Some of us were never going to make the cut.
At 29 years old, I have spent a large portion of my life in ministry.
My sense of calling came almost simultaneously with my sense of conversion. From the moment I fell in love with Jesus at age 11, I knew that I had to serve him through some sort of ministry. I knew it deep down in my bones, in an unspeakable, unfathomable, ineffable way. Over the years, I have acquired more language to describe that calling, but it still remains somewhat of a mystery to me.
Since the time of my calling, I have had the blessing of serving in a great many ministries. I have served in various youth ministries in many different capacities. I have served on and led foreign missions trips all over the world. I have served in and led various church and parachurch (evangelism and social justice) ministries. I have helped plant and pastor churches.
I have also spent years studying religion, scripture, theology, history, and spirituality. Because I never had the financial support necessary to complete a M.Div. or a similar formal seminary degree, I passionately applied myself to learn all that I possibly could, in order to compensate for lacking that experience. And because of the way my mind is wired, allowing me to read quickly and to remember in detail most of what I have read, I have been able to study a considerable amount.
But in the end, none of that mattered.
I was never going to make the cut.
And not because of a problem with my experience. Not because of a problem with my knowledge. No; the reason none of that mattered is me.
The church (especially the evangelical church) has a qualifications problem. Namely, they have a fetish for over-obsessive lists of qualifications that work together to form a very specific and rigid mold for what they believe a minister should and should not be. If someone cannot check all the boxes—if someone does not fit the mold—then they are not going to make it very long in that ministry.
“But,” one might object, “qualifications do matter. Doesn’t the New Testament give some pretty lofty qualifications for those in leadership?” The passages that immediately come to mind are those like 1 Timothy 3:1-12 or Titus 1:6-9.
As I see it, there are two problems with this line of thinking:
First, these passages were never meant to be a hard list of qualifications that each prospective minister must be mercilessly checked against. They were meant to provide a helpful list of qualities to look for in potential leaders. If we examine them carefully, I think we find that these lists merely inform us of tangible signs to look for in leaders who embody the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control [Gal. 5:22-23])—that is, mature Christians who walk in the way of Jesus.
Yet the church has so often abandoned the spirit of those qualities and reduced them to a very strict list of boxes to check. For example, the quality of faithfulness in a marriage relationship becomes a strict criterion regarding a person’s relationships. They can’t have ever been divorced; they can’t have ever been unfaithful in any way; they can’t be prone to temptation; and so forth. Of course, this ministry is only for men, and only heterosexual men, and only married men with children. Rule upon rule is added, creating a nearly impossible standard for anyone—even the holiest of Christians—to meet.
The second problem is that the church so often adds to these over-embellished qualification lists additional extra-‘biblical’ lists of qualifications to form an even more rigid mold. Things such as personality type, whether the person is an extrovert or introvert, agreement upon secondary and tertiary points of theology, and speaking style exist as unspoken standards potential ministers must somehow intuitively know and meet in order to make it.
I will never forget a conversation I had with a pastor while I was going through a 3-year pastoral residency training program. During our lunch meeting, he remarked that my wife, Heather, and I did not fit the usual mold for what a pastor and his wife would look like. “Well, no; we don’t,” I commented. “But I actually think that is a strength, because we are not looking to minister to the same suburban people that you and others are. We are ministering to the kind of city people who usually want nothing to
do with church.”
“I understand that,” he replied. “I just have to wonder, what kind of pastor and pastor’s wife will you be then?” My answer that we would be Adam and Heather, only now with Adam employed in a position of ministry, did not seem to satisfy his quandary.
During that same residency, another young pastor sat me down and confronted me…over my lack of interest in sports. “You are ministering at and around the university. You’re in the South. Sports are a big deal here; so if you plan on being a successful pastor here, you’re going to have to get into football and basketball, at the least.”
“But I really just don’t care,” I objected. “And there are plenty of other ways for someone like me to connect with people outside of interest in sports.” His response was to use the bible against me:
“We’re supposed to be all things to all people, Adam.”
