Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Beautiful Struggle

I was asked to write a "word of witness" for the Covenant Connec10n that happened this past weekend in Denver. Their theme this year was "The Beautiful Struggle," and I guess my story of calling to Tulsa via Los Angeles, Seattle and Houston qualifies.

Ultimately my story was not used (I was very late turning it in!), but it was a good experience writing it and reflecting on the goodness of God in the midst of what has been a challenging season of life.

Here's what I submitted:

The Beautiful Struggle: Calling

Most of my life, I just kind of “fell into” ministry positions. I had a vague sense of calling to full-time ministry as a teenager growing up in Indiana, but I never really did much to pursue it. I majored in music ed and began my career as a teacher in southern California.

And then, to make ends meet, I took a part-time worship leader position at a small Baptist church. They called me.

A few years later, I found myself candidating to be the worship pastor at Peninsula Covenant in Redwood City, California. Again, I never pursued this job. My wife’s cousin was on the search committee, and again, they called me.

See what I mean? It was all so easy, a natural progression.

My eight years in the Bay Area were really wonderful. It was there that I was introduced to the Covenant and began my journey toward commissioning. It was there that I found, for the first time in my life, real community, real authenticity, real accountability, real transformation in my own walk with God and others. And it was there that I learned to be a pastor to people, not just a performer of music. My family lived on the campus, and in many ways, PCC was our world.

Of course, there were difficulties, but in almost every way, my time with PCC was like a dream job.

And then, in 2008, God called again. Only this time it was different. God was not calling us to anything solid. There was no church calling with a job, no friend of a friend who knew someone at some church. No, God was calling us to step out in faith, to leave what we knew behind and launch out into something completely different. It was scary, but thrilling at the same time. And with no animosity or weirdness, our beloved church “sent us out” like missionaries into a new venture, whatever it was that God was calling us to.

And then the beautiful struggle began. Emphasis on struggle. I don’t recommend leaving a church without another call, especially with a wife and four kids! We moved in with my wife’s parents in LA while I looked for what was next. I had some ideas in mind, but nothing solid. I was excited by words like church plant and multiethnic, arts and urban. I believed God was calling me to something totally new. I talked with and visited exciting churches and ministries in Sacramento and Boston and Houston. I knew I wanted to stay in the Covenant if possible, so I looked on the Covenant website for churches looking for worship pastors. I didn’t even look twice at Redeemer Covenant. Why in the world would I move to Tulsa, Oklahoma? Why would God need another pastor in the Buckle of the Bible Belt?

Through all this uncertainty, God provided. We moved from Simi Valley to Bellevue, Washington, right outside Seattle, where I served Newport Covenant as interim worship leader for the summer of 2008. It turned out to be a wonderfully refreshing time, with new friends and lots of time to rest.

During that summer, we accepted the call to what seemed like the perfect fit for us: Access, a new Covenant church in Houston, Texas. It fit all of my criteria: Church plant, check. Urban, check. Multi-ethnic, check. Arts, check. They were even starting a nonprofit arts/community development organization called Vox Culture. I was sold.

We moved our family again in August, 2008, and tried to settle into what we believed to be God’s call for us. And it was wonderful on many levels. But honestly, a few months into it we were beginning to have doubts. It just didn’t “feel” right. Financially it was a major struggle. We had troubles with our rental house and our landlord. Our older two kids were having trouble finding their place in a new church full of young adults and young families where there was no one else like them, no other middle-schoolers or high-schoolers. And perhaps most troubling of all, I was realizing that this “free form” church planting stuff didn’t fit my need for boundaries and structure. All that time and white space, which most artists love and crave, was starting to feel overwhelming to me. I needed lines so I could color.

And then came the season of crushing doubts and questions: Were these struggles signs that we were not supposed to be there long-term? Or were they Satan’s challenges… hard times to be overcome so that we could see blessing on the other side? We couldn’t leave a church plant after only a few months, could we? We had to dig in and give it our best shot for at least a few years, right? We didn’t want to disappoint and hurt people whom we had come to love and serve.

And then there was my pride. I had gone to Houston with much fanfare, leaving PCC with what I thought was a clear call. We had been raising support, emailing supporters, blogging, celebrating what God was doing in Houston. How could we leave it? What would people think?

Had we been wrong to leave California? Was it just wishful thinking? Those were painful times, as we consulted with friends, tried to work things through with Access leadership, talked and prayed. But in the end, we left Houston on May 31, 2009. We had been there only 9 months and 13 days.

Back with the in-laws in California, I felt like I had reached the end of my rope. With no income, no insurance and nobody lining up to interview me, I really wondered if I was supposed to be in ministry at all. I had many promising interviews, but nothing panned out. I couldn’t even get a job at Borders or Starbucks.

And throughout all of this second season without a call, Redeemer was still a possibility. This church that I hadn’t given a second thought was experiencing instability of its own, currently on its third interim worship pastor and heading into a season without a senior pastor as well.

After many phone interview and a few visits, we accepted the call to Redeemer in August 2009. I never thought I’d live in Tulsa. This mission field is so different from what I thought God was calling me to. I can’t believe that I drive by Oral Roberts University every day or that there are cow pastures within a mile of my house.

And I’m at peace. It’s not all wrapped up with a neat bow on top, but I am beginning to see God’s plans and purposes in all of this.

I never intended to move my family across the country five times within eighteen months, and I see how that has taken its toll on us. But I see God’s hand in that too, and how He is showing His faithfulness. He never changes, even though everything else around us does.

I never intended to work in a white, upper-middle class, multi-generational church again. But I see how God is using my unique gifts and abilities, and yes – my experiences and passions – to help Redeemer become the church that God is calling us to be here in Tulsa.

I still miss my friends in California and Seattle and Houston. I still feel conflicted sometimes about the journey God has me on. I still wonder about what it means to really hear the calling of God. But God is meeting me in my questions. And in the struggle, He is proving that He is enough, and that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Just like I always have been.


Jenn Barnlund said...

I never tire of hearing how God has turned your questions into peace. I love that we serve a God who may not always give us an answer yet will always give us peace when we surrender our lives to Him. Thank you for taking time to share this with me! I can't wait until I have the chance to sing with you again... Here, there or in the air, brother! Much love to you all! ~jenn

Debbie George said...


We're glad God called you to Redeemer. You are a blessing!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin