This is part three in my blog series on my “story,” beginning with why I’m a Christian, continuing with why I’m a pastor. If you missed the first (“Why I’m A Christian“) or the second (“How Seminary Ruined My Life and Made Me A Better Person“), you can follow those links.
For those who’ve been reading along, you know that “The Journey So Far” was my effort to tell my story, both about what I believe and why I believe it. After several conversations about how Christians have amazing stories at their fingertips (their own) but often fail to use them (instead, trading real-life examples for reasonably cold theological treatises), I thought I might lay it all out there. But one of the questions that I’m asked more frequently than almost all the others is, “so… why are you a Methodist minister?” (For the record, last week’s installment, “How Seminary Ruined My Life & Made Me A Better Person,” can’t be completely separated out of this, as the road to Methodism and the pastor’s call for me are inextricably intwined.)
Like most things, the reasons for the question and the heart behind them vary. Does this mean, “why in the world are you a minister?” in a tone that implies I’m crazy? Or “I never thought of that as a profession before, so how did you select that one?” “Why are you a minister?” as “how do you become one?” is my personal favorite. It’s coupled with the fact that Catholicism is the prevailing Christian denomination where I’m from and Southern Baptist is the prevailing Christian denomination where I live now! So, all of these questions can work together but it’s a complicated question with complicated answers.
The first answer has to begin with the fact that I never set out to be a pastor. Sure, when I was three or four, some well-meaning church member said I’d be a pastor some day because I was welcoming in new people and eager to get them to stay and be included in our fellowship. But even after seminary, I had no interest in being a pastor of a local church, governing church council, making financial decisions, visiting the sick, or preaching on a regular basis to a starchy congregation.
But to take it a step further, I spent the first twenty-four years of my life not belonging to any church either. The denominational attachment just wasn’t on my radar.
In 2001, I graduated from seminary after two and a half years of education, and moved back to the Richmond (Va.) area to look for a job and get married (and maybe not in that order). I ended up working at a local United Methodist Church as a part-time youth director and a part-time director of a small spiritual life center. [Do you notice that neither “minister” or “pastor” are in either title?] But at the same time, I was asked the following question, just a few months before I got married.
Logan, a graduating senior at the University of Richmond, and a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes there: “Hey, man, so it’s good to see you back. I don’t know if you heard, but our campus minister left suddenly, and we don’t have anyone lined up to be the campus minister for FCA in the fall. I know you just back from seminary, and we were wondering… would you be willing to be the campus minister?”
[Sidebar: A note on sidebars– they should never be ignored, because often they are more interesting than the main plot. But I digress…At the same time, I was also attending Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, working part-time at the now defunct Cokesbury Bookstore, and waiting to get married. And in that same time frame, the way that the United Methodist Church, specifically the teachings of John Wesley that I spent two-and-a-half-years studying, finally broke through. Where some put the focus on earning one’s salvation, Wesley urged his listeners to consider that it was only by the grace of God that they were saved; that by God’s prevenient grace moving in a person’s life before they knew God, God allowed them to repent and see God; that by justifying grace, a person came to faith by asking for forgiveness and turning to God’s plan for their life; that by sanctifying grace, they could move forward in faith, not as a finished product but as a growing person of faith. That made sense to me, and I chose to join Reveille.]
Back to the late night parking lot conversation: Of course, I said yes. That’s why I had gone to seminary in the first place! And over the next five years, I would volunteer as the campus minister there, working with a group of student leaders to re-grow FCA at UR. We met on Wednesday nights from 9 p.m. until close to midnight, planning worship and studying the Bible, trying to figure out how we could increase our impact on campus through discipleship and service. And then we had worship on Sunday nights, from 9 p.m. until 11 p.m. And there were countless meals and cups of coffee and sporting events to attend in between. It was basically another pro bono part time job, and thankfully, my wife didn’t begrudge me the additional time away.
By the end of the first year, I knew I didn’t want to be the part-time this or that, and another minister offered me a job at Bon Air United Methodist Church. I was now the Director of Youth Ministries, and I was still serving through FCA at UR. Bon Air’s love for youth and college students allowed me to bridge the gap between my employment and what I saw as my calling, to minister to college students who were working out their faith in the divide between their parents’ influence and living on their own. I touched on why campus ministry mattered to me in the last segment, but I was blown away by the eagerness of these young adults to learn and to serve. Over time, our ministry at BAUMC would keep growing, until the role I had there was as a Minister to Youth, Young Adults, and their families. (It may seem like it, but it is not just semantics!)
