October 19, 2005

You've Got to Get Out of the Boat!

BJS: Last year you left your position as the assistant to the president of the North American Division to become a pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church. Why?
KN: Before the sun got toward the horizon, there was a feeling that God was calling me to learn new things about Him. And I could learn those in a pastoral position much more than I could have as a division officer.

Do you feel that your capacity to serve is greater as a pastor?
Let me explain it two ways. The first one is a piece I remember quite well. I was sitting in the balcony of my church wondering if this really was God talking to me about becoming a pastor. We had a baptism that day, and at the end of the baptism we voted on that person's membership. It was then that I realized that as a pastor I would be voting on whether or not people would be members of the church. If I stayed at the division office, I'd be voting about policies of the church. And a thousand years from now the members we voted on would be more significant than the policies we voted on.

The second piece is that service is not better one place or another. It's different. In one leadership function I'm at the Media Center trying to help put structures in place so we can broadcast more satellite evangelistic series. At Sligo church I am working with people who just lost a loved one. Or I am talking with people who don't understand why a spouse just left them. Or I'm talking with people who wonder if God can truly be that good. I'm also doing very mundane things such as putting tithe envelopes in the hymnal racks. It's very different stuff. But I've been pushed in some wonderful new ways.

1543 story8For example, our office received a phone call from Holy Cross Hospital saying that they had a person there who was an Adventist and wanted someone to come visit her. They called Sligo church because the person was not from the Washington, D.C., area and Sligo was the big church that they know about. I called the hospital chaplain, who explained to me that this was an AIDS patient. She knew that she was going to die.

I made the visit. She had enough painkillers that first day to make her barely cognizant that I was in the room. She was the only one in the family who had any connection with the Adventist Church. Yet I had the feeling it had been quite some while since she had been in an Adventist church. I went back to see her virtually every day for a week, until she passed away. One of the fascinating parts of that was that I learned where she had been baptized. A relative had mentioned the name of the church. Because of my job at the division office, I chased down church directories for the conferences in that area. I found that church, looked up the pastor, and realized that he was someone from my work in the division. I called that pastor and was able to get a message back from him to her that said "your old church is praying for you." There was a peace and comfort in that for her. In fact, the day I came to share that information she was alert enough that she could blink her yes or no. That was the most communication we had had in seven days of my visiting her.

That kind of service, in which there is no gain, gives me a picture of what God is like as He bestows gifts on us. I found incredible joy in going into the hospital room where I knew this woman was dying, and where I was mildly unsure whether she heard me or not. But I found joy in giving in a situation in which I knew I would get nothing back. I think that is the heart of service: you give because it is your nature as a Christian emulating God to give.

You spoke about coming to Sligo believing that God wanted you to learn new things. What have you learned so far?
You know, one of the lessons God has taught me is that aimless reading of the Bible without a purpose in mind is really valuable to me. Reading the Bible not because I have a sermon or devotional coming up, but simply as a spiritual discipline, is very important to me. The second part of that is that aimless reading of the Bible, by nightfall, usually has found a purpose in sharing with someone. And feeling God work through you is just one of the greatest experiences! I know it happened at the division office, but it tended to happen more with my planning. In pastoral ministry my agenda isn't nearly as set every day, and events come along that cause me to realize I need that guidance even more. I believe that trust in God is greater when you are dealing with human lives than when you are dealing with church budgets. It's greater when you are working with human beings than when you are working with systems and structure. And the necessity of trusting God is a lot clearer for me where I am now.

What advice, insight, or wisdom would you give someone wanting to serve God and others, yet not sure where to begin?
I'm not real good at giving advice. . . . I'm still figuring me out, and what God has to say to me. One thing I feel really confident about is that God doesn't have a cookie cutter that He stamps on all the people who serve Him. If there are 1,000 people, there will be 2,000 ways to serve Him. I don't think God wants you to serve the same way He wants me to serve. Every-one has a unique place to serve, and across the course of your life those things may change. That's why I say that there's probably 2,000 ways if there are 1,000 people.

The key point in my view is: don't wait to be useful to God. If you are in school, you can still serve. If you are not pastoring, you can still serve. No matter where you are, God has something He's interested in having you do or become.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is Peter getting out of the boat. There were 12 disciples in the boat, and 11 of them died without once walking on water. All it takes is getting out of the boat! You've got to get out of the boat if you are going to walk on water. Sometimes you sink. But Jesus hangs around. He will pick you up. But you have to make a decision about doing something if you're going to be involved in a life of service.

Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.