Personal Testimony and Call to Ministry
I was seven. My mother was working in her garden while I looked at the pictures in The Children’s Bible she used for our devotions each morning. I remember thinking that she wasn’t making much progress, barely moving the whole time she was out there. I later learned that she had gone to the garden intending to weed, but instead spent that time on her knees praying for me. When she did come into the house I asked her, “Why did Jesus have to die?” My question wasn’t about the facts of the crucifixion, but the purpose. My mother introduced me to a saving relationship with Christ that morning in our living room.
In high school I was a classic overachiever. I worked hard and received good grades, taking as many advanced placement courses as allowed. I played in several school bands (I met my wife in marching band), was captain of the football team, wrestled, was a member of the National Honor Society, and acted in school dramas and musicals. We worshiped at a church where our family was very involved. We were present whenever the doors were open. My parents led the youth group(s), I served as youth group president and earned a Meritorious Award in AWANA. Everyone expected me to go to Bible College then Seminary, assuming I would go into vocational ministry.
Without informing my family, I applied and was offered an appointment as a midshipman at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. I graduated in 1986 with a B.S. in Systems Engineering.
I can’t fully explain why, but while at the Academy I completely cut myself off from my Brothers and Sisters in the Lord. I had become a legalist, and felt that the only relationship I needed was between myself and God. The only worship opportunities available to me were the Protestant Chapel Services (which I judged to be too ecumenical) and a Southern Baptist Church (which I judged to be too liberal). I was not involved in any extra-curricular Christian events or groups, but focused my involvement on the debate team and the karate team.
It was during my senior year that I “woke up”. My roommate, a marginal Catholic whom I had judged to be a pagan, and with whom I had a terrible relationship, started talking to me about Jesus. I was offended that he would think I needed to hear this from him. Then it hit me. What did I believe? What was I doing? Was the faith I claimed just an expression of my parents’ convictions or was my faith my own?
After serious self-evaluation I came to believed my faith was indeed my own, but I had to admit my life did not reflect that of one who had been placed in Christ. Scriptures that contrast belief and disobedience came to mind (e.g. John 3:36), and I set about to reaffirm my faith and reconstruct a life of obedience.
I graduated from Annapolis, married two weeks later, and moved to Quantico, VA to begin a career as a pilot in the US Marine Corps. Our next move took us to Pensacola, FL for flight training, where we determined to find and join a church quickly. While I had judged the entire convention to be too liberal in college, we joined an SBC church . Brenda and I quickly entered into leadership positions in high school Sunday School and Youth Group.
Next God took us to Southern California where we joined BGC Church in Corona, CA. It was in SoCal that God really started to work on my legalism. We opened our home to a Christian rock guitarist who needed a home until his marriage. We had to accept being served communion by deacons in flip-flops. We were assisting the youth pastor and his wife in all their ministries, and I chaired a (12) member missions committee which was very involved in felt need ministries in Los Angeles.
God also showed me more of what the church – the local, living, loving God in Christ and each other organism – is supposed to be. While stationed in SoCal I deployed three times: Desert Storm (Saudi, Iraq & Kuwait), Okinawa and Mogadishu (Somalia). Desert Storm and Mogadishu were combat tours, and lacking adequate chaplain staff, I served as a lay chaplain during both deployments, dealing with both combat losses and a suicide among the ranks. Our first two children were born. We purchased a home. My life was one on-the-run, both at home and deployed. I learned to depend upon God and His Church in a way I had never needed before; a change which He orchestrated by giving me no other option.
I informed the Marine Corps that I intended to resign my commission, having fulfilled my obligation and opting for a more stable family life. They gave me orders to Pensacola, FL to serve my final tour as a flight instructor and multi-media instructional software program manager. We rejoined an SBC church and jumped eagerly into ministry, including being ordained a Deacon in the SBC.
The Executive Officer of my squadron (with whom I had served in Desert Storm) approached me and asked if I was interested in taking advantage of any educational opportunities before leaving the Corps. He encouraged me to consider the possibilities, and asked that I let him know how he could help me make it happen. I discovered an extension program of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) that met (2) hours away every Monday for (4) hour classes. In the fall of 1994 I started taking these classes, leaving at 4:30am and returning well after midnight.
