This was not how things were supposed to work out.
Every night for a year, my husband and I had prayed that God would direct us to the right place in his right timing. Based on our own prayers as well as confirmation from others, it seemed that the “right place” would be a church where Dave could serve as senior pastor, giving him more opportunities to exercise his gifts of preaching and shepherding. Now that we had two little boys, we also desired to be closer to family. We told God that we would go anywhere he led us (and we meant it!), but that we would love to end up somewhere in the southeastern United States, ideally within three hours of Dave’s parents.
We explored options around the country. We prayed, waited, and sought counsel from wise and mature believers. We continued to serve faithfully in our current ministries. We prayed and waited some more.
Twelve months later, our little family made the 1,200-mile journey from Minnesota to our new church in North Carolina—just two and a half hours from our sons’ beloved Nana and Papa—where Dave would serve as lead pastor. We felt God had clearly answered our earnest prayers, as evidenced by all sorts of confirmations that seemed like way more than coincidence. I mean, at the boarding gate for our flight home from our interview weekend, we discovered that our pilot “happened” to be a friend who first came up to Dave a year earlier and said he felt God was preparing my husband for a lead pastoral role!
We were over-the-moon excited. We felt we had come home, and we thought we’d be at that church and in that city for life.
Yet three years in, our dream situation had turned to a nightmare. Our church was slowly dying, our marriage was on the rocks, and I felt a searing isolation that would eventually lead to full-blown depression.
We left that church after five years and slowly began repairing the tears in our marriage, but our next church in a neighboring city provided only marginal ministry respite. Cultural dynamics and leadership transitions led to another painful departure after another five years. After a mutually beneficial nine-month interim ministry at a third church, we landed back in the Midwest, wondering what had gone wrong.
We thought we were seeking and obeying God, yet our time in North Carolina was by far our hardest season of ministry, marriage, and personal life. Had we not heard God correctly? Were we blinded by our own desires? Had we lost our ability to do ministry and make friendships?
Every follower of Christ will experience challenges on the calling journey. Some of these challenges are small speed bumps, while others may cause a leader to doubt her calling, her gifts, perhaps even her self-worth or her faith.
The Challenges of Calling
The Bible never promises that following God will be easy. In fact, Jesus says that believers should expect to experience trouble in this world (John 16:33). While this verse also promises that Christ will have ultimate victory, the Bible gives plenty of examples of men and women who experienced challenges as they sought to obey God’s calling:
- Abraham was asked to trust God and say good-bye to his country and family without knowing his end destination (Genesis 12:1).
- Joseph languished in prison for years on false charges before God’s purpose became clear and he became second in command in Egypt and led the country through an extended famine (Genesis 39–41).
- Moses spent forty years in desert exile before being tapped by God to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, then spent the next forty years questioning God’s calling as he was constantly questioned and mocked by the people he was leading (Exodus).
- Esther risked her life to ask favor for the Jewish people from her husband, King Xerxes (Esther 4:15-16).
- The Old Testament prophets were subjected to ridicule, false accusations, outright rejection, physical threats, and actual violence (1 Samuel; 1 and 2 Kings; Ezra; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Amos; Micah).
- Jesus sent his disciples as “lambs among wolves” and warned that they may be rejected for sharing the gospel (Mark 6:7-11; Luke 10:1-12).
- The apostle Paul was often hungry, thirsty, and naked during the course of his ministry. He was whipped, beaten, shipwrecked, and threatened, and he felt a constant burden for those in his spiritual care (2 Corinthians 11:16-33).
- Paul, Silas, Peter, and John were repeatedly imprisoned (Acts 4, 12, 16).
- The apostle John was exiled and died on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
- Jesus himself was “despised and rejected,” “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief ” (Isaiah 53:3, NKJV).
In other words, following God involves hardship, especially when we are called to walk the often lonely road of leadership. The question is not whether we will experience challenges in the course of following our calling, but what kind of challenges we will experience and how we will respond to them.
Challenges and Changing Course
When we experience challenges, it is perfectly normal to question our calling, or at least to consider whether it is time to make a change from our current ministry. In fact, I would argue that these questions are an important and healthy part of an ongoing conversation with God about our calling. We should not let challenges cripple us with doubt, but we should always remain open to the possibility that God is using a challenge to redirect our steps.
As we pause to listen to God’s direction, we might hear one of three instructions:
- Stay the course.
- Stop and wait for further instruction.
- Change course.
Unless you have sensed clear direction that your calling has been paused or will be changed, the default response should generally be to stay the course. You may need to make adjustments as you respond, but challenges should not automatically be viewed as roadblocks or closed doors.
There are times when God may tell you to stop, however. Sometimes, the break is just a short pause to catch your breath; other times, God may be instructing you to be still for a longer season. You may want to press on, but it is important to wait on God’s direction and trust his timing.
The third possibility is that God may direct you to a change of course or calling. Although your primary call to follow Christ never changes, your secondary calling can change. Sometimes it is broadened; other times, it changes entirely. These changes may result from life stage, the realities of a particular situation, or from what Gordon MacDonald calls a “fresh call” from God.13 And, as with my calling out of youth ministry, there may be a long pause between the “stop” and the next “go.” God may call you away from something before he calls you to something else.
About two years after we left North Carolina, I stood in the doorway between our bedroom and bathroom, toothbrush in hand, and reflected with Dave about the difficulty of that season. “Why was it so hard?” I asked him, only somewhat rhetorically. I felt it wasn’t for lack of effort on our part. And yet, although we experienced some fruitfulness, the majority of our time there felt like an uphill trudge, professionally and relationally—certainly more challenging than anything we had experienced to that point.
“I don’t know, but I’m glad we are here now,” he responded. I had to agree. We had experienced so much healing, both individually and in our marriage. Our boys were thriving. Our ministry was bearing fruit. We were in a really good place.
Yet my question went unanswered. I let the conversation drop.
Two weeks later, I was driving in my car, listening to music, minding my own business and not even consciously thinking of my question, when that voice interrupted my thoughts once again.
You weren’t ready.
I snapped to attention. What?
Remember that question you asked a few weeks ago? the voice continued. I knew immediately.
You weren’t ready, he repeated gently. You had to go through that hard season, and I had to work on some rough edges in your life before you would be ready to handle the abundance you are experiencing now.
His words were piercing—and absolutely correct. I felt my entire body release in complete peace. He knew best. Of course he did. I would never want to go through that hard season again, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world because of what God did through it.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Angie Ward is a leader, popular speaker, seminary professor, award-winning writer, and pastor’s wife. Her latest book, I Am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of their Calling, releases from NavPress in March 2020. Taken from I Am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of Their Calling by Angie Ward. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.