Preparing to Leave

Ministers often speak of “The Call” in similar hushed and reverent tones as they speak about God. The Call is something most in ministry claim to hear, even if what they “hear” isn’t audible. It usually has some modicum of specificity, often about a place or a type of ministry. (I.E., some are “called” to be missionaries in Africa, others to ministry to children, wherever that may be, and some feel called to pastor Cowboys in Texas.) The Call is often described as coming with a heaviness, a responsibility similar to that given to parents upon the birth of a child. It requires all. It is monumental. 

If that is what “The Call” is, then I’ve never felt it.

What I have felt at various times in my life is a series of inclinations that I belong to a certain place, being the me that God has created me to be. Sometimes those inclinations have come in the form of audible voices, not from the sky, but from the mouths of people close to me. Such was my “calling” back to seminary. I attended Baylor’s Truett Seminary for a semester in 2002, and in subsequent years friends would often ask me when I planned to return. This “ Call” became more frequent, slowly transitioning from the interrogative “when” to the suggestive “you need to.”

I returned to Truett in the fall of 2008.

In the year between when Josh was hired and I returned to seminary, I remember being happy at UBC in a way that I hadn’t been for a while. I still had issues with the church, but they stopped mattering as much as they had before. I actually did what most people in churches like UBC do, leaving the “dirty work” to the professionals while making a conscious choice to remain ignorant of what was going on behind the scenes. This newfound stance of mine was equal parts healthy and unhealthy. On the one hand, it is a hell of a lot easier to follow Jesus’ commands to “consider the lilies and sparrows” and to “worry not” when you put the inner workings of church out of sight and out of mind. It requires a certain amount of faith that God is doing God’s work, without your help.

But I believe this willful agnosticism can also, if taken to an extreme, indicate a crippled understanding of God and God’s work in a church. I’ve heard it said that if a Christian is indifferent to the symbols of faith— the cross, baptism, communion, etc.— then it can indicate an indifference toward God. This may not appear to be true on the surface. They may speak robustly about God and their personal relationship with Him, but often, on closer inspection, are in undeveloped stages of faith. I believe the same can be said of an indifference toward church polity. It can amplify the myth that discipleship and spiritual formation are primarily about what I’m receiving, rather than about the ways I am choosing to live life in community with God’s followers.

During this time I wasn’t indifferent, but neither was I obsessed, and after the previous few years, this felt right. A sign of my newfound peace was that when the church hired Kelly, an incredible and able Social Worker, to help with our neighborhood ministries, (without consulting the congregation, of course,) I didn’t “cause a scene.” Maybe I had thrown in the towel. Or maybe I was growing up.

What is significant about my return to seminary is that I wasn’t just making a decision to return to school, I was deciding that eventually, in the not too distant future, I would be leaving UBC to begin a career in ministry elsewhere. The staff at the church was settling into place after years of transition, and we appeared to be at the beginning of a long season of stability, without adding any new pastoral staff for the foreseeable future.

Regardless, I knew my opportunity to pastor at UBC had come and gone. Even if the leadership of the church ended up looking to hire another pastor, it is uncommon for even the healthiest organizations to be courageous enough to hire an outspoken critic. Though I continued to be personally close with (almost) everyone in the leadership of UBC, I felt I had burned too many bridges on the institutional level to have much of a chance of ending up in leadership myself.

Regardless, I was at peace with my uncertain future. I settled into seminary life, working full time at the bookstore before eventually reducing my hours there and taking a part-time ministry position working with students at Baylor. 

While at Truett I developed a newfound love for liturgy and corporate worship. I also found new life in the writings of Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson and others, who helped inform and transform my faith through their writings on spiritual formation. They gave me practices and rhythms of living the Christian life that I had previously resisted or been ignorant of. The sermons of Barbara Brown Taylor and Truett’s own Joel Gregory, as well as the continued influence of reading Anne Lamott, not to mention the close bonds of friendship I was forming with other students and professors, gave me a renewed hope that the Christian faith, practiced in the context of a local congregation, could be lived in a way that is both balanced and vibrant. I discovered during these years that following Jesus could consist of both skepticism AND faith, doubt AND belief, cynicism AND tenderness. And that all of this could still happen in a Christian community that valued authenticity, honesty, AND beer.

(I also took classes and read books on pastoral ministry and church administration that helped assure me I wasn’t completely off-base in my past critique of how UBC had operated.)

***

In the summer of 2009 I became the interim pastor at St. Paul’s, a rural church affiliated with the United Church of Christ, near West, fifteen miles northeast of Waco. The church had been pastored by a friend who had recently left to devote more energy to her job at a therapeutic childcare center in Waco, as well as to being a mom. As I had preached in her place several times before, I already had a good relationship with the congregation.

Though I’ve never felt a desire to preach on a weekly basis, the opportunity to do so was one of the greatest gifts I received from St. Paul’s. The actual greatest gift I received from them was an easy-going and open spirit. They knew they weren’t a “destination church” for seminary students, and that no one could make a living becoming their full time pastor.  They will probably always be a temporary stop-off place for ministers, except for the occasional retired pastor who settles in the community and agrees to pastor the church for a few years. As such, they are overjoyed when anyone agrees to walk with them down the road for a few months.

(Side note: Since writing this in the summer of 2015, St. Paul’s has had one of their own, a man who grew up in the church, begin the process of becoming their pastor. This is great news for this special group of believers that proclaim the gospel in a region a friend of mine has referred to as “The outskirts of the Empire.”)

