No, I'm not running for office. But I am in the candidacy process with the ELCA. Basically, it's a pretty thorough process that the church goes through with each person who wants to become officially rostered. Many "candidates" are future pastors...however, I'm going a different route. There's a designation for laypeople called the Associate in Ministry (or AiM, for short). You still write the same candidacy essays, have the same candidacy interviews, and undergo the same candidacy psychological testing as a future pastor, but you only take the equivilent of 20 credit hours of classes, and there's easier to obtain (AND cheaper!) resources at your disposal than what you might do through a seminary. At the end, the church affirms your call to a ministry of Word and Service, which can take a number of different forms...basically any church position that isn't a pastor.
One of the steps in this process is writing an entrance essay. There are specific questions you're asked to answer through the course of the essay--it's basically a chance for your synod's candidacy committee to get to know you, what you're about, and what you feel God is calling you to in the future. After writing the essay, you meet with the candidacy commitee and go over what was written. I did mine back in January...with some small edits to eliminate specific names I used, here it is:
When asked to list the people who have most influenced the shape of my life and who I am today, my “family of origin”; that is, my parents and my sister, very easily come first. My parents were high-school sweethearts from a small town in south-central Massachusetts. My father served 20 years in the Air Force, and my mother was a nurse. Being a military family brought with it some unique challenges, as well as many unique joys—many of which helped make me who I am today. First, the transient nature of military assignments meant a lot of moving from place to place. My family was blessed in that we did not have to pick up and move very often at all, but even when we were able to stay in one place, the faces around us were constantly changing. On the one hand, it helped teach me how to quickly make friends and the importance of treasuring the time we had together; on the other hand, it made it difficult for me to form the kind of deep bonds lifetime friends have. On the one hand, I became used to the idea of friends and family being separated and scattered around the country; on the other hand, it didn’t allow for the sense of “roots” that so many others have and cherish.
My parents were wonderful, loving, Christian examples for my younger sister and me. We ate meals together, prayed together, and went to church together. Church in particular, growing up, was hardly ever an optional activity—we were there, whether I wanted to be or not. My parents also set a good example with their church involvement. My father served on church council and on call committees, and my mother was a Stephen Minister and coordinated visitor calls.
My sister and I have always had a close relationship. She is three years younger than me, which as it turned out was the perfect amount of separation to allow each of us to be our own person, but close enough to be friends. Since the military family lifestyle doesn’t give one many opportunities to have lifelong friends from birth, my sister and I ended up developing that type of relationship. Even today, though we live hundreds of miles apart and each have our own families, that bond remains.
I’ve been married since the summer of 2000 to a wonderful woman. She is the love of my life and my best friend. We have one child who was born in 2003. We’re a very close-knit family—although we both work, we’ve been very intentional about keeping our evenings as free as possible to have time together with our son, as well as time together as a couple. Like many young families, we have found it necessary to live on two incomes, and although we have been careful about putting some money away for savings, our children’s college, and our eventual retirement, we still basically live paycheck to paycheck. I am still paying off my college loans, but other than that, we have no large debts besides our mortgage. We are all in good physical, spiritual, and emotional health. That has never been so evident as this past month. The last two weeks of December, 2005 brought three separate family “bombshells:” first, the funding for my position at the Lutheran Student Center had run out and I made the decision to leave; then my wife's “favorite aunt” was diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brain tumor, and finally, my 55 year-old mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Although we have had to deal with the shock and grief associated with each of these events, we’ve been able to lean on each other, other family, and most importantly on God for support, comfort, and healing. We know there are difficult times ahead, but we also know that God is beside us. Instead of shaking our faith, in a very real way our faith has instead been strengthened.
My sense of call has been developing for a long time, and I realize the process of discernment is never complete. I first sensed a call to the ministry, interestingly enough, in Confirmation class. My pastor took a group of confirmation students to a camp in Chadron, NE each summer. Since we lived on the other side of the state in Bellevue, this meant a long van ride there and back. Both summers, during the ride, I sat in the front passenger seat, and while my pastor drove, he and I would discuss theology, church politics, and church history. I was a virtual sponge—throughout junior high and high school I devoured all of the theological education I could get my hands on. I remember thinking at the time how great it would be to become a pastor, to have these sorts of conversations and study these sorts of things as your job. It was my first insight into the true meaning of “vocation.”
After high school, I went to a public liberal arts college in Missouri. There was only one Lutheran church in town. It was a Missouri Synod church, but oddly enough still used the Lutheran Book of Worship. Unfortunately, though the church had a “Lutheran House” right next to campus for students to live in, there really wasn’t much intentional ministry for the students, and the church itself was not very student-friendly. After a few months, I stopped going to church altogether…at least during the school year. Church was still a requirement when I was home on breaks, and during the summers I worked as a counselor at Camp Carol Joy Holling.
Camp was the first place where my internal sense of call began to be supplemented by an external sense of call as well. I had the privilege of working with some incredible young adults, meeting and learning from some incredible pastors, and being mentored by two big influences in my “call story.” These two people both encouraged me to take a closer look at the ministry, as did a number of the pastors I had the joy of meeting. Looking back, I see the encouragement I received from these pastors both as an affirmation of call, and as examples of the power those in authority have to give wings to dreams. There are a few pastors who probably have no recollection of the conversations we had ten or twelve years ago, but I remember their comments vividly. God speaks through those around us, even though those people might not realize or even mean to be that sort of “mouthpiece.”
