Home > Looking Back, Ministry > That Which I Don’t Understand

That Which I Don’t Understand

(Another post about my journey in, out, and back into ministry.)

It would be nice and easy to say that God spoke, I heard, the doors opened in front of me, and the direction became absolutely clear.  But that would not be the truth.

Rather, my journey was filled with starts, endings, dead-ends, a great deal of confusion, more angst, uncertainty, more stops, and more endings.  Did I mention confusion?  All that stuff which I don’t understand, even today.

Yet, every embarrassing detail, every failure, every success, has played a significant piece into shaping the life I live today.  Some of these stories I would like to bury and never mention again, but that would require burying oneself I suppose.

*******************

The words “You belong up here” meant something, but I didn’t know what.  At a minimum, those words had jolted me from my doldrums.  I had an education.  I had experience.  It should be put to use.

Maybe as a volunteer.

I wanted to believe that it meant as a volunteer.

At that time, I didn’t want to be the guy with all the responsibility.  As a volunteer, when things went bad, which given my past experience I thought they might, I could walk away, and it wouldn’t cost me my income.  If things went really bad, I could find another church to attend.  This is Texas.  There are churches everywhere.

Granted, my past experiences, when taken in total were overwhelmingly positive.  I’d worked for three churches and two of those experiences had been rewarding.  But I didn’t remember the good or even let the good frame my thinking, I veered towards the one negative experience and let it affect- derail- my perspective.

Since Lakeview happened to be without a pastor and as they occasionally had difficulty locating someone to preach on a Sunday morning, I let the appropriate people know that if they ever got in a jam and couldn’t find someone, I would be happy to fill in.

I didn’t expect them to call me.  With two seminaries in the area, how could they not find someone?

Given my state of mind, I considered my making myself available to help to be a major step forward.  If asked, I would fill in.

To my shock and surprise, they took me up on my offer.

Nearly three years after vowing never to preach another sermon again, I found myself standing on the stage preaching.

Maybe this is what “You belong up here” meant, filling in and helping out as a volunteer.  Maybe it meant that I couldn’t or shouldn’t withhold whatever abilities I had in the church.  That I could do.

Lakeview settled on a new pastor.

He asked if I would become a deacon at the church?  Sure, fine.

Would I do the announcements?  Yeah, why not.

Would I read the Scriptures during the service?  Yeah, love to.

Would I lead a home group?  Okay, sign me up.

Would I teach an occasional Sunday school?  Absolutely.

Would I preach one, two, or three times a year?  Sure.

Would I help put together a Christmas Eve service?  Yeah, great.

Would I do this or that?  Yes, yes, and yes!

I did all of this because I heard a voice that said, “You belong up here.”  I didn’t understand what it meant, but I also didn’t want to think about it too much.  I figured that if I did all that stuff then I could keep this voice at bay.  It would leave me alone.

During this same time period, I left one large investment firm and went to work for a much smaller one.  I really enjoyed the new company and the people I worked with.

Although I was happy and successful, I felt out of sorts.  I had worked hard to put this life together, shouldn’t it be more fulfilling and worthwhile?  I shouldered more responsibility at work.  I studied for and passed the Series 24 exam to become a General Securities Principal to go along with my Series 7 General Securities license.  I volunteered as much as I could at church.

But the more I did, the less fulfilled I felt.

So I did more.

(It sounded reasonable at the time.)

Periodically, I’d be sitting in front of my computer at home and my eye would catch a glimpse of that rock.  When that rock would catch my eye, all sorts of questions would come flooding back to my mind.  What happened back then?  What was I to make of that moment, of that time?  What about that idea of being called to the ministry?  Had I made a mistake?  Had I misunderstood, misheard, or misinterpreted things?

In light of where I started with that calling, how had I gotten to this place in life?  I drove thirty-five miles one way to work for an investment firm and I volunteered at Lakeview.  I hadn’t envisioned my life turning out like this.  How did I explain it?  I didn’t know how because I didn’t even understand how I’d gotten here.

I’d cut off contact with most of the people I’d met in college or graduate school.  I didn’t want to have to give an answer to them for why I no longer worked in a church or even why I’d never turned in my thesis for graduates school.

I tried to bury the past.

But it kept bubbling back to the surface.

“You belong up here.”

Maybe I needed to deal with this once and for all.

