Friday, June 20, 2008

Stigma Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

I had an interesting experience at Olive Garden a week ago. I went to greet a table and was delighted to see that it was a former faculty member at Steinbach Bible College, a good man, who was now in a pastoral position. We chatted and caught up and all was well. He asked me about my future plans and I told him that I was beginning my counseling career but had decided to keep up waitering for the summer to pay the bills. "Hey, that's what you said last time I came in," he said. Just the way he said it seemed to connote something I have often felt from other ministry type people - basically the idea that waitering (or other "menial" work) is in some way a sub-par job choice that I should get out of as soon as possible (before I get stuck in it). The funny thing is that I recognize this prejudice because I used to share it.

Back when I was a youth pastor and camp director I would watch as fellow ministry professionals would leave behind their ministries for some totally unrelated job, often a humble one. One former camp director managed a luxury property. Another became a carpenter. A youth pastor told me he wanted to work at McDonalds. I often subtly looked down on these people, thinking that either they couldn't cut in it ministry or feeling sad that they had abandoned their "sacred calling." I'm ashamed to say it, but that's what I thought.

Imagine then my surprise when I decided to go back to school and realized that I needed to make some money to keep my family afloat. Since I couldn't take on a job that had too much responsibility I was forced to something more menial: waitering. It took me a long time to get over my own stigma against myself and to truly become comfortable with a non-professional job. That it is not so much what I do, but who I am as a person. A man (or woman) is not their job and God will not love them more or less if they are in ministry or mow lawns/pump gas/wait on tables. Waitering can be fun, fulfilling, and is rarely boring or overwhelming. I'm comfortable with the fact that at this point in my life I'm a waiter and it amuses me when other people (especially those in the ministry business) sometimes feel awkward with that. Yet I can't fault them as it was not too long ago that I shared the same thoughts and prejudices.

Men are especially bad at getting their identity from their jobs/careers. I'm reminded about Henry Nouwen, a Catholic priest, popular professor (Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame), and author who at the crux of his "success" decided that to preserve his own soul and rediscover God he needed to leave it all behind. He joined a L'Arche Community in Toronto and spent the next years of his life serving and living with mentally handicapped people. If you want to check out his story read "In The Name of Jesus," a short book about what he learned through this experience. When Nouwen left his old life behind he too struggled with who he was now that he wasn't an important leader and professor in the Catholic Church. Eventually he came to the same conclusions I have - Jesus cares a lot more about how you serve Him then the job you do. I will never look down on someone who decided not to forgo full time ministry and transition to something else, even something of humble means. There are so many noble and good reasons to and I do not want to pass judgment on any of them. Hopefully neither will you. And if you are in ministry and think you need to get out, hopefully you will have the courage to do so - no matter what you or others think about it. A stigma only has power if you choose to believe it.

May Light increase!

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