“Voices for Vocational Accompaniment: Leading, Mentoring, and Learning From the Next Generation”

For communities across the United States, 2020 was quite the year. The global COVID-19 pandemic raged. Racial justice uprisings called attention to police and state violence following the murder of George Floyd. Our political landscape became increasingly polarized and fraught. All this together leaves little doubt that history books will be processing for many years to come the experiences we are living through now.

Against the chaotic backdrop of a world made undone, we as Christians are called to be messengers of radical hope. Ours is a resurrection hope that can see possibility where others see insurmountable challenge, to see new life where others see death. I believe in my core that the Gospel invites us into a place of imagination as active participants in God’s larger work of justice and reconciliation.

The hard work of this moment is to create space to become quiet enough to discern how God is uniquely calling you to respond in this season.

In 2015, my friend Nicholas Hayes and I created and piloted a resource dedicated to helping young people leverage their life story as a roadmap for vocational discernment. To us, vocation is not synonymous with a job or role. Vocation, in our understanding, is a matter of articulating your prophetic purpose in your own words.

Voices for Vocational Accompaniment

In today’s lingo, “prophecy” is often associated with predicting the future. But in the biblical tradition, a prophet is someone uniquely attuned to the present, one who reads the signs of the times. More specifically, the prophet gives voice to the tension between the world as it is now and the world as God dreams it to be. A prophet clearly sees and feels the brokenness — the injustice — of the world as it is. But a prophet also keeps faith in the potential for the world to be healed and transformed by the coming of God’s justice. Anger and grief, on the one hand, and passionate hope, on the other, are the two sides of prophecy.

Each of us has a prophetic vocation. We are called collectively to live in spaces of grief and hope, so that we might become partners in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. Yet each of us also has a unique role to play. To find it, we must read the signs of the times for ourselves and discern where the Spirit most moves each of us to act. What specific part of the world’s brokenness most speaks to you? To your own passions, griefs, hopes? Where do you feel most called to do the work of justice?

A key insight we gleaned as we piloted this project with young adults is this: While one’s job or role can change, their prophetic purpose often remains consistent over the course of a lifetime. Discovering our prophetic purpose anchors us in our ability to reflect and understand our own story and the stories of the people, places, and communities that have helped shape us along the way.

The Bible is full of famous prophetic call stories, from the uncertainty and reluctance of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-19) to the supernatural splendor of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8). Most often these narratives involve the prophet hearing the audible voice of God and being directly commissioned into service. Sometimes our prophetic purpose is revealed through these obviously spiritual experiences, like those recounted by the biblical prophets. But more often, it comes from the powerful, everyday experiences that “wake us up” to the brokenness of the world. One way, then, to understand our prophetic purpose is to look at the ways God calls us in those moments of awakening and respond to that call through the choices we make.

As you begin to explore your prophetic purpose through the moments that shaped and still shape you, here are a few questions that might be helpful:

  1. When was your first experience of injustice? How did the experience change your worldview?
  2. Describe a moment, recent or long past, when you witnessed an act of injustice that broke your heart. How did you respond to your anger?
  3. When was a time you believed you could make a difference on the issue that broke your heart? What actions did you take? How did you know God or others were with you?

When we take the time to examine these transformative moments of call and response that have inspired us, we see themes emerge. Perhaps you have always had a passion for caring for God’s creation, or for offering radical hospitality to strangers. Maybe you have always had a tendency to speak up for those denied a voice in certain halls of power. Whatever it is, know that God is with you and will never leave or forsake you.

Finally, a word on roles. In my own ministerial journey, I find that making the distinction between prophetic purpose and role is incredibly important — even liberating. Societal norms tie our sense of call to the jobs we hold. As a result, we allow our self-worth to be wrapped up in our ability to be productive in these positions. Some of us will be blessed to have these two things — our job and our prophetic purpose — align for a season. But in my lived experience, there are few things that are as certain as change. As we progress through the life cycle, our responsibilities and those to whom we are accountable will necessarily transition. Parental figures age. Our health status changes. We may choose to partner, raise children, or not. These life cycle shifts do not mean we need to abandon our prophetic purpose, but rather assess and discern how our purpose might be called to manifest differently in each new season. You might be called to the front lines of protest now, and into more of a support role later in life. It’s all okay.

One of the beautiful things about being a Christian is the constant reminder that it is not up to us alone to solve the great challenges of our time. Rather — as we seek our prophetic purpose amid the pandemics of virus, injustice, and political division — we might take solace in these words, often falsely attributed to the great freedom fighter Archbishop Oscar Romero:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

[From a 1979 homily written for Cardinal John Dearden by the Rev. Kenneth Untener; quoted by Pope Francis in 2015]

May it be so. Amen.

From “Voices for Vocational Accompaniment: Leading, Mentoring, and Learning From the Next Generation” edited by Patrick B. Reyes. Copyright © 2021 by the Forum for Theological Exploration. Used by permission of the Forum for Theological Exploration.

For the third time in as many weeks, I opened my email today to find a message from someone questioning their faith and the validity of church. Typically, these questioners desire a religious practice that encompasses more than believing the “right” things and are not sure there’s a place for them at the table of American Christianity.

I have lost count of the emails I’ve received and conversations I’ve had during the past year with people who have found their way (virtually) to my church. These folks are largely representative of the “nones and dones” demographic; many have had prior experience with Christianity but have left the church because of bad experiences.

I’ve observed that many people in this group are drawn to a loving, spiritually connected community where they feel safe, seen and welcomed — they just aren’t sure how to find it.

