I am often asked what made me decide to be a Pastor, when I knew I wanted to be a Pastor, how I knew what God was calling me to do, etc. Well, as much as I have tried to boil it down into a short answer, it’s actually a long story – one that is probably best told in stages…
How I Became a Pastor, Part 1: Innocence Turned Bitter
To begin with, look at that hair! Also, I was raised in the faith. My parents were (and are) believers/Christians, and the story goes that when they had me (or maybe before) they decided that they wanted to send their children to private school. My dad had gone to Catholic school and took that off the table for me. That left the local Lutheran school, where my ex-Catholic dad and my Baptist mom enrolled 3-year-old me in preschool.
Now, as is the case for many Lutheran schools, membership has its privileges – namely, a tuition discount. Plus, Lutheranism is a pretty good middle ground for a Catholic and a Baptist, so my parents soon became members of Peace Lutheran Church and School in Disco, Michigan. (As the area grew, Peace’s address changed from Disco to Utica to Shelby Township). In fact, my dad became a member on the same day that my 4-month-old sister and nearly 4-year-old me were baptized, which also happens to have been April 1st, 1979. And the fact that I was baptized on April Fool’s Day is about the most appropriate thing ever. My preschool teacher, Mrs. Hohnstadt, was a big influence on my parents joining and getting us baptized, and she was (and is) my godmother/sponsor.
As a family, we became progressively more involved in the church and I continued to attend Peace School through the 8th grade. As a boy, I’m told I often asked if we were going to pray before meals or do family devotions, sometimes to the embarrassment of family members. My dad says it was this that led him to suspect I might one day go into ministry, but I’m skeptical – to me, it was just what we were supposed to do, the way I had been taught in school.
From Peace, I went on to Lutheran High School North in Mt. Clemens (now Macomb), Michigan. I think just about everyone could claim their childhood was tough. I had my fair share of things I could complain about, but all in all I know I have been very blessed my entire life, in spite of some tough challenges. What I will say is that my high school experience had a profound impact on how I viewed the church, church people, Christian education, and Lutherandom in general, and not for the good. Those views have since been largely redeemed, but it definitely affects the way I do ministry today (more on that later).
To make the long story as short as possible, a number of things happened during my senior year that should never have happened, and they all originated with the people in authority over us: teachers, administration and staff. I won’t go into all the details, but I will share the two biggest things for me:
The first was a car accident I was in that happened in front of the school immediately after school was out. Afterward, I could see the teachers standing by the school doors, talking and pointing at me. What not a single one of them did – teachers who knew me – teachers who I had laughed and joked with – teachers I had stayed after class to help out – not one of them came out to see if I was okay. What was even worse was that by the next day, rumors were flying about me being a kid who was always in trouble, and that I had been “rooster-tailing” back and forth in front of the school prior to the accident – neither of which were true. But the worst of it was that these rumors were started and spread by my teachers. Because I had been driving my dad’s corvette (it had been raining and I lost control as I accelerated and over-corrected, sliding off the road and into the ditch), I went in an instant from a good kid who never even had a tardy to a spoiled rich kid in their eyes. And while they felt completely comfortable teasing me about it, not one of them ever asked if I had been hurt in the accident, and only one ever apologized for his treatment of me.
The second was my guidance counselor. When I told her that Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin was pushing hard, not only to recruit me to go there, but also for me to apply for their most prestigious scholarship, she told me she had never heard of it, and that I “could never get a scholarship like that anyway.” After I won their highly competitive “full ride” (tuition, room and board) Lincoln Scholarship, she couldn’t even find it in herself to congratulate me, let alone apologize.
Combined with a few other things I experienced and witnessed, by the time I graduated, I hated my high school and everything it stood for. I couldn’t wait to go away to college and start fresh.
And, had it not been a Christian high school, perhaps my experience wouldn’t have been nearly as hurtful. as frustrating or as baffling to me. But when I graduated high school I also felt as though I had graduated from the the Church. I was sick of Christians, and I was sick with their religion.
Except that my faith was never affected. Unlike so many others who were hurt by church people, I never blamed God. In fact, I felt like He was the only one who understood me and cared about me, and I was completely content being on my own with God, with no church people to get in my way.
It didn’t take long for that to change…