How God let me back in line to be a pastor!
It’s great to listen to what others tell you about yourself. To a point.
Others can often see things in you that you can’t recognize. Their advice can take limits off you’ve put on yourself.
Or, it can work just the other way around. Their expectations and lack of imagination can cripple you and rob you of your calling. The words they speak into your life can strip you of your destiny, if you let them.
And if you do, it’s no one’s fault but your own. Take it from me.
A little backstory might help…
At 8 years old, I was lip-syncing and dancing to my record albums on our front porch in Huntsville, Alabama. I can still remember the curious expressions of neighbors as they’d drive by…
“Harold, why is that fat little Gipson boy bouncing around his porch?” And I could swear I’m hearing Maurice Chevalier singing, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from Gigi…”
Yep, that would be me. Other kids had lemonade stands. I did roadside vaudeville.
Funny thing was, as I grew up, I became more and more fearful of sticking out too much. I guess puberty does that for us. Nothing like the ridicule of peers to help us dive for cover in the background.
So for most of my adult years, I avoided what I would call “lead roles.” I was a minister in churches, working with teenagers, and then music, but never dreamed of being the Senior Pastor. Support roles gave my gifts a limited chance to shine, without the risk of being the boss.
In almost 20 years of ministry, I never once entertained the thought of being the “lead guy.” Whether on a church staff, or even in musicals we would do for Christmas, I always stepped back so someone else could take the lead.
At the time, I thought I was being humble. Actually, I was just being a wimp. But others were always too happy to keep you in your place.
“Be careful about being too showy with your gifts,” people would warn me. “Remember, Satan was the first worship leader in heaven. He fell because he wanted to steal the Lord’s glory for himself!”
Funny thing again. It was always pastors I heard warning their worship leaders about this slippery slope. They often seemed threatened by the gifts of others, as if their gifts were all that mattered.
I was the worship leader, and I enjoyed writing full-scale Broadway-styled musicals for the Christmas season. The problem was, at this church, there was no one talented enough to sing and act in the lead role. Where before I’d had someone I could hide behind, at this church no one had the gifts enough to take the lead.
No one, except me.
After much internal wrestling, I eventually resigned myself to the fact that if we were going to do the kind of production I’d always enjoyed, I would have to step up. I know this sounds like my ego had planned it that way, but I sincerely hadn’t. Writing the show was enough work, but now I’d have to memorize it all and act in it. The pressure was enormous, and I honestly didn’t know if I could pull it off.
Well, I did pull it off. In fact, I was fairly good at it.
It was as if all those years practicing on my front porch had finally kicked in again. It felt like after wandering for decades, I’d finally come home to what God had meant me to do in the first place.
No longer was I the guy behind the scenes. I was the lead, and it felt good.
At least, until the bitty committee at the church started talking.
Though many in the church were complimentary of my work, this group of bitter old ladies with poofy hair-dos and floral print dresses seemed determined to keep me humble. They saw my sense of humor as evidence of a lack of holiness.
One Wednesday when the pastor was out, I was asked to fill in and do the sermon. I was anxious to preach again since I hadn’t had the opportunity in a long while, so I prepared my message with great anticipation.
When I finally got up to deliver it, it was like a dam broke inside. Passion poured out of me. My delivery was personal, funny, and passionate. I spoke with confidence. When the end came and I delivered an invitation, people crowded the altar steps to make commitments to Christ. It was a glorious night of God validating my ministry and evidence his hand was upon me.
It also was the start of my own private hell.
What followed was a perpetual campaign of innuendo and accusations. They started trickling back to me bit by bit at first, coming from what seemed to be this small group of women in the church. They were telling people I was out to steal the pastor’s job.
When I realized this, I was dumbfounded. I’d done nothing to usurp his authority. Lord knows I never even wanted to be a Senior Pastor, and, especially, not of that church. It was too much responsibility. I was happy to stay where I was. I thought.
So how in the world could they see me as a threat?
It was then God taught me something that surprised me to no end. I learned that I was indeed called to be a Senior Pastor of a church; not that church, but of another church one day.
I realized that, strange as it sounds, they had recognized something in me I didn’t even recognize in myself. They saw the calling of God on my life going far past my current position. But since they were carnal minded, they presumed I was too big for my britches!
Sometimes, your destiny is clearer in the fear from your enemy’s eyes than from the faith in your own.
Years later, as a Senior Pastor, I would again get an opportunity at a lead role. Our local theatre group was doing the epic musical Les Miserables, and they were auditioning men for the lead role of Jean Valjean. It’s one of the most difficult roles to sing out there, and it requires a big guy with a big voice.
I had wanted to get involved in theatre as a way to meet people outside the church, so I went down to auditions. But I never expected to be auditioning against three other finalists for the lead role.
As I looked at the other men, I realized they had so much more experience. Several had done professional theatre. I’d done several dinky church plays I’d written myself. I thought how out of place I was. I figured it would be a nice memory to know I’d been one of those finalists, even when I didn’t get the part.
They asked us to sing several excerpts from the show, to make sure we had the vocal range and to see if we were able to act as well as sing. The big song from the show for Valjean is the second act number “Bring Him Home,” a beautiful ballad that’s actually a prayer. The other men sang ahead of me, holding a vocal score in their hands.
When my turn came, they told me to begin. But I did something I hadn’t planned to do. I put the score down by my side and just sang from my heart. The words to the simple prayer flowed out of me like water. This was a role of a man who’s received God’s forgiveness and now is praying to sacrifice his own life to save another. I sang straight out to the director’s table in front of me, praying the song as I sang it to them.
Well…I got the part! We did around 25 performances of this three hour musical, most of it sung-through in the style of an opera. It was one of the most thrilling times of my life, and I consider myself a proud part of a very exclusive fraternity of men who’ve worn the number of prisoner 24601.
In the meantime, I finally went back to seminary and finished my degree work. It was hard, but writing my research papers felt like coming home. I was soaking myself in God’s Word, reveling in it, finally basking in its wonder!
And when I eventually got to do a sermon again, I realized something: I’m actually a pretty good preacher!
It’s a pretty unique style, much different from the pastors I grew up listening to. But I’ve found I’m much easier for unchurched people to understand.
In fact, I’m discovering that God in his providence was working through my long detour around the pastorate. Thanks to my time in worship and the creative arts, I now have the ability to speak and relate to unchurched people in unique ways other preachers can’t. My sermons surprise people, and I approach Scripture in more colorful ways regular pastors don’t.
I don’t think like a normal pastor, and that’s a good thing. And, after having worked for many of them through the years, I see how God’s made me different for a reason. Many were truly great men, but God doesn’t need me to be like them. He made me to stand out and attract attention…
…you know, like a bad accident by the roadside. If nothing else, you just can’t help but look as you drive by me!
So here’s the moral of my cautionary tale.
Even if you’re a loser and missed the boat on your destiny, God can get you back where you were supposed to be. It may take time, and some hard work to be sure. But no matter how hard-headed you are, God will finally find a way to get you back to your true calling.
Our God is quite able to restore the years eaten away by the locusts (Joel 2:25). He can align things to put you suddenly back where you were supposed to be.
As a dad, I’ve learned a good father will let his child cut back into line even after he’s run off and lost his place. It’s not exactly fair, but I’m so happy my father doesn’t play fair! Thank God, his heart overrules what I deserve and I get to do what he created me to do after all.
Quite a different path, huh? But I understand you may not think that’s how pastors are made, but that’s okay. The opinions of others don’t have much effect on me anymore.
I guess I’ve learned there’s only one opinion of me that really counts in the end. And his was right all along!