Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog post in which I affirmed my lifelong belief that God had called me to vocational Christian ministry and repeated my intention to fulfill that call for the remainder of my life. I called that post “There Is No Plan B.”
Yesterday I published a post in which I described my current circumstances in stark terms. I laid out both the scope of my current ministry as well as the financial realities which my wife and I are facing. A few of my readers wrote to assure me of their prayers and to offer other expressions of encouragement.
Early this morning, after a mostly sleepless night, I sensed God saying that I should re-publish that post from last February as a way of declaring, once again, that I am in this for the duration. I have edited that post a bit, adding some elements toward the end that reflect the current situation more accurately, but it is essentially the same content that I originally wrote. I meant it then. I mean it now. There is still no Plan B.
It might appear to the casual observer that the course of my vocational pilgrimage has taken a rather orderly trajectory. It could be noted, for example, that I started my career more than forty years ago as a Christian minister, and today I am still a Christian minister. You might assume that my employment history would reflect a steady, if sometimes incremental, progress. You would be wrong.
I have been a pastor. I was a good preacher, but I struggled with other aspects of pastoral ministry. I now believe that was primarily because I was simply too young for the job. Pastoral care requires an ability to empathize which I did not develop until I had experienced the kind of pain and loss my parishioners were going through. I will be a much better pastor if I ever have the privilege of serving in that role again.
I served for nine years (1992-2001) as the staff person and spokesman for a parachurch ministry which sought to raise a voice for evangelical orthodoxy within contemporary Anabaptism. After the first couple of years, I hated it. I did it because my peers asked me to do it, I believed it needed to be done, and there did not seem to be anybody else willing or able to take it on. But it was brutal. I was always challenging denominational positions on doctrinal and cultural issues, and I gained a reputation for being divisive and doctrinaire. And even though I believe that regret is mainly a useless and futile emotion, in many ways I do regret those years. I have addressed all of that in a blog post which I called “Correct Doctrine Is Not Enough.”
Along the way I traveled many thousands of miles, across most of the US and into Canada, as a Bible conference speaker and a teacher in short-term institutes and seminars. That is difficult work, especially for an introvert, but I enjoyed it. Also, from 1989-93, I wrote and produced a five-minute daily radio broadcast, which aired in Virginia and Pennsylvania, in the days before podcasts and YouTube.
In 1994, my second year as Executive Secretary of Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship (the job I disliked intensely), I was asked to serve as adjunct faculty at Rosedale Bible College. When EAF closed in 2001, my teaching load was increased to full-time. The pay was not great, but the intangible benefits were, as it turned out, immeasurable. I loved teaching, and by the time I had been doing it fourteen years, when the administration offered me a long-term contract, I concluded that I had found my niche.
What I had not foreseen was the incompatibility which the governing board of the college perceived to exist between that Anabaptist institution and my growing sensibilities in the area of liturgical worship. Even though my convictions regarding radical Christian discipleship and Biblical nonresistance (the heart and soul of historical Anabaptism) never wavered, there was no room in that institution for a Mennonite Bible college instructor with liturgical leanings.
Alternatively, I became an Anglican priest with Anabaptist sensibilities. The transition was far more difficult than I had expected. As it turns out, that combination of loyalties has not provided a spiritual home or a context for congregational ministry, at least not yet. Still, I have never thought about pursuing another line of work. You see, I have no Plan B.
That is, I have never considered doing anything with my life except vocational ministry for Christ, the church, and the Kingdom. That’s what God called me to do in 1966, and He has never rescinded the call. I could no more consider another line of work, assuming such was even a possibility for a man of my age and limited marketability, than Yo-Yo Ma could walk away from his cello or Jacques Pepin could lay aside his chef’s apron.
When God called me to vocational ministry (and by that I mean full-time commitment to Christian ministry, from which I would derive sufficient financial compensation to pay my bills), He never stipulated what form that ministry would take. I assumed it would be the pastorate, since that’s really the only form of compensated “church work” I knew anything about as I was growing up. As this summary of my work history has shown, however, I came to realize that vocational ministry could, and would, take a variety of forms.
I have deliberately avoided using the term “professional” in this review of my career. I don’t dislike the term, and it definitely has an appropriate usage. Just not as part of the description of my pilgrimage. I am not a professional minister. I am a servant of the church. I didn’t set out to achieve a level of competence in a profession. I set out to serve wherever God made it clear that my gifts would contribute to the spiritual growth of the body of Christ and to the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
Like most young people, I never gave much thought to retirement during my 20s and 30s and even into my 40s. When I reached my 50s people began asking about my plans for retirement, and my standard reply was that I had no plans to retire. And I didn’t.
In the last few years, I’ve been joking that I have been “involuntarily retired” against my will. But it is only a joke. Like Supreme Court justices, Popes*, and the Queen of England, my call is for life.
It may be that my active ministry is over. I have not received a stipend for ministerial service in almost five years. During that time, I prepared myself for ministry within a new communion. I could do nothing else. As I stated above, my call is for life.
When it became clear that no context for parish ministry was going to develop for me within that new communion, at least not yet, I began writing this blog. Today, sixteen months and nearly 150 blog posts later, readership is growing, and many of those readers have told me that God has spoken to them through what I have written.
Further, within the past week, at the urging of numerous friends, I added a podcast to the resources available through this blog. My experience in radio has proven invaluable in this effort, and the two podcasts released so far have generated significant and gratifying response. The plan is to release two new podcasts every week.
Together, these endeavors require a considerable time commitment, but the sense of fulfillment, especially when I hear from readers and listeners, is indescribable. Still, a “sense of fulfillment” does not pay the bills, and neither of these enterprises produces any income. The truth is, I don’t know if I will ever be financially compensated for ministry again. That is not my concern. It is God’s. If my faith is insufficient to sustain me in a situation like this, then I have no message to share with the people of God anyway.
It may be that my active ministry is over, and the projects in which I am now involved are simply last-gasp attempts to hang on to a fading dream. I don’t really believe that, but only time will tell.
If it turns out that my active vocational ministry is over, you will soon receive word that God has called me home to glory. That is not a throw-away line. I am altogether serious. Many years ago I identified with the quote attributed to David Livingstone: “I am immortal until my work is done.”
In 2007, while I was still teaching at Rosedale Bible College, one of my students (you know who you are, Josh Graber) paid me the highest compliment I have ever received. At the bottom of the last page of a written assignment he wrote these words:
“Mr. Kouns, with much respect and thanks. I hope to fulfill my calling as well as you have yours.”
If his observation is true, then God be praised. Because, you see, for my life, there is no Plan B.
*Note: I wrote this post prior to the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he would become the first pope in 600 years to resign his papacy.