A Lightning Bolt It Was Not (My “Call To Ministry”)

high-voltage-1089875-mA lightning bolt it was not. There was no Luther shock from the sky charging me instantaneously in to ministry. I have known guys like that; successful or not, living in some other world, business, IT, entertainment, what have you. And one day, God suddenly and quite often unexpectedly “calls them to ministry”. They drop everything like it’s hot and like Abraham, follow obediently to only God knows where.

But neither was it an ever-present undercurrent; something that had always been there. I’ve known those guys too. The ones who always knew that they wanted to be a pastor. They started preaching when they were nine and became a deacon at ten, hit the preaching circuit at eleven and there was really never any other road for them to travel. Friends and family alike affirm that they could never imagine anything else. In fact, I have a friend who, at age four, lined up his teddy bears to preach sermons to them. This was not me. In fact, if you told many of the people from my youth that I had become a pastor they would likely tell you to shut the front door in disbelief. 

And neither did I go kicking and screaming into ministry. It was never as though God twisted my arm behind my back until I gave in. It was a natural progression as my path simply seemed to lay itself  down smoothly step by step. It was an evolution more than it was a revolution.

18 or so years ago, I found myself teaching the adult Sunday Morning Bible Study for the church we were a part of (I taught an 18-week redemptive historical study of John 1 among other things). In many ways, I felt inadequate for the task (then again, it could have been the material I chose), so I enrolled in a distance-learning seminary program. Except for the fact that the assignments didn’t have due dates, it was a great idea. So, except for the fact that I didn’t do my assignments, it was a great idea. It just wasn’t the right idea for me.

During this time, I was working at a Christian treatment center for women and adolescent girls battling eating disorders. Our company had some lay-offs after 9/11 and I remember asking myself what would happen if I did lose my job. Would I simply open the Want Ads and find something else to pay the bills? It was a great job and I loved my co-workers, but I wasn’t passionate about it. It was just a good way to pay the bills. Though I didn’t audibly hear God’s voice, I knew, as clearly as you can, that God was telling me He wanted me to “make, mature and multiply disciples.”

So I told my wife Kristi that I thought we should move somewhere and take seminary seriously. At the time you could not do a full seminary degree in Phoenix. Without missing a beat, she asked: “OK, where are we moving?” “Well, crap in a basket,” I thought. I had no idea where we were going.  After requesting information from 20 or so seminaries, we ended up in Louisville, KY where I attended Southern Seminary.

I went to seminary with absolutely no-way, no-how, never-ever intention of being a pastor. In fact, when professors would make comments like, “When you’re pastoring and . . . “, I would internally snicker. I was sure I had the angle on this. I would get my MDiv, transfer to another seminary and get my PhD. Then I would be a book-writing, ETS paper-presenting professor. I would have all the cool parts of teaching theology and none of the crap of dealing with people’s lives. But God often picks the unlikely ones to be His ambassadors. That way, there’s no explanation for success other than God’s faithfulness.

Around half-way through my MDiv, two things happened fairly simultaneously. First, I took a J-Term class on “The Doctrine Of The Church” with Mark Dever. Though there was nothing I hadn’t heard before, I had honestly never been challenged to put it all together in a way that forced me to consider the role of the Church in God’s plan of redemption. As a church member, I had rarely been challenged to see my role in God’s story as anything more than attending a weekly performance. I began to develop a conviction for seeing God’s people develop real community.

Around the same time, my Grandpa passed away. Being the token seminary student, the family asked if we would fly back and do the memorial. Never having done a memorial before, not knowing what I was doing and nervous as all get-out, I stumbled my way through the memorial and graveside services. Afterwards, my Dad said something to me that has stuck to this day. He said “You could affect more lives from the pulpit than in the classroom.”

The only way I can describe what happened next is to say that God simply broke my heart for the Church. I wanted to make, mature and multiply disciples. I wanted to serve God’s people and teach them to serve one another. I wanted to help people understand and apply the Bible better. I wanted to see people love Jesus and live more like Him.

