There is not a time I can remember that I did not know God. I learned about him from the very beginning of life but I also knew him personally. It is one of those things that I cannot explain with reason or understanding. One of my earliest memories is being three years old and standing alone in the hallway of my childhood home, closing my eyes and talking to Jesus. I was asking him to be in my life and with me forever. He responded and has been faithful to my request throughout my years. My family and my childhood were built around church and I was taught virtues and a strong work ethic that have helped shape me and develop me. Though I knew God before I had any real understanding of right and wrong, somewhere along the way I started to think that the rules mattered most to him and secretly feared that my imperfections were disappointing to him.
As a child, I knew that I loved to teach but I thought every kid wanted to play with a white board and explain math problems to her stuffed animals. I had a peculiar opportunity to teach my Sunday school class at my Southern Baptist Church when I was in middle school. I think the teacher was trying to prove a point because I made a bratty comment about how teaching these lessons couldn’t possibly be that hard. He handed me the lesson book and said, “Why don’t you prepare next week’s lesson then.” To be honest, it was easy and I loved every minute of it. I loved the activity that allowed my peers to come to their own conclusions about the scripture in the lesson. I loved doing something that I was able to do well. Most of all, I loved the positive response of the students, especially those who appeared to be indifferent toward God. Maybe it was the bag of snickers that won them over, but either way I was overjoyed by the success.
The years between that moment in middle school and the moment I officially began a life of ministry carried pain and heartache. In the midst of it, I seemed to have lost my way in rebellion and stubbornness but God was ever-present and continually faithful to his purpose in my life. When I came to a full surrender of a life of ministry, I was comfortable with that looking like a life of prayer, serving the poor, comforting the hurting, and teaching with passion. Although this is clearly the life of a pastor, I did not see pastoral ministry as my calling. The thought of female pastors made me uncomfortable and I did not have a balanced theological understanding for gender roles in the Church. I called myself a missionary or a teacher or a prayer warrior, but never a pastor. A pastor was the leader of the church who was, in my mind, always male.
My worldview expanded as I traveled and studied and learned from people who didn’t see gender as a stumbling block for pastoral ministry within a church. While preaching in Africa, I rediscovered my love for teaching Scripture and watching the Word of God land on people’s hearts in a way that transforms life. I remember the pastor of a church in Ghana sitting in the front row with a huge smile on his face, almost jumping out of his plastic chair as he affirmed my sermon with a loud “Amen!” While leading a group of missionaries, I found my prophetic voice and my desire to lead people into deeper intimacy with God. My spirit came alive as I proclaimed freedom from the old self and the discovery of fulfillment in Christ and his calling.
I came to seminary with a passion to lead and preach within a local church, to remove the stumbling blocks that keep us from living an abundant life. Confronting my own lack of discipline and self-care has left me incredibly humbled. While the work of unpacking the pains and heartaches I’ve purposely avoided and experiencing the exhausting realities of church work has left me somewhat discouraged. My experience of these revelations isn’t any different from stories I’ve read from other pastors. The passion and the zeal of young people entering ministry can be easily quenched and replaced with complacency and apathy.
In my short experience of this, I have seen my need for truth and revelation of God’s word as it relates to me. I have wrestled with the possible contradiction to Philippians 2:4, but I have found that if I do not tend to my own soul and give attention to my own needs, I am not very helpful to others. If I do not preach the gospel to myself and encounter the word of God for myself, I have nothing to give away to others. In order to truly look out for the interest of others before my own, I must contend for the health of my spiritual life.
I learned about my poor self-care as I sat in a counselor’s office trying to sort through my anxiety and panic attacks after three tumultuous years working with a Christian missions organization. It was like my counselor ripped the blinders off of my eyes when she said to me, “You know, Bethany, boundaries protect what we value. You are valuable and worth protecting.” In another session she asked me, “Can you expect others to respect your boundaries, if you do not respect them?” This began my journey with boundaries and loving myself enough to take care of myself. I am still walking this journey and fail often. I am making the effort, not to be perfect, but to be kind to my imperfect self. Is it possible to unlearn years of striving and return to that place as a three-year old in the hallway asking Jesus to be with me forever? I am learning that it is only when I accept the gifts of mercy and grace from God that I can extend those gifts to others.
It is only in the humility of my own weakness and inadequacy that I am able to lead others to drink from the same water of life. Although I can read it in endless amounts of books, daily I must remind myself that I am not the Savior, but the saved. I am not the light; I am only a witness to the light. Knowing my tendencies and weaknesses intimidate me as I walk into a life of full time ministry.
The renewing mercies with each sunrise gives me comfort and hope to faithfully serve God’s people and embrace the calling he has for my life.