When I was in high school, I surprised everyone — including myself — by deciding that I was going to become a pastor.
Until then, my career choices had all been conventional. Various types of engineering. Law. Politics. Business. But one Sunday night, I decided — without any prior thought — that God was calling me to ministry. I didn’t know why. It just felt right.
As well-meaning adults in ministry tried to direct me over the next few years, I found out that I was nothing like them. There were square hole and there were round holes in church ministry. I was a hexagonal peg that didn’t fit into any of the holes.
During my last year of college, I served on a church staff as youth minister. Each Sunday and Wednesday, I drove about 40 miles from Tuscaloosa to Carrollton Baptist Church. I taught classes to students and I preached for the congregation at times when the pastor was out of town.
The last time I preached there — at the pulpit you see above — seemed to make clear that I just wasn’t cut out for this job.
It was a Sunday evening service. There might have been a couple hundred people there. I can’t recall. But I was trying a new approach to my sermon. All the other times that I’d preached — both there and at other churches — I had made a detailed outline and then made up the specific language as I went along.
This approach hadn’t been bad. As long as I could see my notes and know what I needed to talk about next, it was easy to explain a point. But every time I preached, it felt empty and useless. I hated the way it felt.
So this time, I wrote out the entire sermon word for word. I had come to understand that a lot of famous preachers had taken this approach, so I tried it, too. I wrote what I thought was a powerful message taken from the sixth chapter of Ephesians. It was something like seven or eight typed pages.
Everything was going fine through the first few pages. Then I turned a page to move on to the next — and the entire page was missing.
For a moment, I looked through my papers and I realized I simply hadn’t brought the page with me. So I did something I have never seen another speaker do — before or since.
I asked the congregation to hold on a minute. Then I quickly walked out of the sanctuary and ran upstairs to my little office, where the missing page was sitting on my desk.
I came back and finished the sermon, but I was embarrassed. I can laugh about it now — and other people laughed about it good-naturedly then — but something about it felt symbolic of my efforts to fit into that world.
I realize now that I didn’t fit into the role because being a Baptist pastor required me to fit into a role which felt way too narrow for me. Every time I taught a lesson to the teens in my group and every time I preached a sermon to the congregation, I was expected to do something which checked certain boxes.
And I always found myself feeling as though they needed more than I could give them when I did what was expected of me.
Every time I stood before people to teach or preach, I felt as though I was looking into the eyes of people who needed something — and I felt as though giving them what was dictated by my narrow “churchy” role wasn’t nearly enough. That wasn’t what they needed.
I kept finding myself feeling as though we were all playing a role. That man and woman were playing the role of happily married church couple and good parents, but I knew what they really were. That high school kid was playing the role of a good little church boy, but I knew what he really was. All around me, the better I knew these people, the more I realized that they were all wearing masks — and my role required me to pretend they were the mask. I wasn’t supposed to deal with what I really saw.
I’ve been thinking about this for the last week because I’ve been trying to work on something about why so many people are unhappy today. Surveys show that Americans are more unhappy than ever, but they — oddly — seem to believe that other people are happier than they are.
When I stood before people to teach or preach, I wanted to say, “This is what I see. This is who I am. Let’s be real with one another. Let’s find out how we can become the people who God created us to be.”
Instead, I was expected to preach the same tired old sermon points and pretend not to see what I saw.
I’ve come to understand that ministering to people goes far beyond preaching the “cookie-cutter” messages that I was expected to give to my congregation. I now believe that helping people heal themselves — spiritually, emotionally, psychologically — is all part of bringing God to hurting hearts.
In a lot of ways, I now believe that the work I do today — and the work I intend to do in the future — is far more important ministry than the cookie-cutter work I did then. I now understand that God is the God of all things. He’s interested in everything about us and every bit of life. Art and psychology are just as much a part of ministry as are expository preaching and systematic theology.
It wasn’t long after that disastrous Sunday night sermon that I left the church and took a full-time job as a newspaper editor in another state. I was 23 years old, so it was time to take a “real job” if I wasn’t going to fit there. At the time, I was a little disappointed in myself. It felt as little bit as though I was running away from a call to minister to people.
But after all these years, I see things differently. God is a lot bigger than I realized at the time. He’s interested in far more than “religious subjects.” Truth is a lot deeper and more important than I knew. And the needs of the modern human heart are far more desperate than I could have ever met in that role.
Deep down, I still want to save everybody. It hurts me that so many people are so desperately unhappy and desperately alone. I will never save them by walking them through the cookie-cutter truth of the shallow theology I was once taught. I know that now.
But millions and millions of people have their minds and hearts locked up in prisons of their own creation. I want to help them find ways to free themselves — and for many people, that will be the first step on the road to salvation that they would never find any other way.