A number of people have asked me lately how, and why, I became a pastor. This is my attempt to tell that story. If you’ve known me for a while, you may have heard this before. (You may even be in it.) But I hope it will be at least a little interesting to some of you.
Where to begin? I suppose college is as good a place as any. I majored in mathematics and physics in college, and really enjoyed learning how to think like a scientist. (I don’t remember much math or physics, but I do believe that my already analytical mind became more honed through these courses.) For my first few years there, I was convinced that I would go from there to grad school, get a doctorate, and teach mathematics (or perhaps physics) at the college level.
But sometime during my junior year, I realized that I couldn’t see myself doing graduate work like this. I always expected to feel some kind of “spark” or “twinkle in my eye” as I studied. But I didn’t find it. At least I didn’t find it where I expected. Not in math or physics courses. I found it in the electives I took in the Religion department.
I basically minored in Religion, despite the registrar’s office telling me that one could not have two majors and a minor (too much work, they said). So it was an unofficial minor, but I loved it. Especially the independent studies I did with two professors. And so I started to consider doing further studies in theology. After some discussions with my professors, I decided that I would apply to attend a Lutheran seminary, and aim to get a Master of Divinity degree, the degree that pastors get. I’m trying to remember if those professors actually recommended that, because looking back, I don’t know why they would have. I was not interested in becoming a pastor; I just wanted to study theology. It would have made a lot more sense to go to a divinity school, or some other, more academic program. But somehow I made that decision early on: I would attend one of the eight Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminaries.
I visited four of them, and quickly narrowed it to two: the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I applied to both schools, and was accepted by both. I liked them both, but felt a real connection to the school at Chicago. But moving that far away from home was terrifying to me. Everyone I knew and loved was either in Pennsylvania or very close to it. I was torn…I felt like I should go to Chicago, but was too scared to go. I spent an hour alone one night in the college chapel asking God for direction; I found none.
I left there as confused and anxious as I’d gone in. I decided to try again the next night. That night, almost as soon as I knelt down, I heard an almost audible voice saying: Why are you here again? I shook it off, and kept praying. Again, I heard the voice: I called you to go to seminary. I didn’t tell you where. You already made your decision. I’ll see you in Philadelphia. It was as simple as that. I think I was looking for permission to go to Philly instead of Chicago, and that’s what I received.
So that was it. I was called to seminary, but I was absolutely not called to be a pastor. I knew that above all else. My father’s a pastor; I knew a bit about that life, and I knew I didn’t want it. Besides, I still believed my future career was the same…I’d be a college professor; except, now I’d be teaching religion.
Nonetheless, the college chaplain had convinced me that it would be wiser to start out in the candidacy process, just in case I changed my mind; it would be easier to get out of candidacy than to get into it later.
SIDEBAR: In order to be ordained in the ELCA, you must successfully complete two processes (usually done concurrently). One is the academic achievement of a Master of Divinity. The other is the approval of a synodical Candidacy Committee. Every synod in the ELCA has a Candidacy Committee, and they meet several times, over the course of several years, with people who are discerning the call to ordained or lay rostered ministry in the church. Through these meetings, the committee acts on behalf of the ELCA to help discern if the individual is indeed qualified, prepared, and called to professional ministry.
The chaplain was right. It was indeed easy to get out of the candidacy process. Toward the end of my first year at seminary, I knew more than ever that I was not called to be a pastor. While I was really enjoying my classes, I knew this was not a career for me. I’ll just get my degree, and then apply for a Ph.D. program somewhere, thank you very much.
Except…at the end of three years, when I was approaching graduation, I no longer had that spark, that twinkle in my eye. I did not have the gumption to go onto doctoral work. So I needed to get a job instead. With a Master of Divinity, the only thing I was qualified to do was church work. Luckily, I found a church looking for a full-time Director of Education/Pastoral Assistant. I interviewed there, and started the job a month after graduation. It went pretty well, and I stayed there for just under five years. One thing surprised me as time went on…I actually found I enjoyed the “Pastoral Assistant” end of the job: hospital visitation and occasional preaching. In fact, it might have been even more fulfilling than the Christian Education piece. That really surprised me, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
One other interesting thing that happened during my five years…at the senior pastor’s urging, I was commissioned as an “Associate in Ministry.” An Associate in Ministry is a lay person who has received a certain amount of theological training, completed a (slightly different) candidacy process, and has been “commissioned” to a professional ministry of Word and Service. My job title and description did not change. The only thing was that now different was that I was recognized by the ELCA as a leader on the “roster.” It gave my ministry a different sort of authority.
Oh, and one other thing was different: now I had to attend the First Call Theological Education retreat for three years. This was an annual retreat, designed for (and mandatory for) ELCA pastors and lay rostered leaders (like Associates in Ministry) who were in their first three years of their first call. Even though I had been in my current position for over four years, I was newly commissioned, so I had to go. I was really grumpy about going. From talking with others, I learned that this retreat was primarily for pastors (which I wasn’t), and was in great part about the transition from seminary to congregation (which I had navigated years before). I had a really bad attitude going into it. But it was life-changing for me. Three things happened while I was there:
First, I saw a lot of old seminary classmates and colleagues there. And no fewer than six of them told me some variation of this: “You know, I never understood why you didn’t become a pastor. I always thought you’d be a good one.” That was weird.
Second, I realized that I was really sick and tired of being a Christian Education director. I enjoyed working with youth, but I was really, really, really tired of the “program” end of it. I was really tired of organizing things like ski trips. I liked teaching confirmands; I liked planning Youth Sundays; I liked getting to know teenagers, and finding their gifts. But I just didn’t like the “cruise director” part of the job at all. I realized that I was getting burned out.
And third, and here’s the big one: I saw a seminary classmate there whom I had hurt when we were students together. I had said something insensitive that, in my mind, she blew out of proportion. I knew that she was still upset about it, years later. When our eyes met at the retreat, she immediately walked out of the room. And in that moment, something occurred to me: “It’s not up to me to decide if she should be upset. It’s not up to me to decide if I did something wrong. That’s up to her. What’s up to me is what I do about it now.” And so I found her, and I said her name. She said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want to give you an apology that’s long overdue. I’m sorry.” And she said, “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear.” She smiled, and we started talking about other things. We ended up sitting together in evening worship that night. We didn’t become friends or anything, but somehow that moment of forgiveness broke something inside me.
I spent a lot of free time at that retreat walking around the cemetery on the grounds of the retreat center. As I walked, I argued with God. I had heard messages over these few days: Others view you as a pastor. You are burned out from your current job. And you are forgiven. And I thought that maybe, maybe these messages were God’s way of telling me that I was indeed supposed to be a pastor. I argued and argued. I told God that he’d better be serious, because I did not want to get into this if he didn’t have my back. I left the retreat feeling seriously weird, and strangely excited.
On the way home, I stopped to see an old friend. I asked her, “Are you a pastor?” She looked at me funny, and said, “Umm, no…” Then I asked, “Is that because you’ve being saying ‘no’ to being a pastor for years?” She smiled and said, “No.” I said, “I think I’m starting to figure some things out.”
From that point, it was about two and a half years until I was ordained. That sounds like a long time, but it was actually pretty quick. Doors started opening, and things just sort of fell into place. And looking back, it’s so clear to me that this was the right path. Looking back, it’s extraordinary to me how much I just refused God’s call for so long, running away like Jonah, until the belly of the whale (the retreat) forced me to have a long overdue conversation with God.
And then I finally listened.