“You Must Choose Wisely”
I knew it was time to leave my position at the college during the 2008-2009 school year. The time had come to move on. I didn’t really have any idea what I was going to do, but we didn’t have kids and my wife was working. We weren’t especially worried.
A simple internet search revealed the name of a church I had never heard of. It was about an hour from us and they were hiring a pastor to give “visionary oversight” to the adult small groups and to lead their non-traditional worship service on Sunday nights. I sent my resume and soon received a call from the executive pastor. This went very well and a series of interviews were quickly established. I seemed to click with the pastoral staff of five. They told me that I was “one of a few strong candidates”. I eventually found out that this was not really the case. In truth I was their only candidate. They were playing their cards close to the chest.
I was still serving as a volunteer pastor at my church. Along with my responsibilities at the school, this had been my role for five years. I was really hoping the position at the other church would be offered to me. I needed a job and this seemed like a good fit. Then the surreal happened. The other two pastors, both seminary profs and one the founding pastor, took me out to lunch and asked me if I was interested in being the lead pastor. Well, I didn’t see that coming. I was at once both excited and frightened. The former because we had built relationships there for years and the latter because my two former profs, who had a lot more experience and education than I, were asking me to lead them. I expressed my concerns at this meeting. My intention was for them to know that I was no longer their student. Yes, I would gladly continue to learn from them but things would have to change. This statement, as I recall, was met with strong resistance.
We had to talk about the church that I was in contact with. I wasn’t sure what would happen there. Then they asked me something I had never heard of before. They said that if the church decided on me to be a candidate and there was a vote (this church is congregational rule) I would take the position as long as it passed. That meant a simple majority. Hmmm. I would not have an opportunity to pray or think about it. Yes or no. I have reflected on this and have come to the conclusion that this was totally unfair. I was being forced to make a decision.
I never thought these two opportunities would collide. As it turned out, the church with the position I wanted offered me the position one Sunday and the church where I was serving had planned a vote for the next! Seriously. I had given my word to those men and the church that they would have first consideration. The vote came in that Sunday at 95%. Surely this was God’s clear leading. I have since learned that God sometimes calls us to hard things; very hard things. I accepted and began my new post September 2009. We were staying put in Scranton.
The first year went by with little difficulty. There wasn’t any “honeymoon” period because I had already been serving there for five years. I was also finishing up my MA in philosophy and I couldn’t get enough. As graduation in May 2010 approached, one of my former colleagues suggested that I keep going. He told me about a D.Min program at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology. This doctorate would be an exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of Christian apologetics. Their website said that they wished to “take seminary trained exegetes of Scripture and train them to be exegetes of culture in order to speak truth into it.” Yes! This was the kind of thing I was looking for. I did my due diligence investigating comparable programs, but I kept coming back to this one. It would three, two-week residencies in CA with a very heavy dose of reading and writing in between. Two weeks in January in SoCal? Sign me up!
I was very excited to share the news of my acceptance with the other two pastors on the team. They didn’t share my giddiness. Although they were pleased that I was pursuing a doctorate, they were “concerned” about this school. This is where the warnings began. “You know, Andy, that they don’t agree with us on ___________”. “You had better be careful. Professor _____________ is known to not take a very strong stance on _____________.” Well, I wasn’t going there because I needed those blanks filled in! I had three degrees from a school that filled them in with words in bold italics. Biola was my choice because they frankly have just about the BEST apologetics/philosophy department in the country. Furthermore, why couldn’t I be trusted? I experienced the first nascent fissures of the self-implosion that was just a few years around the corner.
A Tale of Two Targets
That first two-week residency in January 2011 was just about the greatest educational experience of my life. The other fifteen men in my cohort and I bonded under the tutelage of our two main professors, Garry DeWeese and J.P. Moreland. I was so impressed with the school and the level of teaching. I was also very impressed with my classmates. Four of them were published authors when we began together in 2011. Yikes! This was too good to be true.
Garry and J.P. told us that our last day together would be a simple question and answer time with them. We all looked forward to this last day of our first residency as a time to savor and remember. We didn’t at all expect what happened on that day.
As we entered, Garry and J.P. were sitting quietly at the table in the front of the room. This was not unusual but their reddened and tear-streaked faces certainly were. After several minutes of awkward silence, with emotionally heavy voices, they spoke. They gave us a dire warning of two targets. They said that if we dared to implement the things we were learning (teaching people how to think, asking hard questions, moving beyond Sunday School answers, asking if our faith really makes sense, spiritual formation, etc.) that we would be painting two targets on ourselves. The first one was obvious. These men reminded us that the enemy would do whatever it takes to knock us out. They told of disease and disaster that had befallen many of their comrades. The inordinate amount of suffering endured by their peers could only, in their minds, be seen as demonic. Gulp. The second target, they promised, would be painted on our backs. My beloved profs foretold that many in our churches (most of us were pastors) would openly resist such things. What? My first thought was, “not MY church!” I wasn’t about to suggest that our small groups begin reading Thomas Aquinas, that would be a bit much, but surely they would want this type of deep learning. Wouldn’t they?
How wrong I was. Armed with the certainty that there couldn’t possibly be any resistance, the downward spiral began and the fissures widened. I could feel the steely coolness of arrowheads…in my back.