In one recent conversation, for example, someone explained that it had been important for their mental, spiritual and emotional health to step back from organized religion. But after a while, they’d found themselves searching online for something with which they could authentically engage spiritually. They just weren’t sure what it would be or how it would look.

Some of these folks have found us. We have welcomed roughly two dozen new members over the last year — a significant increase from the previous year. Many were returning to a faith community after time away to heal from religious trauma.

As COVID restrictions ease, we hope that our pandemic innovations will continue to attract and retain more of these folks.

When church leaders talk about this — reaching the nones and dones — they often do so with an underlying desire to rope people back into a church community that had little to offer them in the first place.

But these folks don’t want to return to a place that emphasizes right belief over right practice, that values knowing what to believe over how to believe, that favors fitting in over pushing boundaries with Spirit-filled ideas.

What do they want? In my exchanges with those from the nones and dones demographic that have found us, they generally emphasize two things: being accepted wherever they are on their faith journeys (especially when they’re not sure they believe anything at all) and being part of a faith community that seeks to center marginalized voices.

We are living in a time when authoritarian, systemic structures of all kinds are being confronted and dismantled. The church is no exception, nor should it be.

As painful and unlikely as it was, the pandemic forced us to do things that perhaps we didn’t want to do — or otherwise wouldn’t do — but were a conduit to new ways of being church.

As I help pastor my church in this direction, we are guided by a few core principles, which I think are at the heart of who we are. These principles are now being translated into what we’re calling our online/on-site community, but they were in our DNA long before we began exploring what it means to be a hybrid congregation.

The first is that we retain our identity as a community that welcomes into full participation those who are on the margins. During the height of the pandemic in New York City, this meant getting creative with helping folks access technology.

We chose Zoom as our platform for worship because it allowed the live, vibrant interaction our community is known for, but we also made other channels available, including Facebook livestreaming and audio-only call-in access.

We had an on-call troubleshooting team on Sunday mornings to help ensure that people could connect, and a few leaders even went so far as to (safely!) set up donated devices in person for people who needed extra help.

This commitment to live, vibrant Zoom worship required extensive preparation, but it allowed us to draw many and diverse voices into worship leadership.

As we now prepare to have more people in our building, we are continuing to prioritize the experience of those who won’t be able to join us in person, to maintain and grow the connections that have developed over the past year.

At this point in our journey, each worship service includes leaders that are both on-site and online. We continue to have preachers off-site, and we encourage on-site interaction with our online attendees, who are still the majority of worshippers. Our on-site congregation is getting used to having an in-person Zoom experience!

A second guiding principle is that we empower people to discern and share their gifts.

This is a pre-pandemic practice that took on new life as we engaged folks from around the world. When people want to try things, we err on the side of saying yes.

Our new virtual medium enables people to share their gifts in many forms. Over the course of the past year, for example, we have offered daily meditation groups, weekly fitness classes, spiritual self-care retreats, an LGBTQIA+ support group, and music- and performance-driven coffeehouses.

People who are interested in reengaging their spirituality but are uncomfortable walking into a worship service (virtual or in-person) find many and varied opportunities for exploration. And these folks in turn have often joined the community and come up with beautifully creative ways to share what they have to offer.

Our LGBTQIA+ group, LOVE, is just such an example. It’s co-led by a member who joined in the past year and does not identify as Christian — someone who was drawn to our community for the ways we support one another and put our belief into action in the world. As a queer woman, she wanted to give back by supporting the LGBTQIA+ community; she began co-leading this weekly group at the beginning of the year.

A third core principle is that we practice traditioned innovation — staying rooted in our history while constantly evaluating what we are doing to see what needs changing or reinventing.

Our welcome team is one such area, and something we are still in the process of reinventing. When we lost the ability to greet people in person, to gather as a team and write welcome cards each month, to share in-person coffee hours and membership classes, the team floundered a bit.

We’ve worked through ideas including welcome team breakout rooms, digital and analog outreach, and translating our physical welcome card to a virtual format. Although we have new people visiting us virtually in consistent numbers, we are still exploring ways to capture this information effectively.

Another area — informed by our rabble-rousing history — is our connection to the broader LGBTQIA+ community. Pride Sunday is a huge day for us every year. The NYC Pride March goes by the church, which has always been open during the event to extend hospitality.

COVID complicated things this year, as we had not yet fully reopened our building for members and friends. Yet we made the decision to open our doors — safely and with proper masking and distancing protocols — to welcome anyone who needed a bathroom, water or a place to cool off.

In the spirit of continued innovation, we also planned a virtual Pride celebration, with music, performance, art and opportunities for activism in support of trans rights.

parade
Participants in the NYC Pride March walk past The Church of the Village.

The final guiding principle comes via wisdom from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

For those who are willing to accept an invitation into new ways of being, prompted by the disruption of the pandemic, we must continue to move forward into the unknown.

We must be guided not by our former ways of doing things but by the new ways the Spirit is stirring within our souls — individually and collectively.

Our community has a rich history of innovation and openness to where the Spirit leads. We stand in a tradition of rabble rousers and justice seekers and people who love to ask, “Who are we missing, and what do they need?”

As we anticipate emerging from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to leverage a year of forced innovation to be church in a way that attracts people who really are done with religion.

What I’ve heard from those in the nones and dones demographic this past year is that they’re not even sure what they need — except to heal from past religious hurts and to take things slowly. And they keep coming back, because our community is a place where that feels possible.