My path into full time pastoral ministry often felt like running into a strong wind or swimming upstream.
I sometimes found myself searching my heart to see if my direction was just my idea or God’s plan for me. “Surely,” I thought, “it should be easier than this!” I didn’t understand why I faced so many setbacks and trials.
When I began the path of preparation for ministry, I recall a pastor warning me, “Those whom God uses greatly, He tests greatly.” I had no idea what he meant. I now understand. Yet along the way, I often felt that things should be easier if God was leading me.
I remember many seasons of prayer asking God to send a gracious backwind or to reverse the current of the waters. These are times when I felt a need for green pastures and still waters. I still need them.
I should tell you that there is a bit of background to my story. I was the lost brother of my ten brothers and sisters.
I can still remember the day when my parents gave me an ultimatum. After repeated efforts to help me turn my life around, they realized I had no intention of changing. They offered to take me to a youth program to get help, but I arrogantly rejected their offer. It was such a painful time for them and it saddens me when I think of how I hurt them.
When I was just fifteen years old, I left home and took to the streets of Philadelphia. I was what people called a rebellious teenager. It didn’t take long before I was fully absorbed in the fast life of the city. My parents loved and disciplined me as best they knew how, but I rebelled against those efforts. My negative influence on my six younger brothers was not something they were willing to allow.
After leaving home and a stretch of gang life in Philadelphia, life began to collapse. I was thrown out of high school, lost my job and my girlfriend (who was forbidden to be with me), and finally, I lost my place to live. God used these converging circumstances to bring me to my senses and turn my heart to Him.
With my back to the wall, empty and without human resources; I was broken and ready. If man’s extremity furnishes the most suitable opportunity for God to display His power, my life was that opportunity! I returned home and committed my life to Christ and the path began.
Appetite is the word
I cannot explain it but God gave me an insatiable appetite to know His Word! I couldn’t get enough of it. I didn’t know the OT was originally written in Hebrew and the NT was originally in Greek. I had an 8th grade reading level when they threw me out of High School. I only knew that there was some pretty amazing stuff in the Bible!
Cart Before the Horse
Being type A, high D (with a touch of ADHD), I had to find people to share my discoveries with! In a short time I began to lead a home Bible study. Talk about the proverbial Cart before the Horse! Each time we gathered, I shared some of the verses of Scripture I was excited about and my enthusiasm spread. Young people were committing to Christ and we were doing street evangelism — taking New Testaments to the street corners where I previously dealt drugs.
A time of growth
We moved our home Bible study into a store front facility in Philadelphia surrounded by a Catholic Church and Catholic school (one on each side). The Priests didn’t like me very much but I am sure I brought some of their dislike on myself. Let’s just say that my encounter with the priest in his office could have gone better. But we kept growing.
Think about it. I am 19 years old and people my grandparents age are calling me pastor! I was way over my head. As I began to realize this, I sought counsel from a wise pastor.
An unwanted turning point
“I love your enthusiasm but you have the cart way ahead of the horse!” “You need to get some Bible college education.”
I think I turned white when the wise older pastor used the word education. “School?” I asked. “Yes, college.” He responded. “Well,” I explained, “school and I didn’t get along very well.” I told him that I didn’t have a high school degree and had no money to go to college. “I think I know a place for you!” he said.
Next thing you know, I am off to Ozark, Arkansas to attend a little Bible College on a remote mountain in the South. Upon arrival in Ozark, this city boy felt like he was in a different country or different time zone. But they accepted me and I got my GED during my time there. My first GPA was .56 (no I didn’t leave any numbers off!). After two years of sheer determination and hard work saturated in God’s amazing grace, I left the school with a 3.56. But it was a challenging uphill battle for me.
Confidence and inadequacy
The years following would include many trials and setbacks. Some of them were confusing and discouraging. God was refining my character to prepare me for the work ahead. Yet I sometimes wondered if God was trying to send me a message to deter me from pastoral ministry. I’ve never felt adequate for the great calling of pastoral work. Yes, I minister with confidence, but I always feel deeply aware that God put His treasure in a jar of clay “so that the greatness of the power would be from God and not from me” (II Corinthians 4:7).
I don’t say any of this to excuse a lack of qualification for the work but to emphasize a need to rely on the sufficiency of God’s grace and strength. “To this end I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me” (Colossians 1:29).
Anchored to truth
During some of the darker times of trial, the following Scripture has been a continual source of encouragement:
“Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down— this leaning wall, this tottering fence? Surely they intend to topple me from my lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:1-8)
After two years of youth ministry in the Philadelphia area, I am now in my 30th year at Millersville Bible Church. The ministry here has grown from 10 to more than 500 people in our time. My personal ministry of writing and speaking continues to grow in amazing ways. The journey has been tough but the work of ministry is not for the faint of heart.
I am grateful for God’s love and faithfulness and amazed that he would use me for His work! I repeatedly ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” Then, I remind myself “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (II Corinthians 3:5).
This is what the trials and setbacks teach me.
Worship the one who is worthy: