I once heard the rector of my church in Pasadena quote Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation in a sermon. Vocation, Buechner says, is the place where the world’s greatest need and a person’s greatest joy meet. Although selfless struggle is seductive, doing the work the world needs—fighting poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism, environmental destruction—is only half of the equation. The work that is yours must also bring you joy.
The word "vocation" comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means "to call." Vocation as "calling" has dominated how it is understood in religious contexts. For many who are considering being ordained, the idea of call is something literal: The voice of God speaks, directing the listener to a life of ministry. For others, the idea of call is figurative: It might come as a feeling, a kind of knowing, a crazy idea that won’t leave, a sense that this is the work they are meant to do in the world. Sometimes call is understood as the pattern that emerges in a string of events. Other times the voices calling belong to friends and family or to the words on the pages of a book.
The Bible is filled with stories about people who hear the voice of God calling them to a certain kind of work. The plot of most biblical call stories is fairly standard: Someone hears the voice of God; rejects the idea that he or she is the right person for the job by listing all the ways she or he is not up to the task; tries to avoid God’s call by running away (remember Jonah?); and, eventually, answers the call, doing what God demands that he or she do. Most often, God calls people by saying their names. "Abraham," God says, and Abraham—or Amos or Isaiah or Sarah—answers, "Here I am." The Hebrew word for "Here I am," hineini, can be translated as "ready." God’s prophets answer God’s call by saying ready, even before they know what they will be asked to do.
For many Christian denominations, believing that you have been called is a central requirement for getting ordained. Whether you believe your call came as the voice of God or as a feeling inside of you, you have to be able to tell your story to others in a way that reveals you have indeed been called to be a minister. The task of the budding minister is to persuade a committee or a priest or a pastor not only that she wants to be ordained but that God intends for her to be ordained.
Call sets ministry apart from all other vocations, constructs being a priest or a pastor as radically different than being a plumber or a teacher or a lawyer. I believe that we are all called to something, that Buechner’s idea of vocation is open to everyone, that we all ought to have the freedom to find that place where our deepest joy and the world’s greatest need meet. But doctors and architects don’t have to prove they have found that place. Ministers do. Even though most of the women I interviewed questioned the category "call," it remained central to the language they used to tell me when they knew they wanted to be ordained. And this language served them more than it got in their way. Claiming your call is an empowering thing to do when other people are telling you that you cannot be a minister because you are gay, or female, or Black, or too political, or too young, or too whatever is outside the dominant version of "minister." Women denied access to ordination—either by their denominations or by individual people in authority—have used their sense of call to sustain them in the struggle. The knowledge that they have been called by God gives them strength to resist oppression, furnishes them with the clarity needed to fight for their vocation and for their rights.
The central idea of Protestantism—that each human being has access to God, unmediated by an institutional hierarchy—has worked in women’s favor. Claims of direct communication grant women authority even when their denominations refuse to. Women have understood themselves as ordained by God, if not by the institutional church, and this knowledge has empowered them. At the same time, women’s assertions have exposed a fundamental inconsistency in Protestantism: the theological conviction that all human beings are equal before God and the simultaneous belief that some human beings (men, Whites, straight, propertied) are better than others (women, people of color, homosexuals, poor). The professed equality of all human beings has not translated into actual equality.
Many of the women I interviewed knew from a very early age that they wanted to be ministers. Although we sometimes like to believe that they don’t, and even hope that they aren’t, children pay attention in church and in Sunday school. Most of the women I interviewed attended church as children. They loved church. Some went to church alone, without their parents or siblings. Some worried that when something bad happened to someone they loved it was because they didn’t pray hard enough or long enough or because they fell asleep before they finished their prayers. Some held secret communion services in their bedrooms and tree houses, pressing Wonder bread flat between their hands and drinking juice. Some cried, not because they didn’t get asked to a dance but because their churches wouldn’t let girls be acolytes. When they were teenagers, some went to church on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. They listened to sermons, fell in love with liturgy, whispered memorized prayers in their rooms, asked important questions a few adults were brave enough to admit they didn’t know the answers to. They craved ritual. They sensed hypocrisy, understood the difference between what happened on Sunday mornings and what happened during the rest of the week, or even what happened in the parking lot right after church. They noticed when they were asked to participate, when they were given responsibility, when someone cared that they were there.
Although many women knew from a young age that they wanted to be ministers, most did not know any female ministers, making it hard for them to imagine themselves as ministers. Because either they did not know any female ministers or they did not know women could be ministers at all, their feeling that they wanted to be ordained sometimes made them feel crazy.
Most of the women I interviewed remember the first time they saw an ordained woman and how this vision opened up their sense of vocation. Jamie Washam, an American Baptist pastor in Milwaukee, grew up Southern Baptist in Texas and didn’t see any female pastors. The women she did see in church, women who were shut out of most leadership positions even though they practically ran the church, didn’t look like her. "Zipper Bibles, elastic pants, big ol’ white sneakers, what would jesus do bracelets," she said. "I mean, that’s not what I look like."
It might at first seem shallow, the idea that somehow you need to see someone who looks like you, even dresses like you, to be able to imagine yourself doing a certain job, but seeing a minister who looked like them or talked like them or had theology like them signaled to these women that there was a place for them in the church. It was a kind of welcome, and it was only when they felt this welcome that they realized how shut out they had been feeling. When you belong to a group that religions hate and ostracize—or just ignore—you have to be able to imagine what you have not yet seen or heard. This is holy work.