On the way back to Kentucky, I told Kristi that I thought God was “calling me to be a pastor.” After few bars of the “I didn’t sign up to be a pastor’s wife blues”, she affirmed that God did indeed seem to be leading us that way. God had not only seemed to call me but also equip me with a particular skill set that lends itself to public teaching and interaction. After prayer, we found ourselves serving in a church in rural KY. But that’s a story for another day.

I tell you this rambling tale because I worry that, because we have professionalized the ministry, we tend to idealize the role of pastor. Many people have come to believe that “ministry” is somehow out of reach. But my story demonstrates that anyone can find themselves on an unexpected journey.The “call to ministry” certainly looks different for different people. But the point is that pastors are normal people who, somewhere along the way, felt prompted to give their lives in the service of others. No matter how they got there, lightning bolt, kicking and screaming, life-long desire or unexpected turns, they have had a long journey and they need to hear from you more often than when you’re upset about something.

What Is the “Call To Ministry”?

mountain-road-631699-mAs you might imagine in light of my recent announcement, I have been wrestling with a lot of questions regarding the nature of “ministry”, vocational and otherwise., especially exiting ministry.

It’s very rare to meet someone who has initiated their own exit from vocational ministry under good terms. Instead, we are bombarded with stories of hidden transgressions, greed, “authoritarianism”, power grabs and in general, lots of people who try to hold on to something long after they should have let it go.

Of course, all of this is wrapped up with the question of what we mean when we speak of the “call to ministry”. At least a couple of major problems problems seem to be clear in American Evangelicalism’s understanding/practice of “ministry” and one’s call to it or not.

First, is everyone who just wants to help others “called to ministry”? We most often use the phrase in relation to people who are considering vocational ministry; being paid to help others, particularly in a church setting. We use the phrase much less often referring to someone who simply wants to “give service, care, or aid” which is the definition of the word! I mean, after all, isn’t every Believer given the task of making, maturing and multiplying disciples (Matthew 28:18-20)? In other words, when we say that someone is “called to ministry”, we usually mean that someone is seeking to enter vocational ministry rather than simply giving their life to helping others. This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing but let’s clarify our terms. 

Second, there seems to be some disagreement and even confusion as to whether or not everyone who is “called to ministry” (here in the vocational) is also called or qualified to also be an elder. I’ve known churches in which multiple people are on “paid staff”, participating in the shepherding of the people and yet some have the title “Pastor” because they are an official elder while others are given the title “Minister” because, though they may certainly “minister”, they are not “Elders”.

And yet we still haven’t answered what we actually mean when we say that someone is “called to ministry”. For now, I will use the phrase to refer to the perceived “God-given desire” to enter into vocational eldering within the local church. Though we might certainly use the phrase in other ways, I come from a background in which this is what is most often meant by the phrase.

I think it’s important that we use the phrase “call” to ministry. As it’s understood in Protestant circles, this means that God gives certain people the desire to enter into vocational ministry. We assert that “with the calling, God will provide the equipping” and try to actually discourage some people from taking this career route. As I’ve said earlier: “a good seminary or wise leaders (those things are not always the same) will try to discourage potential pastors with such dire warnings as: “If you can picture yourself doing anything else, go do that instead” and, “If you’re heart’s not in it, step aside.”

It’s important to discern as best we can whether or not someone feels led by God to enter this vocation for several reasons. I can think of no other career in which someone will be hurt so much by the very people they are giving their lives to care for. I can think of no other job in which your “job performance” is perceived to be tied to your own spiritual health. But I’ve said all of this before. James says that not everyone should be up front teaching because “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness”.

Since (at least for the sake of this piece) I am equating the “call to ministry” with becoming a paid elder within a local church, it certainly helps to look at the qualifications of elders. Found in Titus and 1 Timothy 3 (with precedence being set in Acts 6 and elsewhere), with the exception of “the ability to teach”, we are generally looking at things we would desire for every mature Believer. But the ability to teach seems to be a gift rather than a calling so there must be something else to the “call to ministry”.

Paul gives us a clue that there is indeed some sort of “ministry calling in 1 Timothy 3:1: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Though this seems to have been a well-known saying in Paul’s day, it’s truth rings clear today. There are certain people who “aspire to the office of overseer”.

