When Did You Know You Wanted to Be a Pastor? A Story About Grace

“When did you first know you wanted to be a pastor?” I have been asked this many times over the years. But the question nobody has ever asked me – the more interesting question – “When was the first time you wanted out of ministry?” In my case, the answer to both involves my encounters with Grace.

It took quite a long time for me to want to be a pastor. I had been serving a church for three years before I really wanted to be one. The journey towards embracing my calling began with a conversation in the fellowship hall after my trial sermon at my first church. As with every potential candidate, the congregation gathered to hear me preach at a Sunday service. My sermon was completely forgettable, I’m sure, but the people were gracious and hospitable.

After the service, everyone came to greet Virginia and I, as well as our two little ones, who had come with us. At one point, I was holding my four year old daughter, Maggie, and speaking with a delightful woman of the church. At that time, Maggie was enamored with beads. She had a collection of all kinds, shapes and sizes. It was always the first thing she noticed wherever we went.

Well, there I was talking with this woman, whose name, I learned, was Grace. Maggie interrupted us, grabbing my head to turn it so that she could whisper into my ear,

“Ooh, Daddy, RED BEADS!” At this point, Grace tilted her head inquiringly, and I explained. “Maggie loves beads and she is admiring your necklace.”

“Oh!” She said, eyes dancing and hands immediately going to the back of her neck. “Where I come from, if someone admires something you have” – she took the bead necklace from around her own neck and placed it around my little girl’s neck – “you give it to them.”

Maggie’s eyes now danced with Grace’s in celebration that those beautiful red beads were now around her very own neck! I mumbled a Thank-you, but what was running through my head as I witnessed this simple act of kindness was, Please let me come here to be the pastor of this place! Please let me live in a community of people that do stuff like that!

Whether or not the church needed me, I certainly needed that church; needed to learn to receive and to give, to bear witness to the beauty of a faithful community. I could, for the first time, imagine in that short exchange that this was what my life was made for.

I was called to this church, and in the course of our life together, I would have ample opportunity to witness, receive and offer such kindness and graciousness. It saddens me still that when, years later, I had occasions to express compassion to Grace, I was not nearly as ready to do so as she had been that morning.

You see, Grace’s oldest daughter, Laura ended up pregnant and unwed. Grace and her husband committed to raising the child, little Joanna. Another child was born to Laura. This child, however, was not going to be raised by her grandparents. She would be given up for adoption. Grace approached me about having the baby baptized before she would be given over to foster care. I suggested that since the child would be leaving very soon, it would be better to let her be baptized into the faith community of her adoptive family.

Of course, there was no guarantee that the adoptive parents would care to do so, but the promise that the congregation makes in baptism, to faithfully bring the child to the services of God’s house, to teach the Lord’s prayer and the Ten commandments, to place the scriptures in her hands and provide for instruction in the Christian faith, these would not be possible if the child were not among us. That was my thinking. There may even be good reason for it, but even now I feel myself trying to justify my actions.

POSTED ON March 5, 2014
  • Rory Wynhoff

    Somehow we do a mindless (and Bible-less) jump from “calling” to assuming God means Seminary or Bible College. Look at the men Jesus chose as His disciples! The indoctrination of men does not equal the calling of God! It is not the Bible that we get that understanding from, it is the doctrines and traditions of men. One of the main doctrines that Luther was
    enamored with, at the start of the reformation, was the priesthood of all believers. Sadly, this never resulted in repentance from the hierarchical priesthood of the Catholic church. Empty buildings were filled with “Protestant Priests,” called Pastors. Having the same to-do list as their Catholic counterparts, less transubstantiation and a formal confessional, this old priesthood role remained intact. The Biblical priesthood of all believers, where “and all ye are brethren,” can not survive in an atmosphere of strife, control and division. Yes, the clergy does create a very real division within the body where the so-called laity is not considered
    to be on the same “spiritual plane,” and there is a definite hands-off my ministry attitude among the clergy. Understandably, if the Pastor lost his perceived realm of ministry he would loose his identity as a Pastor. That would be a good thing. Then he could enter the realm of the brethren, not better, not worse, but equal.

    There are, obviously, leaders within the body – those who go first and lead by example in order to train-up the priesthood of all believers, and watch over their souls. “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ;…” (1 Cor 11:3) “But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” (Matt 23:8) The principle is the same whether we use the word Rabbi, Father or Pastor, we are not to appoint earthly “heads” of the body. The leadership dynamic within the New Testament is a plurality of elders, a sharing of the burden and a protection against abuses. Paul did not tell Titus and Timothy to go about appointing Pastors, but elders. And the giftings of Ephesians 4 are likewise plural. Not just a “Pastor,” but a plurality of gifts to help the body grow and mature.

    Another problem in the current practice is placing young, immature men in places of authority. We are doing both the young men and the body a grave disservice. They should be elders, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” (1
    Tim 3:6) Can any refute the fact that there is far to much “me” in ministry and a horrible shortage of humility in the same? We ought to cringe at the words, “you (laity) need to support the ministry (me).” This is 180 degrees turned around from the gifted edifying the rest of the body – these gifts are never meant for personal use, but corporate.

    No wonder burnout and leaving the ministry is such a problem. The workload that should be divided among the believers is heaped upon a very few (plus some things that should not be on the list at all).

    God is so gracious to us when we are faithful to His Word! Repentance is necessary to enter a relationship with Him, and daily repentance is likewise necessary for that relationship to grow. We all do things we wished we hadn’t, but coming closer to God through repentance is always available to us. “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of
    you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (1 Pet 5:5)

Paul Palumbo is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He was born and raised in Maryland and received his Master of Divinity Degree from Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. He has served two congregations in twenty-five years, one in North Carolina and currently one in Chelan, Washington, where his parish work includes Spiritual Direction, ministry to Vietnam veterans, the Adult Catechumenate, and care for the poor and dying. He and his wife Virginia have four grown children.