NOTE: What’s below is an edited version of the written testimony and sense of calling to ministry that I submitted to my presbytery when up for licensure and ordination. My conversion isn’t anywhere nearly as dramatic as many, but it has been a somewhat long and winding road to ministry.
I had the privilege of growing up in a strong Christian family. Both parents, all four grandparents, all but a few of my numerous aunts and uncles are or were strong believers. My paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal minister who planted churches and served as a missionary to Midwest Indians; my maternal grandmother had a radical conversion to Christianity from being a very active leader in the Communist Party, and spoke in many churches and other venues about her faith and experience. An uncle on each side is an ordained minister and many of my extended family have been or are pastors and missionaries.
This is the environment I grew up in, and can’t recall a time in my life when I did not believe in God or anything the Bible had to say about Him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I do remember a time when I was about seven or eight years old when the Sunday School leader at the Pentecostal church we attended came to talk to us kids and gave a fiery talk about how awful hell is and how wonderful heaven is (streets of gold!!) and how if we wanted to go to heaven we should ask Jesus into our hearts. So that night after saying my “regular” prayers I decided to do just that. But it was more out of fear of hell and greed for those streets of gold than anything else.
Nevertheless I see that God has used that, and other teaching I received and experiences I had over the years, to teach me what true faith really is and what Christ has really done for me, and taught me to place my hope and trust in Christ. Not long after this greedy/scared prayer, we began attending a conservative, evangelical PCUSA (then it was the UPCUSA) church where eventually I went through catechism training and was baptized.
The above is fairly straightforward; the story of my calling to ministry is a bit more complicated.
In college I studied engineering, got married and started a family. After I graduated we moved to Southern California where I’d been offered a job in a management training program at Douglas Aircraft. About a year later I began attending classes twice a week and eventually earned an MBA. By my late twenties I had a good career as an “up and comer,” had a great family with three children, and attended a church I really liked and was actively involved in, and owned a town home. I was beginning to think that the time was ripe to sell the town home and buy a real house. Things were going great.
I remember thinking during this time that eventually some sort of trial or illness or something would come along, and asking that God would prepare me and help me through it, whatever it was. I knew enough about the Bible to know that it promised suffering and trials for believers, and felt very fortunate that my life had been pretty good up to that point, but kept wondering what trial or trouble would come, and when.
Then in 1992 things caved in. Within the space of about two months early that year, my wife began having an affair, I found out about it, we went to counseling (with a wonderful retired pastor), and she filed for divorce. I had thought I had a good marriage, but soon found out how little I really knew and how much I should have known. But the bottom line was that my wife, who had been raised in a very strong Christian home, realized she just didn’t want to pretend at being a Christian anymore. She didn’t like the lifestyle and wanted out, and wanted nothing to do with me, her family, the church, or God. In connection with this there were some very tough financial times and my health suffered as well.
But God – two of the most precious words in Scripture! – got my attention the Sunday of Labor Day weekend that year. Our pastor had been preaching a sermon series on the similarities and differences between Presbyterians and other denominations. Labor Day weekend was to cover the comparison with Lutherans. The pastor was out of town, so another young man (Michael Horton, now a professor at Westminster Seminary in California) came in and preached the sermon for him.
His sermon focused on a lot of the similarities, especially going back to the Reformation and its five “solas” (sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola Scriptura, and soli Deo gloria – grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, and for God’s glory alone). But other things he said resonated with things I’d been thinking or feeling. Growing up I had been taught the doctrines of grace, but didn’t understand them together as a holistic whole. But along with being taught the doctrines of grace came much of the typical evangelical teaching that was (and still is) common – a lot of which I was uncomfortable with but didn’t know why. That sermon brought things together for me, and a lot of what I had been taught finally “clicked” theologically. I became excited about Reformed theology and couldn’t get enough of it. It began a habit of study that has continued to this day.
In the meantime I spent time as a single dad, sharing custody of our three children with my ex-wife, and saw my career go sideways at best. Not too much later I re-married (after struggling mightily with the question of whether, Biblically, I could, but that’s another story), and have been blessed with a wonderful Christian woman as my wife and as a godly example to our children (we since have had one of our own, for a total of four).
In 1997 McDonnell Douglas and Boeing merged. I got to be on one of the transition teams that helped plan for the new Boeing that would emerge, and heard early on that the company would be re-instating its tuition assistance program, paying 100% for any degree earned. Since I was spending so much time reading and studying theology, my wife and I thought I might as well get a degree, especially if the company would pay for it. The plan was that I would study part time while working full time, earn a master’s and then a doctoral degree, and then at some point in the future retire early and move into either teaching or possibly in a role as an assistant pastor.
I’ll never forget the first time I mentioned attending seminary to my pastor, Ron Gleason, and his first reaction was, “When you’re done you can plant a church!” I’m pretty sure I thought he’d been smoking something…
After about a year researching different seminaries and programs, it became clear that to get the education I wanted that I’d need to attend seminary full time. My wife and I were settling on Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL as the place to go, knowing that if we did move out there we would lose all contact with our three older children, who would stay here with their mom. However, while talking on the phone with a representative of RTS, she told me that she thought the best place for me was Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA. That got my attention.
By the summer of 1998 I was accepted into Westminster and certain that I’d have to give up my job at Boeing. Even though I asked around, no one seemed willing to let me work part time while going to school, which I had figured out was logistically possible. So I went to my immediate boss and gave notice that I would be leaving work to go to school. I’d never asked him about working part time, since I figured he was too low on the totem pole to make that happen. Well, he did.
