I was sharing funeral duties with the former pastor of one of our partnered rural churches. I liked him but had always felt a bit of a distance between us. He explained that gap to me while we were at a funeral.
He said, “I came to this community wounded. I was looking for a place to hide while I healed. This was that place. We both came from large and successful church ministries in the same city. We arrived at the same time and I thought, “Why is this guy coming here?”
It’s a fair question.
I’m not sure if he was trying to come up with scenarios that could have caused me to end up in a rural community. Perhaps I was a member of the witness protection program? Maybe I was on the lamb from law enforcement? Absconding? Hiding? Fleeing? Most of the options seem a bit dark.
There is a one-word answer to his question, but I’m afraid it’ll take a bit of a back-story to understand it. The word is one that we don’t use very often anymore, but I believe that it is the key to staying. Staying allows us access to the “power of the stay,” a phrase we use to encourage a long-term vision for any ministry that I find myself in. It is a word that carries weight and meaning. It lends that meaning to the place where I serve. The word is “Call.”
Call is the word that changes intent into action. Call is the word that drives us through the uncharted waters of doubt, wilderness and struggle. Call is what one out of every ten who believe that they need to head overseas as missionaries, has. It is what nine out of ten lacks.
The back-story to our call to rural America takes a little longer.
I served on a staff at a large church in a college town. I had been there for somewhere between six and seven years. Trinity Church in East Lansing, Michigan (Go Sparty!) had grown under some pretty dynamic leadership. Services ran in the thousands each week and youth ministry saw hundreds of students. I had job offers almost every month in youth ministry meccas like Colorado, Atlanta, California and the East coast.
The team was made up of the most talented people I had ever worked with. Our Lead Pastor, Emerson Eggerichs, (Love and Respect) had the ability to present a couple of “AHA” moments each sermon. Worship, Children’s Ministry, and Care Ministries were fantastic, and the church grew. We had just built a 15 million dollar facility that included a multi-million dollar youth wing. The youth wing offices were glass encased, beside a coffee bar, billiards room, and gym. The worship room had an adjacent prayer chapel and was equipped with SOTA tech. It was fully staffed with committed youth workers and the volunteer teams had grown to a significant size and incredible effectiveness. I was in Youth ministry Shangri La.
And I left.
My wife, Dawn, grew up in the rural community that we now live in. She grew up living a few miles away from both sets of grandparents, cousins and extended family. I was from Detroit (metro) by way of Canada. I had ministered in Miami, Detroit, and East Lansing. I was a city guy. She was a country girl. I was used to moving to new towns but staying in the same place in traffic. She was used to staying in the same town but moving fast with no traffic. I came from the land of paisley, wing tips, restaurants, and Professional Hockey. She came from the land of camo, steel toes, picnics, and NASCAR. We met at a camp.
Our first ministry together was at Trinity Church. It was fast-paced and we saw students grow.
In the back of our hearts, in the place that God reserves for the miraculous, we heard a still small voice ask a question. It was, “What about kids who live in the country? Why can’t they have what kids in the city have? Why can’t they meet in groups that have mass appeal too?” So we prayed.
We prayed that God would raise up a youth leader in rural communities like Hillsdale County who would do world class ministry with teenagers.
On a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, where we visited one of my ministry mentors, a man named Don Lonie, we were burdened with the call. Don was well into his 80’s and was no rookie in youth ministry. He had the distinction of speaking to more students in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s than any other person. I’ll talk about him in a future blog. In Don’s words, “You guys are idiots. Who else do you think is praying, “Lord send me to the middle of nowhere”? Has it dawned on you that you may be the only answer to your own prayer.”
It was stark. It was brash, and it was truth.
On our way back to Lansing both Dawn and I were looking out the windows and we saw an immaculate farm on the right of the highway. We looked at each other and said, “Why not now?”
It was only a matter of weeks before we had committed career suicide and resigned our position.
Need had necessitated a call. Call mandated an action. We were all in. We transitioned out of the ministry in Lansing, put our home on the market, and began to look for a farm that we could use.
It seems that in a world of millennials who are searching for lives that are meaningful, we ought to spend time discussing the case of the call. We have the capability of unleashing the passionate pursuit of new things in a new generation committed to change.