Christ to new life to walk among us, and forever be present to us and through us in baptism and communion.

We can trust that God’s Kingdom will come because God’s promises hold up, like no other promise we can make.

6. The Stars

One more story – In Genesis, Abram (before he was Abraham), laments to God that he still has no children and therefore no heir to his name.

You know Abram? “Father Abraham, had many sons (and daughters!), many sons had father Abraham…”

God says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars. If you are able to.” Then God says to Abram, “so shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5).

Have you ever tried to count the stars? I have. I didn’t get very far.  And I imagine you didn’t get very far if you’ve tried before.


If you haven’t tried, you totally should though, because here’s the point: God is in the business of helping us realize that no matter how hard we try and put limits on God and count the number of times God has shown up in the world, God’s love and God’s promises never end. It’s the same with the Kingdom of God – God’s continual love and justice and healing that breaks into the world – it doesn’t stop.

Where we want to put a period, God puts a comma. The Kingdom of God is now and not yet – and we live in the hope that Christ will come again to redeem all and save all through God’s unrelenting and unconditional love – through our acts of service, but perhaps most importantly, in our neighbor’s acts of service, where we are loved and transformed in ways we never knew possible.

Remember how Jesus says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms”?

Jesus is not saying “do this or else” – He’s telling us that the Kingdom is now & it is not yet; and it looks like selling your possessions and giving alms. It looks like pointing out injustices in the world, and keeping those in power accountable. It looks like serving your neighbor where you are in your neighborhood. It looks like going on a mission trip with the intent of transforming others with God’s love, when in fact you end up being transformed by Jesus’ radical love through the poorest in the region – through their love, not yours.

The thousands of people following Jesus in chapter 12 in Luke are so afraid of losing money, of losing family and are so concerned about getting what they think they deserve.

But Jesus again and again tells them and tells us today – Just wait; my Kingdom lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, and the stars in the sky only begin to tell the story of how things are going to change.

Dream: Overlapping Faith, Life and Service

I’m not sure if this happens to anyone else, but sometimes on Pinterest, the pins I don’t repin (they’re like visual posts) will stay with me for days as if to taunt me saying “Haha you didn’t repin me so I’m going to send the guilt and shame gremlins on you until you find me again haha!” I guess my guilty conscious takes the form of flying monkeys. Anyway, there’s a pin that has stuck with me – not because I think I’m a bad person for not pinning it in the first place, but because it speaks to me. I get inspired by the written word anyway, so this is not a stretch. But the quote in this pin pings a nerve in me:

All of the organizations, universities, colleges, ventures, start-ups, or nonprofits we (that includes you I’m pretty sure) work for started with 1 person who had 1 idea. This person had the insane courage to risk failure and shared their vulnerability and passion with a friend, a colleague, a mentor, a pastor, a family member, a significant other. I’m not sure how ‘business’ works, but I’m pretty sure there are relational, financial, and communal jumps and risks that are required of making someone’s dream come true. This idea of ‘dreaming’ of one person and its importance (good or bad) just jumps off of the screen when I read this quote.

So this got me thinking. If we are to take this quote as true (I’m not sure who Tony Gaskins is, but I think this soundbite is pretty good) then each one of “your” dreams – you, the one person unique child of God you are – is worth the risk discovering and cultivating. It’s not that it’s “my way or the highway,” and our individual dreams are in competition with each other. It’s not like you have to work on one dream, and not the other – I think dreams can be cultivated side-by-side. But I think what struck me from this quote was this tiny voice saying “Are you talking to me? Are my dreams worth discovering and [dare I say] realizing?” To use one of my favorite emoticons from high school: 0.0 (two big eyes looking like deer in the headlights)

When I think of my biggest, biggest dreams, it’s like my soul is on a trampoline, jumping with unconditional joy, on the cusp of jumping the highest I’ve ever been. I jump out of bed in the morning when I know I’m about to get the opportunity and honor to help someone realize that they are worth it. When I help someone understand that the extraordinary lives in the ordinary, that God works through our lives and our very selves as we serve our neighbor with our gifts, passions, imperfections, strengths and weaknesses. Sure, this might be “vocation,” but that’s a huge word to unpack. When I boil it down, this concept looks like 3 spheres of our lives that overlap each other in different ways:

These spheres don’t intersect with each other, they overlap: Intersecting to me is like a freight train that is suddenly smashed and intersecting with a car, and that’s not how I understand these spheres. “Service” is a value on its own, not something that magically stops to intersect with “life.” These spheres stand on their own and have integrity, but they also shine interesting light on each other when they overlap. We see life differently when we see the unique colors that are produced when we shine light through two or three of these spheres. Life, service, and faith are connected to each other, and when these values overlap with each other I know I find meaning and purpose in my life.

That’s a dream for me. To help people understand that they are lovable, worthy, complex, soaked in God working through them, and they are a vehicle for meaningful service in, to, and alongside the neighbor.

This is a starting point for me, and hopefully it’s something that might resonate with you too when thinking about your vocation! If you could build your dream, your dream organization or effort, what would it look like?