A pastor who discovered that true vocation is how you live, not what you do for a living

Jerry Voll

Jerry Voll 1941 –

Already as a child in Louisville, Kentucky, Jerry knew he would become a minister: “Our family went to church regularly. Two of my older brothers were ministers. And my father had the notion that a minister was the highest category of Christian.” Three years into his career, however, Jerry became convinced that the best way to serve God was to leave the pastorate.

Part of it was frustration with the lack of personal commitment he found in his congregation, whose members seemed satisfied with superficial relationships and a calming Sunday sermon. Part of it was also his own seven-year preparation for the ministry (four at college, and three more at a United Church of Christ seminary):

One book that really spoke to me during my studies was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It made me realize that I needed to be active in society, not only in my church. This was the era of the civil rights movement and Vietnam, and the issues of the day were all new to me. I had never realized how racist my supposedly good Christian family was; nor did I know anything about conscientious objection to war. (There were army men in our family, and serving in the military was not a subject for debate.) Now I began to see that as a follower of Jesus, I could not take part in killing.

As a pastor, Jerry’s views soon landed him in trouble. One man known as a “pillar of the church” attempted to bribe him to lose the beard that marked his dissenting. Another complained about how hard it would be to get rid of him: “The only way you can remove a minister is if he’s openly preaching heresy or running around with someone else’s wife.”

Ironically, that wasn’t always true. When a married fellow pastor fell in love with another woman and obtained a divorce so that he could remarry, Jerry confronted him with Jesus’ clear words about marital faithfulness in the Sermon on the Mount. The man retorted, “You can’t take the Bible so literally.” In short, what Jerry had regarded as a calling was viewed by his congregants in a very different light: as a profession.

Jerry’s grandson Jordan working with Jaehyoung, making furniture in the community workshop.

By now I had been serving our parish for about three and a half years, and there was a strange uneasiness growing inside of me. Financially, Nancy – my wife, an English teacher – and I were making it. We had a house and a brand-new Pontiac. We were good tithers, as were many others. 

But there seemed to be very little desire to follow Jesus one hundred percent, and I began wondering why people attended church in the first place. To me, it was becoming clear that it was just another institution, and that my involvement could only continue within the framework of that institution. We hungered for something deeper – for real fellowship. But I knew in my heart that to find it, we would need to forget what we had and find something new. 

Then, at a weekend retreat, someone told us about this community in Connecticut called the Bruderhof. 

The Volls made their first visit over Easter in 1970, and discovered, in ­Jerry’s words, “the church as an organism made up of people who have given their hearts and lives to Jesus and to one another. They were not going to church, they were the church, all day, every day.” Back home, they took stock of what they had experienced, and made several decisions: 

One was that I had to get out from underneath professional ministry. Another was that we had to get our own life in shape. There were things that weren’t right in our marriage: we were used to things being excused or swept under the carpet, and now saw that they required repentance. Finally, we realized that Christians are called to community (not necessarily the Bruderhof) and that we ourselves had to answer this call.

Jerry reviewing medical options during a house call from Jake, his primary care physician and a fellow member of the Bruderhof

In June 1970, Jerry resigned, and moved, with Nancy and their one-year-old daughter, into an intentional community: a big farmhouse with two other families and two college students. That effort fell apart due to a lack of trust and common vision and, about a year later, they moved again, this time to the Bruderhof. Jerry and Nancy became members in 1973. Since then, Jerry has worked for the community in numerous capacities: making classroom furniture and designing equipment for people with disabilities, helping in the publishing house, and serving as a pastor and youth counselor.

All this has transformed the way he thinks about vocation: 

There is such an emphasis on choosing and building the right career, on finding myself and my vocation. But the real question is this: “What does Jesus call each one of us to?” or, put another way, “How does God want me to live?” These questions are valid no matter what your line of work. 

On my first visit to the Bruderhof, I told a member that my goal was to be an effective pastor. “We are not called to be effective,” he answered forcefully. “We are called to be faithful.”

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