September is a strange month for me. I’ve already talked about how September 11 is a mixture of laughter and sorrow in our house, thanks to our new family traditions. And, of course, there’s the anniversary of bringing Mihret home from Ethiopia. But there’s also a series of days in September that lead me to some self-reflection, contemplation, prayer, and even a little bit of dreaming. These anniversaries aren’t necessarily things I celebrate. They turned my world and my family’s world upside down. But I think they’re worth discussing,
I did not attend Milligan with the intent of going into Youth Ministry. I don’t know what I really thought I was going to do with my Ministry degree, but youth ministry really wasn’t in my plan. Thanks to the recommendation of one of my professors, a church search committee approached me. Would I consider moving to Kentucky to take over the ministry programming from preschool thru college-aged students?
i’d recently graduated. I was a newlywed. And this position kind of fell into my lap. OK, it didn’t exactly fall into my lap. It wasn’t handed to me. I had to go through the interviews. We had to go through the process. But it was clear that doors were opening. So, although it was never part of my grand plan, I became a Youth Minister and moved our tiny little family of two to central Kentucky in early 1999.
It was clear from the beginning that I didn’t know what I was doing. Really. I can say that with almost two decades of analysis. I was ill-equipped. I can’t blame my alma mater for that. I just didn’t pay much attention to anything anyone said about youth ministry during my ministry-related classes because I was convinced I wasn’t going into youth ministry after college.
I was wrong. And it showed.
Christy tried to help me as much as she could. The staff tried to help me as much as they could. But in the end, there were too many unsaid, unmet, and unrealistic expectations. I had them. So did the Board. And so in early September, 1999, the Elders and I agreed that we should part ways.
This hurt in a lot of ways. This might be one of my biggest regrets. In retrospect, I believe things could have changed. Everything could have improved. And if I could go back and change things, I probably would. I was already emotionally exhausted just a few months into this ministry. So I left. And it hurt.
But I learned a lot from it. I was more confident than ever in my calling into some type of full time pastoral work. So I started addressing some organizational and administrative issues. I also talked to other youth ministers, attended some conferences, and had a better vision of what I thought a dynamic, impacting youth ministry would look like. And so I approached my next ministry position with a fresh outlook and renewed vigor.
After everyone survived the Y2K non-disaster, I joined the ministry staff of a church in the Indianapolis area. With a great group of adult volunteers, some strong student leaders, and a passion to impact Indy, we made a difference. We went on a mission trip to serve a ministry reaching the Navajo nation. We began a student-led Sunday night worship service that was pretty fabulous. We hosted Christian concerts. We attended CIY’s summer conferences and Believe conferences. We had a written purpose and Vision. An abandoned firehouse was transformed into a student outreach center. Teens were getting baptized. Lives were being changed. I was turning down job opportunities at other churches. Things were clicking on all cylinders.
Then the wheels fell off.
Administrative issues kept rearing their ugly heads. Instead of addressing them head-on, I just pretended they didn’t exist. I wasn’t spending enough time with some of our students. Some parents were upset. That got other people upset. Including my immediate supervisor.
I left the Student Ministry position in September, 2002. I felt betrayed, alone, and uncertain what to do next.
I found myself questioning God quite a bit during this time. While I told my youth ministry kids, “Don’t give up on the church,” I have to admit that I was close to doing that myself. We tried attending churches nearby. We were always met by former members from my former employer. “What are you doing here?” they would ask, oblivious of the events that had recently transpired. It was a completely innocent question, but it cut like a knife.
Every. single. Sunday.
We eventually found a church in Fishers. It was a small church plant with big dreams. It was a place where we could get plugged in, but we could also start the healing process. It was like a soothing balm for our hurting souls.
Christy and I had two very young kids by this point. I did whatever I could to provide for them. I worked in warehouses. I managed a pizza joint. I was a substitute teacher. We moved in with my father in law for what was supposed to be just a month or two. Maybe three. It eventually turned into two years. I still attended conferences. I got some counseling. I learned some organizational tools that still help me today.
We knew this was just a season. But I’m not going to lie. It was hard. I had interview after interview. Christy and I wound up visiting all kinds of churches all over the place: from Iowa to Florida.
To make a long story short, we returned to Upper East Tennessee. I enrolled in seminary to solidify whatever cracks may have surfaced in my ministry foundation.
After Christy earned her M.Ed degree at ETSU and I had completed three years of seminary, we started to sense that our season in Tennessee’s fair eastern mountains was coming to a close. In the Summer before what was going to be my final year in seminary, we loaded up a moving van, hugged some dear friends, and waved goodbye to Johnson City. I had accepted a preaching position in a small church south of Muncie, Indiana. It was a homecoming, of sorts. And because of a series of events that included some wide open doors and some doors that had been slammed shut, I was confident we were where God had led us. I think it’s safe to say, though, that I never really felt at home there.
Some great things happened during that ministry. There were some pretty high highlights. I baptized Aiden and Alyson there. But I’m not going to lie. It was a rocky time. Whenever I’d get together with other pastors from the area, someone would always wind up saying, “I can’t believe you’ve stuck around with them this long.” And this was without telling them anything that had been going on.
I’m not gong to lie. I questioned God. A lot. Why would God lead me somewhere like this? There were days when it felt like I couldn’t do anything to ever satisfy some people in the congregation. I felt like a punching bag sometimes.
But when you look at people like Jeremiah, Elijah, and even Moses, it’s important to remember that “calling” does not always equal “fun times.” Sometimes God asks us to do things we don’t really want to do. And since I was still sure that God had led us to East Central Indiana, I needed to stop complaining and keep doing my best to reach our community. But I quietly looked around for other opportunities.
I stuck around with them for four years before they decided they’d had enough of me. It was pretty apparent early on that I wasn’t going to retire there. I was never going to be seen as a “local.” I saw first hand how the stereotypes about small churches might be more true than we want to admit. And there was plenty of talk about people and their problems instead of talking to them. And very little was actually decided upon by those in leadership. People just kind of did what they wanted to do and claimed the leadership had agreed to it. And that worked because nobody really knew what they really did or didn’t agree to do.
It is no secret that I was not surprised when they fired me. But it still hurt. A lot. The sense of betrayal cut deep. I could go into details, but I won’t. Let’s just say that it took a long time for those wounds to heal. It honestly took a good teeth-kicking.
Things have certainly changed over the years since we were pushed out of Eacst Central Indiana. Our family has grown. I’ve picked up marketing/PR skills and experience. I know who I am. And I know Whose I am. That’s where I find my satisfaction and worth. I don’t need a title or position to have meaning. Although I do preach in some area churches on occasion, I’ve moved on.
I’ve moved on.
Do I question my calling? Nope. I believe God used me in each of those ministry situations. I also firmly believe that He is using me right here where I am now. And that isn’t in the pulpit.
Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I plan on returning to the pulpit full-time. I say that I’m not against it. But it will require a giant neon sign floating in the sky that refers to me by name with a very specific set of instructions.
And I’m only half joking.
After seeing the dark underbelly of, for lack of a better word, church “politics,” you might wonder what I think about church in general. I think it could be argued that I’m even more dedicated tot he ministry of the church throughout the world, I’m spite of my not-so-positive experiences. In reality, all of us are messed up. And when messed up people get together, they’re likely to make messed up decisions and mess up some things along the way. That’s the beauty of the mission of God. He uses messed up people with messed up lives to accomplish His plan.
Don’t believe me?
There are countless examples in the Bible. If you need for me to, I can spell them out for you. If I was still preaching regularly, it would make a great sermon series. Maybe I’ll just write a book instead.
Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I don’t think I need a neon sign for that one.