In August 1997 I left active duty and started taking classes full time, leaving home on Tueday mornings and returning on Friday evenings. After completing my MDiv studies in March of 1998 I was asked to remain at our church to serve as Associate Pastor of Discipleship. I declined, as we had committed to moving back to Western New York. I freely admitted throughout my seminary days (and for several years following) that I had no desire to enter vocational ministry. I had always been close to my pastors, and had often seen the unfair treatment they received at the hand of those they faithfully served. I had left a combat career, and had no desire to enter into another.
I accepted a position as the Director of Business Development and Marketing for a firm in Rochester, NY. Our family joined a church my parents had started. The time in business and at VBC was a very painful one. It took a lot of time, but I can see now how God used that time to teach me how to better handle discrimination and unreasoned anger from both inside and outside the church.
Throughout this time there was a change taking place in our (my wife and my) hearts and minds concerning our willingness to endure for the sake of the gospel and true gospel-centered ministry. Today I am in awe of how God has worked, bringing us from a place of no desire for vocational ministry, to the place where I want nothing more.
One of the greatest obstacles to my willingness to accept the accountability of vocational ministry was my self-imposed requirement that I be able to answer every question asked of me. I had spent years working through systematic theologies and various conundrums, ending with a sense of inadequacy because in the end the process often produced an “I don’t know” conclusion.
In February 2005 I was attending a message presented by Pastor James MacDonald at Perdue University. In the middle of his message he stopped and exposited Deuteronomy 29:29, almost as an aside, looking up and back into the crowd right where I was sitting. I am not a mystic … but I was crushed. I believe God spoke through His Word, and His Spirit used His Messenger that night to make the necessary change in my heart and mind. I repented for my arrogance and accepted that I can not fully, simply and comfortable explain an infinite God. I accepted the fact that “I don’t know” needed to become a part of my vocabulary, not as an easy answer to avoid questions, but as the most theologically appropriate response for some questions. Coming to this conviction, I began to prepare for vocational ministry.
Six months later (in August 2005) I was sent to Dallas for a conference by the Marine Corps. I had been having an e-mail conversation with Dr. Fletcher who oversees a D.Min. program at Dallas (DTS), and he asked if we could meet while I was in town. After a three hour conversation at my hotel Dr. Fletcher offered that he thought I “needed to be in vocational ministry”. I returned home from the conference and shared his comments with my wife. She agreed, and I began to put together a transition plan for leaving my employer. Three days later I returned to work, only to discover that my position had been eliminated at a restructuring meeting, and I was no longer employed.
I began making application to various vocational ministry opportunities around the country, mostly focusing on executive pastor and associate pastor positions. One afternoon my wife asked me if I had considered applying for a senior pastor position before, and I said I had not. She asked why, and I told her of my reasons, mostly relating to my newness to vocational ministry, and the requirements that I felt would need to be in place before I could accept such a position. After giving all my requirements, she informed me that the pastor of the church I grew up in was resigning, and that church met all of my requirements.
This candidate process was the first full process I engaged. We had returned for our children to attend AWANA, and I had the privilege of providing regular pulpit supply whenever this Pastor was out of town. The process went very smoothly, and I knew there were many at the church who anticipated our coming to be their new pastor.
I had always considered ordination as “being called out from among and set apart for ministry”. In the SBC, that was the model for diaconal ordination. When we were asked to stay and minister in 1998, the calling model seemed ideal, but our hearts were not right. During my time at the church my parents started and during our heart change I had discussed pre-vocational ordination, but such a model wasn’t received well. Going to the church I grew up in almost seemed to resolve the issue: the congregation where I was raised, and the church where I was married, calling me back to minster, seemed ideal. When we received word that my name had been eliminated from consideration at a late cut, we were both very surprised.
Within weeks we were informed that FBC Holley was seeking a new pastor. I applied as a candidate and entered into a second process. During interviews I was encouraged to find that there was a renewal of sorts taking place among the members; a renewed interest in raising a Word based, Gospel centered, covenant community to reach Holley with the Good News. When asked “How do you know you are called to be our pastor?” I replied, “I don’t. I believe God has called all Christians into ministry, and has given me a call for vocational ministry based on the incredible change in my heart toward the possibility. I will wait with you to see if God works through you to call me to minister here.”
We were blessed to learn that God had confirmed our call to vocational ministry at FBC by the confirming decision of the membership to extend to me a call to be their pastor.