The Ministerial secretary from the Michigan Conference was preaching that day in Indiana, just over the State line from Chicago. Could I meet him at his motel that evening? I hung up the phone and reminisced.
I was driving home from the north side of the city. Between the toll booths, my mind usually wanders to matters other than the road in front of me. The pressures of conflict with the church school principal over galloping deficits were draining me of any enthusiasm for the pastorate. My baptismal rate hovered just above zero. In spite of my beginner's zeal, I could see no proof that all my effort made the slightest difference in anyone's quality of life.
"Lord," I prayed as the wind blew through my icy VW, "get me out of here. Anywhere will do. I can't take it anymore."
At home late that evening the phone rang. "Matt!" I cried. "You can't imagine how good it is to hear your voice. What are you up to these days? How is sunny California?"
After the usual pleasantries and inquiries about other friends from semi nary, he came to the point. He had been asked to find out if I might be interested in a position on the pastoral staff where he was youth pastor.
He described the job: pastor for young adults at one of the larger Adventist churches in southern California. There were several others on the staff. They got along pretty well.
I was drooling. I hate cold. When the temperature drops below 50 F. I put on long underwear. I hate even more passionately battles over school budgets and the color of carpet for the church basement. I feel incompetent to be the expert on every area of church life that small suburban churches expect their pastors to be. I dream of leaving administration to someone else, of leaving the visitation of invalids to others so I can concentrate on the "most important" group in the church the 20- to 50- year-old men. I tire of being responsible for everything in the district and having no one to talk to, of being the only recent graduate from seminary in the entire conference who speaks American English as his native language, of feeling isolated.
Would I like to come to sunny, southern California and serve as pastor for the young adults in the same area where two of my closest friends work?
But how do I know whether or not I am supposed to go? Another friend is breaking his ministerial back in a three-church district spread through the mountains of Kentucky. If the invitation had come from him, would I have even asked the question? (The Lord always calls forward and upward, doesn't He?) If the parish I was currently serving were not so embroiled in controversy about staggering bills, if I liked the neighborhood I lived in, if I could baptize a lot of people, if there were friends from college or seminary close by, if I liked the cold--if things were different--the question would not be pressing.
Matt was on the other end of the line. Should they consider my name with the other potential candidates?
I knew the standard answer. I'd heard it described many times by preachers; I'd read it in mission stories: "I don't know. I'll pray about it."
But I did know. I wanted the job Matt described. I wanted to live in sunny California, where "all the churches are big, all the congregations are rich, and all the pastors are avant-garde." And I knew that I belonged in cold, dreary Oak Lawn. I belonged in this parish. With these people of God. To pray about it would only be to try to get God to change His mind. Memories of Balaam stopped me.
"No, Matt. Even though I have dreamed of just the job you've offered, I know it's not for me. I don't know how I know, but I do. I came here under the conviction of God's call. I cannot leave with less."
For weeks afterward, as the wind blew through my icy VW, I dreamed of sunny skies. I imagined an exciting, fast-paced ministry with a large group of dedicated, attractive, young Adventist adults and stood up to preach on Sabbath to a small suburban congregation where the aver age age was 50. And on the second Tuesday of the month sat with the church board where the minimum age was 50, not counting the pastor. And on the second Monday of the month did battle on the school board. And nearly every night fell exhausted and defeated into bed.
All this came alive in those few minutes of phone conversation with the Ministerial secretary from Michigan.
"Do you know Pastor Robey?" he asked.
"I don't think I ever met him."
"He spoke well of you. And Pastor Grenn recommended you very highly. We are always looking for good ministers ... I would like to meet you this evening if it is convenient."
The dreams again. This man's conference includes one of the two churches I dream of pastoring outside my present parish. And recommendations! One from a man I cannot remember meeting and another from a man who lived in my home for three months, who is old enough to be my father, who knows my warts better than anyone else except my wife. Heavy stuff for a beginner.
"How long have you been in the conference where you are now?" he continued.
"Four and a half years."
"And in the church where you are now?"
"Are you ordained?"
We talked a few more minutes. I told him of my special concern for urban evangelism. He mentioned a city church in his conference that was open right then.
But it was not convenient to meet him that evening. My wife needed the car. And besides, somewhere inside me was that same old conviction: You belong where you are.
"I am really flattered by your call," I said. "I have dreamed of pastoring one of your city churches. But even if you were offering me that church I don't know what it would take to convince me that God was calling me away from my present work. I would need some really obvious signs, I guess. I'll stop and see you the next time I'm in Lansing. I'd be glad to talk with you, especially about urban ministry. But for now, I'm called to where I am."
When I submitted the first half of this article to MINISTRY it ended here. And I received a note: "We like your article, but it is incomplete. We recommend adding a few more pages, addressing the question 'How does one recognize a call from the Lord?'"
I tried several approaches to finishing the article, but they never got off the ground. I had never moved from one parish to another. How could I write about an experience I had never had? Leaving the student church where I served as volunteer pastor during semi nary was hardly the same. School, by definition, is temporary.
But now I have done it.
Just a couple of months after my almost casual rejection of an invitation to "move up" to a larger church in another conference I was invited to "move down" to a smaller church in my own conference. And I said Yes.