We see that there is indeed a certain desire within certain individuals to serve in this “office” within the local church. There also seems to be no indication that every Believer striving for maturity will have this aspiration. Every follower of Jesus is called to minister but not every follower of Jesus is called to “ministry”, at least in the sense in which we have come to use the phrase.

And, at least as I currently understand things, it all seems to hinge on this “aspiration” in certain people. It must be people who possess certain qualities of every mature Believer, they must be able to teach, but they must also desire to “elder”.

Which has led me to question whether or not the “call to ministry”, or, to serve as an elder, vocational or otherwise, which seems to coincide with the “aspiration” Paul refers to, is permanent. In other words, I have no doubt that I was “called to ministry”. I have no regrets and I would do most things the same again. But, somewhere along the way, my “ministry focus” has shifted. I no longer “aspire to the office of overseer”. I still love people. And, as much as God allows, I will continue to give myself for the sake of others, but there’s something about the “office” of which Paul speaks that I no longer “aspire” to.

It seems to me that there are a great number of people who feel trapped in ministry because they have been shamed into believing that the “call to ministry” is permanent and that they are somehow in sin if they no longer “aspire” to the office of elder. All of this, of course, is tied to the professionalization of pastors, but that’s a thought for another day.

As I’ve wrestled through all of this over the past months, I’ve come to believe that many of our current ministry models actually hinder actual ministry. Have cut off many people from everyday opportunities to serve because we have relegated those opportunities to the vocational minister. But as Paul makes clear, the “minister’s” work is actually to equip the people to . . . guess what, MINISTER! (Ephesians 4:11-13).

I think it’s time we questioned a lot of the ways we do things. Is seminary the best way to prepare “ministers”? What might happen if we minimized the role of “paid ministers”? What might happen if we encouraged people to follow God’s call on their lives with freedom, celebrating the fact that there may indeed be seasons to offices. What if we all simply gave ourselves to the service of others?

What if we gave pastors the freedom . . .

As you can tell, I’m still wrestling with a lot of issues.

I know that God has not revoked my true “call to minister” even though I no longer “aspire to the office of overseer”. I feel a freedom that I know many vocational ministers do not. I’m wrestling publicly with these issues because I want the best for the Church and its “ministers”.

Why I Am Resigning From Ministry

resignation-letterAs if our family hasn’t experienced enough change over the past year, on Sunday, November 09, 2014, we announced to our Church of the Cross family that, effective December 31, 2014, I will resign from all ministry leadership roles. I will no longer be on paid staff. Nor will I continue to serve as an Elder or Missional Community Leader in the Church of the Cross family.

This has been a long-coming but difficult decision. I have “officially” served in some sort of Christian ministry (paid or otherwise) for the past 19 years. This is the church we moved back to Arizona to plant. This is the church that has been our labor of love for the past six years. No one makes significantly intentional life decisions like this without lots of consideration and counsel. This is a big deal to us and we don’t take it lightly.

Perhaps I should say that it speaks loudly about American Evangelicalism that I feel the need to insert the emphatic notion here that this decision is not the result of sin (OK, yes, we all sin, but there is no disqualifying sin here). It speaks even louder about American Evangelicalism that I feel the need to urgently assert that this decision is not the result of a lapse in faith, or even joy in Jesus. There is no division within the church or its leadership and there is no bitterness that I know of. In fact, things with the church are going well and we are anticipating a season of health and growth.

It’s just time (Ecclesiastes 3).

But this is more complicated than just feeling the need for a career change. I know people that change careers more often than they change their underwear. OK, not really, it just sounded funny. Resigning from ministry brings many complications not necessarily associated with changing other careers.

How do you tell people you need a break from teaching others when it seems like that’s what you’re gifted at? How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is to care for people? You can’t take a break from caring. How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is “Christianity”. You don’t take a break from Jesus.

There are many jobs that you can job indefinitely at and it frankly doesn’t matter one squat in the woods if your heart is in it or not. I once worked at TCBY serving suburbanites and their kids frozen yogurt and assorted toppings. Never once did I feel passionately about it. But, over the course of months, I’ve heard from several people the concern that it doesn’t seem like I enjoy my job anymore.

