Several years ago I told my wife, “If you ever hear me start talking about going back to the pastorate, please shoot me!” Fortunately my wife did not follow my homicidal advice this year when I left active duty as a Navy chaplain and instructor of history at the Naval Academy to become first the interim, then the permanent pastor of Middleburg Baptist Church, a small congregation in a small town in Northern Virginia. The real point of decision came when the Army offered me a historian position in DC. The pay and benefits were good, including a guaranteed pension and job security. Still, I turned it down. Why?
After two years of full-time teaching at a small, Christian college I was close to burn out and financial ruin when the Navy offered me a chance to return to active duty. I jumped at it and spent the next ten months working for the Chief of Navy Chaplains, a two-star admiral, at the Pentagon. It was during this period that I decided to return to the pastorate and began blogging as a spiritual discipline. I also started reading more broadly, realizing that I had been so focused on my teaching and dissertation research that I was developing intellectual myopia. That was 2008 when the Great Recession was at its worst and no pastors were moving; therefore, no churches were hiring. I also applied for a three-year teaching position at the Naval Academy and got it. (I blogged about it here.) That was a huge boost to my morale and our family’s financial stability. But as much as I enjoyed teaching midshipmen there was something missing. I am passtionate about teaching but I missed doing practical, hands-on ministry. Six months after returning to the pastorate, I feel as if I’ve made more of a positive impact in human terms than I did in the previous six years.
At first I resisted the call to pastor a small, historic church, because it reminded me too much of my first pastorate when I was in seminary twenty years ago. Not only did I feel I deserved a bigger church, but I also didn’t want to deal with the problems of a small congregation (as if the problems of a larger congregation are any better!). Much to my surprise I’ve enjoyed my new field of ministry more than I ever thought I would. My blood pressure, elevated for the past 2-3 years, is back down in the normal range. I’m still doing academic research and writing. In fact, I just got my first book contract to publish my dissertation in a peer-reviewed academic series. And I’m planning a mission trip to teach at a seminary in India next summer. I’m having my cake and eating it too.
While I still have a lot to learn, I’m surprised by how much I’ve changed since I last served a church as pastor. I am less idealistic and more patient. I’ve also learned how to say thank you to my people a lot more than I used to. All of the years seem to have smoothed some of my rough edges, and serving in a pastoral role makes me more intentional and compassionate in how I treat people. I agree with Martin Copenhaver that “being a pastor has made me better than I am” (This Odd and Wondrous Calling, 58).