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A persistent little tap: a recent grad shares his tortuous road to ministry.

I have graduated this year from Presbyterian College, Montreal--ready to be a Presbyterian minister. Convocation in May was the culmination of a long and arduous road, which for me began with a crisis of faith and a difficult period in my marriage.

My wife and I remain grateful for the strong personal commitments to Christ and to the scriptures we carried with us from the denomination in which we both grew up and where we still have many friends. But there were a few theological pieces I just couldn't get to fit anymore. I had increasing difficulty reconciling the lens with which scripture was read with the world in which I strove to minister. The approach to church and ministry offered some freedom of action that has done much good in the history of the movement, but it made my parents' 35 years of church participation brutal and eventually complicated their lonely battle with the cancer that took Dad's life.

As I tried to plow through in spite of my private questions, the tough treatment I weathered in my own ministry--exacerbated by overcommitment and my failure to find a proper support base--finally hit home. As I spiralled out, with concerned colleagues and friends watching helpless from the sidelines, the final step to atheism was less of a precise intellectual calculation than an emotional preference for the safety of a God who didn't exist over one who did but seemed to dislike me so strongly.

While I couldn't pray to a God I saw as the enemy, if He existed at all, ironically I continued to read scripture more voraciously than ever. I was drawn to the gospels, probably because I missed Jesus so deeply. I also knew my own wicked heart enough to realize that without redemption I was a hopeless case. Several Presbyterians I met--including a few who would later become mentors--were handling scriptures with a great deal of respect, but with their questioning minds fully engaged. They connected the gospel with a care for the whole person rather than just erring souls. Helping the needy and the weary was finally a central component of the gospel proclamation rather than a sometimes necessary interruption.

As the darkness of depression slowly lifted through the support of friends, counselling and the patience of a wife more understanding than I deserve, God led me through reconciliation a step at a time, teaching me to extend to others the forgiveness I realized I so deeply needed. In the healing process, I was glad we had found a--church St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal--where I could quietly worship unnoticed at a safe distance from the pulpit I had left for secular employment after my difficult years in ministry; but as the pieces came back together in the safety of a lively local congregation, there was a persistent little tap on my left shoulder that kept suggesting God wasn't done with me yet.

I gave in to a few theology courses at McGill University. Nothing about ordained ministry you understand; that wasn't for me anymore. From the safety of a secular business I would simply be an engaged member of the congregation.

But there it was again, that annoying tap on the shoulder. I tried to silence it with a few more courses and the occasional Christian article mixed in to my secular writing. But pulpit supply? No ... I probably shouldn't ... heh, this worked okay. Let's try that again. And then to my amazement, the session affirmed my sense of call and encouraged me to take the next steps.

It's hard to explain the solace I found in congregations like Ormstown, Que., that were willing to trust a second career minister--an unknown quantity--in their pulpit. Finding increasing opportunities for ministry as we dared to connect with people at our own points of vulnerability, God was clearly blessing and leading.

I made it through New Testament Greek by sheer force of will. Growing impatient with the part-time thing, I quickened the pace in my courses at McGill. The link between the material I studied and the people I wanted to help gradually became clearer. And when the academia felt a little sterile, lively discussions with co-suffering students and faculty kept me going.

The dreaded guidance conference created some friendships, helped to crystallize my sense of call and confirmed that I could actually pass for a Presbyterian. The next few years were a blur, but a brightly coloured blur. Hues of unexpected financial support from faraway congregations. Bright glimpses of affirmation from serving on committees. Treasured days of respite along the way in the company of a wife and little ones, who have already done more than their share of doing without me. Then the gift of a placement at St. Andrew's in St. Lambert, Que., which so quickly became home to our little clan, which regularly includes a few kids and grandchildren.

On May 10, I felt a little selfish walking up those steps alone to be ceremonially hooded and certified; there are just far too many people in my back-up team who should have been acknowledged. As I figure out how to appropriately recognize the individuals and congregations who've lined the way, encouraging me along, I can't help but wonder who is cheering on those other future candidates for ministry in your circle of influence. It takes so much more than a village to prepare somebody for ministry.

As the darkness of depression slowly lifted through the support of friends, counselling and the patience of a wife more understanding than I deserve, God led me through reconciliation a step at a time, teaching me to extend to others the forgiveness I realized I so deeply needed

Joel Coppieters lives in Montreal.
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Title Annotation:Road to Ministry
Author:Coppieters, Joel
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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