This summer 14 Candler students are serving in ministry through Candler Advantage, a paid summer internship in conjunction with Candler’s Contextual Education Program. Over the course of the summer many of these students will be sharing their experiences here on the blog.
My call to a life of faith has been hardly ordinary. Born and raised a Jehovah’s Witness, I grew up in a strict and unhealthy religious environment. Every week, my family had to fill out time cards recording how many hours we spent in “service” (door-to-door evangelization). I was forbidden from hanging out with kids who weren’t “one of us,” and was deprived of the usual childhood joys of birthday cakes, Christmas morning gifts, and Easter egg hunts. The worst moment, however, came when my brother was disfellowshipped – a process of excommunication, or shunning, that forbids family and friends from associating with lapsed members. As a child, I dearly loved and looked up to my brother; when he was disfellowshipped, I was told that we could no longer be seen together in public.
When I was 15, my parents called our family into the kitchen for what would be a life-changing announcement: they told us that they were leaving the Witnesses. For me, a 15-year-old who was bitter and angry, I was simply happy that I could finally hang out with my brother again. I was also happy that I would no longer have to attend five meetings a week, and would no longer be forced to engage in the mind-numbing chore of preparing for them. While I knew that we still had very close relatives in the Witnesses, and that our leaving would greatly impact our relationships with them, I was excited by the possibility of living a normal life.
For the next four years, however, life was hardly normal. My parents, who no doubt felt guilty about the restrictive lives to which my siblings and I had been subjected, allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom. I had no curfews (none that were enforced anyways), and no limits on whom I could or couldn’t hang out with. I was allowed access to my mother’s car to the point where it was basically mine; I could come and go with it, whenever I wanted, without permission. I was also given unearned money on a regular basis, without any questioning with regard to what it would buy. All of this amounted to a recipe for disaster. I became addicted to drugs, and eventually started selling them. Toward the beginning of this phase, I hung out with the “party crowd” – kids who drank a little here, smoked a little weed there – but quickly found myself surrounded by hardcore criminals. Three of my closest friends from this time ended up dead (long after I stopped hanging out with them); all shot, I presume, over drug deals gone wrong (officially, these cases are all unsolved).
When I was 18, my life took a drastic turn. One night, after getting high with a friend, I was in my car, alone, driving home. I always struggle to describe what came next. All I can say is that suddenly, with no warning, I felt a very strong presence with me. This presence had a voice – not an audible voice, but a voice I could, in the strangest imaginable way, feel. The voice’s message was simple: “You must stop this, or you will die.” Whatever happened that night, I believe that it saved my life. It shook me up so much that I went home, told my parents everything that had been going on, and left all of my friends in the dust. The next several months would be spent in isolation, reflecting on God, my future, and how the two might be related. I believed I had been spared for something. This was the initial call. This experience, although only 10 years ago, seems like a scene from a movie I barely remember. But I must not let myself forget. I firmly believe that our present is shaped by our past and motivated by our future. The “call” is dynamic, as God calls his people from and for.
Preparation and Discernment
As of late, I’m learning that the call entails a perpetual cycle of preparation and discernment. For the past six years, I’ve been preparing for ministry through academic training. I have a B.A. in Pastoral Ministries and Biblical Studies, and I’m two years into my MDiv program at Candler (two down, one to go!). Sounds like I’ve had a clear understanding of my vocational calling all along, right? Not exactly. While I’ve rarely questioned whether I’ve been called to ministry, the form of ministry to which I’m being called at any given time is something that I’m continuously discerning. Thanks to the Candler Advantage program, I just spent the entire summer working (while getting paid…WOO WOO!) at a local United Methodist congregation in Decatur, GA. This experience affirmed my specific call to parish ministry – at least for a time. But let me be clear: I will never make the decision to be a “career pastor,” or a career anything else. Maybe God will call me to be a pastor my entire life, but maybe not. I cannot determine today what God will call me to do tomorrow. The Spirit of God is exciting, unpredictable, even dangerous. God may call a person to one form of ministry for a season, and to a completely different form for the next. The Spirit that calls us is the same Spirit who hovered over primitive waters, who appeared as a roaring wind and as flaming tongues. The call is an invitation from a mysterious God who promises, if we’re willing to take the risk, to give us an abundant life. So let the narrative continue!