Three Vines and a Vocation

A story of three intertwining vines is my attempt at the impossible, to image my life, in particular my vocational narrative.

The first to begin growing in me was a mystical yearning, more a tender shoot on the vine that emerged from the soil of long, solitary walks each school day from the end of the bus line in Knoxville, Tennessee. Over time my curiosity about the meaning of life in general and God in particular gradually undermined my parents’ assumption that, being the only son, I would go into the family business. Following graduation from Vanderbilt University (BA) in 1956, this longing took me to seminary.

My years at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky (BD, STD) included retreats at near-by the Abbey of Gethsemane, a Trappist monastery, and especially occasional visits with the monk, Father Louis (Thomas Merton). He, along with others, introduced me to the contemplative tradition of the larger church. There deepened in me a heart sense of being embraced by Mystery whose essence is nothing less than unconditional Love, unrelenting Justice that desires incarnation in the world. That God, the Abba of Jesus, felt like incredible good news.

In that seminary context, my vocational clarity, long in formation, crystallized in one moment. I was sitting in a class on pastoral care observing a professor unpacking a typical pastoral dilemma. I whispered to myself, “I want to do that!” And I have for over fifty years.

In 1967 I became pastor of Ravensworth Baptist Church, located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a progressive congregation that worked at faithfulness amid the intense interracial and political stresses of those years. In my efforts to lead, I over-functioned, working myself into a deep weariness of body, mind and spirit. In 1972, I resigned and took refuge with our family of six in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

From this place of detachment, I sat down before the question — “what happened?” Earnest reflection on my pastoral leadership began a deeper curiosity about leadership in general. That second vine, leadership, as it joined the mystic vine, provided renewed energy for my reentry into the workplace. After this year of solitude, healing, and learning, I joined the staff of the Department of Pastoral Care at NC Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1973, and became its director in 1976. Then in 1983, I accepted a call to become pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC, where I continued until my retirement in 1998. During those years, I learned to see myself as a leader within systems, an understanding that included but transcended my self-perception as pastor to individuals and families.

A third vine began to grow alongside the first two. From the soil of relationships with trusted colleagues grew my awakening to the power and criticalness of intentional community. Throughout my vocation, I was a member of some kind of support group. And for few years, I met for a full day each week with a four other ministers where a deeper level of support, collaboration and accountability became possible. These Sabbath gatherings provided a base community from which I offered pastoral care and leadership.

These intertwining vines still mark my vocation. I remain a novice contemplative, an inquisitive student of leadership, and value the risk-taking that deepening community requires of us.

Since retirement these three vines continue to bear fruit — but with a notable shift. I am now more Jonathan than David, more in the role of nurturing leadership than taking it on myself. Jonathan, you recall, recognized young David’s greatness as a leader, and promised him his support, symbolized by gifts of robe, armor, sword, bow and belt. (I Samuel 18:1–5).

This website represents the Jonathan gifts to the Davids, those of you in positions of pastoral leadership.

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