Paul Prather

Piece of paper reminds me where I've been

While cleaning out old bank statements and photographs from a closet at home, I happened across my ordination certificate. Until I found that piece of paper, I hadn't realized that April will mark my 30th anniversary as a man of the cloth.

I was ordained in, and have remained in, a low-church tradition that doesn't put much stock in official credentials or rituals. I wasn't required to earn a seminary degree.

Basically, in 1980, I announced that I felt called to the ministry. I was 24.

The people of the small, independent church I attended — which met at the same site where I'm now the pastor — agreed that, yes, I probably was called.

They laid hands on me, said some extemporaneous prayers, filled out a blank ordination certificate someone had bought at a bookstore and, voila, I was a minister of the gospel.

I served a couple of years as an assistant pastor there, as an apprentice under my dad. Then I went down the road a few miles to become the leader of an even tinier congregation.

Fourteen years later, I helped merge that second congregation with the church where I'd started. I came back home. My father and I co-led the combined church until he retired.

As the son of a minister, I'd made myself and God a vow early in life: I'd never be a preacher. I respected my dad when I was young, and I respect him today.

But I'd seen too much of the ministry from the inside — the low pay, the unpredictable hours, the cliques and infighting, the struggles to live up to parishioners' ideas about what a minister ought to be and their even less obtainable expectations for a preacher's children.

I wanted no part of that. I meant to become a lawyer instead.

I can't tell you exactly what caused me to decide I should enter the ministry after all. I don't recall having any lightning-bolt visions in which I was commanded to the clergy. Or maybe I did and I've simply forgotten them as aging overtakes me.

I do remember that I wasn't happy about receiving what I took to be the divine call. It seemed like an irresistible, nagging pull I couldn't escape. It was, I gathered, my fate, so I resigned myself to it. I was pretty irritated about the whole thing. I figured it wouldn't last.

And yet, here I am.

I've experienced a lot over my years in the pulpit.

I've seen people's lives revolutionized by what I take to be the spirit of the Lord. I've seen them delivered from alcoholism. I've seen them transformed from crooks into near-saints. I've seen squirrelly kids develop into responsible, admirable adults.

I've participated in thrilling, unscripted revivals that to me almost rivaled the Day of Pentecost in Acts. During one period, our congregation tripled in size.

I've seen people stand alongside me across the decades. They've encouraged me when I was down, protected me when I was crazy and forgiven me when I sinned.

I've seen some of the best there is in this fallen old world.

I've had my heart broken, too. We went through a spell when a succession of our church's children and teenagers died of disease, in a fire and in a car wreck; I watched their parents and siblings struggle through the aftermath of those horrible losses. I hope I helped them.

I've seen kids raised in our church, educated in our Sunday school, and go on to become avowed atheists. I've seen couples divorce.

I've seen our congregation itself break apart, seen people leave in a huff and spread destructive rumors that, to my mind, didn't contain a gram of truth. I've seen zealots invite themselves through the church's front doors and try to ride roughshod over good people it was my job to protect.

Thirty years is a long time. A long, long time.

I've seen times when I wanted to leave. I've gotten up to preach on Sundays while wondering what ever possessed me to join the clergy. Was it hubris? Neurosis? Self-delusion? All are possibilities. Who among us knows what forces drive him?

On my better days, though, on most days, I believe God really did call me to this.

He must have, I think, because how else would a guy like me, such a reluctant minister, manage to stay put, to keep on keeping on, his entire adult life?

Granted, I've never been much of a success as a pastor, if you count success by the size of the congregation, the offerings or the campus.

What I have been, I pray, is faithful. I'm where I'm supposed to be.

Knowing that, in and of itself, makes it all worthwhile.

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