This last week I was fortunate enough to have extended conversations with both my former youth pastor and the priest of the Orthodox parish my wife and I attended for a few months. The youth pastor's name is Jeff and the priest is Fr. Chris.
The conversation with Jeff was marked by bitterness well on its way to joy - a "weeping is just for the night" kind of pain. He feels betrayed by his church and with little wonder; more than anything else, internal politics are what pushed the search committee to pass him over. They thought he was too close to the former senior pastor, even though Jeff was constantly trying to hold him accountable, to move him towards repentance & change. As we were talking, Jeff kept dropping little bits of advice and wisdom - the hard-won rewards of years of successful ministry. As we were talking, I kept thinking to myself "Why couldn't my senior pastor have been like this? Under this man's leadership, I could have done some amazing things." The pain of what might have been kept creeping up on me. Jeff's major concern with me was that this experience did not spoil me on ministry and he encouraged us to stay on the trail, so to speak.
Now, I say his ministry was successful, and truly it was - but not because of its size. Yes, under his care, the youth ministry grew to several hundred kids (twice the size of my entire church, actually) but I've never found numbers alone to be an adequate mark of success. On Sunday morning, I witnessed a church saying a loving goodbye to her pastor, her leader and in the audience were not just the current high school kids, but several dozen former students and adult volunteers. These were the people around when this ministry first got started, and Jeff has ever been a center of gravity in their lives. No matter where they've gone or what they've done, the students who came through Jeff's very capable hands & loving care have always known they have a place to come back to. And its not a soft place; its a place that will accept them, but challenge them to repentance and growth. To me, that is success and I think it will always be a criterion by which I judge my own ministry.
The meeting with Fr. Chris was, needless to say, very different and not just because my wife was with us. He is a young man, probably in his early 30's, but displays a depth and maturity well beyond his years. We spoke for a while about our troubles and trying to find what God has for us next; the difficulty of finding patience for the waiting. He is, somewhat, in the same boat. He is interested in pursuing his PhD because he would like to be able to teach at the college level some day, but he does not want to attend an Orthodox school. This surprised me, but I respected his reasons (and saw a lot of myself in them, as well) - he wants to be challenged, to hear the other side of things and then bounce it off of the Church's teaching & faith. This is basically what I did as an undergrad getting my degree in Religious Studies, but right now I cannot imagine doing it at the doctoral level. Fr. Chris was very encouraging to us, urging us to move forward in faith. He also urged us to move back to Phoenix and to come back to his parish, but he admitted that was based more on his desires than what may be best for us. That was nice to hear, though.
As is obvious, I deeply admire and love Jeff, but I don't know how I can follow his advice when I have my doubts about the ground the trail crosses. Until I settle this doubt, or rather, until God settles this doubt, I cannot continue in a Protestant pastoral position; it would be dishonest. I don't really believe all that an evangelical church would require me to affirm and I certainly couldn't go into a theologically liberal church, thus I'm stuck. Now, Fr. Chris' advice resonates with me, but its probably because its what I want to hear. I don't want to "settle" for something - I want to do something big. But that is likely out of pride and certainly not a good reason. So while I feel somewhat less tumultuous than I did before going to Arizona, things are no more settled than when we left. If anything, they are less - I had not seriously considered moving back to Arizona until we got out there and we saw all of our old friends. Now, though, it looms as another possibility.