I just celebrated that certain birthday that brings your first invitation to join AARP, and I’ve never felt more like a toddler. My experiences of the last year strike me as a second toddlerhood. Undeniable growing pains. More than one tantrum. Tears. Lessons coming so fast they’re hard to absorb. Wonder at new experiences. Pure grace. Joy. Love.

Yet, this story doesn’t begin with joy. Its turning point lies in heartbreak. In hindsight, the call to ministry had been tapping me on the shoulder since childhood when I asked for National Geographic’s guide to world religions for Christmas one year. But it took me decades to recognize and acknowledge the call and respond. I didn’t find my way to seminary until I was 40, but, once I did, I knew the path was right. I would be exhausted from working a full day and then making a two-hour drive to night classes. But the minute the class discussion began, my exhaustion vanished, replaced by an energy I had never experienced.

At the same time I was in seminary, I was blessed to be in a church that allowed me to experience ministry under the leadership of a strong mentor-pastor. The real-life applications gave life to the lessons I was learning in class.

Over time, the church would call me to serve as its associate pastor and then ordain me. Blessings all.

Then, on my vacation last summer, I walked many prayer miles on the beach. I looked at the waves crashing as I wondered if, after such a short time, I should leave the ministry.

Multiple factors contributed to my inner debate, not the least of which was the constant struggle to maintain some balance while leading a bi-vocational life. But other circumstances had changed as well. The proverbial final straw was working with a pastor who said he believed in women in ministry, but whose actions told a different story. Healthy anger told me to live the truth I knew, and keep moving forward. Over and over, I told myself that experiencing so much theology that I disagreed with was deepening my understanding of my own beliefs. My theology was growing stronger, but still, month upon month of challenges threatened my new strength and old reserves.

As pelicans dove into the waves for fish, I shared my hunger for a new direction with God. In my despair at being brought so far only to encounter such a stumbling block, doubt festered.

I didn’t trust.

I imagine God shook his head and perhaps smirked at the thought of the journey he had in store for me.
The day I returned from vacation, news was in my inbox. The stumbling block was gone, no reason given, effective immediately.

The call that had been growing within me for months to serve the church as its interim pastor intensified to the hurting point until I gave it voice. Then, the church gave me the nod.

Along the way, the bi-vocational struggle, at times, transformed into exhaustion. Lessons about the critical importance of self-care and boundaries were brought home hard and fast. Fortunately, the same energy I encountered in seminary would reveal itself again in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It may not have been exactly like toddlerhood, since I didn’t fight sleep. I would welcome sleep any time I could put my head down.

Still, the terrible twos and threes did show themselves—sometimes in other people, sometimes in me. Yet, the more I got to know my brokenness, the healthier and better pastor I became.

I wish I knew the date. I wish I could mark it in my calendar, but I’m not certain when the “aha!” moment came. Throughout my journey as a pastor, I had doubted my call to preach. How could God want a writer as a preacher? Give me pen and paper and sure, I would write and write for God. But stand up before a congregation and deliver a message? That was a different story. A wonderful preaching professor bolstered my confidence, encouraging me not to worry about wanting a manuscript by saying, “That’s who you are.” He told me to just be myself, and trust that I had valuable words to say, and the rest would work itself out. In that “aha” moment, as I stood before the congregation one Sunday morning, the truth struck me hard. I was being myself, more truly than ever. I was becoming the person God created me to be: a writer and a preacher.

Wonder. Grace. Joy. Love.

“For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord.. .O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might. . .” (Psalm 71:5, 17-18, NRSV)
Stephanie Porter-Nichols is the associate pastor of Marion Baptist Church in Marion, Virginia.