We have said very little about it, but our Sabbatical which is drawing to a close marks forty years of ministry as a pastor. God allowed Shannon and I to begin at a very young age. Because of that, we practically grew up leading churches. During this time off I have been retracing my steps to some landmarks in this journey of ministry. I want to set out some key experiences that confirmed my sense of call and my awareness that I had not chosen the ministry; the ministry had chosen me. The ministry also chose my precious Shannon to serve along side me. She has been a key part of each of these adventures through the years. The story really begins 41 years ago when I was 19 and single.
I did not go to Howard Payne to prepare for ministry. I was working on a degree in business, when I woke up one morning with a terrible pain in my side. Everyone believed it was appendicitis, but the tests showed that to be false. The pain however stayed with me for months with no diagnosis. My nerves begin to fray and numerous physical problems followed. I lost a lot of weight and fell into deep depression. It was in the crucible of dark depression that I finally reached desperation as to my true purpose in life. I did not want to be around people and had to force myself out of doors. One Sunday at my hometown church a Jewish evangelist was a surprise guest. He had a great sense of humor and his testimony was strong. He was scheduled to speak again that evening, and during the afternoon for no apparent reason he sought me out. I had gone reluctantly with some friends to the old high school gymnasium to play basketball. I was learning to push through the pain as best as I could. This Jewish evangelist asked me to go with him for a talk. I decided that his interest in me was something that I needed to pay attention to. He quizzed me carefully about my faith and somehow the possibility of my becoming a pastor was brought up. As soon as I responded to his questions, he said “You are a preacher.” Several more times in a conversation of about one hour he made this same statement emphatically. I asked him why he thought so and he said “Just listen to you. You are a preacher.” That night at the end of the service I responded to the invitation and asked my pastor for prayer that I might know for sure if this was God’s will. Almost everyone there spoke to me afterwards and most of them said something like, “We always knew you would become a preacher.” I wanted to ask them why they had never told me before. Through the years, I have become a strong advocate for affirming the qualities that you see in others so that they can clarify their spiritual gifts. Shannon was actually in the service that night and we talked about whether or not we could serve the Lord together. We were not even engaged at the time and I knew this choice would require a great deal of her. I was so glad that she accepted the possibility and seemed willing to take the journey with me. Neither of us had any idea what this might mean. Personally I thought I would probably be a bi-vocational pastor due to my naturally quiet nature around strangers.
The next morning I was well! There was no pain in my side and my nerves were calm! For the first time in a long time I felt normal. I went to the Business Department at Howard Payne to tell my supervisor that I was changing majors and started across campus to sign up for Bible courses for the next semester. A young pastor named Roy, whom I barely knew, met me on the sidewalk and said, “I heard you are preparing for ministry. Could you speak at my church in Brady, Texas on Sunday?” I asked how in the world he had heard this so soon. He was in a hurry and simply asked for my answer. I started to say I was not ready, but then I realized this thing had God’s fingerprints on it so I accepted his invitation. I have never lacked opportunities since that day. I had said these words to God in a prayer the night before. “God, I will serve you, but I will never seek a place to preach or ask anyone to allow me to be their pastor. If I am to serve you must open the doors.” Somehow I think God laughed as I nervously prepared to preach two sermons in Brady, Texas at the Central Baptist Church on my first week of surrender.