As I read through the Old Testament, God calls individual after individual to be part of his plan for humanity and almost every person has a similar reaction, “Sorry, God, not me. You’ve got the wrong guy.” Moses is probably the most famous example of this with his claim that his speech impediment disqualified him from God’s service, but there are other examples. Gideon was so unsure of himself that he made God jump through hoops involving wool and dew. Jonah said no by running in the opposite direction and then pouting. Leadership is avoided.
Sometimes, we seem to have a very different attitude towards leadership. Leadership is something to be grasped and striven for, even in the church. Often we don’t wait for God to call us, but hurry ahead mumbling “Well, someone has to do it.” We set up meritocracies in our meetings similar in attitude to secular businesses and non-profits. People must earn leadership and gain skills, rather than be called and gifted by God. I’ll blame at least part of this on secular society’s expectations and values infiltrating the church, but a good part of it might just be unredeemed human nature. I don’t think running from God’s call is a good practice (as it doesn’t seem to work and may get you swallowed by a big fish), but trying to earn a particular place of leadership in God’s denies God’s grace and wisdom just as much as Moses’s shrinking from the burning bush’s instructions.
For many years I didn’t realize that God’s kingdom works differently than the systems of power of this world. Or even if I knew it intellectually, I didn’t live it. Throughout most of my schooling I was “Super Faith,” with extra-circulars, honors and all A’s. I was very involved in youth group and service work. I was busy all the time. I enjoyed the challenge to do my best, but a big motivation was a desire earn others approval and love. I longed to be recognized and put in leadership positions at school and in my meeting. When I wasn’t a small voice in the back of my head would start to say, “They don’t like you. You’re not good enough. You must have failed.” All my self-worth was tied up in being the best and being in charge.
I probably could have gone on like this for most of my life- striving for the recognition of others and only feeling loved when I was given leadership and honors. I grew up in a Quaker home, had excellent models of faithfulness at my church and was taught about God’s great grace and mercy for each of us. I had gone to the altar and confessed my sins and asked Jesus into my heart. I know he was working there and I felt his living presence, but still had this compulsion to earn my salvation by leading and doing. I, and most of those around me, seemed to all be part of the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps school of spirituality.
Thankfully, after I graduated from college every single graduate program I applied to rejected me. I had no backup plan; no idea of who I was if I was not the perfect student any more. This crisis gave God an opening to begin the process of slowly stripping away what society had taught me leadership meant and where my self-worth came from. A larger part of this work took place in the context being hired as an intern at the William Penn House, a Quaker hostel and seminar center in Washington, DC. My coworkers there encouraged me to ask the question what was God calling me to and then to begin that work. For the first time I began to realize that God was not calling me to be in charge of everything or to be the best at everything. Tied up in this was the radical revelation that God’s love for me was not contingent on me “successful.”
About a year into my internship I was part of a retreat in which someone asked me what gave me life, what filled my heart with meaning and purpose. In a moment of divine clarity I was able to name was God was calling me to more clearly and concisely than I ever had before. I answered that I have a burning passion for creating space for transformation to happen in other people’s lives. Since then the question has always been does this job/event/committee/role fit with God’s call in my life. The focus is no longer on doing and being a leader in everything. Rather, I keep my eyes solely on God and the way he is moving me. Being surrounded by others on a similar journey has been particularly helpful. As a Quaker institution that strives to live what it professes to believe, the William Penn House has allowed me to explore how my call fits WPH’s mission and incorporate the organization’s call with mine where they overlap. I still can be taken over by the desire to be the best so as to be recognized, but the basis of my identity is slowly being remade into something more Christ-like. On my best days I no longer want to be the best, I just want to be faithful.
Faith Kelley is the hospitality coordinator at the William Penn House in Washington, DC. She grew up in Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region and is now a member of Rockingham Monthly Meeting, a part of Ohio Yearly Meeting. Together with her husband, Micah Bales, she has started Capitol Hill Friends, a Christian Quaker worship group in DC.