September 29, 2020

IM Book Review: This Odd and Wondrous Calling

By Chaplain Mike

I’ve been waiting for this book a long, long time.

Finally, here is a book that paints a clear picture of what pastors actually do, what serving as a minister in a congregational setting is actually like, and what we actually think and feel about our calling and our work and how it impacts every area of our lives.

It’s called, This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver, and I don’t have enough superlatives to say how much I loved reading this. I give it my highest recommendation— to those in vocational ministry or considering God’s call, and to all those who love the church and want to learn what it is like to serve her in Jesus’ name.

Where else are you going to find out about how God broke through on minute 54 of a silly hour-long discussion at a committee meeting about what to serve at a dinner for the homeless? Or what it’s like and what it means to stand at the door after a worship service and shake hands with parishioners? Or how pastors figure out what they’d like to be called when people address them? Or what it is like to be an associate pastor who gets the leftover assignments?

Lillian Daniel

This book explores such odd and wondrous matters as what pastors think about having friends in the church—what the limits are, and what the possibilities may be. It talks about what it is like to be a PK (pastor’s kid) who goes into ministry, how ministers and churches deal with issues related to clergy spouses and families (including insightful reflections on the relatively recent phenomenon of being a pastor’s husband), how pastors must learn to deal with both criticism and praise, what pastors think about and how they deal with money and finances in their own lives in the context of the church, what it is like to preach when your personal life is in chaos, and what the rite of laying on of hands actually feels like to one being ordained.

Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver are ministers and colleagues in the mainline United Church of Christ. Some of us who are more evangelical and conservative will not identify with all of their theological commitments. Unfortunately, given the ecclesiology and practice of leading evangelical churches today, a large number of folks in “ministry” also will not identify with the kind of pastoral work the authors describe. When it comes to parish ministry, the mainline churches may be much more in touch with the down-to-earth, face-to-face pastoral ministry that I, for one, believe is Jesus-shaped and Biblically-mandated. You won’t find the work of “visionaries,” “ranchers,” or “CEO’s” described in these chapters. This book is not about running organizations, casting vision, building “great” churches, or being on the cutting edge. It is about the Word made flesh. Every day. Here and now.

Martin Copenhaver

So, you will read what it’s like to have a man in your congregation and choir with Tourette Syndrome, who exhibits his condition by barking without warning. In church. You’ll learn what it is like to go to the hospital when your harshest critic suffers a heart attack, and you are the one to speak encouragement and pray for him. You will feel the difficulty of being caught in the middle when you are the associate minister and someone praises you with veiled attempts to criticize the senior pastor, with whom she has issues. You will blush along with the minister as the young woman great with child stops as she leaves worship and asks him to place his hand on her belly and bless her right then and there with the whole congregation watching.

You’ll find out what it’s like for a pastor to be a patient in the hospital when he is usually the one visiting. You’ll feel the chagrin when his doctor insists that he spend a half hour of uninterrupted time in prayer each day in order to relieve stress in his life. The shoemaker’s kids often go barefoot, they say.

You will be invited to sit in with a motley group of pastors on tense community meetings to support workers being treated unjustly by their rich employers, in the church basement with the youth group wondering if this is what you went to graduate school for, into the sanctuary after morning service where you find an anonymous note left on a pew that criticizes you, into the home of a gay couple that surprisingly restored a congregation’s ministry of hospitality, into the pastor’s bedroom when he turns out the light and lies down next to his loving wife, who nevertheless does not share his faith or commitment to the church.

I savored some of the best sentences I have ever read about ministry in this book. Here are a few:

  • Somehow God calls us into practicing our faith together, not so that we will all march in lockstep but so that we will move like a dance troupe, in which each one of us contributes a somewhat different step to the unfolding work and beauty. (3)
  • Some preachers—mostly the celebrity preachers, the leaders of megachurches—do not shake hands. I can see why. Celebrity requires some distance and at least a dash of illusion. …As a preacher who shakes hands, I believe worship leaders have a quite different job: to expose illusions at every turn, including the illusion that they are something more than fellow-players in the drama of worship. (13f)
  • Being in the ministry, where so much of my work is devoted to the building of relationships, I worry about losing the ability to just sit next to someone and talk about nothing. (18)
  • Being a pastor has made me better than I am. That is because the pastoral vocation requires that I act in ways that seem beyond me. (58)
  • What has stayed with me more is her advice in my times of vocational doubt. Every time she just sent me back out to listen to the people. They were the only ones who could turn me into a pastor. (105)
  • Pastors are generalists. In fact, we are among the last generalists in a culture that draws people into ever-narrower areas of specialization. (107)
  • God…took seven days to create the universe, and so would probably prefer that I start my sermon on day one. (226)
  • Henri Nouwen often talked about the importance of a “ministry of presence.” But certainly there is a “ministry of absence” as well, not only for the sake of the pastor’s own health, but also for the bracing reminder that God can be at work even when the pastor is not present. (230)
  • …with just one life to live on this earth, I am grateful that God called me to be a pastor. And I am staying. (235)

