Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When Doors Slam Shut

Though strange I may be, I do not consider myself particularly stranger than the rest of mankind. As the saying goes, "You're unique; just like everyone else." I have my own thoughts, hopes, desires, and dreams. By the same token, I have my own failures, limitations, frustrations, and fears. I would do myself a great disservice to consider my struggles or triumphs of any greater or lesser value than another's.

I have discovered though, that my unique blend of successes and failures are my own. Try as I might, I cannot be someone else. My academic and ministerial career is my own, and to strive to become anyone other than who God created me to be would be foolish at best. Yet for the longest time, I have done exactly that.

I remember the tremendous sense of failure and inadequacy I felt whenever I heard of how well my father did while attending Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. After all, he was a husband, a father, a student, he worked full time as campus security, served as a youth pastor, regularly preached on the radio, visited people with Pastor Green, and aced every class in which he was enrolled. Then, this amazing man graduated and began pastoring churches where he would work (at times) eighty hours a week or more. How could I ever hope to measure up to my father?

While serving as pastor and studying Pastoral Ministry through correspondence, I would often feel overwhelmed with all that had to be done. In those times, I would question what seemed to be obvious failures. I was not measuring up to my father; I was unable to properly juggle all that was taking place in my life. Something desperately serious had to be wrong with me. Why else could I not succeed?

Despite the encouragement of my mother, father, and wife, I refused to believe I was anything but a failure. "You are not your father," they would remind me in hopes of lifting my spirits. Unfortunately, my twisted sense of self always heard those words as proof of my shortcomings. I was not my father, and I never would reach that standard. Now, lest it be thought my parents in any way forced me to follow a certain path in life, let me clarify that such a thought would be categorically false. They have always claimed they would be proud of their children if we worked in a gas station as long as it made us happy and we were serving God.

With this foundation laid, permit me to share my purpose for writing today. This past spring, the church I was pastoring closed. Without going into detail, I will say the timing was unexpected for me. We knew the church was foundering, but still held out hope for revival and renewal. Then in May of this year (2014), I received a call which broke my heart. The situation had changed in an instant, and the church would not be able to remain open.

Not only was I heartbroken for a church with such history to close, but people my wife and I had come to know, love, and lift up in prayer would be losing their home church. Also, my sense of failure began to overshadow me. Though some do not believe me, I did my very best while serving in that church. I visited the sick and the well, I visited people in the local community who did not attend the church, my wife and I organized programs for children, hosted movie nights, hosted dinners, arranged for special musical nights, brought in special guests, had community bonfires through the summer, and did not take money from the church budget to do so. My wife learned to play piano to provide music for the worship services and I learned to play guitar. We often were the only ones who came to prayer meetings, but were faithful to pray for the church regardless of whether or not anyone else attended.

Everything I could possibly think of, we tried. Still, it was not enough. The church closed and I, like others, blamed myself. Surely there had to have been something else to try. If only I had done _________. If only I had thought to try __________. If only I had been perfect and never made a mistake.

I thank God for a wonderful, loving couple from that congregation. Were it not for the prayers, encouragement, and love from that couple, I likely would have given up. When some voices spoke my own fears "I never thought he should have been our pastor," that couple encouraged us and cared for us.

Still, I felt the loss keenly. I couldn't help but wonder for long months afterward if the other voices were right. Had I truly failed so spectacularly? Was it all my fault?

The way had closed for me. Since I had dedicated myself to study through correspondence while pastoring rather than following the traditional path, no church wanted me as their pastor. My education was incomplete. I felt utterly hopeless and felt like a complete failure. "If only," and "maybe if" became my laments. It seemed every door had closed and not even a window of hope could open.

Parker Palmer said it well when he wrote, "When way closes behind us, it is tempting to regard it simply as the result of some strategic error: had I been smarter or stronger, that door would not have slammed shut, so if I redouble my efforts, I may be able to batter it down. But that is a dangerous temptation."

I did not have the best attitude in the wake of the church closing. When it became clear I would not enter a new pastorate, I applied to Kingswood University to more quickly complete my education. Initially, my goal was simply to complete my degree so I could begin again in pastoral ministry. I was still trying to batter down closed doors under my own strength and understanding.

Thankfully, God has worked on my heart through the summer. Before the fall semester even began, He changed my desires and goals tremendously. With His help and the unfailing encouragement of my wife to no longer put off my ultimate dream, I set out on a new path. Instead of beating on a closed door, it finally dawned on me that there was something else God wanted for me; something else I wanted as well.

Though my initial reason for applying to continue my education was selfish and an effort to "just get it over with," everything has changed. Rather than pursuing a degree in Pastoral Ministry, I am now seeking a degree in Theology as the first of many steps toward earning my doctorate. Instead of hoping to merely survive, I am joyfully anticipating the coming years obtaining my Bachelor's degree, two Master's degrees, and my doctorate. Rather than pastoring, I hope and plan to teach.

I will freely admit this has been a painful journey to understand what I truly desire to be, but it has been worthwhile. I am finally able to realize I am not a failure. Rather, a door closed so I could be directed onto a different path. Instead of regarding all as my fault, I have finally come to realize my insistence on blaming myself was overly narcissistic; it is not all about me.

I understand this post is vastly different than my normal writing, but I felt strongly to share from my heart. I only hope by being transparent in regard to my struggles, someone may come to the realization of what God wants to do in their life. Maybe this will help someone learn to stop attempting to beat down a closed door and will help them learn to accept the new path laid out for them. If nothing else, this is praise to God for a wonderful, encouraging family and for helping me realize I am not a failure.

Be encouraged, and may God bless you!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ben, Thanks for your blog post. Closed doors are often not easy to accept. We do often blame ourselves. But closed doors help to redirect us, as you well noted. I'm glad you have a renewed sense of mission and have an end in mind. I do want to encourage you, as Dr. Craig Evans has told many students at Acadia Divinity College, not to dismiss pastoral work as important experience on the way to the academy. Keep up the good work!