So how should I go about figuring, again, this idea of being called to ministry?  I decided to send an email to a group of people, friends that I’d known before I’d gone to Hardin-Simmons and to Rick, the guy I’d met at Lakeview.  I couldn’t contact anyone from my years in Abilene since I didn’t know how to reach most of them.

I wrote them that I continued to struggle with this question of calling to ministry.  I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do.  I asked for any and all insights that they might have.

Although I didn’t say as much in the email, I wanted them to respond by writing, “Yes, we believe you are called to the ministry,” or “No, we don’t believe you are.”

Someone make the decision for me.

From each and every person, I received the same response, “I’ll pray for you.”

Great.

(That’s a sarcastic great).

I’d wanted a different answer.

I didn’t trust myself to figure it out on my own.  I wanted someone to make the decision for me.

“Let’s be rational about this,” I told myself.  “Let’s suppose that you were actually called to the ministry.  If we concede that singular point, what is the likely outcome?  Would any church in their right mind hire you?  Even if that church existed, how in the world would you find that church?  You cut yourself off from every single person who might be able to help you.  How’s it going to look if you show up after all these years and say ‘Hey, great to see you.  How’s life?  Do you know any churches who would be willing to take a chance on me, the guy who has only worked in very small churches, who didn’t finish his Master’s degree, and has been working in the business world the last few years?’”

“Those are some good points,” I replied.  “What about Lakeview?”

“They’re doing their best to pay for the one full-time pastor they do have.  Can you do youth ministry for them?”

“No.”

“Have you learned how to play a musical instrument or sing on key?”

“No.”

“I don’t see it happening there,” I told myself.  “Look, even if you are called to ministry, and that’s a big if, there’s about a million to one chance of it coming to pass.”

Maybe so.  Maybe it was time to forget this idea, move on, and make the most of my life.

As much as I wanted to pack it in, give up, move on, and get on with the rest of my life, I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it.

Those friends had told me they’d pray for me.

I prayed a lot.

I heard nothing and wondered if God would ever speak again.

Or maybe He had already spoken.

I looked at that rock and remembered my prayer, “Lord, let me never forget…”

I thought about standing on that stage at Lakeview, forced into doing something I didn’t want to do, and hearing a voice that said, “You belong up here.”

What else did I need?

A way to go.  A direction.  An idea.

*****************

I made a phone call to a pastor I knew in San Antonio.  He’d been instrumental in helping me in my early years as a minister, and even though we hadn’t spoken in eight years and he lived two hundred and fifty miles away from me, he seemed like the person I should talk with.  In the brief time I’d known him, he’d given me insights and instruction that had helped me achieve more than I thought possible of myself.  A big part of me hoped that he could do the same again.

I called and left a message, asking if we could meet, maybe over lunch.

It seemed like a long shot.  The last time we’d spoken he’d been the pastor of a church of a couple of hundred people.  In the intervening years, he’d started a church and they’d grown to nearly two thousand people at the time (now they have over five thousand).  He might have more important things to do that meet with me.

I would’ve understood if he’d blown me off, not returned my call, or even told me he was too busy.  I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to offer him.  I would be taking up his valuable time, but I still made that call.

His receptionist called me back and said “Yes, he can meet with you for lunch on that day.”

This ministry thing might happen.

I met him at his office and after he showed me around, we went to lunch.  I think we went to Zio’s Italian Kitchen.

I gave him an overview of my situation.

“I’m eager, ready, willing, and convinced (almost convinced) that ministry is for me.  But I don’t know what to do next?”

“What about the church your currently attending?”

I gave him my assessment.  “Finances are tight and they have other pressing staff needs like youth and worship.  I don’t see the feasibility of me joining that staff anytime soon.”

“Hmm,” he replied.

“So what do I do?”

Rather than prescribing a plan for me or asking for my resume with a promise to pass it along should something come along, he told me about his own journey.  While in seminary in Fort Worth, he’d been in a car accident.  Because of health complications in his recovery, he’d forced to drop out of seminary and return to San Antonio.  Eventually, a small Baptist church hired him as their pastor.  Things went well for a period, but then they hit some rough patches.  God used those rough patches as part of a process to lead him to start a church.

He told me how difficult it had been in the beginning and about the criticism they’d received from the community and other churches.  He’d made personal and financial sacrifices, but in the end, if he had to do it again, he wouldn’t even hesitate.

“It has been the most rewarding experience of my life.”

We then talked about how he viewed leadership.  “I see how things can be better.  I can see how things can be different.”