This is a descriptive book of stories and reflections, not a prescriptive book to show “how it’s done.” I’ve read many of those, and most leave me cold. Theory and technique are the least parts in the complex process that produces a pastor. As these authors tell us, the old word for minister—“parson”—is derived from the word “person,” thus blurring any meaningful distinctions between the office and the one holding that office. Pastoral ministry is about being a flawed human being who, by grace, is becoming a wise, loving, Jesus-shaped person and who is called to live and serve in a special way among others likewise called to Jesus.

This wise, loving, Jesus-shaped book is eloquent testimony from two who are on that journey of becoming.


  1. Awe. Some.

  2. Dan Allison says

    There’s a whole list here of things I can “learn” or “find out” but I think it’s pastors who need to learn and find out some things. They should learn what it’s like not to take a vacation two or three times a year. They should learn what it’s like to drive a taxi or stand behind a cash register forty or fifty or sixty hours a week and deal with nothing but hostile people.They should find out what it’s like to not be able to read books, write blogs, and sit with people at Starbucks because they’re too busy working. And they should go to an orphange in Uganda and watch kids sleep on dirt floors because there’s no money for mattresses — no money because the new sanctuary or the new satellite campus or the new sound system is more important

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My writing partner is a country pastor, trying to support a wife and three kids on what’s effectively minimum wage. (It’s a MINISTRY, remember. God Will Provide (TM).) He would like to be able to take a vacation, period. He has to deal with hostile people, and Church Ladies, and gossips, and in-church coup attempts, and whispering campaigns, and those who would make him the scapegoat for their own sins every single day. On call 24/7/365. I can barely get through to him on the phone, period. No satellite campus, only two small country churches with one foot in the grave (and one of them has the other on a banana peel). Hymnals and decor dating from the 1950s. And everybody on a different wavelength and holding him up to standards of utter perfection (which they don’t bother with putting on themselves) because He’s The Preacher And It’s All His Responsibility.

      I never knew him as a preacher-man; I met him as another starting-out writer in small-press fanzines, another writer about my age except with no hair, a bad back, and fighting the Battle of the Bulge on top of everything else. Sometimes I think I help him with a reality check as someone who DOESN’T see him as The Preacher-Man. (And harking back to the subject of this post, he can tell you some real insane horror stories of craziness and cluelessness in and around church.)

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        A buddy of mine is an ordained minister currently between assignments. At his last assignment he was the only minister at his church of several hundred people. Though they could certainly afford much more, the church set his salary + parsonage value was less than $30k per year. The salary itself was less than I made working my way through college. This is a guy with two Master’s degrees. The total is not much above the poverty line in the US. The salary is below it.

        • Most of the pastors I have known over some 30 years never made a real living wage.

          Most worked a full or part time “secular” job in addition to their job as “pastor”.

          They were expected to preach weekly, and organize each worship service. Do hospital and home visits. Attend every meeting of every committee in the church.

          The idea that most pastors “don’t do anything” is one that I’d give anything to see changed.

          But it seems that the image projected by the televangelists have ruined it for all.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Fair enough, Dan (and I’m speaking as a pastor).

      However, there are bunches of pastors who also spend 40 or 50 hours a week dealing with hostile people, otherwise known as church members. Cashiers and taxi drivers leave their work behind when they come home; ministers don’t. People don’t call a cashier in the middle of the night and ask them to come back to the store and check them out. Taxi drivers don’t get calls in the middle of the night at home from people looking for a ride to the airport. Pastors, however, do get calls–often from emergency rooms, prisons, and funeral homes. And, for that matter, many bi-vocational pastors do indeed know what it’s like to drive taxis or stand behind cash registers for 40 to 50 hours a day. And, unlike cashiers and taxi drivers, the hostile people pastors deal with usually have a say when it comes to their salaries, vacations, and other such matters. Cashiers & taxi drivers leave the hostile people at work; pastors have these people, all too often, as their “bosses.”
      Finally: It wasn’t until I became a pastor that I learned what it’s like to be hated. And this, by the way, turned out to be a gift, for it taught me that it’s God’s love counts, not human approval. I can’t say I was ever hated as a janitor, shipping clerk, corporate flunky, or English teacher. (Well, I’m not so sure about the last one; I did have to flunk people.)

    • This is really not fair. Pastors, at least those who take their calling seriously, have to deal with spiritual, social and psychological issues which are none the less real and challenging for being spiritual instead of physical. There is probably an absolute scale of how hard people have it in life, but only up to a certain point. Your average cashier does not have the burden of tending to the spiritual and psychological needs of upwards of 100 people, all the while striving to keep the congregation intact and off each other’s throats.

