Wild and Not Remotely Straightforward (reflections on vocation for UGA’s Presbyterian Student Center)

* This speech was given at the graduation ceremony for students participating in the Waddel Fellowship at the University of Georgia’s Presbyterian Student Center, on April 26, 2019

Will told me I’m supposed to speak to you about vocation. I ‘m going to start with a confession: I am 32 years old, and I have a lot of questions about my vocation and my future. In fact, I feel a little unqualified standing up before a room of soon to be college graduates and speaking wisdom about something I am still not entirely sure about. When I was graduating from college, I was pretty certain that by my 30s I would have already figured it all out. This whole life thing. I haven’t. But I have learned a few things, and so tonight, I thought I would share those lessons with you.

And the first lesson is: you never figure it all out. Not completely. Life often doesn’t make sense. We’re all bumbling around bumping into each other and making mistakes and learning lessons and thinking we’ve got it figured out and then realizing once again we don’t. If somebody tells you otherwise, they’re lying. If someone looks like they’ve got it entirely figured out, you’re probably not looking hard enough.

It’s true – 12 years ago I was one of the first Student Ministers here at the PSC along with my best friend Lila. This is the first place where I got see myself in a true ministry role. It was awesome. And now I’m back – a seminary graduate and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. It seems so appropriate. So meaningful. Like the PSC sparked my clear innate calling to ministry and I never looked back.

It’s seems that way.

I did have a day in college when I showed up at my former youth minister’s office and told her emphatically, “Shannon, I think I’m called to ministry.” And she said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to hear you say that.”

But then… 3 months later I walked back into her office and said, equally emphatically, “Shannon I know what I said about ministry but I think I was wrong. I want to go to Hollywood and be an actress.”

I was not kidding. I pursued the Hollywood dream with fervor for the next 4 years. Lila and I even went to L.A. for my 21stbirthday and got our first tattoos. One of us got the Presbyterian dove because she planned to go to seminary. But it wasn’t me. I got a star. Naturally.

Lila didn’t go to seminary. And I didn’t go to Hollywood. I moved to Austin and worked as an educator for middle and high schoolers from under-resourced communities. Man, I loved it. Some days even now I miss it. And eventually, I realized my love for that work and my desire to serve people came from a place of faith. It felt to me like a ministry. So I thought one day I might go to seminary, after I lived a little. But I decided to just look at an application, and then I filled it out for fun. And then I applied to a couple schools just to see what would happen. And then I was a seminarian.

Even then, my story did not become straightforward. Quite the opposite. I came out as bisexual in my first semester, and suddenly didn’t even know if I’d ever get hired as a pastor. But I dreamed. And I dreamed of every possible ministry future: youth pastor, rural solo pastor, coffeeshop church pastor, seminary professor, writer, activist, even a lawyer, for a little while.

I spent 2 years working as a pastor at a big downtown church in Chicago, and it was incredible, but eventually I decided I was called to faith-based advocacy work instead of parish ministry. I spent two years doing faith-based advocacy and journalism work in DC and it was awesome. But eventually, I decided maybe I wanted to be church pastor after all. Really, I want to start a restaurant church, 8thDay Café, with good food and a brunch church that meets on Sunday afternoons, but that’s going to take awhile. The only thing I’ve consistently wanted to do my entire life is write. And I have, and I do – alongside other things.

Most recently, I felt called to move down to Charleston to be near family and to minister in the particular ways needed in the South, doing what I can to repair the breach in the region where I’m from. It was a calling to a place and a circumstance rather than a job.

I knew ministry jobs would be scarce in Charleston – especially for someone like me – so a few months ago I took a secular job and vowed to do ministry in the cracks. Who knows if down the road that will turn out to have been the right choice. I’m still figuring it out. But I’ll tell you what, life has been a wild ride so far.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

For the record, I’m not saying I’ve never had a clue. Or that you won’t. On the contrary, there are moments of absolute “rightness” when you just know you’re on target – like God’s giving you the silent head nod of approval.

Other times, I’ve been absolutely sure about where I was headed and that it was the right thing and it turned out … it was not. I was wrong.

That’s the second lesson I’ve learned: you’re going get it wrong. You’re going to screw up. You’re going to fail. We all will. You probably already know this, but just in case you thought that stopped at some point – it doesn’t. (And by the way, you also never stop getting zits no matter what they tell you.)

In her new Netflix special, Brené Brown says that true whole-hearted, courageous living isn’t about accepting the risk that failure might happen. It’s about knowing that you absolutely will fail at some point, and stepping forward anyway.

