Discerning a Call

As you know – and hopefully are planning to be a part of – we are installing Lindsey Alvater Clifton as our Associate Pastor for Formation and Justice this Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Sanctuary!

While I’m eagerly looking forward to the service, I have to admit that I used to struggle with the language of “installation” for pastors. It took me a little while before I realized why: because most of the installations I have been a part of were a fairly negative experience.

In some ways, they weren’t so different from what we will do on Sunday: people showing up at a special time to help facilitate an important transition, wearing their particular marks of office, and fulfilling their professional and vocational responsibilities.

The main difference, though, was that those other services were held in my home, and the special people who came to do the installation were from the power or cable or internet service company.  They showed up in their uniforms, and though it seemed to take an awfully long time to do it, all the work basically boiled down to putting the hardware in its special slot, running the cables, and connecting the plugs.   Then with a flip of a switch, the whole thing was installed.  And then they presented me with a bill from the company that literally read, “for installation service.”  

You see, aside from pastors, most of the things that we “install” are technical or mechanical: we install cable TV and telephone access, we install air conditioners and ceiling fans and dishwashers.  And when we need to install one, we generally just choose the one that fits into the slot that we already have and the functions that we already want to do the job we’ve already decided needs to be done the way that we want it.           

Well, matching a particular model to a pre-existing slot may be a good way of deciding on household appliances, but it’s probably not the best way to choose a leader.  That is why, in the Presbyterian Church in particular, we don’t talk about “finding a good fit,” when looking for a pastor, but “discerning a call.” Taking the theology of call seriously helps us remember that any pastor being installed isn’t the preferred model from many possible choices that can fit into the pre-prepared slot and accomplish the desired functions. 

It is that we have discerned that it is the will of God that this person, uniquely, has been called to serve this unique congregation in this time in both of our lives.  She doesn’t simply fit in this position; she belongs there.   And that discernment does not end with her election as our pastor; the implications of it is something that we will all continue to discern and respond to.

So with that in mind, I want to claim this metaphor of installation after all, though not in the way that was bothering me.  A pastoral installation is not like a mechanical installation, fitting the perfect part into the pre-existing slot.  No, it is like an art installation.  The definition of an art installation is “a site-specific work designed to transform the perception of a space through complex and multiple associations.”  (I looked it up.) 

In other words, when you do an art installation, you do place something new into a pre-existing space, but once the two are put together, the combination creates a new reality because of all the different ways the two things uniquely interrelate. 

That’s what we are doing here.  This installation is a site-specific work.  Now, to be clear, it is God who is the artist, not the Presbytery, which is actually doing the installing; we’re just the union workers who put the thing together the way the artist has instructed.  But doing so will transform all of us in extraordinary and unexpected ways, and together we will create something unique and new. 

So when we look back on this day in the future, let us remember it not simply as a one-time celebration in the past, but a gift reaching in the present that points toward the future as we all work together in discerning the will of God. What a gift of ministry and calling that will be!    

Grace and Peace,