Ministry on the “Outside”

Post Author: Lisa Marchal

I had finished 5 years of part-time staff work, 7 years of full-time pastoral work, and a year of schooling and interning in human rights/justice work. I was taking what we in The United Methodist Church call an extension ministry position, the kind of description the Book of Discipline assigns you when you’re appointed to a ministry like hospital chaplaincy or judicatory leadership.  Or, like me, community organizing for an international advocacy organization.

“Well, we’ll miss you in ministry.”  What I didn’t realize was how much I would love the changes – and how much I would miss, too.

When I finish telling people about my work, 50% of the time the next question is still “What church do you serve?”  This shouldn’t surprise me; I once had a church leader ask me if community organizing gave me enough to do to fill my day.  If only I hadn’t needed to stick around the for the rest of that meeting – I could have used the time getting a handle on the 10-hour day I was bound to have yet again.  People sometimes assume I’m no longer ordained.  But happily, it’s not uncommon for people to express appreciation for my role as a church leader out in the world, which gives me great pleasure, as this feels like one of the best ways I can serve the wider Church.  I’m extraordinarily proud to be a clergywoman seeking to set a new moral compass that proclaims that having roughly 25,000 children under the age of 5 die every day of preventable, poverty-driven causes is not o.k.

But after several days straight of working alone in a home office on a laptop in an old t-shirt, remembering with a twinge how it felt to wear smart knit skirts and have my own office and be a non-anxious presence in someone’s big life moment . . . I struggle with a sense of diminishment, for myself and for my calling.

Oh, but did I mention how much I love that worship at a church of my choice is optional for me each and every Sunday?  It makes providing occasional pulpit supply, or being asked to lead a Sunday school class, or serving on a church committee that much richer because I am doing it, not just from the moderate depth of my experience, but also purely voluntarily.  It is wonderful to help and not to have to be the last one out of the building. But then boy, did it feel good to put on my robe and stole that week I was asked to help the pastors and co-preside at communion . . .

You see, that’s the “follow-the-bouncing-ball sensation” of being in ministry outside the local church setting . . . it’s a constant flux between freedom and being an outsider.  Sometimes, I would throw my arms open in an instant to the beautiful, frustrating constraint that comes with serving a congregation.  I miss my old confidence.  It was growing stronger in the local church.  Now, it falters daily in a vocational setting that, at its core, is for people who are computer-savvy and are fluent in policy wonkiness.  I miss the collegiality found only at yet another mandatory clergy meeting held in a musty church basement with pastries and cheap coffee on hand.   I worry that I’m going to be too rusty at the basics when God taps me on the shoulder and tells me it’s time to go back to parish life.

But in the meantime, what sweet release to be more of an everywoman, representing the Church in a still-too-unorthodox way, blending in with the crowd, until I wish to reveal not just what my work is, but for Whom I work.


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