The “seeking a change” bug had bitten me; I was 22, a seminary graduate from what was arguably the best university in the South, an ordained minister, and ready to accept a full-time opportunity in a larger church in a small town or suburbia. I longed for a bigger challenge and a larger salary. Working two jobs, teaching and preaching, frustrated me since I felt I was doing neither well. The Green Ridge Church had patiently nurtured us through three years of seminary, and we spent a year following seminary consolidating the work, particularly with our beloved youth group. Not a single person from that congregation had graduated from college, but we planted that idea in their minds as we traveled widely and exposed the group to places outside the confines of Logan County. Of the thirteen, two men and one woman became ministers. Women clergy were very rare in those days. One became a doctor. The others chose school administration, banking, and farming. They confirmed the importance of youth ministry in our minds. Forty years later, I still follow their lives.
Presbyterian ministers talk a lot about “calling.” It is the spiritual side of a job search. I respond to two types of calling. The first is an internal call whereby I sense an internal pull or heart-felt attraction toward a certain job opportunity. I can’t produce an audio recording of God’s voice. But, I definitely sense God speaking to me. There is no scientific explanation for such “a small, silent voice,” but I find it reasonable to categorize it as a religious or spiritual experience that can only be traced to an eternal power bigger than myself that somehow exists both inside and beyond me. Theologians say God is omnipresent—able to be present everywhere at the same time. I would also coin another term—“omni-interested.” God is interested in a personal relationship with everyone. Before I was ten, I sensed the interest of God in forming a friendship with me. I slowly learned I could speak to God and often sense an answer either through reading scripture, moments of silence, and being instructed by preaching and teaching. It is difficult for me to describe how I hear God. It is easy to define the action of talking to God. I just start telling God about my reasons to be happy or sad, my problems and plans, my sins and my spiritual victories, and I feel an invisible listening ear.
The other side of the friendship—God’s initiative and inaudible voice directed to me is more complex to explain. God doesn’t use sound waves to speak to me. God doesn’t have a voice that depends on how well my ears discern sounds. Instead, God’s “voice” travels on a spiritual plane that is pure mystery. It is heard because of a special sensitivity given to the created by the creator. Sometimes, I hear God when I am not attentive to God. God spoke to me before I realized God spoke to anyone. In fact, God spoke to me before I knew God really existed. God initiated our communication. I believe that God uses my mind and my feelings to speak to me. My mind perceives some “voice” that comes from an internal “spiritual” me. I can only say that God has put an invisible something that acts as an interpretation station that translates God’s communication to me in a way that I can hear it. The Bible says it is God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Jesus put it this way, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” John 14:15-17
I have on several occasions felt God’s confirmation that I should follow a specific career path or job opportunity. Sometimes, it is a direct pull to a particular ministry or a passive peace with a decision I am about to make.
The second understanding of calling comes from the outside in; it involved a local church “calling” a candidate to serve as their minister. In this case, churches enter into a prayerful search for a minister. This involves reading dossiers, talking to friends about ministers that might be willing to consider a move to a new church, and visiting churches to listen to a minister to assess their preaching style and effectiveness. The ministry is actually a vocation that requires many skills and talents, only refined with experience and practice. But churches with only one staff person concentrate on the effectiveness of preaching as the primary characteristic in selecting a minister.
I spoke to a former college professor about finding a larger church. I wanted to move to town or city close enough to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee to continue my doctoral studies. He explained he was serving as an interim minister in a Camden, TN church during their search for a new minister. He felt my interest and background might be a good match for the church. The congregation was a healthy blend of rural and small town. They had a lawyer, teachers, farmers, a doctor, factory workers, government employees and a conglomeration of other walks of life. He said, “I will put a bug in some of the right people’s ears.” I wondered just how such a promise would play out and how long that might take.
One glance out the east kitchen window toward the cornfield now reduced to stubble from the last harvest and then up toward the darkly clouded skies indicated that we might have snow falling before dark. It entered my mind that the congregation at church the next day would probably be smaller than usual. However, most of the folks would always make a strong effort to arrive even if the roads were slightly slick. Just then the phone rang and a rather strong high-pitched female voice asked, “Is this Rev. Watkins?”
“Yes, this is he, how may I help you?”
“This is Jane Jones, my husband and I are members of the Camden Cumberland Presbyterian Church and we are wondering if it would be convenient for us to visit your church tomorrow morning. My husband is a member of the search committee and Dr. Trinity mentioned you had an interest in considering our church.”
My body suddenly felt a slight burst of adrenaline as I thought about the proper response. “I guess you know there is a possibility of snow for tomorrow.”
She replied, “Yes, but my husband is on the road daily and he’s use to driving in most kinds of weather. We would really like to come with our three children. We will drop in for worship and then leave as inconspicuously as possible. Is that okay?
“Yes, that is fine with us.”
She added, “Would it be possible to meet and have lunch with you following church?”
I replied, “We should be able to do that, let me call you back with a suggestion of where and when after I have talked to my wife.”
By then, Virginia had gotten the drift of the conversation and was smiling as I hung up. I repeated the conversation.
The snow never materialized and I arrived more nervous than usual to church. I was not that happy about my sermon for the day, so I wondered if this possibility of a new place of service would result in anything more than a classroom for the future. They arrived and given the “evil” eye by many of the congregation. Some of our people asked them if they were new in the area. And, the Jones’s said, “No, we are just passing through, saw the church, and decided to worship since we only had to wait about an hour for your service to begin.”
That little lie never got off the runway, one elder later said: “You know I knew they were probably scoping you out. Nobody just drops into our little church out in the middle of nowhere.”
So during lunch at the Red Barn south of Russellville, we made plans to visit the Camden church to meet with the entire congregation and a “trial” sermon. That language really turned me off; it implied that we would be under the eye of a judge and a jury. And, in retrospect, that is what happened. On the other hand, we were just as curious as to whether the congregation and the town would meet our expectations. Would they have vision and an innovative openness? Would they have reasonable expectations but be non-judgmental? Would there be a balance of children, young adults, and older people? How open would they be for us to continue our educations? Could they pay us a livable salary? What kind of housing would they offer? Was the church basically conservative or liberal theologically? Would Virginia be able to find a teaching job in such a small town? We prepared two lists: one included questions that we could ask and the other questions we would answer simply by observation.
The weeks passed slowly before the appointed day of the first visit to what become our new home. And, then, on a Saturday morning we jumped in our Volkswagen Square-back for a three-day visit to West Tennessee to see what could become our community and church.