by Layton Williams
Back in the ’90s, there was a Taco Bell commercial in which their chihuahua mascot is trying to trap Godzilla into a box with a tasty taco as bait. “Here lizard, lizard, lizard,” the chihuahua calls. And then, when the monstrous Godzilla comes into view, dwarfing both dog and trap, the dog says, “Uh oh, I think I need a bigger box.”
When it comes to our understanding of what ministry can be: I think we need a bigger box.
When I was five years old, I intended to be a waitress who also owned the restaurant where I worked and would live above it. I was going to be a writer in my spare time, and a pastor on Sundays. This early dream reveals several significant facts about me:
- I have always seen ministry (and writing) as part of my future.
- I have always dreamed in expansive and unexpected ways.
- I grew up thinking ministry only happens in churches and on Sundays.
I can’t really blame myself for this last one. We all carry around a certain image of “pastor.” Too often male, collared or wearing a big, billowing robe and stole, who smiles warmly at you on Sunday mornings and climbs up into the pulpit to preach a good word.
Of course, anyone who really gets involved in a church ought to know that church ministry is far more than a Sunday morning job, and church pastors do far more than smile and shake hands and preach. It’s important to recognize that parish ministry is much more than that. It’s equally important to realize that ministry is much more than just the parish, and that is a lesson I think the church is still learning.
When I was in seminary, I used to say that I thought I was called to something I couldn’t yet imagine. Over my three years in school, I imagined my ministry in a hundred different ways, ranging from starting a coffee shop to getting a PhD to advocacy work. Still, at the encouragement of others, I took a position in a parish setting upon graduation. During my two years in that church ministry, I learned a great deal about both the beauty and challenges of parish work. I came to love both the people I worked with and the people I served. I was ordained to that position, and committed myself to a life of ministry in service to God and God’s people.
But when my time at that church drew to a close last summer, I knew with greater certainty than ever that I was called to a different kind of work. I was feeling more and more pulled to the intersection of religion and politics. I was spending a great deal of my time writing about issues of justice and faith. I still couldn’t quite imagine what my future should look like, but I was determined to trust God and take a leap.
Last fall I moved to Washington D.C. with a little bit of savings, a lot of hope, and no job. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be in a church. Friends and strangers alike balked at this decision to not even consider the parish, and I often worried that I was betraying the ordination promises I had so recently made.
Then, when my savings and hope had all but run out, I was offered a job by Sojourners, a Christian social justice magazine, website, and advocacy organization. I had written for them before and joining their staff felt like achieving a dream I didn’t know I had. I became their Audience Engagement Associate — essentially a Sojourners evangelist — and was thrust into the complex world of being both pastor and journalist.
It has been a whirlwind ever since. In truth, I often still fear what others think of my choice and whether I have failed to uphold my commitment to my ordination. And yet, I feel more fulfilled and more called to my work than I even thought possible. I am exploring God at work in this world through people and writing and faith and politics and it is, absolutely, a ministry I could not have imagined before and now could not imagine my life without.
I have always known that God is at work everywhere in this world in beautiful and unexpected ways, and now I know that sometimes She calls us to be at work in beautiful and unexpected ways too.
As a church, we need to cultivate and embrace a broader understanding of what ministry can be, and then ask how we can best support those engaged in these nontraditional vocations. Too often, even when we support such ministries, we can treat them like add-ons or somehow less valid ways of serving than the parish role.
The blog series that NEXT Church will publish this month is full of diverse stories of committed ministers serving God in a multitude of beautiful and unexpected ways. There are chaplains and PhD students, and entrepreneurs and publishers. Reading these stories has stretched and inspired me, and made me excited for the church and the future of ministry. I hope these stories stretch and inspire you as well.
As for me, it turns out I am a writer and a minister, still known to occasionally preach on Sundays. So maybe my five year old self had something figured out with all that expansive dreaming. Maybe ministry does need a bigger box, or maybe when it comes to how God calls us, we don’t need a box at all.
Layton E. Williams is an ordained PCUSA teaching elder currently serving as the Audience Engagement Associate for Sojourners in Washington D.C.. Her work combines data analysis, creative communications, new media strategy, and relationship building to grow the Sojourners community in both breadth and depth. She is also a writer, focusing on intersections of faith, justice, politics, and culture with an emphasis on sexuality and gender. She previously served as Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and received her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.