When I was foolish enough to open up to fellow evangelical ministers about my sexual orientation as a bisexual Christian, I was often met with apathy, as though it were something inappropriate to acknowledge or discuss. Other times, I was met with grave concern, as though my soul were now in peril because I find men attractive, or with stern counsel to always use the language of “struggling with same-sex attraction,” as though I were diseased or broken.
Through these things and so much more, it became clear that I was never going to make the cut for evangelical ministry; because I was never going to amount to a John Piper 2.0 (for which I now thank God). There were too many things going against me—things that have excluded a great many Christians, not only from positions of leadership, but often from church membership altogether.
I wish evangelical ministry had come with a warning label:
“Are you an emotional person? Are you an introverted person? Are you more right-brained and artistic? Are you free-thinking? Are you a person with doubts? Are you a highly sensitive person? Are you anything but cis-male? Are you anything but strictly heterosexual? Are you politically minded? Are you active on social media? Are you a millennial? Warning! Any or all of these things could prevent you from making it in evangelical ministry.”
Sadly it didn’t; thus many of us who were inherently incapable of fitting the mold have fought and failed again and again in pursuit of a calling that was always going to be denied to us. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped us from trying. And trying. And trying again.
What is even more unfortunate, though, is the cost that people who don’t fit the mold have had to pay in order to even try. I have sacrificed so much of myself for so many years to the idol of evangelical ministry—so much so that when I finally stepped away, I almost could not remember who I was anymore.
In order to pursue ministry, I had to put my writing aspirations on hold. For nearly three years, I hardly wrote a word. Journals, workbooks, and word documents remained empty and unused.
In order to pursue ministry, I had to isolate myself into pockets of evangelicalism in order to succeed, which meant I lost touch with relationships on the outside. And when I eventually left, all the relationships I had made in those isolated pockets suddenly disappeared, leaving me completely alone.
In order to pursue ministry, I had to hide my sexual orientation and address issues of sexuality using archaic and (in my opinion) sub-Christian language. Instead of using terms like “gay” or “LGBTQ,” I had to say “same-sex attracted.” Instead of addressing questions of sexuality with available scientific, psychological, and sociological study, I could only rely on very limited bible passages.
In order to pursue ministry, I had to keep away from anything that could be construed as political, even though my degree was in a political field. For years, I had to watch opportunities for involvement in social justice pass by, because one was not allowed to be a pastor and a protester.
And in order to pursue ministry, I had to lie about my doubts and project a false sense of confidence in things for which I had serious questions and concerns.
I lost so much of myself. I am only beginning to rediscover who I actually am, with the help of God and good therapy.
And I am not alone. Since I stepped away, I have come across so many people who have suffered through the same or worse in their own pursuits of evangelical ministry.
We were never going to make it. The system was rigged against us.
Now, in response to that unhealthy system from whence we came, what if we ex-evangelicals found a better way? What if, instead of creating our own systems of rules and regulations that, despite our intentions, often lead to more exclusion (albeit of a different sort), we embraced a completely other way of thinking about those who feel called to ministry?
The apostle Paul famously wrote,
I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men or of
angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging
cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all
knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I
am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship
that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is
not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does
not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts,
always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
(1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8 NIV)
And Jesus himself said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
Isn’t love supposed to be our guiding principle?
What if churches started there when considering those called into ministry? What if, instead of jumping straight to imposing a hard list of qualifications upon them, churches began by asking, “Is this person a lover? Does this person love like Jesus loves? Does this person display the kind of love that embodies Paul’s ‘most excellent way’?”
How different would Christian ministry look with all kinds of people, who don’t fit any particular mold but who passionately love God and neighbor, giving themselves to serve in whatever way possible? How different would our churches become under those kinds of leaders, who inspire those they lead to walk in the way of love, in the way of Jesus?
Personally, I believe this would lead to churches that look a lot more like Jesus. I believe this would lead to churches that look much more like the messy but empowered church in Acts. And I believe this would lead to churches that can at last reflect the beautiful kingdom of God, on earth as in heaven.
Adam Waddell is a minister in search of his calling. Raised Southern Baptist and trained non-denominational, he has found his home within the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Nerdy things and puns are his favorite pastimes. Adam lives in Memphis, TN with his wife and their 3 rambunctious children.