To Do Or Not To Do


Post Author: Kathryn Lester


“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

“What do you do?” Oh, how quickly this questions bubbles to the top in initial social interactions. The question might arrive in a tone of real or feigned curiosity, but make no mistake: in our social line-up of introductory questions, you do have to account for what you do.

So, what is my name? What do I do exactly? Well, I am Kathryn Pidcock Lester.  I am a youth director, I do youth ministry. I am a person who is certified ready to receive a call in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  And yet, I am not ordained as an official clergy person.

I deeply appreciate my job. Right now, I work alongside eager teenagers, faithful adults, and a supportive congregation. Two years ago, as I was job searching, I chose this job and I still know that I made the right choice. Here I receive support and space to grow as a professional church worker. There is much to love.

And yet…I am also very ready to become an ordained pastor. When I took this job, I was told they hoped it might become ordained. However, after the pastor left—two days before I started—the conversation of adding another clergy person to the staff was understandably and rightfully tabled.

So, now, I do the work of my job description with a mixture of joy and frustration, for, try as I might, I cannot suppress all the energy and hopes for ordained ministry that took root in seminary and a year-long CPE residency. I chafe against the limitations of what is, what is possible, and, maybe, just maybe, if given the chance, what could be

I believe that I am doing valuable work. I wholeheartedly affirm that ordination isn’t necessary for a person to do holy ministry.

Yet, I also believe in my call to ordained ministry and right now, when someone asks what I do, I hesitate. After all, I am expected to respond with a single-word to describe my occupation, or at least a single-phrase. I’m not generally expected to give you an account of my background, sense of vocation, education, and call story. Whoops.

As this chapter of life goes on, when someone asks for my occupation, I don’t want to respond with two words. I want to tell a story.

In our society, we don’t practice telling stories. Until we sit down for a job interview or a practical theology reflection paper on some obscurely embarrassing topic, we are rarely asked to describe how our life came to be what it is or where we hope it goes. When do we ever ask for someone’s story upon first introduction at a social gathering? Instead, so often we ask who someone is and what he or she does, all in the same sentence. Then, we move on to the good stuff. Like our beeping cell phone. Or the appetizers.

True, settling in for a very full story isn’t always the most appealing way to spend a happy hour.  Also, I don’t want to build the case that we should all stand around, hoisting our profound and extensive experiences of God on each other. That is what seminary precepts are for.

Yet, why should we not dig deeper and cast our vision wider when asking ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’

Right now, so often, something is missing from the conversation. Something is missing when we collapse our ministry into a few words. Something is missing when we move from name to occupation and skip over any sense that we are creatures of a Maker, who is acting in the world through our selves who are—at this moment–participating in the embodied work and movement of the Holy Spirit.

God has named and claimed us.

If we truly believe this, then surely we can create more conversational space for the richness and beauty that one person’s particularity breathes into this world? If God has taken on human form in Jesus Christ and we hold up the gospels to tell that story in many different ways, why do I hesitate even to ask my friend a little more about her day? “Truly, how was your day? Is this place right for you? Are you fulfilled? What did you do that gave you joy? What did you do that scared the crap out of you?”

I don’t do this enough. Instead, I ask the same questions and hear myself give the same answer, “Oh, I’m a youth director”; and then I wrestle with wanting to relay that I do more than navigate a cruise ship of programs through the tidewaters of emails, signup geniuses, icebreaker games, calendaring conflicts, and bored teenagers.

So how do we go beyond conversations that ask us to drop “hash-tags” on the complexity of our vocation?

Perhaps, conversationally, we must give up the idea that our “occupation” is the thing that pays the bills.

This can be hard to understand. Indeed, I hesitate to write it, since so many people are under-employed or unemployed. As people struggle with what it means—as a financial provider, person of worth, and, indeed, as a human being—not to earn enough to cover cost of living, it is painful to claim that: “my paying work is not who I am.”

It is particularly scary to try to understand this as a pastor, especially in denominations like mine, the PCUSA, where our “call” as clergy so often is supposed to be about who God names us to be—and which job is supposed to make ends meet.

Yet, I believe that this is a point we must make: We must begin to believe that our occupation is separate from the thing that goes on our census form. As we negotiate these questions, we must believe that Being and Doing and Earning Money are different things.

Let us ask different questions about who someone is. Let us listen for different responses.

Let us grab this phrase “what we do” and run with it. Let’s stretch it out until it covers every aspect of our life, tugging it around the scud work and the passions, blanketing the needs, the longings, and the satisfying fruits of our labors. Let’s stretch this idea of our doing until it is loses tension and simply drapes comfortably over every hill and valley of our life, wherever those places might fall, whatever pay grade they receive.

And then we can step back, look at our whole life, and tell our whole story.

I hereby promise that, the next time some poor friendly inquisitor asks, What do you do?, I will take a deep breath and try to remember that my response has nothing to do with what I do to pay the bills.

My response has everything to do with who God is and who God claims me to be.

So, may we all practice responding, without hesitation or self-effacement, speaking with the voices of saints from every time and place, “I do ministry. Let me tell you the story…”

Kathryn Lester, Director of Youth Ministries, Child of God, Requirer of Grace, lover of photography, long walks, movies, ancient prayers, and teenage exuberance, graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is a person living and working and paying the bills in Durham, NC.

Photo © by Navy Blue Stripes, http://www.flickr.com/photos/navybluestripes/4503265017/, April 2, 2010.  Used by Creative Common License.


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