My Story Part 15: What? Me, a Pastor?

I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in truth or God or church or Jesus. So much so that I have long understood the arc of my life through the lens of what God is doing (or wants to be doing) in me. Even in those seasons when I drifted away, not only did God always pull me back but he actually never left me. Though I may have been paying significantly less attention to him, his eye was always on me. All I have to do is stop and consider all of the times I may have made an especially poor decision, or the times when a particular door just didn’t open like I wanted, and it’s clear that God was in some measure protecting me. When it comes to some of the potential decisions I could have made or paths I could have taken, I genuinely believe he was keeping me safe from the worst of myself.

True, I still made mistakes. Like I said, I have at times drifted. But never to the point of significant self-destruction. Never to the point where my life was irrevocably set in an unfortunate direction that I would regret but be unable to do anything about.

And I don’t really know why this is so. Why has God allowed my life to go as it has? What don’t I know about how my life may have gone that would explain the gracious providence of God’s hand? What dangerous turns might I have taken were it not for my Lord’s gentle prodding in one way or another?

Was all of it so that I could be where I am now? I mean, God has known all of my days from from the foundation of the world. Did he protect and steer my life so that I could later be a pastor, of all things?

There are things I will never know on this side of eternity.

What’s funny is that while I was studying for my MA, I remember thinking that being a pastor looked like an altogether undesirable calling. Having to wear a suit and tie all the time, dealing with church boards and committees, seeming to be always on guard around other people–none of this was attractive to me. I mostly saw older men who seemed dull and humourless. Give me instead some good theology books, evenings out with friends and good conversation, the chance to serve with a university campus ministry, and I’ll be happy.

God, being God, always has the last laugh, of course.

So how did it happen?

While I was at Acadia Divinity College, most of my classmates were, in fact, studying for their MDiv, the required degree for pastoral ministry. Over time I found myself feeling envious of some of their experience, how they were growing, and the way going through this together was creating a unique bond between them. I felt like an outsider. Not only because I was in a different academic program, but because I knew virtually nothing about this strange, Baptist world of local church ministry and what being a pastor was about.

At one point, I talked with the Dean of Students about what it would take to earn an MDiv alongside my MA. Wisely, she probed into my motivations. And at that stage they had nothing to do with discerning a calling from God into pastoral ministry or a calling that would require an MDiv. After graduating from ADC, I was off to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. There I would earn my PhD in theology and from there go on to teach theology in a university, college, or Bible school somewhere. So that was that.

But at Mac I was in another university environment that included a local seminary. I quickly found myself surrounded by friends who were studying to be pastors, who were already pastors, and who didn’t want to be pastors but eventually became pastors. In fact, the friend with whom I shared an apartment in Hamilton, who went to McMaster to get his masters in Math, eventually experienced a call to ministry, went on to get his MDiv and become a pastor. They were dropping like flies all around me!

I wonder if God was putting me in proximity with certain people and leading me into some experiences in order to open me up to the possibility of pastoral ministry. During this time, I admit I occasionally wondered what preaching would be like. After all, I had lots of friends who were doing it. I knew I wanted to teach theology. Besides, isn’t that basically what a pastor does, preach and teach?

Without getting into the weeds of the story, I left McMaster after four years without a finished PhD. Honestly, my time in Hamilton counts as something of a lowpoint spiritually and personally. I was tired and didn’t know if I could finish what I’d started–or if I wanted to do so. On the one hand, it was only four years; on the other hand, I’d been in university in one way or another for more than a decade.

However, during my third year at Mac, I also met the woman who would later become my wife. We met online (a story all by itself!). We got engaged less than a year after we met. This is one of the reasons I moved back home to New Brunswick–to get married! And it was getting married, in part, that led to my entering pastoral ministry.

Note: The lesson here, of course, is if you want to avoid being called into pastoral ministry, don’t marry someone you meet online.

Or maybe not.

Looking back at that season of my life, it’s hard to believe how naive I was. We got married in the summer of 2002, were living with my in-laws at the time, and I had no job prospects at all.

After we were married, I began looking for work. I got a job working at a call center (attempting) to sell AT&T long distance phone services. My wife did too. Though she didn’t last as long as me. Neither of us were particularly suited to that work. Obviously, working at a call center couldn’t be the long term plan for our livelihood.

As it happens, there was a small Baptist church in the area whose pastor was retiring. It was the church my father-in-law grew up attending. His mother and a couple of his sisters still attended there. And the church was looking for supply preachers while they began searching for a new pastor.

Can you imagine what happened next? Did I excitedly compile my resume, hoping against hope that not only would I get the chance to do some supply preaching but maybe even be considered for the pastor’s position?

Well, not exactly. I got my resume ready, yes. But largely at the prompting of my wife and, I think, my mother-in-law. In submitting my resume, I really didn’t know if it was the right thing to do or not. Or if I wanted it to be. I was newly married, living with my in-laws, and my options were, shall we say, limited.

