I’m telling the story of how it is that I sensed a “call” to become a pastor. It was not something I saw coming, and it had lots of twists and turns that I now see can only be attributed to God’s divine activity within my life. It took me four posts to get to this point, so if you are feigning interest in this story feel free to check those out too (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4)
Over the span of a couple of months in my early twenties I experienced a pair of re-conversions. First, I made the conscious choice to follow Jesus with my whole heart, mind and being. I had never rejected Christianity up to that point, but I had never embraced it fully either. Second, and shortly after, I began to fall in love with the potential of the local church to become the vehicle by which God’s love, grace, and hope could be made manifest in the lives of everyday people.
Once the light began to glow, there was no turning back. I was involved in Axis, the 20-something ministry at Willow Creek, and I became a volunteer fiend. They used to give out info cards that outlined different ways you could get involved, and I did them ALL. I was on the hospitality team. I was involved in the monthly serving teams that went to the inner city. I helped organize educational classes. I got involved in small group ministry, and then became a small group leader, and then became a small group overseer.
It was a rich time. I was in my early twenties and had lots of flexible time and energy. I enjoyed serving, and I learned a ton about myself. It was great.
In early 1998 (if my memory serves correctly) Axis began to hit some rough patches. The staff leadership team ran into some challenges, and over the course of a few months all but one transitioned out of the ministry. Controversy quickly emerged, and being that this was a ministry full of “GenXers,” it didn’t take much to stoke cynicism and pessimism within the Axis community.
If this would have happened at a different point of my life, I would have likely joined the chorus of naysayers. But I was now in a fundamentally different place. I loved Jesus, loved Axis, and was learning to love church again. The disintegration of the staff team didn’t have a negative affect on me – if anything, it further galvanized me. The entire team had affirmed and valued my spiritual development over the two years that I had been there, and I was determined to ensure that none of the current struggles took away from the legacy of what they had built up to that point. I asked them for permission to take on more leadership during that time, and they granted it. I got more involved than ever.
Once it was clear that most of the staff team was going to disband, the leadership of Willow Creek made a decision to appoint an interim leader to direct Axis during its vulnerable time. They asked Paul Krause, the director of Human Resources, if he was up for doing double duty for a season. He accepted, and did an incredible job. He basically held down two different full time roles at the same time, both of which were incredibly demanding.
As the HR director at Willow, Paul had a unique perspective on Axis. Willow Creek was the primary influencer of close to 10,000 churches across the country, and most of those churches had a similar DNA. They looked up to Willow, and often emulated their ideas. When Willow had started Axis, it was a total experiment. They knew that the 20-something crowd wasn’t attending in high numbers, so they figured it couldn’t hurt to see if a designated ministry would draw them in. It was very innovative at the time of its inception, and by the time Paul had taken over Axis there were hundreds of WCA churches that were trying the same thing. So when word got out that there were staff positions available within Axis, Paul began to receive thousands of applications from around the country.
Paul wisely discerned something though. He knew that it would be a big risk to hire the leadership for Axis from outside. He feared that a potential candidate would be drawn to the name recognition of Willow, but wouldn’t truly understand the culture of the church. On top of that they would be inheriting a ministry filled with young adults who were not sure if they could really trust Willow Creek. The transition would be examined by watchful eyes, and there were a lot of people who would make their determination about the future of the church based on who was installed as leaders.
So Paul did something that was quite countercultural for Willow at the time – he decided that he would try to hire all of the staff from within the ministry. Fairly or not, Willow had gotten quite the reputation for being cherry pickers – when a leadership void would arise within the church they would find the most highly credentialed person in the country and hire that person for the position. Paul wanted to do the opposite – he wanted to find people from within that might be green, but who had lots of long term potential within the context of Willow. (As an aside, I didn’t know any of this at the time. I still did not understand how influential Willow was within the white, evangelical community, I had no idea how sought after jobs at Willow were, and I had no idea that this was going to be Paul’s strategy).
There were a handful of volunteers who were really driving the ministry at that time, and Paul became relentless about getting to know each of us. He’d bring us together for lunches and grill us about what we saw within Axis. What did we like? What did we not like? Where did we see it going in the future? What did we imagine its future impact being? None of us understood why he was paying so much attention to us, but we all appreciated the gesture.
About two months into our new relationship Paul asked me if we could get together 1-1. I always get nervous when people ask me to meet… I’ve had a chronically guilty conscience. I assumed that I had done something bad, and that Paul was going to reprimand me.
We had a bit of small talk, and then he dropped what felt like a bomb. He asked, “Have you ever considered going into vocational ministry?”
It had been so long since I had heard something like that. You get used to that question when you grow up as a pastor’s kid, but people had stopped asking it once I got to high school. It was obvious that I wasn’t crazy about church by then, and nobody saw me doing a u-turn and suddenly heading off to seminary.
But now here I was as a 24 year old, self employed, technology guy, and he was asking if I had ever considered going into vocational ministry? Everything about the question struck me as so odd – that was the last thing in the world I had been thinking about. I didn’t even have a category for it in my mind.
I explained all this to Paul. I told him about my upbringing, my previous concerns with church, my desire to break into the business world, and my happiness with the state of affairs in my life.
Acting as if he didn’t hear any of that, Paul began to tell me about the wonderful plan he had for my life. He gave me a motivational speech about why I’d be a great fit at Willow Creek, and why I should consider applying to go on staff. He had sized up my gifts and temperament, as well as the needs of the ministry, and he was certain he saw a fit.
I was flattered, but told him I was already clear about my vocational ambitions. I had dreamed of getting my own company off the ground, and that was far more intriguing to me than a career in ministry. Beside, I told him he was getting the best of both worlds. I was volunteering like crazy and tithing faithfully. That was every church’s dream, right? Why would he want to mess with a good thing? I assumed that would be the end of the conversation.
But it wasn’t. Paul saw something in me, and continued to call it out. He pushed me to open myself to the possibility that God had placed a call on my life that involved pastoral leadership.
His enthusiasm began to impact me, and I started to consider the possibility. But as I did, it occurred to me that there some substantial questions I had to answer before I could go any further down the road. First, I was beginning to realize how hazy I was as to the identity of a church – what did church even exist for? And second, I was also very hazy about what role pastoral leadership played within that. Answering these questions would be crucial before I could move any further in the journey.