William Willimon in his book Calling and Character desires for young clerics to be grounded in their communal understanding and fully self-aware in the personal sense of call to the ordained life. Both communal and personal components must be understood for young clerics to be successful. Fully grasping one’s call to the sacrificial life of an ordained elder will aid young clerics through the difficult work that lies ahead in the community of faith. One’s call guides and sustains clerics in times of ethical and moral dilemmas that must be addressed first in the life of the cleric and then in the community of faith.
Willimon has clearly stated that as a cleric I am called to become “mutually accountable in covenant.” Personal ethics and morality are to be held in trust with the community of faith as a servant to the needs of the church. I dare not trust myself because my heart may deceive me. Therefore, it is essential to always bring myself before the accountability of the church in the daily ebb and flow of life. Everything lies exposed for all eyes to see and critique.
Willimon has very candidly discussed how clerics have failed in being the ethical and moral compass for the church today. Willimon rightly believes that we have taken on the role of offering undisciplined love to others to their own detriment. Because clerics have failed to bear the burden of ethical and moral proclamation in the church and community, we have lost their authority to be the guide for ethical and moral excellence in world around them.
Willimon understands that clerics are uniquely called into a vocation that is not like the world around them. He understands that the clerical vocation demands character that exceeds cultural norms, and rises above laity holiness. We are the ones who must think and be more like Jesus than anyone else. Moral and ethical demands lay squarely on my shoulders. Ultimately, the cleric becomes the first born of the community to enter into the new created order provided by Christ on the cross through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Willimon explains that clerics are required to live into this holy call of ethical and moral excellence, no matter the cost to family, friends, or even personal health. The call has a high-price of accountability both personally and socially. Accommodating the cultural standards is no longer a viable avenue of reprieve. It is the clerics’ vocation to name the immorality in the world around them. Forgiveness is a critical point of the Gospel of Good News but only because we have fully understood our sinful nature. Our habitual moral and ethical shortcomings are inexcusable because we have been given everything we need in life and godliness through Jesus.
Ethical and moral lapses by clerics cause the community to collapse ethically and morally. It is the clerics’ intentional responsibility to remain in community, not seeking isolation to hide the flaws in one’s character. It is the clerics’ responsibility to place themselves in the community for constant critique and evaluation for the good of the church. Ultimately, the cleric should not become a burden on the people in such a way that the church becomes the clerics’ caretaker.
Willimon notes one pitfall of needing to be “liked” (a social media term). I have realized how important it is to not be concerned about whether people “like” you. One visitor helped me to realize that I would most certainly not be “liked” on any given Sunday because of the call to speak to the ethical and moral fiber of our people. Her comment drove the point home; “You did a good job, pastor, of stepping on our toes today. I needed that.” This comment helped me to realize that the standards that come with the call are integrated into my life, but to others these standards of ethical and moral competency are new ideas. These standards will come as a challenge to those in the pew.
Willimon speaks clearly about managing family finances. My husband and I both have relinquished careers for the sake of the call. Our family is accustomed to moving, sizing-down, and living different from the world around us. Because my husband and I have lived trying to satisfy the call on my life, we understand the call is irrevocable.
I recently read Steven Maskar’s work entitled Accountable Discipleship: Living in the Household of God. His writings point to a way of living in covenant with God that is written in my heart. The Bible is the foundation for the covenant discipleship accountability that we are called to live into as the church. It is essential for clerics to comprehend their role as the first to grow in personal and social holiness. Only then can we guide the church in personal and social holiness.
At the conclusion of the book Willimon inspires clerics to understand their role as ethical and moral leader of the church, and the community. He provides a long list of standards and obligations we are to follow. However, if the standards and obligations are but rote memorization, I will never stand the test of time in the local church. The call of God is the only empowerment that can sustain me to live out the obligation of personal and social holiness for the sake of the church, and the community. No matter the individual call, the clerics work is to lead the church to live righteously. To lead others to righteousness one must be righteous.
After having reflected on Willimon’s book, I understand the importance of my call to sustain me in ministry. I accept the responsibility of leading others into ethical and moral excellence. May God’s church be sanctified as the new creation she is called to be.
Reflections from Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life by William Willimon.