Since my sophomore year in college I have carried an unshakable conviction that God has called me to work in Chicago. Through seminary and an internship in urban ministry, the sense of divine appointment to Chicago had persisted. But during the subsequent four years in the suburbs the sense of call to the city dimmed. In a wonderful way that I suppose is familiar to most pastors, the people of my district--church members and the public alike--became my people. Surely the Lord's call could be fulfilled in faithful service here.
However, during my last eighteen months as pastor of the Oak Lawn Seventh-day Adventist church, I had been assisting a pastor in the city in low-key evangelism. Then we felt it was time to make a new, definitive thrust into the neighborhood.
A few young people from around the church responded to our advertising. As they began to show genuine interest in the lessons we had prepared, the old conviction stirred; I began to struggle with a sense of mission, of vocation to the city.
The conference administration had long intended to move me to the city eventually. We had talked about it. But during the past few years in Oak Lawn I had become more and more attached to my people in suburbia. My wife and I had come to a church strapped with debt, divided by factions, with few children and almost no young adults. After some painful struggles we were now enjoying a church full of young adults, excited about their faith and eager to share it.
The church was financially sound. There were no factions that I knew of; the old-timers and newer, younger members ran a mutual admiration society. Babies I had dedicated were becoming smart little kids able to carry on a conversation. My wife had developed some precious, close friendships in the congregation. Why spoil a good thing? Why not stay around to lead the church in a continuing pattern of growth--both numerical and spiritual?
The city was an impossible mission anyway. I had heard others refer to it as the burial ground of evangelists. But the conviction would not leave--I felt called to the city. How could I leave Oak Lawn? How could I leave a church that was so close to my ideal of what a church ought to be? How could I leave the church that had confirmed my call to the ministry and led to my ordination?
I believe in the inner voice of God. I believe God sometimes leads us to do things that are not explainable. But how could I know that the conviction did not grow out of my ambitions? I know too many people whose obedience to every "call" has filled their lives with broken commitments, projects half completed, obligations unfulfilled.
The pull I felt toward the city became increasingly stronger. At the same time I was realizing the disruption and pain my leaving would cause. So I tried to evaluate this inner call using somewhat measurable criteria.
I felt that the new members and interests from our last evangelistic campaign in Raymond had either been integrated into church life or had drifted so far away that further labor for them on my part was a very low priority. Some of those with whom I had been studying the Bible had not yet made commitments to Christ. But I had been studying so long with them that I felt I had fulfilled my obligation to declare to them the whole gospel of God.
We had paid off all the major building projects that 1 had pushed for; the longstanding church school debt to the conference was being systematically paid. The turmoil and factionalism that had characterized the church for years had been resolved. Fellowship had been restored. Young leadership was being elected and respected by old-timers in the church. I could not leave my church with a light heart; I could, however, leave with a clear conscience.
I even suspected that despite my love for the church and its expressed desire that I stay, the church might, in fact, have reached the point where it needed a different kind of leadership from what I could give. If it was going to continue to progress, someone else would have to lead. I definitely was not leaving because I was bored or exasperated. I was leaving because I felt called to another urgent responsibility.
The church in the city was an old foreign-language congregation. The average age of the members was 65 or maybe 70. With one exception, everyone who held an office of any kind was retired. Though the church could seat 350, only thirty or forty attended, and even that attendance was threatened. With the pastor's retirement, which he had already announced, the church would lose its ethnic identity. Many of those who lived far from the church had begun discussing moving their member ship to congregations nearer their homes. Thus if no action was taken until after the pastor's retirement, the church might literally be left with only five to ten members.
And finding someone who could and would take that pastorate would not be easy. The location of the church, the condition of the congregation, and the need to work for months with a retiring pastor who had been in the church for more than fifteen years militated against it. In contrast, I imagined my parish in Oak Lawn to be rather desirable.
My own personal conviction concerning city ministry was not infrequently confirmed by colleagues in the ministry. But was I to hear in their words the voice of God or something else?
Early in the third week of May I yielded to what I believed to be the leading of God. When the conference called, I would be ready to go; I would say Yes.
At the conference office the next Tuesday I attended a meeting for every one who would work with the junior and earliteen divisions during camp meeting. The president stuck his head in the door.
"Chuck, can I see you?"
I stirred in my chair. Did he want to see me now? No. After we finished our meeting would be fine.
In the president's office, after the usual greetings, we sat down to discuss the evangelistic seminar in the city. Or that's what I thought we were going to discuss. After about eighty-five seconds of conversation concerning the seminar he came to the point.
"Chuck, I talked with Pastor Schlier yesterday. You know we had planned to wait until his retirement before taking any action on your going in there. But he tells me that if we do not act now there may not be anyone left in the church when he actually retires. I would like you to go right away. Could you make this Sabbath your last in Oak Lawn and start full-time in the city next week?"
I declined his request that I end my pastorate in Oak Lawn that coming Sabbath. I agreed to go at the end of the next month.
The decision made, there was nothing to do but get on with it. So I spent a month bidding farewell to my church, to the congregation that had confirmed my call to the ministry, to the people who had taught me how to preach and how to visit, to the board members who had shown me how to operate a church, and to the friends who had meant so much. Then I turned to discover the will of God on Chicago's North Side.