One of the striking aspects of shifting from pastoral ministry to landscaping last spring was the change in how I was perceived. When I would be mowing, planting, or some other work for a home owner I would regularly go unnoticed. Sometimes it was just letting me do my work, while at other points it was more like actively being overlooked. In my pastoral work and personal life I interacted with people from a variety of backgrounds and there was generally a sense of relating as equals. But all of sudden, because the outward form had changed and I had the title of landscaper, I was in a very different position. There was nothing different about me, but people related to me completely differently.
Then outside of work when I’d be hanging out with Hillary or the kids and look less like a landscaper and more like your average young professional the tables would turn again. Because of how I looked along with certain cues about my education and our lifestyle, it would be assumed that I belonged among the successful and upwardly mobile.
Even among my landscaping coworkers, I saw this big change in my “status.” Though they knew I was a pastor just weeks ago, they would talk about their lives openly speaking of the things people don’t tell “clergy.” Whatever filters existed would quickly come off, because we were in a work setting and I quickly got to know people as they were. If as I pastor I had sat down with them and tried to get a feel for who they were and what life was like, it would be a pretty different experience.
All of this has made me more aware of how I depend on outward appearance in relating to people and made me wonder about the self hidden under the uniform. Under a successful veneer I know there are many just getting by or not even making it. The guy plowing the snow from the driveway or shoveling the sidewalk has more happening than I realize.
The bible teaches us that every human is full of glory and ruin because we are made in the image of God but twisted by sin. When I think about all the uniforms we wear and the matching or contrasting realities underneath it points me back to the essentials. I need to relate to every person as a reflection of God himself. Through all the layers we put on and despite the distortion of sin there is a human behind each face, under each uniform. I need to be wise because appearances are often deceiving, but my primary calling is to love. And God knows the heart. He sees through it all and will make the truth plain in time.
In the past year and a half we have heard “no” many times. The “no” has come in many ways, but ultimately we have heard God’s voice coming through. When I knew of the possibility of being laid off from my position at church I started filling out job applications. I remember submitting the first one with both hope and a sense of incredulity that I could be living and serving somewhere else six months down the road. Since that day there have been many potential futures that we have explored and to each one God has clearly said, “no.” While there have been the traditional rejections in which I won’t make it to the first round of interviews, there have been opportunities that filled the horizon with a growing sense of certainty. Yet in all these cases God clearly shut the door. This was difficult on a variety of levels, but it also gave us a growing sense that when God said, “yes” it would be with similar clarity.
Fast forward through a year and a half of “no” and we hear “yes” from Trinity in regards to the church planting fellowship. We are given two weeks to pray it over while they check our references. We are looking for this booming “YES” from the sky but the affirmation comes in smaller pieces that accumulate. We were talking about this with the new pastor of our church and he he surprised us in his response. He said, “it’s not so much that you’re saying, ‘Yes’ to this church planting fellowship, but that you’re not saying “No.” Hillary and I stopped, looked at him, and then paused to put the statement together. He went on to explain that so many guys, himself included, had considered church planting and said, “no.” “For a variety of reasons, most pastors do not feel called to start a new church. So that fact you are willing to seriously consider this venture is significant.” I had never thought of calling in this light. Just by the fact that we weren’t turning from this path at the outset but were intrigued, was an indication that God was at already work, moving behind the scenes. Again, this was not the booming voice we had hoped to hear but another indication of God’s leading.
God weaves together many strands. Here are two more pieces that helped lead us to Providence.
Through the past year and a half of transition I’ve come across one section of The Pilgrim’s Progress on multiple occasions. Christian, the main character in this allegory, is equipped with armor but it only covers his front and not his back. The only way for him to remain safe is to keep moving forward. And it is not only safety but victory and life that lie before Christian. At many points this year we wanted to stop – stop trying to sell our house, stop looking for a job, stop trying to hear God’s voice, stop living “in between,” and much more. But God kept prodding us, telling us of victory, of life, and of the only course of action – move forward, trusting me.
In my final year of college I was a part time youth director at a newly started church in the area. The pastor who began and still leads the church is a dear friend who has been an incredible source of encouragement and wisdom. When I was speaking with him about the possibility of working with Trinity as a church planting fellow, he asked, “Is God calling you to do this?” I then told him about God’s “Yes” he then said something along these lines, “You need to move forward.” I had been telling him of some of the difficulties that lay before us, some of our doubts and fears, and he said, “If this is God’s calling, you need to do whatever you can to move in this direction. All these other details matter, but ultimately the deciding factor is God’s call. Follow him. Take the next step.” And then, the piece from Pilgrim’s Progress came to mind. Life, victory, the only course lay ahead.
Hillary and I are sitting in a common area inside Trinity, interviewing with leadership of the church when David Sherwood, the Sr. Pastor of the church, asks me where I am on the spectrum. He says,
Some guys know they are not called to start a new church. That is the last thing they would want to do. This is one end of the spectrum. At the other end are guys who sense that they must start a new church. Leading a church plant is the burning passion of their heart. Jarrett, where do you think you are on that spectrum?
This question drew out an answer I didn’t expect, or even know was within me. Going into this interview, I knew I was not at the “never start a church” end of the spectrum, but I was also fairly certain I wasn’t at the “must start a church” end either. But then I began to explain myself to David, (and to myself)
For a while I’ve looked at church planting as an essential aspect of the church’s mission in this world. Most of the churches I have been involved with have been involved with starting new churches. I see the incredible need for the multiplication of healthy churches and believe that overall Hillary and I are equipped to participate in church planting. I wouldn’t think of myself on the “burning passion” end of the spectrum because I have, God willing, thirty plus years of ministry ahead of me. However, if you were to fast forward to the end of my “career” and I had never been involved in church planting, I would be unfaithful to God’s calling on my life. So, in a sense I am at the “I must start a church” end of the spectrum even, but I don’t know if now is the time.
As I’ve looked back on this conversation there is a verse from the book of Proverbs that comes to mind, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” This conversation, along with a few others, were pivotal in God leading us to this church planting fellowship. Seeing God use so many people to lead us on this path has been both exciting and encouraging.