Roots & Routes (Randy Litchfield) - A Review

ROOTS & ROUTES: Calling, Ministry, and the Power of Place. By Randy G. Litchfield. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019. Xii + 179 pages.

            When we think of calling and ministry we often think in terms of clergy. Since I am numbered among that clan, I understand why we do this. Clergy are typically asked about their sense of call when they go before a commission on ministry or some other body tasked with helping persons discern whether they should pursue vocational ministry. While this is all true, it is not just clergy who are called to ministry. The question then is, whether one feels a call to ordained ministry or what is often called lay ministry, how do you discern the call? Here is the question that guides this particular book: how does context figure into this conversation? What does place have to do with it?

Typically, at least until the advent of online seminary education, it was assumed that if one felt the call to ministry, one headed off to seminary. At least this was true in the recent past. Then, after receiving this training, the newly minted clergyperson would be sent off to do ministry in a location different from where one started. It is as if you can't go home. I understand the premise, but is it always a correct one? Perhaps, if we think of calling and ministry in broader terms, locality or place would be important.  

Roots& Routes is a mediation and a workbook of sorts that explores the idea that place has an important role to play in one’s sense of call to ministry. The author of the book is Randy Litchfield, the Browning Professor of Christian Education at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. While he teaches at a seminary, he does so as a lay person. In this book he seeks to broaden our understandings of call and ministry.

The title Roots & Routes reveals much about the book. Roots has to do with place. That is, it speaks to where we come from. Place has to do with related to “the unfolding web of relationships between God, humans, and creation” (p. 6). Routes reminds us that place is dynamic not static. We may move around a bit in our sense of call, and so the route to the call is important.

The book has its origins in Litchfield's own sense of calling. He notes that he began attending seminary part-time while an engineer at the General Motors plant in his home town of Anderson, Indiana. At the time he was a member of a Disciples of Christ congregation. After he became involved in the local congregation's ministry, he was encouraged to deepen his understandings of faith and ministry by attending the local seminary—Anderson Seminary. Eventually he moved from the Disciples to the Church of God, the denomination related to the seminary. While a member of the Church of God, he served churches as an educator. His engagement in this ministry led to a decision to pursue a Ph.D. at Claremont School of Theology, after which he began to teach at Anderson University. From there he moved to MTSO. With that move he decided to become part of the United Methodist Church. In many ways the book reflects on this journey. He uses his journey from being an engineer to serving full-time in the church—always as a lay person engaged in educational ministry.

The important piece here is the role place or context plays in one's sense of call. Place has an important role in forming our identity. We are, he suggests, "creatures of place." That is, "we can only know our vocations if we see them embedded in places—and making a difference in those places." (p. 5). In that context, Litchfield wishes to encourage us to open our vocational imaginations and find our place in the work of God in the world. Along the way, Litchfield provides us a series of exercises and opportunities to ask questions of vocation as it relates to our personal identities and to that of congregations. In a time when we hear much talk about going out, here is a reminder that place is important. There is an importance of gathering in place, so that we might form relationships. 

This is a helpful book. It invites us to look closely at our lives and how they intersect with where we live, and we worship. He speaks of partnership with God, He writes that "the call to partnership comes from God, but the places we dwell evoke it." (p. 50). This is an important point. Whether clergy or lay, place will have played a role. I look back at the places I’ve been, and how they influenced my own call. While I didn’t think about it at the time, looking back I can see how my experiences as a youth in the Episcopal Church, moving from acolyte to lay-reader helped form me for the ministry I would later take up. I could name other places that contributed to my identity as a minister.  In that sense the book provides the reader with an opportunity to reflect on the places we’ve been, and the routes we’ve taken to get there, knowing that places are not static.

I appreciate, as well, the author's effort to broaden our sense of calling and vocation, as well as his reminder that where we live and how we get to and from there is important to our sense of vocation in the world. There is enough in the way of reflection questions and tables to make this a worthy study for congregational leaders. It's readable but rooted in theology. Interestingly, though he was for some time involved with the Church of God, an evangelical denomination, he appears to be deeply rooted in Process Theology. Interestingly, he engages Process Theology, which is generally linked to liberal Protestantism, without seeming to reject his earlier evangelical roots. He has simply evolved from place to place—taking the route that makes sense for him. We can do the same.