My “call story” took a major detour after I finished college. During my junior year, I had started to date someone, and after just nine months of dating we had became engaged. At this point, I had been planning on going to seminary as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree, and decided to modify my plan slightly. I got a job as a youth director at a church in Hastings, NE while my fiancée finished the last year of her bachelor’s degree in Missouri. During that time, a couple of things happened. First, we discovered that we had most likely gotten engaged too quickly, and had some life goals and dreams that were not necessarily compatible. Partly because of that, and partly because of the distance, we encountered a second consequence: we began to each develop our own separate lives and visions for our futures. Finally, we decided to call off the engagement.
With that decision, my sense of call took a backseat as I grieved the loss of a perceived future and struggled to define who I was and where I was going. I moved to Lincoln to be closer to friends and family, working at a daycare center, a telemarketing firm, the Cliffs Notes home office, a dental insurance home office, a dot-com virtual high school, and a life insurance home office. I met, dated and married the woman who's now my wife, and through it all redefined my call and vocation as that of a layperson who would always take an active role in their home congregation, but nothing more. I served as a part-time music director for a church in Lincoln for two and a half years, and later became a member at a different church in Lincoln where I served as a lector, taught Sunday school, sang in the men’s chorus, and occasionally filled in as a substitute organist on Sundays. I was happy with my marriage, happy with my family situation, and happy with my church involvement, but still felt a vocational void as I jumped from job to job, always hoping that the next thing would be “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” and always coming up disappointed.
In the fall of 2003, I was dealing with the latest vocational disappointment. My wife was pregnant, and after conversations with her and a lot of prayer, I had decided that when the baby was born, I would use that time off to find another job. It wasn’t two weeks after I had come to that conclusion when Pastor Larry Meyer called me completely out of the blue from the Lutheran Student Center, and asked me if I was satisfied with my current job situation. When I told him I wasn’t, he replied, “Good. I have an opportunity for you.” Pastor Larry had known me for years, and for some time had tried to convince me that my vocational call was in the church, but until then, I had always had a reason to ignore him. I interviewed for and was selected to be a lay minister at the Lutheran Student Center, a new position LSC had created to reach out to the other college campuses in Lincoln.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after I began my work that Pastor Larry was re-diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As part of my job description, I was expected to apply for candidacy and work toward earning the Associate in Ministry designation. However, with two brand new ministries I was trying to build and a third that I had ever-increasing responsibilities for as Pastor Larry’s illness progressed, I never had the opportunity. Instead, I was busy with the day to day workings of helping make three different ministries run. After Pastor Larry passed away in April 2005, LSC was unable to find an interim pastor. In many ways I became that interim lay minister as I led Sunday morning worship services, wrote and led Bible studies, and helped coordinate with the student committees to make all of the different programs happen.
An amazing thing that DID happen during my time at LSC is that, after almost ten years of being finished with college, I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. More accurately, in my discernment process, God showed me where I think He wants me—in the church. I have a renewed sense of internal call, and it’s only been bolstered by the countless external affirmations of that call I’ve received in my time at LSC. It even became a running joke with the other staff to count how many times somebody would ask when I was going to seminary, or suggesting that I ought, or offering to help me find ways to make it happen.
God has showed me where he wants me. Right now, what is more unclear is exactly the role in which He would have me serve. While I do sense a pull toward the ordained ministry, I also have concerns about how that would impact my family. Having grown up without roots, I realize I have perhaps an overzealous desire for my own family to have what I didn’t. In addition, with my mother’s medical situation, not knowing how many years she has to get to know her grandson, I want my family to remain in the Omaha/Lincoln area for the foreseeable future. With all of this in mind, I have begun taking courses through the SELECT series to work toward the Associate in Ministry designation. In addition, a pastor here in Lincoln has offered to teach me Koine Greek, and I’ve begun working with him. If the opportunity arises to enroll in seminary either as an M.Div. or as an M.A. candidate and take a majority of courses online or with short amounts of travel, my family and I might be open to that in the future as well. Either way, having a working knowledge of Greek will help me learn about my faith as well as teach others. I realize that the discernment process is never complete, and I have faith that as He has done in my past, God will show me either that where I’m going is where I need to be, or that He wants me to be doing something else instead.
One of the positive things about my personal faith journey is that I have had a chance to do and experience a large number of things, both in the church and in the secular world. Always having been fairly introspective, I’ve discovered a number of personal strengths and weaknesses. Some of my strengths are working with other people, learning new things, listening, preaching, teaching, and music. Among my biggest weaknesses are the desire to do too much, disorganization, and a fear of confrontation. Though none of these has ever seriously hindered my ability to be effective, I do recognize these as areas in which I need to grow.
As a commissioned associate in ministry, I recognize that no matter what the actual “job description” might be, my ministry would be first and foremost one of word and service. My gifts, experience, and interests seem to point me toward a position along the lines of a Director of Christian Education or a Lay Ministry Coordinator. Of course, at this point in my journeys of faith and vocation, I am wide open to the possibilities God may present. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through my long and winding road thus far, it is that God takes great joy in surprising us with the unexpected. It’s freeing to let go of the sense of control, the sense of “I need to get it all figured out,” and for once, see what God has in store. The discernment process will continue, but for the first time in a long time, I’m not doing all the talking and deciding on my own. I’m listening. I’m watching.