So, for two years I attended Westminster in Escondido as an M.Div. student and worked part time in Long Beach for Boeing, all the while living in Orange, CA. A typical week included three days where I’d spend four hours on the road from Orange to Escondido to Long Beach and back home. But it was worth it and I enjoyed every minute. During that time I came under care and was enrolled as an intern of presbytery in early 1999. Eventually, though, I was laid off from Boeing in June 2000. This meant that not only was that good income gone, but so also was the 100% tuition assistance. My wife and I decided to try and make it through the next two years of seminary with her continuing to work and with me attending full time and working part time trying to get a campus ministry established at Chapman University in Orange.
This lasted for one year. By the summer of 2001 things were very tight financially and there were other stresses on our family, including my wife’s job where she was being pressured her to do things that were unethical and probably illegal. We made the hard, but we believe right, choice for me to leave seminary that summer. I had taken all the classes that I needed/wanted in person (completed 88 units in total), and we hoped that I could find a job to support our family, and then find a seminary program where I could finish part time or through distance studies.
It took until 2003 for me to find a job. In the meantime life was very difficult and got to a point in early 2002 where we decided that if things didn’t change, in two weeks we would sell most of our belongings and move to Seattle to live with my parents. Like our contemplated move to Orlando, this would have meant leaving the older three children in California. In this case we felt we had run out of options and money. I had been working at Wal-Mart stocking shelves and was about to give two weeks’ notice. We told Pastor Ron, who assured us that our church would do all it could to keep us here in California. Within a few days things turned around. God provided for us in some amazing and unexpected ways. We didn’t have much, but we did have food and were able to pay rent and other obligations. The rest of the year was a struggle but I did get an offer for a good job at the end of the year and started at the beginning of 2003.
In about a year’s time we were able to clean up our financial situation enough that my wife could leave her job and stay home as a full time mom (one of our primary goals when I left seminary). I began researching possible alternatives to finishing school, but was discouraged to find that virtually every school I looked at would require me to re-take most of the courses I had already taken, and at a significant investment in both time and money.
Meanwhile, beginning in 1998 I began serving as an elder at our church. In 2003 I began to make monthly visits on behalf of our session to our daughter church, Providence Presbyterian in the Palm Springs area. Later I was asked to be on the presbytery MNA committee (the committee overseeing new church plants) and had the opportunity and privilege to work with two other church plants: Redeemer Presbyterian in Costa Mesa, and Rock Foundation Church (now Trinity Presbyterian in Orange). I also had the opportunity to begin regular visits to another church plant in Temecula, Christ Presbyterian.
One solution I looked at to finish school was to take selected classes through Reformed Theological Seminary’s distance program and transfer them to Westminster Seminary for credit toward a master’s degree. This solution didn’t work. While casting about for other options I came across the evening/weekend Master of Arts in Christian Studies (MACS) program at Westminster and asked about finishing in this program. While switching from an M.Div. program to the MACS was unusual, the seminary was agreeable and I enrolled in Spring 2005. I finished in Spring 2007 and graduated that May.
While in seminary the first time, people would ask what I planned to do after graduation. I’d hedge a little, because at the time I didn’t really know. Either teaching or pastoral ministry seemed equally possible.
I apologize for the length but give all the details above to get to this point. Beginning in 2001 we went through some hard experiences as a family, and over the years I’d served and gained more experience as an elder, and had the opportunity to work with four church plants in four very different circumstances. I came to realize, and so did my wife, that I did want to plant a church (Ron Gleason is a prophet!), and that this is what God was calling me to do. I’ve enjoyed my job since 2003, but have come to realize that as much as I like it, it is not where my heart is for the long term. I have also come to realize that, at least for the time being, God wants us in Orange County. Twice we thought we’d have to move and leave three of the children behind. Twice God kept us here. We think we’ve got the message: God wants us here in their lives even as other circumstances change as they grow older.
In 1999 I told presbytery when I came under care that I wouldn’t even think of becoming a pastor if it weren’t for Ron Gleason’s example. I grew up around pastors and know how hard and difficult that calling can be. Pastor Ron is a great role model and I learned a ton from him while attending and serving at Grace Presbyterian. Since 2003 I’d have to include Clayton Willis at Providence Presbyterian as an example as well. He has done a remarkably fine job at that church, and I have learned from his example and the hard work he has put in to lay a strong foundation there. In addition I should thank Dennis Johnson at Westminster Seminary in California for his care and support in helping me figure out how to finish seminary, and Eric Landry, pastor at Christ Presbyterian in Temecula, for his friendship and help in the whole ordination process.
So all this led to pursuing ordination and a call to plant a church in north Orange County, CA. I made it through the examination process in April 2008, was ordained in May 2008, and Mission Presbyterian held its first formal Sunday morning worship service in June 2008.
I come to this calling later in life than most, at 45 years old. But I can see that God has been preparing me for this my whole life. I have experiences that many new pastors do not have, both highs and lows. The time between dropping out of seminary and re-enrolling allowed me to serve longer and get more experience as an elder, to get involved with other church plants, to grow more myself, and to finally figure out – to hear – what God was calling me to do. I know I’m not the smartest or most talented guy in the world, or that great a speaker, but I do know that God has called me to be a pastor, and equipped me with gifts for that task. I am tremendously excited about this work and look forward to what God will do in us and through us in the coming months and years.
I hope you’ll come by and visit us soon at Mission Presbyterian Church!