A Curious Path
(Some Thoughts on Being Bivocational)
By Philip Carlson (ThM '93, MDiv '87)
The pursuit of a way to serve has taken me down a curious path involving teaching, preaching, and writing as well as practicing medicine. A few years ago, while doing hospital rounds with a doctor friend, he said, "When I watch you with a patient, I don't know if I'm watching a priest who is a doctor or a doctor who is a priest." I've been questioned about that often and frankly, I tend to see myself as a pastor who is also a doctor.
I went to seminary at Fuller and pastored a church in Pasadena for eight years before I went to medical school at USC. And while in residency, I began pastoring the church where I serve now.
It has been amazing to see the similarities between the role of pastor and physician. In both roles one is extended tremendous trust, and is often extended the precious gift of being invited into the sacred realm of the inner life--the thoughts, struggles, and emotions that often go unshared--of patients and parishioners. Medical practice informs pastoral life and preaching, and my role as pastor shapes my responses in some ways to the needs of patients. One begins to understand the role of theological concepts like love, grace, and forgiveness in the process of healing as the choice is made to care for the whole person in both roles.
One of the blessings of having a vocation beyond the church is the way it allows people who spend most of their days in the marketplace to relate to what you have to say as a pastor. A few weeks ago a man in the church told me that it was important to him that I am a "working stiff." He said that it allows him to feel like I know what I'm talking about on some issues.
On the other hand, one of the downsides of being bivocational is that I sometimes feel that I cannot go as deeply as I want in some areas because I am spread too thin. For me this loss has been offset by the way these vocations enrich each other, by the sense of joy I find in being able to respond to human need at a number of levels, and by the opportunity to speak to crucial issues facing physicians today--ethical, moral, and spiritual issues--in ways I never imagined possible.
It's a curious path, and in some ways a difficult path, but it has been shaped by a desire to follow Jesus and I'm glad to be on it.