And as he talked, as he described his approach to leadership and ministry and the purpose of the church, I felt as if he were inside my head describing myself.  I’ve never had another experience like that.

It was scary.

One thought popped into my mind, “Does God want me to start a church?”

“No,” I answered.  “You?  That’s pretty stupid.  Crazy even.  Highly unlikely.  Ridiculous.”

Given my journey, I wouldn’t dismiss anything that outlandish so easily.

Over the next month, the idea of starting a church bounced around in my head.  The more it bounced around, the more plausible it seemed.

I knew only one thing to do.  I called this pastor and asked if we could meet again.

“I want to explore this idea of starting a church.  It never occurred to me until we had lunch.”

He agreed and I made another trip to San Antonio.

(Not that I’m complaining or anything, because I got to be in San Antonio, where they have the greatest Mexican food in the world.  And I grew up there.)

He talked about vision, leading, not obsessing over details, and most importantly, expect problems.

As soon as lunch ended, I returned to my hotel room and wrote everything I could remember in a notebook.  I spent the afternoon jotting down every thought, every idea, every fear, worry, question, and phrase that came to mind.  I wrote so fast that I could barely read my handwriting.

I stopped and re-read what I had written.  I remember looking at those questions, at those fears, and not being bothered in the least by them.

“It’ll be okay.”

At this point, I could (should) share some of the journal entries where I poured out my heart.

But I can’t.

I could say that the contents of that afternoon are too personal.

I could tell you that I no longer have that journal and that would be a statement of truth.

I could claim that it had been stolen.

Or lost.

Or burned in a fire.

And those would be lies.

The truth is either a few months or a few years later I intentionally took that journal with those thoughts about that afternoon and threw it in the trash.  I never wanted to see or read those words again.

I’ll come back to that.

When I drove home from San Antonio that second time, I had convinced myself that God wanted me to start a church.  No doubt.  Unequivocal.  Absolutely certain.

I returned home and talked it over with Angela.  I had told her that this idea had been bouncing around in my head and that was the reason for my trip.  If I didn’t show her that journal, I read to her what I had written and the conclusions I had arrived at.

She responded as she always has, “I’m with you.  I’m behind you.  I support you.”

She is the best woman for me.  She is a perfect match, a perfect complement, and I consider myself the most fortunate man alive to have her as my wife (but all that is another book).

How do you start a church?  In 2001, there weren’t that many books on the subject.

But I knew enough to know that I needed to start talking to people, so that I did.

The response of people should’ve been an indicator to me.

Some nodded their heads and then went about their business.

Others told me they that they’d pray for me.  They must’ve figured that I desperately needed it.

A few, only a few, told me they thought I would be making a mistake if I went forward.

Maybe a few people told me they believed in the idea.

No matter what, I went ahead with my plans.   I thought about this venture all the time.  On my drive to and from work.  At lunch.  At dinner.  When I ran.  All the time.  Constantly.

I expected that we might start real small, but that would be okay.

The first Sunday came and we had a few people.  That first Sunday would be the high point of this venture.  People told me they were coming, but they never showed.

Quickly, I figured out that this had been a mistake.  I don’t know if it was a big mistake or a little mistake, because aside from a handful of people, most have no idea that I even attempted to start a church.

If I never mentioned it, which I rarely do, no one would know.

“So now what?”

I could’ve called that pastor back and asked for more advice, but I didn’t.  Call it embarrassment or pride, but I couldn’t make that phone call and ask for more help.

So if starting a church hadn’t been the idea, I should just cross that one off the list and move onto the next one.  I should set aside a time and place to pray and figure out the direction that God wanted me to go and then go there with everything I had.

“Are you kidding me?”

I had no interest in doing such a thing, I chose to blame God.  Once more, God had led me down a path and then pulled the rug out from under me.  At least that happened to be my perspective at the time.

Isn’t the saying “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me”?

Every time I gave myself to ministry work, it never seemed to work out for me.

(Again, this is the one negative experience overwhelming all of the positive experiences that I’d had.)

Maybe I had made a mistake in thinking that God had called me.

Besides, if by some freak chance God had indeed called me to the ministry, which I began to doubt all over again, how on earth would it ever take place?  How?

So once again, I gave up on the idea of church ministry for me, whatever that might have entailed or looked like.  It wouldn’t be happening in my life, and after all my experiences, I wasn’t that interested.