Failure is hard, but I’ve learned it’s rarely fatal. Truthfully some of the best things in my life have been born out of failures. Will mentioned that my first book is coming out this year. It’s been a lifelong dream, and I’m so excited and so proud and I love it. But Holy Disunityonly exists because I spent 4 years trying to write a book on bisexuality and faith, and ultimately failed. That experienced forced me to reevaluate what I felt called to write about, and Holy Disunitywas born. And it’s the right book.

Trust me on this, and if you don’t trust me, trust Brené: Don’t let a fear of failure or of being wrong stop you from exploring possibilities or living fully. Give yourself permission to dare.

Here’s another lesson I’ve learned: sometimes something isright for awhile and then it isn’t anymore. My time as a pastor at Fourth Church wasn’t wrong. It was right until it wasn’t. So was Sojourners, so was my time as an educator, so was even my ill-fated Hollywood dream. But things don’t always stay the same. So while you’re giving yourself permissions, give yourself permission to change.

For my whole 20s, I wanted to live in a big city far away. I wanted a big, busy life. I cared about making it. I cared about having the perfect career. That’s who I understood myself to be. But eventually, I started to realize – I didn’t want the same things anymore. I caught myself dreaming of quiet nights in a home of my own, and days spent with my family. It took me awhile to realize that it was okay to let go of the life I had dreamed of and the person I imagined myself to be, and embrace a new dream.

We are allowed to change. Even the things that we think are nonnegotiable. Central to who we are. Even some of those things will change. If it is life-giving – let them. We don’t have to be bound to a static vision of ourselves or our lives.

Joseph Campbell says, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

I want to say something about “call” too. We love to use call language in the church. I love it. I’ve used it plenty tonight. And I do believe God calls us. But we are not called to a job. A call is about how you live your life, the actions you take, the way you move through the world.  The way you live out your call is your vocation. That may lead you to a particular job or field, it may lead you to a particular lifestyle or place. It may lead you to ministry, but it doesn’t have to. It might even be many things over the course of your life. Our calls and vocations are not a treasure hunt with a crappily drawn map where we have to spend our lives searching for this one right thing.

In seminary, I was once asked to fill in at the last minute for a dessert and Q&A with prospective students. With only a few hours to think on it, I was tasked with coming up with one sentence that explained how I understood my call. I came up with “Love God’s people and tell the truth.” And despite how hastily I came to it, maybe even because I didn’t overthink it, that understanding of my call has followed me through every job I’ve had, every life circumstance. It has guided me in a multitude of creative and unexpected ways. But it has never confined me.

Annie Dillard describes call this way: “We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience–even of silence–by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.”

Sometimes I think we use call language to avoid the pressure and responsibility of making our own decisions. Because it can be hard. But we can rest assured, God will call us and use us wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.

I hope all of this comforts you rather than stressing you out. I only know how to be honest – “Love my people and tell the truth” and all that. I say it from a place of hope and excitement for the future that awaits you.

I don’t know what’s next for you or for me. But I know that I am grateful for the wild, unexpected, very not-straightforward road so far. Life unfolds for me like a holy mystery. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I wish a little mystery and wildness for you too. So I hope that you take whichever of these words have caught you and stick them in a back pocket somewhere so that one day when you feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t have it figured out, or when you’re reeling from a wrong choice or a failure, or when you’re learning yourself in a new way, or your learning your call in new way and it’s scary and hard and lonely – I hope that you might stumble back on these words and recognize that you are not alone.

No matter how wild life gets, you are not alone.

And that’s what matters. That’s what I hope you hold on to as you go forth into the world. It’s not about figuring out exactly who you are. It’s about trusting in whose you are. It’s not about getting somewhere – be it the right job, or the perfect life, or your one true purpose. Our work in this life isn’t to arrive. It’s to travel well and faithfully. And to do that you only need to know one thing: that wherever you go, God goes with you.

So in the words of Frederick Buechner:

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.”

Don’t be afraid.


2 thoughts on “Wild and Not Remotely Straightforward (reflections on vocation for UGA’s Presbyterian Student Center)

  1. layton, this is fabulous, thank you SO MUCH for sharing. may I share with my students and other assorted young friends (including my newly out bi daughter and her gf—god sure has a sense of humor…)

    also–just put your book in my queue…can’t wait for it!

    and—let me know if you ever breeze through. SPC is still in our pastor-less wilderness, and I’m lining up summer preaching…

    blessings to you and peace



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