ome of my peers and I describe our time at seminary as our “Peniel” experience. Peniel was the place where Jacob was given a new name after wrestling with God. His name was changed to “Israel,” which means “one who wrestles with God.”
After his encounter with God, Jacob was changed forever. The world would know him by this name for the rest of his days. Seminary was the place where we wrestled with God, and we would never be the same. For us, the name “pastor” came to mean, “one who wrestled with God.” We would be intercessors, advocates, servants, and shepherds, always striving for a blessed relationship between God and the people of God.
My moving from seminary to the trenches of pastoral ministry was different than most of my peers experienced. I not only moved back to my home district, but I also moved back to my home town: Boise, Idaho. We do not really know much about how, after Jacob wrestled with God, he went about introducing himself as “Israel” to his friends and family. They most likely had to get used to how he had been changed. The same was true for me.
Back Home with a New Name
I moved back to the people who had watched me grow up; the people who knew me as the “youth intern” or “one of the bluegrass brothers at Northwest Nazarene University.” I soon became the pastor to my entire family—the people who knew everything there was to know about me, warts and all.
However, these people only knew the Ben who had left for seminary—not the Ben who was changed by seminary. It was an interesting journey attempting to communicate how my values and perspectives had been deepened and matured because of my time at seminary. NNU had given me a firm theological foundation upon which to build a life of faith. I wanted to grow deeper in my faith, and I wanted to learn how best to live into all the valuable insights I had received from NNU. I left for seminary as someone who was ambitious but timid and insecure. However, I returned from seminary with hard-won confidence and more secure in who I was in Christ. Nazarene Theological Seminary helped to open the door for me to start becoming the person I always knew I wanted to be. I came back a changed person. I came back a pastor.
There was significant adjustment, both for me and for the community to which I was returning. I worked to reintroduce myself, including who I had become under this new name of “pastor.” The wonderful church to which I had been called was as unfamiliar to me as I was to them. Our adjustments to one another were different from those I experienced with friends and family. We had to learn each other’s stories and share who we hoped to become as we pursued the future that God had for us. It would be a journey of mystery and surprises. It would be a fruitful journey. Like Jacob, we deeply desired a future shaped by God.
Surprises Along the Way
As with all transitions, there were all kinds of surprises. A positive surprise for me was the trust my congregation showed. This church that began in 1944 took a chance on a senior pastor in his twenties. The older members of the church led the way in showing me support and listening to and answering any questions I had, no matter how silly the questions may have sounded to them. They set an example of trust and accountability between my pastoral leadership and the community, which continues to this day. I was allowed to exercise the training and live into the vision of the kingdom of God that I had acquired in seminary. This positive surprise is still a profoundly meaningful gift to my heart.
This trust also revealed another surprise. The elders of my community not only led the way in their trust and support of my ministry, but they took that even further by opening themselves to seek my pastoral guidance in their lives. One example was that of an 82-year-old man in our church. He was a retired nuclear physicist and had devoted his time and resources to missions work in the Church of the Nazarene. Given his experience, he could have easily dismissed the leadership of a young pastor, fresh out of seminary. There was no apparent reason to seek my pastoral guidance in his life. There was no reason for him to invite me into his story and let me disciple him, but he did. He did all these things and more. This deeply humbling surprise allowed space for others to do the same. We grew together.
Other surprises were more difficult. I had received a transformative theological education from both college (NNU) and seminary (NTS). My studies equipped me in subjects such as pastoral counseling, theology, biblical studies, church history, and spiritual disciplines. I felt prepared in those areas. However, I was really surprised at the things I did not know. For example, standard financial protocols in the local church seemed to elude me.
There were times when other local church challenges, including aspects of administration, made me wish that I had greater training in church finances and administration. Another surprise was the difficulty I experienced in finding a spiritual mentor. During my time at both NNU and NTS, faculty and staff came alongside me, affirming my call, struggling with me, celebrating with me, and mentoring me as a disciple. I was free to practice, fail, and succeed as I wrestled with my call. They taught me that a pastor is one who mediates God to the people and the people to God. They showed me that discipleship is crucial to becoming all that we can be.
When I stepped into the world of pastoral leadership from seminary, I felt like this type of mentorship came to an abrupt end. I maintained my relationship with a few of my professors in order to have continued mentorship in my life, including an undergraduate profession. I would be lost without her guidance. However, she and others suggested that it would be wise for me to have a spiritual mentor who was currently within pastoral ministry; someone who would know my day-to-day experience and could walk with me directly on a consistent basis. This was good advice. Without consistent mentorship from another pastor in my life, I felt the isolation of leadership very strongly. I soon realized the demands of pastoral ministry are such that if they were not shaped and guided by a consistent mentor relationship, I would face tremendous risk of burnout.
Four years after accepting my call to Euclid, I found a healthy mentoring relationship with another pastor on my district. I believe that having a mentor is necessary, especially when moving from seminary into pastoral leadership, and yet I was surprised that finding a mentor was so difficult. In the midst of both positive and difficult surprises, the miracle was that I had God and God’s people right there in the trenches with me. We serve a God of compassion and grace, and I soon found that the people in my community are supremely gifted with compassion and grace, as well. In their faithfulness to and trust of a young pastor, God has brought about incredible opportunities for others to join in the work of discipleship.
A New Kind of Wrestling
After receiving this new name of “pastor” as a result of early times of wrestling with God, I realize my wrestling did not end at my seminary graduation. It just took on a new form. I would not be who I am today if it were not for the wonderful professors at the two Nazarene schools I attended. I am utterly grateful for the education from these incredible institutions and their continued influence in my life. I had come away from wrestling with God at seminary with a new name, “Pastor.” But, I was not yet aware of the full meaning of that new name until ordination by the church, which confirmed my identity as pastor. It was then I realized that “pastor” means, “one who wrestles with both God and humanity for the sake of Christ.”
So, while this journey has had highs and lows so far, I am so profoundly grateful to have been blessed by God through the Church of the Nazarene and encouraged by the church body. It is truly a privilege to serve the body of Christ, and I pray that I can do so for years to come.