I had never heard of the term “epic fail” when I went through one in 1986.
At age 36, I was in my second year as pastor of a large Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. I had joined the church’s staff as an associate pastor in 1982 and was called, by unanimous vote of the congregation, to succeed my popular predecessor, who had served in that role for nearly twenty years, when he moved on to a church in Pennsylvania in 1984. Two years into my term, things were not going well. I was exhausted—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and discouraged. In early January, I resigned, fairly sure that I lacked the gifts necessary for effective pastoral ministry and maybe for vocational ministry of any sort.
I spent the next three years wandering about the evangelical landscape. (Keep in mind, however, Tolkien’s line that “not all who wander are lost.”) I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in preaching at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville but dropped out after one semester. We spent several months in Fort Wayne, exploring the possibility of a church plant with the Evangelical Mennonite Church, but that didn’t work out. In May of 1988, we moved back to Harrisonburg, and I took a job on a construction crew, helping build and renovate houses. From a vocational ministry standpoint, I was the poster child for epic fail.
Then, early in January 1989, things changed. I received a call from a member of the faculty at my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg. He was serving as coordinator for the seminary’s “Ministers Week” program, held each year during the third week in January. Barely two weeks before the event, one of the workshop leaders had cancelled, and the program coordinator asked me to step in as a replacement.
At the time, it seemed that the invitation came “from out of the blue,” like being unexpectedly included in a distant relative’s will. In retrospect, the reasons I was invited are a bit more clear. I graduated from EMS in 1985, so I was known to the seminary community, and the Ministers Week coordinator had been one of my profs. I lived locally and was able to take a leave from my job in order to prepare, so the logistics of my participation were easy to manage. Despite the short prep time, I accepted the invitation with enthusiasm.
My workshop was well-attended and well-received. Soon after that event, other doors began to open. I was encouraged to undertake a five-minute daily radio broadcast which, within a year, was aired in both the Harrisonburg and Lancaster, PA, markets. Largely as a result of that exposure, I started receiving invitations to speak at Bible conferences and renewal meetings and to teach in local, church-based Bible institutes. Then, in the summer of 1989, I was called to serve as pastor of a well-established Mennonite church in the Harrisonburg area. That congregation, like me, had been through a bit of a rough patch over the previous few years. In many ways, we were perfectly suited for one another. My four years there stand as some of the most fruitful and satisfying in the whole of my forty-year ministry career.
Some or all of those opportunities for ministry may have arisen anyway, but in my mind, they are all linked inseparably to that Ministers Week workshop. I shall be forever grateful to Don Augsburger and Eastern Mennonite Seminary for that invitation. It was a genuine turning point for me, restoring confidence in my call to ministry and helping to renew my credibility with the seminary’s constituency.
Could it happen again? Possibly. Here’s what I mean.
Twenty-two years after I walked away from my pastorate in Harrisonburg, resulting in three years of wandering and soul-searching, I lost my job at a small Bible college where I had taught for fourteen years. (I’ve told that story in my autobiographical novel, The Long Road from Highland Springs, if you’re interested.) In many ways, I’ve been wandering for the past seven years, but I’ve not been aimlessly adrift. (Again, the Tolkien quote). I’ve been waiting on God, but I’ve not been idle.
For example, shortly after I was released from my teaching position, my wife developed breast cancer, and that consumed a full year of our lives. (She is now six years cancer-free, for which we are grateful.) In the spring of 2009, we officially adopted the Anglican communion as our spiritual home and received the Sacrament of Confirmation at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Lewis Center, Ohio.
After a two-year period of preparation, academic and otherwise, I was ordained an Anglican priest in May 2011. (I actually consider myself a liturgical Anabaptist as much as an Anglican.) Although I am not serving in parish ministry at present, we continue to explore the possibility of planting a new church that will serve its community and the world as an agent of the kingdom of God. [Again, I’ve told this whole story, including a description of the church we hope to plant, in the autobiographical novel I published one year ago. A second edition, with a new title and some minimal revision, is due out later in the fall.]
Despite all this activity, I am not involved in regular ministry in a face-to-face, personally interactive context, and I miss it terribly. (I should note that, since last March, a few folks have been meeting every other Saturday evening for what we call a Gathering for Worship in the Liturgical Tradition. I have been presenting a short homily and celebrating Eucharist in that setting. Attendance has been sparse, and we are currently on a temporary hiatus until September 19.) It’s not exactly the same situation I was in back in 1989, but there are some similarities.
I mention all of this to provide context for a special announcement. In January 2016, twenty-seven years after I first presented a workshop during Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Ministers Week program, I will be returning to Harrisonburg to do the same thing again. The event, now called the School for Leadership Training (SLT), will run January 18-20, 2016, with the theme of “Oasis.” I have been invited to present a workshop (which will be offered at two different times) called “Liturgy as Spiritual Oasis.” Here is the summary paragraph which I wrote to describe the workshop.
The Christian church has used liturgical forms in worship since its earliest days. The New Testament contains examples of prayers and hymns which were likely elements of the early church’s worship liturgy. Liturgical forms give balance and coherence to public worship and connect the contemporary church to its pre-Reformation traditions. In addition to providing form and structure for worship, the mystery and beauty of the liturgy can nourish a lean spirit and renew a weary soul. Building on the presenter’s personal testimony of the healing and restorative character of liturgy, this workshop will invite participants to experience liturgy as “spiritual beauty that feeds our souls.”
I’ll no doubt have much more to say about the SLT and my workshop over the next few months. I am excited and gratified to have the opportunity to present a workshop that focuses on the value of liturgy for spiritual formation and personal renewal. I am equally excited at the prospect of what this invitation may represent. Twenty-seven years ago, a similar opportunity opened doors that shaped the course of my ministry for a generation.
It could happen again.