    • Dan, if you’ve read my previous posts on pastoral ministry, you know that I have much sympathy for what you say. It is only when pastors get outside the “temple” and visit with people in their homes, workplaces, and other settings that we really get to know them and learn to appreciate what their lives are like. Unfortunately, I think your comments reflect the state of many larger churches in particular that have become corporate enterprises that offer what they feel are appropriate perks for their professional employees.

      • Dan Allison says

        I appreciate everyone’s comments, but I would point out that a) taxi drivers DO get calls in the middle of the night, because they build their business on cell-phone customers, who have no idea that some people actually have to sleep sometimes, and b) cashiers DO have to deal with the psychological needs of over a hundred people a day, people who are needy, selfish, hostile, argumentative, and imperious (i.e., typical American consumers), and they do that while on their feet. I don’t have much rural living experience, so I can’t talk about small churches in small towns, but I did leave a church where the pastor bragged about his boat every Sunday, and how tough it is to raise 5 kids in an all-white gated community, and went to a church where the pastor’s biggest concern is lining up out-of-towners for weddings on the beach (at $250 to $500 a pop) twice a week. Now I’m not in any church at all — the post-evangelical wilderness — but at least I have some missionary friends who get my tithe, so it’s not ending up with IKEA or Starbucks any longer.

        • “cashiers DO have to deal with the psychological needs of over a hundred people a day, people who are needy, selfish, hostile, argumentative, and imperious (i.e., typical American consumers), and they do that while on their feet.”

          Dan, that’s hardly a valid comparison. Cashiers have to be patient and deal courteously and effectively with hostile customers, but once the person leaves the store that’s it: out of sight and out of mind. Pastors deal with the same 100 hostile people day in and day out. If you think a hostile person at the checkout counter is annoying, imagine having to work with that person week after week, and not only interact with him, but actively pursue his spiritual well-being. That is a burden cashiers and others will never know.

          And kindly refrain from spouting stereotypes about ‘typical American consumers’. I shop at Walmart and Acme at least once a week and I have never seen any obnoxious behavior from anyone in front of me at the checkout stand, except for one person who took a cart with about 50 items to the 10 item speed checkout lane.

          There is a temptation to almost idolize the struggles of working-class people and point an accusatory finger at the middle class. I think instead it would be wiser to deal with each situation on its own terms. Many of those ‘typical American consumers’ also donate generously to charity and are heavily involved in community service.

    • I’ve gotta say, your comments about the pastorate really delineate two possible approaches to ministry. The mega-church white suburban approach is truly guilty of the above a little too often. But those are only the “successful” pastors. The vast majority of pastors are not “successful”, and more people leave the ministry every year than possibly any other profession. I’ve been frantically and desperately looking for a way out for about 18 months now, and I’ve never been more disillusioned with the church. I haven’t had a vacation in 2.5 years, and I’ve experienced more personal betrayal in my 5 years of ministry than in all my life previously. And I see what you are referring to and it makes me angry: I know a pastor who spent 90 days of the last year out of the office. He pulls in nearly 6 figures.
      I think an established, “successful”, secular vocation ought to be a mandatory prerequisite for any pastoral ministry.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        My writing partner (the burned-out country pastor) says the only way to get rich as a preacher is to become a Televangelist, and if he was crooked he’d be doing that instead. He’s been looking for a way out for at least eight years, but every “door that opened” was “Must Provide Own Support”, i.e. unpaid Ministry (TM). He tells me that in his denom, “pastors’ widows routinely have to eat out of dumpsters” and expects the same future.

        P.S. He also has to deal with a Megachurch in his area with pro rock-concert-quality stage and band, pro-level TV & audio production studios, and an onsite amusement park (with pony rides) that’s been siphoning off most congregations in his area, especially married couples with young kids (Pony Rides). He has to field attacks by church-growth advocates in his congregation and denom about “Why isn’t YOUR church growing that fast?”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        P.P.S. You want to know the real miracle in his situation? His three sons (all in their teens) are still believers, after witnessing what church did and is doing to their dad. If that isn’t a miracle, you tell me what is.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    This sounds like great material for a TV sitcom, especially when Murphy’s Law intrudes on the pastorate. The original Internet Monk once did an Open Mike Night on “most embarrassing things that happened in church” with emphasis on youth group shenanigans. There’s so much potential for both comedy and drama in a preacher’s day, yet every time it’s been tried on TV and/or in a movie it’s been Epic Fail Time.

  4. If you look at this book at Google Books, you can read/preview many, many more pages than are available at Amazon via “Click to LOOK INSIDE!”

