aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Taking a risk on God

'Tis the season for interviews by District Committees and Boards of Ordained Ministry. A stressful time for many, who are making their slow way up the Mountain of Pain toward full ordination. We lose some good people along the way, who just can't take that much discouragement and abuse. We turn some away, too, for fear they will rock the boat one way or another. We approve some, whose only talent is the ability to not be gotten rid of -- sort of the ecclesiastical version of a fungal infection. And, of course, we pass through many who are glib parroters of the party line or who are somebody's fair-haired boy or girl.

I doubt that I could be ordained in this process. I further doubt that I would want to be. But merely to gripe about it is to say little worth the effort. Let me say something, though, about learning to take a risk on somebody.

I was, in many ways, a very unprepossessing candidate for the clergy. Oh, I was bright -- no hiding that, very academically able. But I had virtually no experience of the church as a lay person. Not just as an adult: there was a gap in my church experience from ages 11 to 20 that meant that I'd never participated in a youth group, a confirmation class, or church camp. Nobody ever taught me any spiritual disciplines. I had not only never had a leadership position in the church, I had never even been an adult among other adults doing church things. I had no idea how churches actually functioned. Furthermore, nobody knew me. I was nobody's son or nephew. Nobody could point to me and say that I grew up under his ministry. I had no campus ministry connections, even. I was coming in all on my own from completely out in left field.

I was converted in college under the influence of a friend in Campus Crusade who explained the gospel to me. I started praying and reading my Bible in earnest, but nobody gathered me into any kind of group to keep me connected. Maybe they didn't realize I had taken the step I had, since I took it all alone in my dorm room. I got married in college, and a month after the wedding, I had a lightning bolt call from God (once again, all alone) -- but to do precisely what, I had no clue. But I decided we needed to get serious about going to church. So Deanne and I walked up the street one Sunday morning and crashed the doors of First United Methodist Church in Terre Haute, Indiana, cold. I was confirmed and she was baptized in that church. And from that church after less than a year, I went off to seminary.

I felt defensive about explaining all this for years. I had done everything backwards, you see. Of course, after twenty years or so, I realized that I had lasted long enough to prove the validity of my call and my own faithfulness in obedience to Christ and the Church. I didn't have to feel awkward about it any more.

I suppose I looked like all the other earnest young men (we were mostly all young men, back then), trooping through the process. It was an easier process then, in terms of the requirements, but there were people who had a rough time of it. I had my share of difficult people to deal with. But I also had an extraordinary number of people, in my earliest years, who were willing to take a risk on me. They believed in God enough to believe that he just might be calling me, however unusual my story was.

Our pastor, Don Wade, took my story at face value, and shepherded me through the Charge Conference approval. He took me to meet the District Superintendent, Charles DuMond. I was very nervous. I was afraid he would be a very powerful, very wise man who would see right through me and ask for proofs I couldn't furnish. He met me at the door and drew me in with a powerful handshake. "Welcome aboard!" he said. And then he gave me a Book of Discipline and a Conference Journal and said, "You'll be needing these."

Don and Charlie believed in me, because they believed in God. Furthermore, Charlie fought for me. The District Committee on Ministry Chair was a fussy guy, highly sensitive to the prerogatives and responsibilities of his Committee. He looked me over with a gimlet eye, but Charlie's sponsorship meant I was accepted as a candidate. I went off to seminary. My first interview with visiting Cabinet members featured this fussy guy and another DS hothead, who decided I looked like one of them dangerous rabble-rousers. So, when I asked Charlie for a student appointment, he found the way blocked by these two. He asked me to meet with him and the Vincennes DS, Bart Fletcher, who looked me over and decided to take a risk on me. Bart and Charlie both fought for me in Cabinet. I was given a three-month trial in a student appointment. At the end of the summer, I was to meet with a group of three Superintendents to see if I should continue. I didn't realize this was the standard procedure for disciplinary problems; I just did what I was told, showed up at whatever I was told to show up at and demonstrated that I wasn't crazy just by, well, not being crazy, I guess. I was allowed to continue.

I ran into another fussy guy in the Vincennes District on my way to Deacon's orders and probationary membership. Bart's support got me through. I was turned down for Deacon's orders the first time I applied, but this time, a year later, I was approved. And from then on, I mostly just followed the script. I started my student pastorate in 1976. Ordained Deacon 1977. Graduated and went to first full-time appointment 1978. Ordained Elder 1979. A full member of the union at age 25! That's almost impossible to do now. But none of it would have been possible if it hadn't been for Don, for Charlie, and for Bart. They took a huge risk on me. But then, they believed God still did miracles.

My early experiences have made me supportive of those who come in with crazy stories and ambitions, for people who haven't jumped through all the hoops or who are following sudden, sideways paths. I understand them. And I understand that it is my job to believe in God, and therefore to believe in what God is doing in them.

This hasn't made me blind to potential problems I see all too well in some candidacies. I have spoken bluntly to some people who have set out on the way about things they need to address, even while I have fought for them as their pastor or mentor or as a member of an interview team. And yes, I've seen some of them crash and burn, often because of things that I saw from the start. But I believe in a God who doesn't always do things the safe, ordinary way: I know that God all too well. So I dare to believe in people who come in with stories that don't fit the conventional pattern, or who haven't got their ducks in a row. I believe in giving them -- in giving God -- a chance to prove what God is up to.

And all this is different from dealing with people who say, "but God didn't call me to that." As one of my charismatic friends put it once, "I believe God blesses obedience." So, while I'm willing to take a risk on somebody who doesn't fit the mold, someone who thinks the rules don't apply to him or her waves a big, red flag to me. As crazy as my personal story might have been, I never used it to attempt to get out of things or only do what I wanted. I offered myself to Christ, without reserve, which meant that I accepted the authority of those placed over me. I "kept our rules rather than mending them." Taking a risk on somebody doesn't do away with holding people accountable. We need to practice doing both.

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