I decided to concentrate on my job, enjoy life with Angela, and find a church where I could volunteer (and no more.)  We also sold our house in Ovilla and bought one back in Arlington.  Both of us commuting thirty plus miles to work had gotten old after a few years.  Now, only I would be commuting the long distance to work.

(**In hindsight, I now see that I made a mistake in believing that I should start a church.  In every way possible, I lack those particular skills.  That doesn’t mean that I limit what God can do through a person, but I think that I latched onto this idea out of desperation, as my only way into ministry.  I was shortsighted.  People did try to talk some sense into me.  I ignored them.**)

*****************

Then a friend called.

After graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary, this friend had been hired by a large church in Fort Worth as their college and young singles pastor.  As part of this ministry, he and others had created a weekly worship service on Thursday nights geared towards this age group.

“Would you be willing to speak?”

“Sure,” I answered.

I’d kept this friend posted on the adventures, or lack thereof, on my idea of starting a church.  I found myself surprised that he asked me to come speak, but this did fit with my new creed:  Keep the day job and volunteer whenever and wherever.

I showed up, enjoyed myself, and did a decent job with the message.  He then asked me to speak again.   I may have mentioned that I was available.  Any time.

After that second time, those Thursday nights became a part of our lives.  I spoke as much as possible and helped out however I could.  I don’t know if he ventured the idea or if I offered, but I greatly appreciated the opportunity.

I viewed myself as nothing more than a guy with lots of experience who wanted to help out.  I had no hidden expectation that a church position might come from this.  I showed up on Thursdays and Sundays to help.  We’d have some of them over to our house or we might go out to eat with some of them afterwards.  Another guy and I started riding bikes together on Saturday afternoons.

I had a blast.  Angela and I looked forward to every single week.

I don’t think I can thank this friend enough for allowing me to be a part.

Numbers wise, we weren’t audaciously successful, but neither were we a colossal failure.

But, this friend’s boss continued to put pressure on him to increase the size of the group.  He never let it affect his outlook or demeanor.  I figured that’s what your bosses did in churches, they hounded you to reach more people.  Besides, if I had known the extent of the pressure they were putting on him, I might not have enjoyed it as much.

Eventually they’d had enough.

“They’ve asked me to look for another position with another church,” he told me.

“What?  Why?”

“Numbers.  They feel I should have more college students given the church’s proximity to Texas Christian University (TCU).”

“I’m so sorry.”

If anyone could empathize, it was me.

“But I want you to keep working with the group,” he told me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  And I really didn’t.  On the one hand, I enjoyed this ministry, but on the other hand, he was my friend.  It didn’t seem right to keep going without him.

Strategically, trying to keep this ministry going without him would prove to be difficult.

“You guys can do this,” Rick said.

He meant myself and the college and student worship pastor.

“I’ll try,” I said.

A few months later, he found a position as the senior pastor of another church in Michigan and moved there.

The student worship pastor and I soldiered on as best we could.

Our best didn’t prove to be good enough.  A few months later, the same superiors informed the student worship pastor that he ought to find a staff position somewhere else.  As for the Thursday night gathering, they wanted to go in a completely new direction with that as well.   They pulled the plug on that ministry.  My services were no longer required or desired.

I had been fired as a volunteer.

On the bright side, I got up the next morning and went to work.  I had no anger, bitterness, or regret.  I had done my best in serving those college students and young adults.  I had fun.  I believed we had been effective.  But the numbers didn’t measure up to what someone else wanted.  That I couldn’t control.

I decided that I would stick with the business world.  It seemed a much safer place.

That was my plan.

*****************
More posts about my journey in, out, and back into ministry
You Belong Up Here
When They Wouldn’t Accept “No” As An Answer
“No thanks.  I’m really busy.”
“I’m done.  I quit.”
“Why me?  Why here?”
“I Give Up!”

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Categories: Looking Back, Ministry
  1. Tammy
    March 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    Chris, I had no idea you’ve been writing for so long (or that you’d had such a horrific accident). I’ve been reading for about an hour!
    Thanks for opening up your journey, and I’m thankful God saw fit to make our families’ journeys coincide for a time. Just this morning, for the first time, I sat and started writing about God calling us to Michigan. We would never have heard or answered that call if things had been more pleasant in FW. I appreciate hearing your side of it.

    • March 11, 2011 at 10:42 am

      Tammy- Thanks for reading! And I wouldn’t where I am today without Rick. When you’ve gotten your journey down to michigan in writing, I would enjoy reading it. Thanks. Keep checking back, there’s more to come. Chris

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