  5. Henri Nouwen often talked about the importance of a “ministry of presence.” But certainly there is a “ministry of absence” as well, not only for the sake of the pastor’s own health, but also for the bracing reminder that God can be at work even when the pastor is not present. (230)

    There are, in fact , certain things that GOD can ONLY do when the pastor is absent: like raising up others with their particular teaching or administrative gifts. I’m thinking of alternate bringers of the WORD, which happens too seldom in my church IMO. How sad, we hear so much about discipleship, and then have to live with a setup where anything less than the “main guy” or the “A team” is just not seen as good enough by many. What’s that about multiplying gifts, life, and opportunities ?? We dont’ like the risk.

    Nice post , Chap Mike, I’d buy this book on a half-heartbeat.

    • I’ve come to believe that one of a pastor’s main roles is to foster a culture/community in which leader-y types aren’t hyped up, aren’t thought to be the only one who can preach or expound Scripture, constantly given a spotlight, etc. In fact, a great pastor might even be less noticeable- sort of fade into the background as the body of Christ functions more as an organism.

      • Totally awesome point: and this is leadership in a nutshell, and the environment for an EQUAL celebration of ALL the gifts in action, even the so called “lesser” (gag me) ones.


  6. Clay Knick says

    Mike, I felt the same when I read this book last year. Simply marvelous.

  7. i have also enjoyed reading the blog of Real Live Preacher, aka Gordon Atkinson, former pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, TX.

    his stories of pastoral experience some of the most honest & candid i have read. it is such perspectives that bring the role of pastor down to earth for those of us in the trenches of life. what a gifted writer…

  8. I think I should read this in order to understand my late grandfather better. He was a pastor, and worked at it hard enough to kill him in the end.

    In our church, each congregation has but one pastor. No assistant pastors, no preaching pastors or visiting pastors or senior pastors or any of that. Just him. And he took on the tasks of them all, where many of his peers shied away form some or many of them.

    His adherence to more traditional ideas (not all of them; some he rejected) always causes me to wonder, when I start viewing them as backwards or stupid, if I’m not missing something terribly important.

    I’m not trying to be too autobiographical here. I suppose I’m just trying to get at another reason why one would want to understand pastors better. Sometimes, whatever it may seem like to them at the time, pastors really do impact people’s lives in profound ways. I talked with my grandfather about all sorts of issues, but I never really listened to his sermons much. How much impact do you think he felt he was having, then? More than he thought, I have no doubt.

  9. Somewhere pastors were replaced with preachers and the parish was replaced with an audience. Preaching replaced homiletics. It then seems like a much shorter step to replace preachers with a talk show host. No wonder church leaders now have more in common with Ryan Seacrest than with Saint John Chrysostom.

  10. Is there much of a difference between minister, pastor, parson, reverend, worship leader? I ask because I don’t know. Growing up Catholic, all we had was the priest as well as sisters (nuns) who taught school/CCD classes (catechism classes) and some lay people who also taught.

  11. Oh, and I forgot to add “preacher” to that list I made above.

  12. This put me in mind of the metaphor implicit in the word “pastor.” That is, shepherd.

    I believe shepherds were generally low class slaves/servants/workers who were given the task of living out in the fields with and among the sheep. They slept in the fields, ate in the fields, and worked caring for the sheep. They guided the sheep to pasture and water, tended to their health, assisted in lambing, and protected against predators. It was a rough, humble life. Still is, for there are still shepherds doing this around the world.

    Apply this picture to the life of pastors. I find it clarifies the job description quite effectively.

    Finally, your observation about mainline pastors is, I think, on target. In the same way, as I have been visiting various churches in my area, I find that it is the mainline churches that inevitably read many passages of scripture aloud in their worship services, whereas so-called evangelical churches read scripture hardly at all. I am deeply puzzled by this, but fear that in some way, the two observations may be related. I’m not sure how.

  13. I read parts of this on Amazon. Good book.

    “Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver are ministers and colleagues in the mainline United Church of Christ. Some of us who are more evangelical and conservative will not identify with all of their theological commitments.”

    While some of us who are neither will raise our eyebrows at lines like this. FYI the UCC is congregational, with a fair number of conservative churches. Decisions of the national synod are not binding on member congregations, though some (notably Puerto Rico) have left over this anyway. The UCC is “evangelical” in the European sense, but not in the U.S. sense.

    Like many denominations focused on the northeastern USA, the UCC has been shrinking demographically (from 2 mil to 1 mil since the 1960’s), while the ranks of its would-be pastors have expanded thanks to the entry of women, second-career seminarians, and liberal / ONA refugees from other churches. This creates a special environment (not shared by all denominations) in which many are called but few are chosen, so to speak.

  14. Following Christ’s calling “requires that I act in ways that seem beyond me.” Hidden places to explore . Who would ever think it could happen around congregations who exhibit , like our own children , the very worst forms of indifference , apathy and unthinking behavior ever . Its amazing