It used to be that you picked a career and stuck with it until the pension. Both of my parents were elementary school teachers until retirement. But are there some jobs you just shouldn’t do any longer if your heart’s not in it? Teaching, maybe? Fighter Pilot? Probably? President of the United States, certainly? Pastoring? Most definitely.

In fact, a good seminary or wise leaders (those things are not always the same) will try to discourage potential pastors with such dire warnings as: “If you can picture yourself doing anything else, go do that instead” and, “If you’re heart’s not in it, step aside.”

As if that’s not enough pressure on pastors, I can think of no other “career” that has so much potential to wreak havoc on one’s sense of identity. It’s a difficult thing when your job performance is directly tied to your spiritual health. When your job is to lead others into spiritual maturity and you walk away from your job, it must be because you’re not succeeding at spiritual maturity yourself, right? Well, that’s at least how it’s often perceived. There is rarely a criticism of a pastor’s “job performance” that is also not a character critique. But I’m not resigning because ministry is difficult. If that were an option for me, it would have happened a long time ago. Of course ministry is difficult. But that’s not what I’m wrestling with.

Though we might not like it, we all know that we have a life cycle. We are born and we will die and we have a finite number of days in between. Over the years, I have come to believe that (as a Protestant speaking of the Protestant model) local churches also have life cycles. I’m not convinced that every local church is meant to last indefinitely. In fact, we probably push many local churches to keep gasping long after life support has been removed (let me say here that Church of the Cross is quite healthy and is actually experiencing exciting growth).

It’s only natural then, to wonder whether everyone who is called to elder is called indefinitely. Some churches place term limits on elders. For some reason that has never set well with me. Other churches let elders serve ad infinitum. This also doesn’t seem quite right.

Though the qualifications (with the possible exception of “able to teach”) to elder are nothing more than every Believer should strive for (1 Timothy 3, Titus, 1, etc), I wonder if certain men, like some certain churches have “life cycles” and if every mature Believer is called to an “official” ministry role. I know “qualified” people who do not “aspire” to the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:1). Is someone serving “officially” in a local church indefinitely tied to that role?

In other words, I am questioning my “life cycle” as an elder among (1 Peter 5) Church of the Cross. I have no doubt that God gave Kristi and me a clear vision for a gospel-centered/Jesus-focused/missional in suburbia/family-friendly/semi-liturgical family of people following Jesus that was meant to continue with or without us.

Our church has held to the conviction of shared leadership from the beginning and it is simply time for my time in the spotlight to subside. Convictions have not changed. Family sticks together, especially in the tough times. Church of the Cross will continue to follow Jesus with or without me because I’ve never been the one to hold it together.

When we adopted four children at once, our ministry focus changed. I had a very insensitive person whats-next(Colossians 4:6, Ephesians 4:29) tell me that I should resign from pastoring because I didn’t have enough love to spread between 8 kids and a church family. But that’s not it at all. I’m not “liberal”, but I do have a bleeding heart. I care for people beyond my capacity. The real issue has not been one of capacity but of priority.

Our ministry has shifted.

As such, I can no longer say that my heart is fully in “church ministry”. And if that’s the case, it’s not fair to anyone for me to continue. In fact, it’s probably better for everyone that I step aside. That person who said I lacked love didn’t understand the depth of love it takes to step aside for the good of others. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back. I say that just to let others understand what a difficult journey this has been for us.

Because I love God and His people, it is best that I lay aside the “official” weight of caring for others so that I can best care for the family He has brought under my roof. Because I love those God has brought under my roof, we will not withdraw from Christian community. My faith has not wavered. My convictions have not faltered. We will not withdraw from community, worship or God’s mission. But, our ministry has shifted.

We ask for your prayers because we don’t know what’s next. We are confident that this was the right decision for our family, but that doesn’t mean the next pieces have yet fallen into place. Please pray for peace, for wisdom, for clarity, for direction, for joy and for perseverance. Please pray for the Church of the Cross family during this time of transition. Please pray for our elders as they shepherd our church through this transition.

Thank you to all the family and friends who have journeyed with us so far and continue to travel through life with us.

It’s time for what’s next. Whatever that may be.