If you’ve hung with me for the first two posts here and here, congratulations! The meandering journey of how and why I became a Pastor concludes this week with a post encapsulating two big moves, two miracle babies, and a series of awakenings…
How I Became a Pastor, Part 3: The Thrilling Conclusion
In a depressed job market thanks to the Enron scandal and the September 11th attacks, not everyone in Heidi’s business school class got a job. She was one of the fortunate ones, though, as she was hired at an energy company not named Enron in Houston, Texas. This would mark our biggest move yet, farther away from family and into an entirely different culture. I transferred with Lowe’s, and we were off to Texas.
But, shortly after our arrival, I quit my Assistant Store Manager job at Lowe’s in order to figure out what it was I really wanted to do. See, I had set a lofty goal, and had achieved it before I had a chance to determine what my next goal would be. That meant my motivation was gone – especially with Heidi now making far more money than I could ever make working retail. Now, I absolutely do not recommend quitting your job until you have another one lined up if you can help it, but in our case, we could afford for me to walk away. A year later, I was teaching a World Religions class with a colleague who quickly became a friend, at a community college that was bigger than many universities. I was finally doing what I loved – teaching college students. My adjunct position grew into a temporary full-time position as Instructor of Philosophy, and I was having a great time building and teaching courses.
The problem was, in order to have any job security and be hired full-time, I would need a doctorate. So I began applying to – and being rejected by – PhD programs. Granted, I was aiming high, but it was very discouraging to keep getting those rejection letters. And with Heidi’s increasing desire to leave her job to focus on home and family, life was getting to be pretty challenging. Plus, I just kept feeling like I was supposed to be doing more.
In December 2004, our first child, Ethan, was born. He had a rough start at birth, and he literally came to within minutes of not surviving. But he was (and is) an awesome kid, and I stayed at home with him his first two years. Then, in the summer of 2006, we found out he was going to be a brother. Knowing that we both wanted out of the heat and traffic of Houston, as well as the terrible mortgage we had taken out to buy our first house, we sold the house for a painful loss. We got an apartment in anticipation of being able to move when the opportunity presented itself. We had also worked hard and sacrificed much for three years in order to get completely out of debt. By the close of 2006, we were debt-free and mobile – we just needed an opportunity for change.
In February of 2007, change arrived in an incomprehensible way. His story deserves its own post, but our second child, Daniel, was a special needs child with cerebral palsy. He was an incredible, wonderful, lovable and beautiful gift from God – who completely turned our world upside-down and inside-out. We had no idea how to be parents to a special needs child, and we had no idea what cerebral palsy meant. His prognosis was a mystery – there were no predictions as to whether he would ever walk or talk, see or hear.
While Daniel was in the NICU*, the world that had been threatening to overwhelm me before Daniel’s birth came crashing down all around as I sat in the hospital chapel and prayed. “God,” I asked, “What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do? Nothing I’m doing is working and I don’t know how to take care of my family. What do I do, Lord?” And while I can’t exactly explain it, I received an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice from heaven, no angels appeared to me, and no disembodied hands started writing things on the chapel walls.+ What did happen was that I suddenly had clarity in my mind where there had been chaos, and a thought formed which became increasingly more clear and insistent to me: You’ve tried to do it all on your own for too long. It’s time to be sent.
But what did it mean? I had no idea. So, I did the only thing I could think of: I called my pastor. Pastor Matt Popovits, my friend, had baptized Daniel in his darkest hour – and now I needed him to speak wisdom during mine. I told Matt my thoughts, and he barely hesitated when he asked me if I had ever considered seminary. Excuse me? A Pastor? Are you nuts?
I need to back up for a minute, so please – if you’ve borne with me so far, this will be worth it, I promise. The previous Thanksgiving, we had been with Heidi’s family and we were talking about fear. I began to feel an overwhelming urge to share my biggest fear, something I had never told anyone up to that point, or at least nobody besides Heidi. See, my biggest fear was always that God would call me to be a Pastor.
I think it goes back to the 3rd grade, when a friend of mine moved away to Papua New Guinea, because her dad was a missionary. All the talk at school from everyone was that her dad had been “called by God to be a missionary to New Guinea.” And in my young mind, that was terrifying, as though her dad had no choice because God had called him to do it. I began to be afraid that God would one day call me to go to Africa or India or China, and that fear only grew as I encountered many Pastors in many churches along the way, the vast majority of which I could not relate to, did not care for, and would never want to be. And I thought that if God ever called me to be a Pastor, He would make me like one of them. But when it came time to confess that fear with my family in 2006, it was accompanied by another thought: “If you tell them you’re scared, it won’t be scary any more.” And, as I begrudgingly spoke that fear aloud, I’m not kidding – I actually did feel the fear go away.
