A vocational call can manifest itself in many ways. I have some friends in ministry who can recall a distinct moment where everything clicked, they felt God’s call to ministry, and they immediately knew how that vocation would manifest itself. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, this was not my experience. My call can best be described as a moving target. I have yet to uncover my clear-cut path, and, at times, I still feel like I am wandering around in the wilderness.

When I started seminary at Logsdon School of Theology in 2013, I had one goal: to become a hire-able youth minister. Growing up in a small Southern Baptist church, I thought this goal was risky enough. I had never seen a female youth pastor, much less a female pastor, so I did not want to push the limits too much. Yet from the very beginning of my time at Logsdon, I began to feel what could best be described as an annoying, nagging feeling that my vocational call would shift into something different than youth ministry. Pushing this call deep within, I pursued student ministry. I served as the associate youth minister at a local church and gave my heart and soul to that ministry. I loved it. And I still love it, but as I approached my final semester of seminary, that nagging feeling had not subsided. In fact, it had grown into something that could no longer be stifled.

I am called to be a pastor, or at least I think I am. This is the melody that continually runs through my head. It is what lead me to apply for the pastoral residency at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Missouri.

I had never allowed myself to dream about the pastorate. It always seemed out of reach. I felt it was a lofty dream, and I could never shake the notion that I wanted to pastor only to prove people wrong–to show them that I could do it. Now after spending five months here at First Baptist, Columbia, learning from a wonderful mentor, Pastor Carol McEntyre, and serving at an incredibly affirming church, I am beginning to embrace my call and my pastoral identity. I am still in the beginning stages of time in Columbia, but because First Baptist was courageous enough to establish a pastoral residency, a ministry that only a few churches provide, I have been able to experience my call to ministry in ways I never thought possible. Because they took a risk, I am finding my pastoral identity in a beautiful community that is willing to learn alongside one another, to encourage one another, to be present with one another.

In five short months, I have already learned more than I hoped to learn in my two years here. In this pastoral residency, I have had the opportunity to grow, learn, and minister in ways that I never was able to before. I have made home-bound visits, attended business meetings, planned worship services, and preached three times. With each experience, my confidence grows, and my pastoral identity is strengthened. Before coming to First Baptist, I had never preached in front of a congregation. Logsdon did everything it could to simulate the experience in our seminary classes, but preaching to a congregation is so much different. I learned that preaching is not an isolated act, but one grounded in community. I think this was the biggest surprise to me. Unlike in seminary, I was no longer preaching for a grade. I did not have to impress my classmates and professors with my wealth of knowledge in sermon form. Rather, on September 24, 2017, I preached to my new congregation for the first time and was part of the worship experience in a whole new way. Through shared stories about God and God’s kingdom and through reading the scriptures, together we were able to dream and worship together. The smiles, laughter, and head nods of affirmation from the congregation shaped the space, reminded me of God’s presence, and made the moment holy. They challenged my status-driven, over-achieving mind to dream bigger and to re-imagine the kingdom. Their friendships reminded me how we are all on this journey together, working diligently to make our little piece of the earth a bit more like the kingdom of God.

Yet, even with the profound revelation that came with my first sermon, I could not allow myself to accept my pastoral identity completely. I think I expected to step down from the pulpit with a new profound sense of direction. But the heavens did not open, nor did I hear God’s voice saying, “This is the path I have chosen for you.” Instead, I walked away not feeling much different than before. If anything, I was a little more confused. Don’t get me wrong, I felt encouraged, supported, and empowered, but I also felt defeated, overwhelmed, and drained. I walked away knowing a new form of vulnerability. I could not rid myself of thoughts of doubt, uncertainty, and inadequacy.

Nonetheless, I continued. I promised myself when I began this journey that I would give it everything I am. I vowed to allow myself to dream and to hope, but I also knew I had to be honest and realistic. I have stepped into the pulpit twice more. Each was a little different since I am still working to find my unique voice. There have been many ups and downs, times when I can see clearly, and times when I cannot. But I know I must try.

Three months after I arrived in Columbia, I was put in charge of the New Year’s Eve worship service. The pastor was going to be away that Sunday. People made jokes about how I was the low person on the totem pole for having to preach that day, but I saw it as an opportunity. And on that day, I fully stepped into the role. Of course, the day had its kinks, the heat was not working, I stumbled over some words, and most of my jokes fell flat, but that was when I felt it again. That small-nagging call emerged, but this time, I resolved to acknowledge it, to lean heavily into it, and to embrace my pastoral identity. This time, instead of stepping out of the pulpit and immediately criticizing myself, I chose grace. And this time, I was able to turn to my husband and boldly proclaim, “I can do this, I can be a pastor.”

Brittany McDonald-Null is the pastoral resident at First Baptist Church, Columbia, Missouri. She will be sharing reflections on her journey this year–as will her pastor, Carol McEntyre.