When I started college back in ’09, I always said I wanted to teach high school English. That was an admirable career path, and some days I do wonder what would’ve happened if I had stayed on that path. But most days I’m grateful I didn’t, even if that means I have an education scholarship-loan organization breathing down my neck and stacking up interest every month for a loan I may never be able to pay off, even if I never have the job security I’d always been promised formal teaching in the county school system would bring (given North Carolina’s track record, however, maybe I was weaned on lies anyway.)
I’m grateful that I chose to abandon that dream in pursuit of vocational ministry. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with teaching and I firmly believe that God could use me in a formal classroom just as well as he could use me in a church. And maybe someday he will lead me to a classroom. But I cannot say that my initial choice of career was one that I felt the slightest call to.
I’ll never forget my freshman year of college. Everything was new and I felt awkward and unsure of every decision I would come to make with my life there in the first several months. With an almost limitless array of choices in front of me and a billion different programs and world-views to support those choices, I could’ve carved my own path and done whatever I desired (for better or for worse.) And it was in the midst of all that awkward deliberation that I was reminded of the teenagers back in my home church. The ones I’d forged relationships with and sought to love and care for. I was reminded of the promises I’d made to God in the past that I would always be involved with youth programs, albeit in a very limited way. And I remember that still small voice the day by the boiling spring…Stephen, I want more.
More than halfhearted commitment, more than indecision, more than job security or something safe.
I wrestled so hard for so long with that calling into more.
I didn’t want it. It wasn’t a lack of passion, I had all the passion in the world, and I loved Jesus with everything I was, and I wanted to spread the gospel, but I wanted it on my own terms. My own safe, comfortable terms.
And I remember the day in the prison where I went to minister to a room full of men in beige jumpsuits. I was still wrestling and coming to grips with my calling into student ministry and it was a very private battle that few knew about.
I remember speaking about some flimsy topic I barely understood myself and I remember the firm handshakes of the men in the prison chapel. I remember the kind words. And I remember Ray. He was a older 6′ something African American man who I believed I couldn’t have any commonality with because of our obviously different life choices. He walked up to me and stared straight through me like I was a ghost. His voice was powerful, yet gentle. He said, “Little brother, God has a message for you.” I awkwardly laughed and listened politely though at the time I thought he was nuts, “He wants me to tell you to stop fighting. He’s working on you and calling you into ministry with youth. Go for it and don’t make excuses”
Essentially, what Ray imparted to my unbelieving soul that night was this: Stephen, God wants more.
More than my words,
More than my pithy affirmations of who God is in light of all I actually want out of him,
More than a life partially devoted to the work he has called me to,
More than working toward something I personally cannot be passionate about.
Teaching “The Scarlet Letter” to kids might get your blood pumping and if it does, awesome, incredible. We need that kind of devotion in our schools, but that was not me.
And since I surrendered to that call, the road has not been easy and free of trouble (nor will it ever be,) but it has been fulfilling.
I write this to reflect on what got me where I am now.
I have been hired as the new Director of Student Ministries at a church in Kannapolis, NC and started my journey two weeks ago. I am thrilled to be used for the sake of building the Kingdom and proclaiming Christ above all in a manner consistent with that same calling that God made plain to me through so many internal circumstances and through a divine appointment with a guy in prison.
The last two weeks have been a joy. Much like my first semester of college, everything is new and I feel more awkward than ever. I’ve acquired the knowledge of dozens of ministry methods and theological bases for how to do ministry and I have a Bachelor’s degree gathering dust and the most difficult thing at this juncture seems to be learning the names of teens and children and other church members in order to lay the groundwork for building meaningful relationships and being a faithful steward of the responsibility I’ve been given.
And maybe that’s a reflection of the work of ministry in the every day grind. When all is said and done, all the “brilliant” systems and methods we create pass away and reveal the simple truth that calling has a lot more to do with loving people where they are and investing in their lives for Christ more than it does having everything nailed down perfectly and feeling incredibly confident in all things.
I take refuge in the fact that I don’t feel like I’ve got it all together. It’s my prayer that I’ll never be so arrogant as to believe that I’ve completely passed the point of feeling like I did as an awkward college freshman. Because when God called me to the ministry, it was not my eloquence and rock solid plan that led me to follow his voice, it was where I was unsure of my self, my plans, what exactly I believed I was called to do that He reached into my life and said: Stephen, I want more.
It was in being unsure in my own steps that God revealed his plans.
And it’s my prayer that from now until I see the face of my King Jesus, I will run after him with reckless abandon.
Father, I pray that you would conform me daily more and more into the image of your Son. Give me confidence not in my talents or passions or in my degree, but in You and You alone. Lord, if ministry is about my strength I will fail. But give me Your strength so that I can point to You and people will follow. So that more people will receive your grace. In the name of Jesus, who is the only desirable thing in me, Amen.