It has been more than a dozen years ago now, but I remember it quite vividly even today. It was late fall in my final year of seminary and the diocesan deployment officer came to town. At my seminary, there were six of us from the same diocese getting ready to graduate. I was the youngest by at least 20 years. I was the only person not already drawing a pension from somewhere else or independently wealthy from some other means. This meant, that while all of us would have liked full-time employment in the church, I was the only person who couldn’t live without it. The deployment officer got the rest of the guys started on their profiles (we were all dudes), and then he said to me, “Steve, you’re young [he didn’t add white, straight, and married, but I heard it] and you probably plan to be a bishop or cathedral dean someday, so here’s how your career should go.” He then told me how I would lily pad my way to “success” in the church.
As he spoke, my heart began to pitter-patter, my head began to swell, and my competitiveness began to engage. “Yes! Of course I want all of these things,” I thought to myself. It was in that moment that Mrs. Sekel’s voice rang through my head. Mrs. Sekel is the mother of my childhood best friend. She’d known me since I was six or seven years old, and she served on my congregational discernment committee. At one point in the process, we were talking about what it meant to become a priest at such an early age, and how my life goals were going to have to change. As a business administration major in college, my stated goal, awful as it may have been, was to crush fingers on the corporate ladder, and Mrs. Sekel, who was often quiet, but always discerning, asked me, “Steve, isn’t the church just a smaller latter to climb?” Her words exploded again in my mind as I listened to the deployment officer’s motivational speech, and I realized that I was going to have to be very careful in discerning call in my vocation and not career advancement in my job.
In his letter to the Colossian Church, Paul implores the Christians there to “put to death whatever in them is earthly.” It is advice that is well heard by every succeeding generation of believers. It is advice that is well heard by the Church as well. It isn’t just in the hearts of individuals that earthly things live, but they are alive and well in the systems that we human beings create. Clergy who are working on a career arc rather than focused on where God is calling them and the all-too-easily laughed off notion that “the Holy Spirit never calls someone to a smaller church or less money” is emblematic of larger systemic sins that are at play. Racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, among others, are systemic issues in the Church because the earthly things of bigotry, fear, and anger live in the hearts of her members, her leaders, and her clergy. We have, as Paul notes, held parts of ourselves back from the new creation that God has inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Changing these systemic sins begins by repentance in our own lives. We change the Church and change the world only when we are willing to allow God to change us, every part of us, by first putting to death everything that is in us that is earthly.