Again, in the parallel universe of work, I was asked to speak in the mid-2000s as the Saturday night, “come to Jesus” speaker at a District retreat. My senior pastor, Rhonda Van Dyke Colby, had been pushing (prodding?) me to take a renewed interest in the United Methodist ordination process, but I had rebuffed all of her efforts. But now I was faced with a situation I hadn’t been in before because we never considered FCA to be church: what would we do about communion?
The UMC’s Book of Discipline states that the laity don’t consecrate communion, but that elders do. (You can read more about the role of the elder here.) At this retreat, on this night, at Eagle Eyrie in Lynchburg, I was going to present the message and I was supposed to explain communion to these four hundred kids. But in between, an elder had to step forward and consecrate the elements. I couldn’t do that. So, here were kids who were looking at me, having just presented the gospel, but I couldn’t be the one to serve them communion?
I walked to the back of the auditorium in tears. There could be no more running. There could be no more stalling, denial, or doubt about it. I was supposed to get ordained.
I went home and told Rev. Colby, and she just grinned. Soon, I was reading the red book, and then the purple book, and moving through the system. And in 2007, I was offered the one-year job of interim associate chaplain at UR. Having respected, admired, even idolized the chaplain during my time as a student, this was my dream job. Unfortunately, the interim period ended the following spring, and I experienced what it’s like to lose a dream at the ripe, old age of thirty. (For a real eye-opener on the “death of dreams,” check out Phil Vischer’s book, Me, Myself, & Bob.)
Ordination could probably be its own post, but in 2008, I was appointed to a local UMC in Prince George, Va. I’m in my sixth year at Blandford, and I’ve learned a lot about myself, about God, and about ministry thanks to the kindhearted collaboration of the people I’ve come to know there. By 2011, I was eligible to write my papers, to apply to become ordained as an “elder in full connection” in the UMC, and by the grace of God, I passed in the spring of 2012 and was ordained in June 2012. For those of you keeping score, that means I experienced my call to ministry in 1997 and wasn’t ordained until 2012!
Let’s be real for a minute: no one’s road to their calling is the same as anyone else’s. I wouldn’t have made a great minister in 2002, fresh out of seminary; I am a better pastor because I was a campus minister first. In reality, I’d drop everything to work with college students in a heartbeat: their desire to know God, to ask the big questions, and to do so guilelessly, leaves my heart beating faster. So, who knows, maybe I’ll work on a college campus again one day!
I also wouldn’t be the minister I am today if I hadn’t gotten grace first. Now, I’m not trying to say that other denominations don’t “get” grace, but the Wesleyan understanding, and its articulation (not the polity!), are why I’m a United Methodist.
For right now, I’m clear where I am supposed to be. In Jeremiah 29, it says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” I’ve seen God’s grace show up again and again, and I’ve come to understand that I don’t need to know how the game ends to run the next five plays the way they’re meant to be run (sorry, it’s college football season, what can I say?)
In the process of ministry, I have:
-experienced the church at its worst and at its absolute best.
-learned to listen in ways I never believed that I had the capacity to embrace.
-developed relationships that will last a lifetime.
-stood in the gap with people as they struggled, celebrated, married, buried, and more.
-celebrated communion hundreds of times, embracing God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and God’s miraculous victory over death.
But I’m very aware that I didn’t choose this, it chose me. Or maybe more correctly, God chose me. God’s plan from birth til now has prepared me along the way, in the same way that Mowgli’s friends prepare him for a dangerous life in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. I haven’t danced like a bear or roared like a panther (lately), but the journey helps prepare us for the next mile as we go.
Initially, I thought this was going to be a three-part process (for now) but over the last few weeks, I’ve felt called to a fourth installment. While the story of seminary can still stir up a mix of painful emotions, and this section fills me with hope as I consider the way God used my unwilling heart, the next part is the most passionate, because it’s the part I’m living right now.
You’ve walked with me this far, so why not one more post?
Next week: “Why I Want To Plant A Church” or “Shouldn’t We Make A Home For Everyone”