by President Michael L. Cooper-White
Little cellophane-wrapped boxes of valentines in the late 1950’s came in standard lots. Each contained 20 or so small roughly 3-inch square cards printed with an endearing message on one side, leaving room on the other for one to sign before inserting in the envelope and addressing to a classmate. In our grade school classrooms, “mailboxes” created by covering common shoeboxes with colorful paper awaited the delivery of valentines from all the classmates. Each box of valentines also included a couple of special cards. One was for the teacher, which required no deliberation, unless one was on the outs with her (few men taught elementary school in those days in our parts) and contemplated tossing the teacher’s greeting in the trash. But the other was an oversized card quadruple in size to all the rest. Therein lay the delicate decision. Upon whom should I bestow the special valentine? And will s/he reciprocate or leave me embarrassed by bestowing hers/his on someone else? Ah, the anguish of childhood infatuations or lack thereof . . .
Well, it’s the annual season of multiple “match-making” processes that I’ve discovered spreads an unusual level of anxiety here on campus and around the church. First-year students await their selection for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) summer assignments in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings. Our “middlers” or second-year theologs are about to plunge into the internship matching workshop. This brings to campus several dozen pastors and lay leaders from congregations that will serve to mentor future pastors during a crucial portion of their ministerial formation. And our ELCA seniors, of course, now await assignment to regions, synods and ultimately call by a congregation, while our ecumenical students likewise may be wondering where they will serve post-graduation.
By and large, the church and our seminary seem to do fairly well in these important match-making processes. When I served as the ELCA’s director of synodical relations, the churchwide unit then responsible for the first call assignments, a survey revealed 90% of the newly rostered leaders had landed in a setting of their preference, albeit seldom the “ideal call” (there really are none!). Likewise, the vast majority of internships proceed rather seamlessly to mutually satisfying conclusions. While an intense growth-producing CPE is seldom without some measure of challenge, again most students return to campus in the fall saying something like, “If I had it to over again, I’d choose the same place.”
There are, of course, both modest and glaring exceptions. Sometimes a candidate, bishop, call committee or others involved in churchly match-making processes “read” one another wrong, and favorable first impressions give way to the reality that this is not a match made in heaven. If important information is withheld in a process of mutual discernment, disillusionment can set in quickly after a ministry or learning covenant is actually set in motion. And for some there’s the inevitable disappointment of “unrequited love” akin to that experienced back in grade school when the beneficiary of a scholar’s big valentine failed to reciprocate. A half-dozen classmates may desire the same internship. Congregations perceived as “plum calls” (I’ve discovered there really are none of those either—every place has its challenges and problems) are sought by dozens of rostered leaders whose annual reports to their bishops indicate “open to a new call.” In a bishop’s election or other “selective/competitive” process, many well-qualified candidates make themselves available, and only one finally can be chosen.
How one responds amidst all this flurry of ecclesiastical and academic match-making may depend on the operative theology of call or vocation. If you believe that there are perfect matches made in heaven, then the failure to land a place of preference may cause a theological and even existential crisis. Personally, I’ve always thought God has bigger things to deal with most days than my personal preferences or search for a perfect parking place; in most big lots there are a lot of them! Likewise, given a measure of openness and flexibility, in a church with more than 10,000 congregations, a host are places of good and vibrant ministry where one’s gifts may fully flourish and a good time may be had by most on most days. If disappointment comes, one must also allow that in very human selection processes, human errors are made with some regularity. If you feel you would have been a “better match” than the one ultimately chosen for that perceived “perfect” internship or call, you’re probably right. But rather than wallow in bitterness or languish in regret, move on and embrace the place and people who did recognize your gifts and are eager to embrace you. A few decades down the road, you’ll probably not even recall the names of most places and people who caught your fancy in a moment of infatuation. You will remember those who gave you the big valentine and invited, “be among us.”