When the invitation came we were a young couple, 35, serving a growing church in New Westminster, a beautiful city of 40,000 in Western Canada. The phone call was from a conference superintendent in the Midwestern United states asking us to come and serve a larger congregation in Greenville, Illinois – a congregation where great numbers of college students attended.
The invitation created conflict. There were reasons for us to stay where we were. We loved the people and they loved us. The growth of the church was exciting. We loved the city. Our children were settled in a good school. But I had said to a favorite professor back in seminary that I would like some day to be a college pastor, and here was the opportunity.
Day after day I wrestled with the invitation. Kathleen did the same. We talked over the pros and cons. She said she would not leave our place in Western Canada if our profoundly retarded son, John David, had to be moved from the nearby institution where he was happily situated. Apart from that consideration, she entrusted the decision largely to me.
I knew that our decision was more than a mere choice about “furthering my career.” I didn’t think of what I was doing as a “career.” I was ordained for a lifetime of ministry and we were trying to live out a “calling” — a vocation. There had to be some right direction for us that would be in harmony with a divinely-approved plan. Although in our denomination a Conference Appointments Committee assigns ordained personnel to their place of service, moving from one conference to another was usually a personal decision.
Caught in the toils of that decision, one morning I went from my study into the empty sanctuary of the church and knelt by a green pulpit chair. I had to decide. In that moment of anguish, with resolute finality I knew the answer. We would go. I told Kathleen. I phoned the conference superintendent to say that our response was, yes.
I wasn’t prepared for what followed. When we told our congregation of our decision we became acutely aware of the strength of the bond between us. There were tears. There was grieving on both sides. We began to feel forlorn. I now question from a position of greater maturity: could we have found a way to break the news to them more gradually. Pastoral relationships are far more than mere business connections to be severed.
In my distress, I phoned the superintendent who had invited us. I told him I had given my word and I would not break it, but I requested that he release me from my commitment. His response left no doubt. He would not release me. At his end, the Appointments Committee was counting on my coming. That closed a door with a thud.
My anguish increased. We were still being pulled in two directions. I was in such turmoil that I walked the streets of our city seeking respite. We both lived with this tension for a few weeks.
Then pieces of our furniture that we were selling began to disappear. The half-vacant parsonage made the reality more vivid. Finally, two of our beloved members took us and our three children, Carolyn, 12, Donald, 9, and Robert, 7, to the train for our trip across Canada where we would spend a few days with family and then go on to Detroit, enter the United States, buy a used car, and start the five hundred mile trek to our new field of service south of Chicago.
The grieving didn’t end immediately. We grieved the loss of a beloved congregation. We grieved the loss of an urban complex we had come to love. We grieved the loss of the beautiful landscape of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia ringed as it was by mountains. And it took us most of a year to become comfortable with a different sort of congregation in a very different community. But we see all of this now as the inevitable stress of making a major change.
Our move began a thirteen year ministry at a college center which brought us lifelong friendships, countless good memories, and former student/congregant connections locally, across the continent and beyond. Only last week I received communications from three former students from different places, each speaking of the help I had been to them at a crucial time of decision. From a lifetime of ministry we now have contacts with people who back then were students and now are grandparents living in retirement.
Seeking and knowing God’s will is a mysterious undertaking. Certainty of knowing his will did not in this case initially introduce calm. In retrospect we know we made the right decision, though at the time our minds were torn.
But it is some comfort to know that when we are making such destiny-shaping choices, even if the choice we make should prove to be the less desirable of two, Our Lord can take our blunders or missteps and bring good from them. That is only one aspect of his provident mercy and it is a great consolation to those who sincerely attempt to live in obedience to him by faith.