I wrote last week about my first job offer, which wasn’t actually a job offer. I wanted to share a second story about a real opportunity that has often made me wonder what if.   

Because our primary focus was university ministry for our entire time in Albany, we were often asked to fill in at churches for a Sunday or two. Sometimes the pastor needed a day off. Sometimes the church was in-between pastors. I was told that some people had used these in-between times to try and manoeuvre themselves to be hired full-time. Since I clearly had no interest in pastoring a church, I was considered a safe person to be there during a sensitive period. Which made me feel good.  

During our final year in Albany (‘93-’94), we had a lot going on. Liz was expecting, I was preparing for ordination, and we were planning to move to Ithaca to start a campus ministry at Cornell University in the summer of 94. (And as I mentioned earlier this week, I had some theatre going to catch up on).  

In the late fall of 1993, I was asked to serve as interim pastor at a church about 30 minutes north of Albany. This meant speaking Sunday morning and Sunday evening most weeks. It was one of my favourite all-time ministry experiences.   

Before being at this church, I had had no desire to pastor a church. Ever. And my Albany experience was making me never want to be on staff at a church again either. But Liz and I so enjoyed getting to know and serve these people that I imagined myself doing this for the first time.   

After a couple of months in this role, a few of the leaders approached me and told me that they would like me to consider taking on the role of pastor permanently. I could continue leading the campus ministry in Albany and, even though they were a half-hour from the campus, they wanted to find ways to connect with the college students.   

So, here was our choice.  

Option1. Liz and I felt called to Ithaca and to starting a campus ministry at Cornell. But. We had no place to live. We hadn’t raised much financial support at that point. (When we eventually moved to Ithaca, we had raised a grand total of $425/month.) And we knew almost no one.  

Or option 2. We could take this ministry position. I would have a salary. We would live in a nice parsonage (personally, I think parsonages are a terrible idea for pastors, but it is better than no place to live. Especially with a kid on the way.). We had built a community of people we loved in Albany, and I think many of them would have joined us at this church.  

Easy choice, right?   It really was a no brainer except for the fact that Liz and I both strongly sensed that God had spoken to us about Ithaca.  (An even crazier piece was that we both sensed individually that we were not supposed to work second jobs while in Ithaca but trust God to provide. And as you might guess, that $425/month was not going very far…especially when our rent was $550/month. We actually had a drug dealer from down the street who would come by and give us money our first year there.)

If you know us, you know we moved to Ithaca. But I’ve often wondered how different our lives would have been having stayed. 

  • Would I still be in that denomination? (I left it within 3 years of arriving in Ithaca).
  • I doubt we would be in Ireland. (But who knows…maybe we would have gotten here earlier.)
  • There was a lot of stuff that Jesus needed to deal with in my life which I believed being in Ithaca helped. It could have happened at this church, but I think it would have been messier.

As Paul Harvey would say, “now, the rest of the story.”:  

A few months before we moved, that church hired a new pastor. I never got to know him. The following year, we were in Ithaca, and at one point, I was at a campus ministers conference. Another campus pastor asked if I had been the interim pastor at this church. He was friends with the new guy. I said yes, and asked how it was going.   

He laughingly shared some very disparaging comments that the new pastor has said about the people. Although many professionals (including a VP at a pharmaceutical company) attended there, it was a rural congregation. So, he was making fun of them to his friends. When I asked why he took the role if that is what he thought of them, his friend replied that he and his family were coming back to the US from the mission field and needed a job and a house while they looked for “something better.”  

Sit with that for a bit.  

I actually got to speak at that church again the following summer. This guy found his “better church” and left them back in the same spot they had been…only with another bruise to deal with.   

Thankfully, I don’t have a saviour complex. I don’t feel that I could have protected them from that if only I had taken that job. I was 27 years old, with zero experience pastoring a church, so who’s to say that I wouldn’t have made a complete mess of things up within a year? They did choose poorly. Part of that was their brokenness. They were excited somebody wanted the role and gave it to someone who didn’t have the character necessary. They weren’t the first or last church to do that.

Sadly we have lost touch with them, and most of them probably wouldn’t even remember us. But for me, it was an incredibly formative period in my life.

[Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash]