The (Step)Ladder to Glory

This reflection comes from Rev. Will Ryan. I never thought I had outsized expectations of […]

This reflection comes from Rev. Will Ryan.

I never thought I had outsized expectations of how my career would go, but I certainly did have expectations. Once I got through the first year of seminary—which admittedly was an eye-opener to this guy who thought he could turn in rough drafts and get A’s (spoiler alert: I did not)—I began to see what my life as a minister would be. That vision came to look something like a ladder to glory.

And if I were honest, I didn’t want a ladder. I wanted an escalator, a nice smooth ride from the food court where I wolfed down Panda Express, up to Banana Republic and J. Crew. You know, the good stores, the good life. Who doesn’t want an escalator? But I’d settle for a ladder.

Rung 1: Secure a position at a church during seminary. This will give me experience to put on the résumé. Sure I’ll sit and pray with families during surgeries and illnesses, preach the word of God on occasion, lead youth group and mission trips yearly, direct church camp (WOOHOO!!!!), and do “other duties as assigned,” but a good church, one of those people want to serve, won’t hire me right out of school without some type of experience. Gotta get a job at a church, so I did. Rung achieved.

Rung 2: Over-perform at school so that you’re singled out for awards. This will not only give me little lines to add to the résumé but will open up avenues of universal acclaim. And if the old ego is stroked, so be it. It doesn’t matter what award—preaching, pastoral care, ministry, New Testament—I just need to win at least one during the Spring Awards ceremony, preferably two. This one didn’t happen, but I did serve as the Student Government President and received praise from fellow students and professors. Rung achieved, albeit in a different way than I’d thought.

Rung 3: Work as an associate at a “large” church. Large is relative in my denomination, but if you do well as the second-in-command, other churches will come calling. Other churches with high steeples, deep pockets, and long histories of doing good work. The work I do as an associate? Secondary to what this job will lead to. I know, I might actually like my boss, the congregation, the town, but it’s just a stepping stone. There are more rungs to go. Rung achieved. (Even in my home state!)

Rung 4: Glory, aka senior minister at a prestigious church where I will have power. Rung unachieved.

So maybe I viewed it more as a step-ladder than an extension one. Either way, I didn’t get to the top. Glory, at least in these terms, was and is unachieved.

What happened? Well, somewhere along the way I met this woman. We became friends, dated, engaged, and married. She also happened to be on track for ordained ministry. Somewhere along the way I became one half of a clergy couple. Career paths become entangled, and priorities shift. After rung 3, we made a prayerful decision to follow her call and move to a new location. This was a mutual decision, one I was happy to make.

We both thought I’d find a job easily in our new location. I’m a straight, white, educated male (i.e., all the privilege in the world). Who wouldn’t hire this guy? Surely God would understand the sacrifice I made and reward me appropriately. That’s how God works, right?

There were nibbles. Positions within and without the church opened up. Denominational jobs. Academic jobs. Non-profit jobs. Good jobs I would have been proud to serve in, jobs that might even help me when the time was right to jump back on that ladder. I got some interviews, less than I would have liked, but they didn’t amount to much. I was still on the outside looking in. All the steps I’d taken up the ladder were slowly fading before my eyes.

It would be easy to say that I took it in stride, that I chalked it up to the mystery of the divine. I didn’t, though. Every day not on that ladder became a judgment of my self-worth. I had preached before about identity being in God’s hands, not wrapped up in what we do, but I hadn’t listened to myself. If every day was a judgment, I was continually found wanting.

These days you can find me peddling God’s grace at a couple of small churches. Somewhere between all those job interviews, my regional minister clued me into a small country church that needed a preacher. We met, with mutual interest, and I started preaching.

Then my R.M. told me about another church, about 20 minutes away from the one where I was preaching, whose minister was retiring. They were interested in sharing me as their minister. I assented to talking with this other church. We met, with mutual interest, and I start there this Sunday.

By all accounts, I should be satisfied. I’m entrusted with two pulpits from which I get the privilege of preaching God’s word week after week. I am tasked with shepherding these good people and helping them steward the gift they’ve been given as the Body of Christ. It’s an awe-inspiring and holy responsibility.

But the eye wanders, and mine wanders towards that ladder. Maybe I can turn these responsibilities into something else. Maybe they are another version of rung 3, a different and better version, one where I’m #1, not #2! I can still get to glory. I know I can.

I know it’s wrong. I know I’ve bought into careerism and a theology antithetical both to the Cross and to what it means to be a leader in God’s church. But as Paul says to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” It’s a struggle not to see everything as an opportunity to hop back on that ladder to glory. At least it is for me.

Of course, Sunday is a-coming, and it’ll find me once again stepping into a pulpit trying to communicate the good news. More importantly, I’ll find myself once again standing at Christ’s table hearing it. I’ll hear a story of a body given and of blood shed. All for the forgiveness of sin, even mine.