First Presbyterian Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
My journey toward the nearly yearlong Commissioned Lay Pastor training I just finished has been two decades in the making.
Back in the 1990s, when I was a college student, I divided my time between my two favorite places on campus: the Baptist Student Center and the newsroom of the student newspaper (Yes, I went to classes, too, but much of my personal growth happened in those two spots.).
At the BSU, my faith grew and I developed an interest in ministry leadership. At the newsroom of the student newspaper, my interest in writing and storytelling grew too, and I relished the chance to cover breaking news and human-interest stories alike.
When I graduated, I went into full-time journalism work, and yet have felt that call toward greater ministry work. Twenty years later, I am still in Harrisonburg, now working with student journalists at James Madison University, the place where all the wrestling began. Between college graduation and now, I have been part of two other churches besides First Presbyterian in Harrisonburg, our current church. Both were Presbyterian Church (PCA), and the only way to go into full-time ministry with that denomination would have been through going away to seminary and getting an MDiv. I considered that over the years, but with a wife and three children, the timing has not worked out.
When ECO began the CLP program, it seemed an answer to some of the wrestling I have had. Being able to do some theological training from my current context worked well. At the time I began CLP, I was finishing my master’s degree in higher-education administration, a counseling-based program, and I began to consider how CLP and my counseling training could go hand-in-hand to make me a better shepherd in my current role as an elder at First Pres. I also hope that the training of both programs could open doors in the future to work in pastoral care or discipleship ministries. At this stage in life, I cannot go away to seminary or financially afford to do distance-learning classes, so I am grateful for the innovative way ECO is using CLP to train leaders for ministry in the future.
I’m also grateful for the friends I have made through this process, the fellow members of our cohort. The group of us are varied in our gifts and come from diverse contexts. Four of us are from First Pres, a downtown church in a college town. Another is from a rural, isolated church that is facing many challenges. Another is from a southern metro city, and another from outside a large northern city.
Here’s what happens when you gather with people outside your own context. You start to learn that the kingdom of God is much bigger, more diverse, more complicated and yet mysteriously bound together in Christ. When you meet new people, it often takes a while to get comfortable with them and to hide your true self before letting your guard down. Not with this cohort. From our first interactions, we were sharing ourselves, our callings and our struggles. And we laughed a lot. Our time together reminds me of what Paul said to the church in Thessalonica: “We loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well.” That word delighted stands out: It really was a delight, a joy, a thrill to gather together (although virtually) every two weeks.
As we journey on from these regular meetings, our cohort met for one last time for our training, but we all met in Harrisonburg to be in person. It was a taste of heaven: laughter, joy and deep fellowship, all around our Savior, Jesus (and with a lot of food mixed in!).
As we prepared to leave, we all said how much we want to keep in touch and support each other in the future. So often, we say this (ever been to church camp?), but I wasn’t sure whether we’d follow through.
A couple weeks later, though, one of the cohort members sent us a text asking for prayer. There had been a tragic death in the church, and she was now, as a CLP, helping care for the family and plan a funeral. Text after text followed as we all typed prayers for her and her church.
So not only have I gained some theological and leadership training to help as I continue my journey.
What’s next? I do not know. But I do know this: I now have a group of friends I know will pray, love, support, encourage and guide me as we all try to answer that question.