Both my wife and I were interviewed by one of their deacons, and were offered the opportunity to preach a number of times in the fall and winter of 2002–2003. Eventually, after we had preached there several times, they asked us to consider being their part-time pastoral team. A husband and wife ministry package! One of our church regulars later quipped that “the church got two pastors for the price of half-a-one.” After much prayer and conversation, we accepted the invitation.

Let me pause here. Some of you might think: That doesn’t sound very spiritual. Some of you might ask: But did you feel a call to pastoral ministry? That is, apart from the invitation to do some supply preaching, did I have a strong and certain inward sense that God was calling me to enter pastoral ministry?

Or did the clouds part and a clear voice (sounding suspiciously like Morgan Freeman) tell me to consider pastoral ministry?

Were there trumpets?

Songs of angels?

Put simply, no.

Here’s the thing: I almost never experience anything that way. I am almost never certain about big life decisions. It’s simply not who I am. But especially at that point in my life, I was still driven by a lot of fear and indecision.

But God knew me then like he knows me now, and if he wanted me in pastoral ministry he also knew, therefore, how it would have to happen. He would have to push through all of my emotional baggage and personality quirks in order for me to listen.

I’m guessing that had God tried the aggressive approach, I would have been like Moses at the burning bush. “Ummm, are you sure you want me to do this? You must have someone better you can call. I really don’t think I’m your best choice. That, and I really don’t want to do it.”

So what made it possible for me to consider such a calling at that time? It helped that this was a very small church, as well as one connected to my wife’s family. It was part time. We wouldn’t have to move a great distance (the parsonage was less than 10 minutes from my in-laws) and so we would still have a family support system in the area. While it was a serious commitment, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly frightening step to take. I didn’t know if this would end up as a life long calling, but it was the chance to explore the possibility and to see where God might lead us from there.

One step at a time, right?

Thinking about it now, just how gracious and patient is God?

It brings to mind some folks in Scripture. Abram was 75 before God called him. Moses, again, was 80 before God appeared in the burning bush, telling Moses to get his people off of Egyptian soil. Paul was a persecutor of the church with murderous intentions before Jesus knocked him to the ground with a blinding light.

Isn’t it possible that God, being the perfect shepherd that he is, knows not only precisely where to lead but how to get us there?

And doesn’t God make a habit of calling undeserving, unprepared, unexpected people to do his will?

Doesn’t God colour outside the lines?

In any case, my wife and I spent roughly three years pastoring at our first church. The people were kind, gracious, and encouraging. Especially given my nearly total lack of ministry experience. At the time, my wife had more experience in ministry. In some ways, the folks at this church were my seminary professors. And I really began to learn what pastoring was about.

I should say that this is why the Body of Christ is important with respect to someone hearing God’s call. Not every individual will see in themselves what God and even other people might see in them. At our first church, I also felt very affirmed and encouraged in what I was doing as a pastor.

When our first church was no longer able to support us financially, God graciously provided a call to another congregation. We were at our next church for nearly 9 years, had ups and downs, real struggles and joys. Most importantly, we grew to love the people there. Every time we have the chance to go back and visit, which isn’t often, I am glad to see old friends.

Our current church has been our spiritual home for nearly 7 years. Again, life being what it is, we’ve experienced much in this time. Some good, some not as good–and I’m not speaking only of church here but of family life and everything in between. Indeed, one of the lessons, I think, of pastoral life (and the Christian life) is learning to trust and walk with Jesus in the ordinary and the messy, in the uncertain and the imperfect. Don’t abandon the call or turn tail and run when things get hard or confusing. Resist the tendency to think that life and ministry shouldn’t be difficult because God has called us and promises to be with us. Understand that God seeks to extract all manner of wrong-headedness from our hearts and minds and to produce resilience and perseverance, to grow us into saints with roots planted deep in gospel soil.

All throughout these years, right up until the present, God has been (and continues to be) mysteriously and wonderfully at work. It’s not always easy to tell what God is doing. Sometimes I just don’t know. And I wonder and question. More often I question myself. But part of the Christian life is developing the eyes to see the hand of God in the very ordinariness of our lives. It also means trusting God’s heart when his hand is hidden. Our lives are hidden with God in Christ. We live between the now and not yet. We’re not always gifted with the privilege of knowing how God is using us in the immediate present. Perhaps this is for our good.

Over the years, I have wrestled with the notion of call, and what it has meant for me to experience a call. Because I didn’t grow up in the evangelical sub-culture or the Baptist family of churches. I wasn’t familiar with the language or the expectations. Both then and now, I have never felt like I quite fit in. Truthfully, I feel like an awkward fit most places I go. Even after all of these years in ministry, I still don’t feel like a “traditional” pastor.

What I do know–and what I feel deep down in my soul–is that I want to lead and help others to follow Jesus. I want them to know Jesus, and to understand that Jesus, in knowing us perfectly, loves us just as much. I want to proclaim the reality of the kingdom. I want to preach the resurrection and new life. I want to live intentionally in the presence of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I want to help others do likewise.

Wherever God plunks me down so that I can be a part of that is up to him.

And if there’s one crucial thing I have learned is that life doesn’t proceed on a clear, linear path from A to B (much less from A to Z!). Or, I should say, God doesn’t often lead us on this sort of path. Sometimes what we want from God is exactly what he withholds in order to teach us to trust in him. And let’s be honest, that can be frustrating. You’re probably like me; you want the well-marked roadmap for your life, to know all the twists and turns in advance to be sure you’re making the right decisions. “Good luck with that,” God says, “That’s not how this is going to go.” Learning to be ok with that, and even to prefer it, is what it means to orient your life around the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this is true whether God calls you, step by step, into pastoral ministry, or to another calling altogether.

Tweeting Jesus

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Bill Hybels once said that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Yet in our current culture, inundated as it is with social media, the notion of local has become a more malleable reality for many church-goers. Thanks to technology our local church can be in another city, another country, and even on another continent.

There are those who are especially optimistic about the possibilities of social media. Brandon Vogt, Catholic blogger and author of The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet is one. While acknowledging that social media can “inflate gossip, encourage narcissism, and reduce people to text,” Vogt goes on to say that “these dangers are avoidable. Once aware of them, we can prevent or overcome their damage.”

As Dr. Steve McMullin, lecturer in evangelism and mission at Acadia Divinity College notes: “The challenges of ‘thinking digitally’ are important for us to consider if we are going to break beyond our traditional Christian culture.”  It’s not only an issue for those within the church but also for the church’s mission to those outside its walls.

Particularly when we think of those who are ‘digital natives,’ we consign ourselves to irrelevance if we fail to engage at all with online technology. Emerging adults are a very technologically assimilated generation. Those of us who recall life prior to the internet can hardly begin to overestimate how pervasive social media is for those raised on Google and instant messaging.

Simply talk to high school students and ask them what it would be like if they were to lose their cell phones, iPhones, or Blackberries. If anecdotal evidence is worth anything, we could expect them to experience sheer panic and disorientation. Losing their devices and toys would amount to being out of the loop. Being unable to text has huge social ramifications. Whether because of addiction to the devices themselves or social pressure, the impression is no longer that such devices are wonderful luxuries if you can afford them; rather, it is that they are necessities one cannot afford to do without.

So it is that our culture is permeated by social media offering instant connection unheard of in generations past. And, yes, such technology plays a role for many in the formation of community and relationships. Still, can we reduce the “dangers” of social media to things like gossip, as Vogt suggests, or is there more to the world of Twitter and Facebook that raises concern?

In her recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Sherry Turkle writes: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections may offer the illusions of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

Thus, the ubiquitous quality of digital community aside, many remain lonely regardless—or perhaps because of—the many hours spent texting, posting status updates, and tweeting friends. Implied is that connectivity does not equal intimacy. Put another way, perhaps a platform like Facebook writes checks it cannot cash.

Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, comments on social media’s impact on the church and its mission: “The more we wed ourselves to social networking . . . the more we risk forgetting that the problems in our communities result from our own reluctance to share space and meals together, and to enter into environments and social situations that require our embodied presence.”

Once the joke was that family members all escaped to their separate TVs while eating dinner, and now everyone in the family might well be at the same table but in completely separate digital environments, fork in one hand and smart-phone in the other. Parents and children might well be physically present to one another but emotionally and mentally elsewhere.

All of this makes begs the question: is Anderson right? Are there still “environments and social situations that require our embodied presence?” What about the Bible? Does it address this situation at all? Wisely, in 2 John 1:12 the apostle writes this: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

Similarly in Romans 1:11, Paul writes: “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”

Both John and Paul assume that in-person, embodied relationships carry an intrinsic value that other forms of communication and connection do not. They each demonstrate a profoundly incarnational understanding of relationship. With ink and parchment at their disposal they still wanted—and hoped and even longed—to meet face to face. That said, surely if these apostles were alive today they’d be make good use of our technology.

The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, comments: “A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”

The conviction that spiritual life and community cannot take place fully without being physically present to one another gets to the heart of the way in which God himself has revealed himself to us: in the flesh. Central to biblical Christology is the reality that the second person of the Trinity entered creation and history as one of us. As we read in John’s prologue, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” And in this case, neighbourhood has an irreducibly local meaning.

Rather than see social media as replacing more local, face to face expression of community, as some might be tempted to do, perhaps it could do what letter-writing did for the apostles; that is, it could instill in us a longing for a more personal encounter. Especially for the people who make significant use of social media but are still longing for (but perhaps avoiding) more intimate forms of community, the church ought to be one place where personal relationships are both a reminder and a declaration of the importance of embodied presence. It’s in being an embodied community that we also reveal what God was willing to do to enter relationship with us. As valuable as texting and tweeting might be, they are, to paraphrase Scripture, no substitute for becoming flesh and blood and moving into the neighbourhood.