“I always thought you’d make a better teacher than a preacher. You’re too rough around the edges to be a pastor.” These are the only words I can ever recall my father sharing with me about vocational discernment! He made this remark after I told him I was applying to doctoral programs in Christian ethics. I had been serving an inner-city congregation as a parish pastor for three years, but I felt a calling to church-related higher education. When I applied to graduate school, however, the advice of my seminary president was still ringing in my ears: “Remember, Jim, teaching isn’t a better calling; it is just a different calling for which you may be better suited.”
While I admit to wondering every now and then whether I could be making a bigger difference (whatever that means) somewhere else, most of the time I do feel called to be a teaching theologian in the church. That call is always reaffirmed each time I co-teach environmental ethics at Holden Village (where I am writing this reflection). What I love about teaching here is that I get to live with my students. We get to know each other so much better when we learn, work, clean, play, and worship together. You know you love what you do when you get up early because you are eager to read what your students have written or to plan a new course for the next semester.
Looking back, it’s clear that Holden has also been key in terms of my growth in the Christian faith. I spent the better part of two years working at Holden after I graduated from college. As I look back, I’m sure it was a combination of daily worship, quality liturgy, intentional community, and careful study that contributed so much to my spiritual formation. Given that I am now a college professor, it’s probably not surprising that a pivotal moment in my faith development took place while I spent 10 weeks studying John Howard Yoder’s now classic work in Christian ethics, The Politics of Jesus. It is this transformative potential of education that continues to excite and humble me.
I am not a big fan of the notion of providence (due to the persistence of evil), but I do look back on my life and feel that God gently closed some doors and opened others at key points. When I graduated from college I was all set to work for John Deere, as both of my parents and brothers had done, but the recession in 1981 resulted in a hiring freeze and so that door was closed. Instead I came to Holden and my life has never been the same.
Looking back, I realize that I discerned my vocation by living in community and listening to the advice of my mentors (college and seminary professors) and friends. The person who has best helped me sustain my vocation, however, is my wife, Karen. She has been a constant source of support and encouragement. We truly feel that, together, we are better able (in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words) to “say ‘Yes’ to God’s earth.”
My only advice to others is to listen to others and to trust your instincts. I agree with Parker Palmer that we may best find our calling where the world’s needs intersect with our passions.