I imagine I was upper elementary age, when I was sitting in a pew, listening and watching the minister and imagining myself up there, reading the Bible, praying, talking like he was. Perhaps many kids sitting in pews consider such things, either that or they’re daydreaming about adventures in the park, what’s for lunch and how to avoid the upcoming math test. The fact that I remember this so clearly however, makes me wonder if God speaks to us in daydreams and memories.
As I write about such things I discover that I am more attentive to the Spirit at work in my thoughts and recollections which brings me to the point of this post. About a month ago, Scott Emery shared “A Few Thoughts on Discernment and Decision Making” and invited his readers to do the same (July 17, 2015). As I was recently asked to write about my ‘call to ministry,’ Scott’s post resonated with my reflections as did recent articles about women in ministry, since that too is a part of my story.
My next encounter with the thought of ministry came from one whom I like to call my spiritual father. But to get there requires some other history. Although I participated in what might be called a liberal church for ten years with my family, (from age 8 to18) I never knew God, though I knew of God. I went off to college and enjoyed the party life and began to feel a deep sense of need for something more. As I searched, God provided Christian friends who took me under their wing including inviting me to prayer breakfasts where we ate muffins, and prayed on the floor holding hands in a circle – those were the kumbaya days – and I began to discover and relate to a more personal God and to experience the power, comfort and counsel of communal prayer. I learned that hearing God’s voice includes being ‘where two or three are gathered in His Name’ for there, Christ is in our midst.
After a retreat in which my partner in a serendipity exercise drew a picture with a throne and ‘the things in her life’ (school, friends, sports, etc.) competing for that seat and her desire for Jesus to be on the throne, I too made a commitment to Christ and my life began to change. It wasn’t long before I was leading chapels, starting new prayer breakfasts in my residence and actively pursuing life in and for Christ. It was at this time, that one of my professors, a wise Christian man, also became my spiritual mentor. Through this relationship, I recognized that for me, hearing from God meant learning from and listening to those further along in their spiritual journey.
One day he told me that I should become a minister —and he was serious! I was stunned but his words never left me. Such a possibility, such a calling/vocation at that time seemed so farfetched and perhaps even wrong (as this was a few decades ago and I am female!). So, I ignored it and yet God kept engaging me in it! I was speaking, teaching and leading in a number of different Christian contexts while at the same time going to Sunday services with some of my new Christian friends where I had to wear a doily on my head and shut up! What was God up to? What God was doing (in using me) and what God was saying (through my peers and their Christian heritages) seemed to be at odds. I think the Spirit was showing me how to ‘go with the flow of His leading’ and not to worry about how this might all work out down the road. For me then, discernment had a lot to do with trust and stepping into whatever God put before me even when, or perhaps especially when, it didn’t all fit together neatly and I didn’t know where I was going or how I was going to get there.
Despite my mentor’s encouragement and the experiences and opportunities to use my gifts that God had given me, I decided not to pursue vocational ministry after completing my undergrad. Was I going against God’s will? Possibly. And yet, the employment and schooling I received in those next several years, served and taught me well; made me a better person, a better leader. God used them, I believe, for His purposes. Was that ‘the plan’ or is the plan that whatever we do– in word or deed–we do to and for His glory?
It was when I had to sign another teacher’s contract that I finally had to wrestle through that call to vocational ministry with God. It was the last day of spring break and the forms had to be handed in the next day. I remember lying on the living room floor of our apartment, tussling with God and myself about ‘what to do’. And I couldn’t do it– sign the contract. I knew what I had to do. The next day, I called the nearby seminary and requested an application form. I wonder if we all have to have a wrestle with God once in a while in order to discern what The Spirit has/wants for us?
The decision to go to seminary was not welcomed by many. Family, friends couldn’t understand….nor could everyone on campus. There were about five female students attending MDiv courses at that time. The dean and several professors were supportive as were a few fellow students. Others did not acknowledge our (female) presence. The preaching professor would not attend his own class when it was a female student’s turn to ‘preach.’ Nevertheless, I loved seminary: I loved what I was learning! I loved what God was doing in me and through me.
