Considering the Pastoral Vocation: Reflections from a Young Pastor on Sabbatical

In a recent sermon series on stewardship, my pastor +Colby Kinser noted the equivalence of the terms "calling" and "vocation".  Formerly, I had thought of vocation as merely an aspect (albeit the primary aspect) of one's life calling—that is, the primary functional role God has created each unique individual to fulfill in this world.  The equation of these terms now added a certain gravitas to the latter which prompted me to reevaluate the complacent agnosticism through which I had viewed my professional future.  Not that this attitude was unwarranted for the brief sabbatical period during which I had to focus on more fundamental aspects of my calling: the care and healing of my soul and my wife's, my relationship with her and with my children, my relationship with God, and an integration of the knowledge and insights gained through seminary and my first year-and-a-half of full-time pastoral ministry.  Now that this period of focused "recovery" is finding closure, by the lavish grace of God, I am delighted to be able to once again broaden my sights toward the matter of vocation.

As I seek to discern my future vocation, which is still somewhat ambiguous to me, I want to reflect on some of the most important lessons my wife and I have learned through this past year-and-a-half sabbatical period.  I believe these may well be summed up in one overarching principle:

When it comes to fitness for vocational ministry, character trumps competenceevery time.

The character of a person is the soil in which the skills and insights imparted by seminary or divinity school education take root and bear Kingdom fruit.  In their book Boundaries with Kids, which my wife and I are currently reading together, Authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend hardly overstate their case when they assert:
"A person's character is one's destiny.  A person's character largely determines how he will function in life... Most of our problems result from our own character weakness" (p. 14, emphasis original).
They define character as something much broader than moral righteousness; rather, it is "a person's entire makeup... a person's ability and inability, his moral makeup, his functioning in relationships, and how he does tasks" (pp. 14-15).  One's character is revealed in the answers to questions such as:
  • "What does he do in certain situations, and how does he do it?"
  • "When he needs to perform, how will he meet those demands?"
  • "Can he love?"
  • "Can he be responsible?"
  • "Can he have empathy for others?"
  • "Can he develop his talents?"
  • "Can he solve problems?"
  • "Can he deal with failure?"
  • "How does he reflect the image of God?" (p. 15)
Understood thusly, it is clear that character is the bedrock of a successful ministry career (I use that term loosely, but literally).  The apostle Paul communicated this a number of times in his letters to church leaders including the following instructions to the young pastor/elder/overseer Timothy:
If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.  Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive; for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3:1-7)
Factored into one's character are a person's relational health with his spouse, children, coworkers, supervisors, parents, church family members, neighbors and so on.  Character involves one's personal (not just "spiritual") disciplines—the way they order their lives, their level of self-control, self-care and determination.  Perhaps this is why so many effective pastors are formerly successful businesspeople.  The totality of their character, which enabled them to succeed in the marketplace, carries forward into their ministry roles.

I am concerned that many promising young men and women who sense a calling to devote the better part of their lives to church or parachurch ministry are taking the fast track from high school to Bible college to seminary or divinity school and into a full-time ministry vocation.  While it's certainly possible to develop character prior to and during those years, it is the rare exception in our society.  The extension of adolescence into young adulthood known as "adultlescence" is the new norm.

I wonder if we are doing aspiring young ministers (as well as their potential ministry constituencies) a disservice by encouraging them to devote themselves primarily to "ministry preparation" (Bible, theology, ministry theory, field service and the like) rather than learning a secular trade, establishing a family and mastering the essentials of adulthood prior to taking a professional ministry post.  My admittedly limited experience supports Cloud and Townsend's contention that character (synonymous with maturity) is the defining quality of a person's life.

In contrast to the new norm of adultlescence, I married before finishing college and fathered our first child before my wife had graduated.  While she completed her degrees in accounting and economics/finance, I went to work in a meager-paying social service job in order to provide for my family financially.  However, all the while, I longed to be more involved in ministry leadership, where I believed I could make a more significant difference in people's lives for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.  Instead of focusing on character development, building a strong marriage and learning how to be a world-class dad, I was preoccupied with learning how to do ministry in a way that engaged postmodern, post-Christian young adults, artists and urban professionals.

