My coach asked me recently why I felt it necessary to spend part of this sabbatical by journeying back to some of my early experience with God. It was a good question which I have contemplated for a bit now. It has to do with stepping deeper into my life story, or what you might say is God's call on my life.
Understanding this call has been a process in its own right.
My initial call to the ministry was a very personal thing. I knew from very early on in my Christian life that God had some kind of a call on my life. Of course, I had no idea of what to do with that. My home church at the time had what is often called the "Free Ministry" meaning that the church was served by a plurality of pastors, all of which earned their living by working in the community as they shared the responsibilities of church leadership. Usually these were persons called from within the ranks of the congregation and chosen for their leadership ability, or potential ability. About a year after my life-changing encounter with God, my local church entered the process whereby they would call a minister to assist in the leadership of the church. To make a long story short, that call fell on me.
I was nineteen and only a year old in the faith. I was overwhelmed. The late Carl W. Ziegler, one of the great churchmen in our circle, oversaw the call process that evening and immediately asked me, "Did you also feel a personal call from the Lord, before the church selected you." My answer was a definite, "Yes," but that did not mean I had any idea what I was doing, or what was called to do.
I immediately entered the process whereby our district church leadership reviewed who I was and approved my being credentialed by the denomination. I entered a locally-based, district-led training program for people entering the ministry without a college background. After completing the course three years later, I was ordained. However, this small taste of academics wetted my appetite and I knew I needed more. Over the next bunch of years I completed my college degree and master's degree. During these years I worked either full or part-time, served the church in a volunteer capacity then later took a full-time pastorate, and tried to be a responsible husband and father.
Reflecting back on the experience I remember a conversation I had after having just been called to the ministry. A friend who had went off to Bible College after high school asked me what the focus of my ministry would be. I did not know what he meant. He said something like, "You know, will you focus on counseling, caregiving, preaching? What is your specific call?" I had no clue; I assumed I would just fit in with the pastoral team at my church. Which I tried to do.
This lack of clarity around what I was called to be persisted for some time. I tried really hard to be a pastor like respected pastors round me, at least as I perceived them. I felt that meeting the expectations of people would shape me into a good pastor. I saw pastoral leadership as largely preaching and taking care of people. As I served in a few churches, I began to sense a really high level of frustration, which often took me near to the brink of emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Sometimes that frustration showed up in my relationship with my family. Those memories make me sad. Fortunately, God's grace runs deep, and as Robin Mark sings, I often dipped my fingers in it. God covered my inadequacies with him mercy and grace.
Anyway, my frustration with ministry led me, in the summer of '88, to decide that the following summer I would resign my pastoral position and head off to school to do a doctorate in some kind of biblical studies with a view toward teaching. Several college and seminary professors encouraged me in this direction. However, in the fall of '89 the call came from the church to consider a term as missionaries in Nigeria, where Doris and I would work at a Bible College training leaders for the Church of the Brethren. After significant prayer and counsel, we accepted the call and left for Nigeria in July of '89.
I fully expected never to return to pastor a church. But God had other ideas, and one day while at my desk in the bedroom of our cement block house on the compound of Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi Nigeria, God clarified the call he had on my life. I was praying and meditating, and God took me to the first chapter of Jeremiah, and using Jeremiah's call, he made very clear what his call was for me. As I came to terms with that call, I began to understand why I lived with the frustration that I did during former pastorates. I was trying to be someone other than who God called me to be. I still struggle with some of that tension today--the tension to be what other people think I should be and being true to myself and God's call on my life. But Nigeria was a defining moment. God's call on my life is not unrelated to the circumstances around my conversion and the years of ministry which led me to Nigeria. It was important for me to revisit some of these places and events during this time apart.
I came back from Nigeria a changed person with a deeper understanding of my call and the role I was to play in the church. However, I had no idea as to how to do this. To make this worse, when we returned it was quickly evident to me that something had changed in American culture while I was away, and that served to reinforce my quest for new ways to lead the church. Fortunately God led me to some mentors, and He was faithful in continuing to guide me as I seek to do his will.
I mentioned at the outset of this post, that my call to ministry is a very personal thing. The re-call I experienced in Nigeria was equally personal and emotional. I still get teary-eyed when I think about it. I would like to share some of this call with you all in a future post, but I want to be careful that I convey things clearly. The more personal the experience, the greater the possibility that it might be misunderstood, by oneself as well as by others. That for another time.