So back to my conversation with Pastor Matt: he told me he thought that I had pastoral gifts (my students, for example, would come to me for counseling and advice, even after having me for just one class), that he thought I would make an awesome pastor (what?!?), and he explained that in the LCMS – wait, did I mention that God had brought me two years earlier kicking and screaming back into the Lutheran church? Hmm, must have slipped my mind… Anyhow, in the LCMS, guys go to seminary for four years and then are sent to their first call as a pastor, rather than picking their spot…
It all fit. It was all weird, but it all made sense, somehow: my fear, being sent, trying to be in control of everything and having that illusion of control taken away by the birth of a special needs son; it all fit together in a perfectly illogical but perfectly good and right way that meant that Heidi and I should quit the well-paying jobs that we really liked doing, pack up our special needs family with no guarantee of income, move halfway across the country to St. Louis, Missouri, and pay the seminary to let me go to school there. So we did. Because it somehow made sense. I know, right?
But remember how we had just sold our house? Remember how we had gotten debt-free? Remember how I had confessed my fear and the fear had just gone away? Yeah. God works in weird, unpredictable and often humorous ways. And “time to be sent” became my rallying cry during seminary, to let go of trying to control and make sense of things, and just trust that God knew what he was doing better than I did. And while I absolutely worked my tail off in seminary and it was, without a doubt, the single most stressful period of my life, it was so good for all of us.
But what about the whole being a pastor thing? Well, Matt explained that God will never call me or anyone else to be anybody else. I could never be any of those other guys I had seen and known, even if I wanted to. If God was calling me to be a pastor, then He was calling me to be a pastor, period. And you know what else? Everyone I told I was going to seminary said it made sense to them, that they weren’t surprised, and even that it was about time.
And you know what? They were all right. Above all else, God knew what He was doing, from my being born to parents who cared enough to send me to a Christian school, to the foundation I got while I was there, to learning how it feels to be mistreated by people in ministry so I could relate to others who have been treated the same or worse. From learning how important sound teaching is, to knowing what it’s like to find a church, to knowing how easily you can get beat up and burned out in ministry. Every step of the way, God has been preparing me for the ministry I have now, and for the ministry He has for me to do in the future.
But it’s no different for you, you know – I’m really not that special. You may not be called to be a pastor, but you do have a ministry and a calling. How has God shaped you through experiences you would never in a million years have recognized as preparing you for that calling?
The final steps in the process were seminary and vicarage#. I confess that even after everything pointing me to seminary, I still didn’t feel like I was fit to be a pastor. I had never seen myself as fitting any of the personality descriptions I had ever heard of church workers and pastors. And guess what? I still don’t! God has called me to be a pastor, and although I am sinful and broken, quite probably more than anyone out there, I walk this walk the only way I know how: by being who I am, and striving to be a better me today than I was yesterday; a better me tomorrow than I am today – but only with God’s help. Still, it wasn’t until I went on vicarage and actually began doing pastoral ministry that I saw myself fitting a vocation in a way I had never seen or felt before. I was a good retail manager – the people who worked with and for me have attested to that. I was a good college instructor – my students have told me so and it was reflected in their evaluations. But I was meant to be a pastor; I am truly called to do this, and God has been preparing me for it my whole life. I love what I get to do, and although it has been insanely difficult at times – I have lost friends, been betrayed by confidants and had my reputation attacked – it is a calling unlike any other, and to walk inside your calling is truly an incredible gift. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.
I am so thankful for the blessings I have had in this life, and for who I am today – sinful and broken, but forgiven; confident in the gifts God has given me and humbled to be used by Him to love others and teach them His Word. I don’t know if you made it through my whole story, and I don’t know if you found it as interesting as you hoped it might be. But I hope some part of it speaks to you, and I hope you reach out to God in prayer and ask Him what He’s doing in and through you. I hope you’ll stick with me and keep reading my other posts. This is only a small part of my story, but I thank you for letting me tell it.
*NICU stands for Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Daniel went from being one of the sickest babies in the 110-bed unit of one of the biggest NICU’s in the country to coming home with us ‘just’ 32 days later.
+This is a bit of an inside joke for those who know their Bible. In the book of Daniel (get it?), chapter 5, King Belshazzar throws a huge party, when suddenly a disembodied hand begins writing strange characters on the wall. The prophet Daniel is summoned, and he reads the characters, which spell out the king’s doom.
#Vicarage in the LCMS denomination is a year-long, full-time pastoral internship, served actively in a congregation under the supervision of an ordained pastor.