My wife and I, along with new friends +Ryan Wiksell and his wife Christina, launched an experimental venture into missional community, which demanded an extraordinary investment of time and emotional energy.  In the meantime, the health of Melissa's and my soul and marriage were gradually eroding.  When our experiment in missional community did not bring about the fruit for which we had hoped, I grew discontented and desperate for answers.  I believed that my shortcomings lay primarily in the arenas of Bible knowledge, theology and apologetics, and so I interpreted a strong movement of the Holy Spirit in my soul as a call to drop what I was doing and go to seminary.

While seminary (divinity school, to be exact) was a tremendously valuable experience for which I am profoundly grateful, in hindsight it seems to have been a premature step in my development as a minister of the gospel.  At the very least, the rigor required of me to complete the M.Div. in three years prevented me from devoting sufficient attention to the healing of my deeply-wounded soul, to that of my wife (whose soul was also in great need of care), to the building of a strong love between us, and to the parenting of our young daughter.  Consequently, I emerged from seminary equipped with the skills to minister in accordance with 2 Timothy 2:15, but without the character and relational equity to minister in accordance with the thrust of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-8.

There were times when I felt it would be hypocritical for me to pursue the pastoral vocation and sought to obtain secular employment while gaining additional practical ministry experience.  However, facing a weak job market with a skill-set and credentials that were insufficient to land a job that paid a living wage, I determined that it must be God's will that I proceed down the path toward the pastorate.

And so I did, receiving a call several months later to serve as the Associate Pastor of Bethel Church in North Platte, NE.  During my brief time at Bethel, I found a level of satisfaction and affirmation in my vocation that I had never experienced before.  As far as the job duties were concerned in and of themselves, I had found my "sweet spot".  However, the demands on my soul and marriage, coupled with my own drive for effectiveness in each of the various ministries under my direction, led to a complete burnout after a little over a year in that position (the work load of which, incidentally, is now being fulfilled by three full-time staff members).

Thanks to the EFCA Recovery Churches ministry, to the local church who "adopted" us, and to the counseling ministry of Thrive, my wife and I have experienced a dramatic—dare we say miraculous—restoration to a place of personal, spiritual and relational health.  Grace Fellowship received us as we were—broken, confused and altogether needy—and helped us to make the difficult transition to a new city, church family, home and profession.  It has been a year-and-a-half since we made the transition, and it took the better part of a rigorously-focused year to bring us to the place of wholeness and vitality in which we have dwelled for the past several months.

We are not the least bit ashamed or embarrassed about where we've been or what we've gone through over the past two humbling years.  We may regret not learning these lessons sooner, but we rejoice in the grace of our awesome, mighty and perfectly-loving God who has rescued us from despair and redeemed us for His purpose and glory.  This would not have taken place had we not frankly admitted that the water was up to our noses and we were about to go under.  How many pastors and their wives and children feel trapped by the need to maintain a facade of strength and integrity so as not to lose their livelihood and pride, thereby allowing a cancerous mix of sin, relational dysfunction and unresolved psychological pain decimate their souls, their families and ultimately their enduring testimony for Christ?

I owe many thanks to a mentor of mine, +Neal Brower, who insisted that honesty and transparency is the only way to live a life of integrity and freedom in Christ.  Through his persistence, including his recommendation of the book TrueFaced, which I in turn recommend to you, I built the confidence I needed to come clean to my senior pastor and elder board and to our denomination's board of ministerial standing, which ultimately resulted in my resignation and subsequent entry into the Recovery Churches program.  For our transition to life here in Kansas City, I owe a debt of gratitude to pastor and mentor +Colby Kinser for his multifaceted support of prayer, hospitality, counsel and friendship, to the entire recovery team, and to our Grace family at large, most of whom have understood very little of why we ended up in Kansas City and at this church.

Finally, to all those pastors and pastors' wives who feel trapped, please read the testimony above as a witness to the transformative power of the gospel that is applied to us as we walk in the light of authenticity.  The Lord is faithful to catch all who cast themselves wholly and recklessly into His arms.  He will allow you to be broken, though not crushed.  Or rather, He encourages you to allow your inward brokenness to become visible to others, in order that you may experience the full, healing force of His grace.  Let this Grace overwhelm you.  Die to self-deception and groundless fear, that you may truly live.

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