“Difficult circumstances have also shaped me. In fact, I think it’s in difficult circumstances that our character is forged and refined. For me, the most notable challenge was the loss of a position at my first Covenant Church. In the midst of these difficult circumstances, we can give up, give in to unhealthy habits, or we can shine; anthropologists use the term “liminality” to describe those difficult situations that will mold us for good or ill. While nobody handles difficult circumstances perfectly, I’ve grown a lot through my last three churches and the tough situations in which I had to work, in difficult staff situations in two churches then the hard work of transitional ministry at the third. In each church, I tried and failed and learned more how to be a better pastor.” [On All the Things, pg. 3]
The church I served in South Dakota was my first time in paid pastoral ministry. I was young, very self-assured, and fresh off the mission field and out of seminary. I was sure I had it all figured out.
And yet, week after week, I was called into the senior pastor’s office to go through a list of that week’s offenses. People pulled him aside and - “anonymously” - told him all I was doing wrong.
For a year.
I never had the chance to have those conversations face to face and never had the chance to explain the logic behind my choices. Rather, I was simply told to fix them to the liking of “anonymous.” It finally got to a place where I was asked to resign, that this was obviously not a great cultural fit for me. I agreed: a church with a culture that valued anonymous complaints more than the dignity of scripture or of their staff was not for me. I didn't like being treated like a kindergartener being sent to the principal’s office for reading books with weird titles or the constant volume war or a myriad of other things. To be sure, I was new at this and had lots to learn and made lots of mistakes. But I began to realize that I wasn’t going to learn much else here. I was ok with leaving, however nervous it made me.
And yet, through a remarkable and obviously God-centered set of circumstances, I was hired without delay at a church in my current denomination - the Evangelical Covenant Church. My first pastor’s conference (Midwinter) was in blustery, snowy, really cold Chicago, and I arrived broken and in pain from the challenge of my first church. And yet I was welcomed, cared for, listened to — with tears even — as I poured out my story. The ECC became home very quickly.
Fast forward a little over three years, and I’m on the ordination track. I came home from a Christmas trip to visit my parents, and was blindsided by the news that I was required to resign my position at a church I was sure would be my home for many years. I was told a number of things about myself — that I should have stayed in science instead of following the Call of God into ministry, that I wasn’t a good pastor ... that I would be leaving in two weeks.
If I thought my first transition was painful, this was a whole new level of anxiety and pain. I didn’t know where we were going to go, what we were going to do, how we’d afford groceries after my severance was up before school was out for my kids. I was angry and confused and, maybe for the first time since I made the choice to follow God into ministry, began questioning whether or not I had heard God correctly.
But against the narrative of the anxiety in my head, we landed at another Covenant Church. This church was broken ... like me. This church was hurting ... like me. This church had been through an unforeseen and difficult set of circumstance ... like me. And this church had just gotten hold of two other pastors who had been through such things recently ... like me. The next two years were challenging and transformational and amazing as three broken pastors and a broken church learned together that God still had a mission and wanted us as part of it.
I learned two big things in all of this.
There were people in those first two churches - many people - who came to me after my resignations were announced, and told me: “Do not leave ministry. We know that people who hurt like this often leave, but you can’t. You have to serve, that’s who God made you to be and we can see that, even if it’s not here with us.” There’s a framed psalm on my wall and an electric guitar I use almost weekly that are testimony to the commitment of good friends in both churches to this truth. And furthermore, I’ve discovered that, from all three of my previous churches, each equipped me with what I’d need for my current Call. And so in all of this, I learned the first big thing: that obedience is required in the Call. When God says go here, we must go even if it makes no sense and will be painful and hard. Almost without fail, growth and transformation into the person God wants us to be requires pain. But that doesn’t make it bad; it makes us wise, if we let it.
But likewise, I’ve also learned this: that when God says He’ll provide, He will. It may not look like what we’d want or expect, but if God says “go do this,” the provision will be there. Sometimes it’s even through the pain that the provision comes. God has never not provided what we needed to do what He asked.
I was reminded of this again after my interview had concluded and I was welcomed with open arms by the board of ordered ministry. My time at midwinter this year was short out of financial necessity, and yet the banquet that night was something I was hoping to attend, to celebrate with my colleagues and friends before I returned home. But tickets were expensive and furthermore, sold out. I had tried many pathways to find one, friends and colleagues tried and failed to find a way, but none worked. And yet inside, God said, “trust me.”
Half an hour before the conference, a friend walked up to me with a ticket and said “here.”
At the only session of midwinter I got to attend this year, Paul DeNeui said this: “Whom God chooses says more about the God who calls than about those who were chosen.”
God can be trusted. Obey God and trust that you’ll always have what you need to pursue what God wants you to do. Sometimes - maybe even often - God will use those times of brokenness. It’s not to say that God likes that we were broken; but it is to say that God is the God who saves, who redeems, who transforms, and who works all things together for the good of those that love Him.