The Dynamic of Reassigned Duty

April 30, 2014

In lieu of baseball this winter, my TV pastime while navigating the cancer waters has been Netflix episodes of The West Wing. This exploration of life in the White House’s administrative center is, most of the time, nothing short of riveting for me. I am in the middle of Season 6, which is well into the second term for President Bartlet. His Chief of Staff Leo McGarry has had a massive heart-attack and is out for the count. White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg has replaced him as Chief. The current plot line has CJ making the transition from one very public role, the face of the Administration, to the “most powerful woman in the White House” choreographing, behind the scenes, the work of a president, staff, and Congress to get governance done.

Cregg’s transition from one role to the other is hampered by her apparent unwillingness to let go of responsibility in the old job (interfacing with the press) and to fully embrace a new identity and work style required by the Oval Office. I’m sure she will work it out over time; but sudden reassignments are very difficult, particularly when one has been working with a cast of thousands (the press corps) and now is interfacing primarily with the few (the President and his staff).

In ordinary human life, outside the swamp of Washington, D.C., I think the most apt example of this whiplash sort of life-transition is giving birth to one’s first child. Before kids, you interface with the wider world, and then—literally overnight—you have responsibility for a bundle of babyhood and your world shrinks real quick. Of all the transitions I have ever made in my life, the one from “child-free” to “parent” was the most jarring, exhilarating, and life-changing of them all!

In my BC days, professional life was directed to four main areas: serving a part-time interim as pastoral associate at a large Lutheran church, serving as Moderator (previously Executive Director) of the Presbyterian Coalition, coordinating the evangelical caucus of San Francisco Presbytery (including intensive legal work), and professing and teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. I had served as a pastor in two church families from 1987 through 2006, and the transition from Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) to freelance minister-at-large in 2007 was a major adjustment of identity and work style. You might say I have engaged in several transitions of late, getting practiced at leaving the old and embracing the new, or, more likely, keeping the old and adding the new. It would not have been inaccurate to refer to “the nine lives of Mary Naegeli.”

All that changed on November 4, 2013, when I received my diagnosis of lung cancer and began an aggressive treatment plan. My AD (“after diagnosis”) days have been chronicled here and on my Caring Bridge site.

The phrase that describes my transition best is “being reassigned duty.” This is the watchword that has stuck with my friends, because it is what I shared with my congregation when I found out what was happening last fall. “I’ve been reassigned duty, and I will embrace my new call with the same enthusiasm I have given you here at Saint Matthew.” In the AD era, discerning the invitations to minister in a setting I never would have chosen has been my job. I have been on leave at church, have delegated most responsibilities related to the Coalition and denominational issues, have been absent from Presbytery meetings since last fall, and have bowed out of teaching at Fuller. Wow. That is quite a pruning! And yet, I have not felt these changes as losses as much as I have felt the vigorous calling to a new assignment.

From a biblical point of view, calling to a new assignment is sort of the way God works. Among the notables, we have Abraham (Genesis 12) called from out of nowhere to become the father of a great nation. Then there is Joseph (Genesis 37-50), thrown into a cistern by his jealous brothers only to be carted off to Egypt to become a world leader. Moses, of course (Exodus 3), was called out of shepherding to lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land. This list in the Old Testament goes on and on. What all episodes have in common is that God picked somebody seemingly randomly and said, “I’ve got a new job for you. I will lead you and help you, and it’s going to be amazing.” Among women, Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1) had the same sort of reassignment.

So when God says, “Mary, I have a new job for you,” I tend to get excited. I can honestly say that in this past six-month period God has done something amazing in me and I think through me. When this happens to a person, is it not an invitation to ask God, “Lord, my life is in your hands. Who am I in this new phase, and how do you want me to serve you now?” Having cancer simply invites one to reexamine one’s life, priorities, calling, and service. Now that I am transitioning out of the cancer corner and beginning to circulate in a wider life again, what will this mean for my previous commitments and new ones God might be asking me to make?




2 Responses to “The Dynamic of Reassigned Duty”

  1. I can see that your cancer-free diagnosis will not end your role as a model for those of us who have not yet completed the route.

    My direction has been a bit different from the beginning, with a gradual weakening and a decreasing ability to sing, followed eventually by finding a large mass on my left lung. Hidden by my heart, it had escaped detection through at least two chest X-rays, and then defied biopsy. After it was found, my surgeon said, “Let’s get it out of there and worry about what it is afterward.” Out it came, along with my entire left lung.

    Through the entire process God,along with the prayers of people around the world, has been sustaining my spirits, and my only question has been, “Why, Lord?” I have been, to my way of thinking, unassigned for the past five years, since retiring from a technical job at our largest local water company. Others have assured me that they saw me as definitely having a purpose in my local congregation. But now, with the miraculous recovery of voice and some stamina, God must be readying me for a new assignment as well.

    Thank you for your constantly-encouraging words. I will certainly continue following your “Bringing the Word to Life.”

    Alan in Indio

    • revmary Says:

      Alan, Alan, ALAN! What a story! Thank you for sharing such an amazing story. Singing is such good therapy, on so many fronts. I’m a little ragged around the edges in vocal quality, but I’m getting my air back. How good is that? As to the question, “Why?” I have two: Why did I get this? And why was I healed? Both somewhat unanswerable, of course, but the generic answer is “For God’s purposes,” which will be fun to figure out as time goes on. Thanks again for sharing and I will keep you in prayer as God speaks his will into your life. Best regards, and abundant blessing –Mary

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