But as you have probably noticed, nothing is as simple as it seems on my journey into ministry. After my first year, my husband got a good job offer in a city several provinces away! What is going on, Lord? You finally got me to go to Seminary and now you’re pulling me out? It was very confusing. We spent hours talking and praying about the options and even considered my staying while my husband took the position, and I would join him later. In the end, we both moved and I laid it before God, Ok, Lord, now what? You must have brought me/us here for some reason which I don’t get (yet) but I will try to trust you. Show me what you have for me.
And He did, but not immediately. We went from church to church trying to find a home and trying to find a place where I might be able to serve. Meanwhile, I got a job at a daycare. I was overqualified, but they were desperate. After a few months, we saw a pastoral position posted and I inquired. The information package clearly assumed male applicants. Oh, well. I’ll apply any way and see what happens. I got a phone call and an invitation to discuss “how I felt about being a woman”. (Yes, you read that right.) I went.
They wanted me to know that they, the search committee and the congregation, had not expected a female applicant but that they liked my resume. They had never had a female pastoral staff/leader before and some would likely have a great deal of difficulty with it, so how would I feel about/deal with that? We discussed it and they went forward with the usual process and to make a long story short, the Council of 33 men voted 18-15 in favour of recommending me to the congregation. Within a few weeks I was the new Youth and Outreach ‘Director’ (the title was changed from ‘Pastor’ because of my gender) in this large established church.
Clearly the whole journey was God ordained. The little house we had bought was five blocks from the church building; I could walk. The senior Pastor was supportive and encouraging. I continued to take seminary courses. And I thrived in the position. After about a year, several of the Elders who had voted against me, came to me and said that I had changed their minds about ‘women in ministry’ and that they really appreciated my leadership and work among and with them. Of course I was not allowed to preach from the pulpit for a number of years. I could ‘exhort’ in youth services and other non-Sunday morning settings. When ‘Church Order’ finally changed and women were granted freedom to preach and my first official Sunday on the pulpit was approaching, not everyone was happy. I received phone calls urging me not to go on the pulpit, including being told that it would be the devil’s work. The moment I went before the congregation to bring the Word, several people stood up and walked out. That was not the only time that happened. On another occasion, recognizing leadership gifts in a young woman, I invited her to read Scripture in a service. Unfortunately her father was totally against woman in leadership and unable to confront me, shoved my husband up against a wall and yelled at him in the fellowship hall after a service.…
How did I keep going? Why did I continue when it would have been so easy just to say, forget it? That day, prostrate on the living room floor was the confirmation of my call, the assurance that no matter what happened, God was with me and I was doing what He had made me to do, for His pleasure and His kingdom. I was following, not flawlessly of course, but to the best of my ability with intentionality and integrity.
Years later, my role has changed numerous times and I have grown up. From this first church leadership/ministry role, I have taken up regional and denominational positions, then church planting via a church growth-seeker sensitive model to now, catalyzing missional communities in neighbourhoods. For me, the ‘going’ of Luke 10 has been a repeated component of my journey and our decision-making. I go, I step out and do, and as I do, I listen; learning and discovering God at work ahead of me, ahead of us and, in us and the other; always in the other.
Thus, as those sent to follow, I wonder if the first and last steps to discernment might simply be following, literally, stepping out in obedience to the go of the great commission, of Luke 10, of the Word of the Lord to the prophets over and over again – now go! Indeed ‘going’ and ‘following’ require movement. And I believe and have experienced that following Jesus (and thereby discerning His will) is about going, eating what is set before, remaining, restoring and proclaiming in both word and deed, the Kingdom of God that is near! (Luke 10:1-12) Then, as we go, we take time to look back in order to look forward. At least I try to. I am not always consistent in my journaling and sometimes months go by without me pausing and pondering. But in our communities, the weekly question is ‘what is God up to in your neighbourhood (in other words where is God going, leading) and how have you been participating with (following) the Spirit in that?”
As long as we are continuing to answer that question, I believe we are, in everyday, ordinary life, discerning God’s will and following in His ways. And for now at least, that is enough for me.
– Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go. Isaiah 48:17