Near the end of the summer of 2009, though, they began to need a more regular pastoral presence than what I was giving, and asked me to begin the process of ordination within the UCC so I could be with them more permanently. 

I considered the proposition for a short time, but decided against it. I loved being at St. Paul’s, and if I were more financially independent, I would have moved out there in a heartbeat. (They have a parsonage next to the church, surrounded by scenic Heart of Texas farmland.)  But the fall semester was approaching, and I would need to return to focusing my energies on studies and other jobs that were putting food on the table, with a little extra left-over change to place Aunt Sallie Mae’s coffers. In addition to this, regardless of how “emergent” I became, I have always felt a strong loyalty to my Baptist roots, and wasn’t ready to give that up.

Also, I was homesick for UBC.

St. Paul’s was my training ground, but UBC continued to be my family, and I wanted to be with them as much as I could, believing my time there would likely come to an end soon.

***

I finished my time at St. Paul’s at the end of the summer of 2009 and returned to school, working at the bookstore and with the Spiritual Life Department at Baylor, and sharing life with my friends at UBC. The Friday Happy Hour group continued to go strong with Britt, Josh and me, though Jonathan had moved away. He was always a free spirit and his departure surprised no one. Tom, my old roommate, and Beth, his wife, also became an integral part of my life. I officiated their wedding, as well as that of Britt and Holly.

***

I was doing a lot of weddings during this time.

Several months after Kyle died one of his close friends, and a good acquaintance of mine, Steve, approached me about being the minister at his and his fiancé Mickey’s wedding. Steve was a man in his early sixties who looked, and acted, like a man in his mid 30’s. He was always mysterious, appearing intermittently at various places around town where people gather. I knew him from the bookstore, where he would regularly meet for coffee with a group of old men. Kyle knew him from the gym where they both worked out. He never talked much about himself, and it took Kyle and me years to figure out his last name. Kyle was able to trick him into revealing that he had once been a rising star on the rodeo circuit, so he received from us his nickname “Rodeo Steve.”

Rodeo Steve took Kyle’s death hard. Kyle was the reason he even was able to step foot in a church, and doing so after the accident became increasingly difficult for him. He and I continued to have a good relationship. When we bumped into each other around town, conversation was easy and engaging. Kyle had promised Rodeo Steve that when he and Mickey, his girlfriend at the time, were ready to tie the knot, that Kyle would be honored to do the ceremony. Since Steve knew how close Kyle and I were, I suppose he figured I would be the next best thing.

In Texas you are required to be licensed by your church or religious organization (or an officer of the law)  to perform weddings. I was never licensed or ordained, so approached Ben about the possibility of getting this done. He obliged and in 2006 I was “licensed to the gospel” ministry by University Baptist Church, Waco, TX. In the good-old-boy ministerial parlance of a bygone era, this meant that I could “marry ‘em and bury ‘em.” So I married Steve and Mickey, Tom and Beth, Britt and Holly, and several other people at UBC who would have likely asked Kyle to perform the ceremony had he been alive. This, in some ways, became my ministry to UBC during the five years after his death. Not the weddings, though that was part of it, but being a stand in for Kyle. It was, and continues to be, one of the greatest honors of my life.

***

In late 2009 I was approached again by a church in Gatesville, 40 miles west of Waco, about becoming their pastor. Unlike St. Paul’s, this would have been a full-time job, one I could have devoted all my energies to. Gatesville is a small town on the far northern tip of the Texas Hill Country, and near Ft. Hood, one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world. I was connected to the church through Truett, and had preached there intermittently during the year as they searched for a new pastor. It was a congregation that seemed rough around the edges, which appealed to me. It wasn’t the largest church in town, but it once was. The deacons (who, in this church, were the main decision makers,) knew they didn’t want someone from the more conservative Baptist seminary in the state, even if they couldn’t quite put their finger on why. Most of the men wore cowboy boots, and you could tell the women were the ones who actually made the church go, which is often the case in Baptist churches. I was intrigued by the possibility.

I began to dream about what life would be like as the pastor of this church. It was away from Waco, but close enough that I could still occasionally visit my friends. The slower pace of life in a smaller town was something I grew up with and could easily fit right back into. Although they didn’t want a pastor from “that conservative seminary,” they were significantly more conservative than I was, but they weren’t angry about it, something I believed I could work with.

Everything made sense about me being there, yet something was holding me back. A feeling, or and intuition…perhaps a call?… that I should wait. So I continued preaching a the church and asked if I could put off making a decision about taking the position full time. Eventually, though, they grew tired of waiting, and I understood. So I returned to UBC.

I knew I couldn’t delay finding a full time pastoral position much longer. Though I was going through seminary fairly leisurely, taking only 9 credits a semester and not attending in the summers, there would still come a time in the not-to-distant future when I would need to take a leap of faith and connect to a congregation, which is what I was in school for. I knew there would never be a perfect fit for a single minister in his mid-30’s who cussed (a little) and drank (a little more,) whose favorite singers were Hank Williams and Jamey Johnson, who read more “secular” fiction than Christian literature, and for whom cynicism and doubt came easier than certainty about faith. But I assumed something would come along that would be right.

Soon, though, there was an opening at a church where all of those disparate things about me were welcome.

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