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This is How It Happened and the Big Lesson I’ve Learned

It’s really hard to believe. Twenty years ago this month I transitioned from my job at City Hall to a full-time ministry position.

A lot has changed since then.


This picture of me with my oldest daughter, Kayla, was taken on my first day as a pastor. That little girl is grown up with a real job and real rent to pay. I weigh more and I have a lot less hair. But my looks and Kayla’s new adventure as an adult aren’t the only things that have changed in the last 20 years.

I was still in my twenties when this big transition happened. I had just received a glowing review from the City Council—my “bosses” at City Hall. At the same time, I had been wrestling with the opportunity to pursue my true calling. As a result, I submitted my resignation, took a healthy pay cut and became a pastor at Granger Community Church near South Bend, Indiana.

From City Hall to the Church Office

About two months before I handed my resignation letter to the City Council, I was at a Sunday service at Granger. I grabbed a church bulletin (Remember those?) and sat down in the auditorium by Emily. As I flipped through the bulletin before the service, I noticed the ad for an office manager position.

I remember leaning over to Emily and telling her, “I think I’m supposed to apply for that job.”

For those who are new to my writing, I used to be a city manager. At the time I saw that office manager job listing, I was leading a staff of about 150 people who included the police chief, fire chief, public works director and many great public servants. (Don’t believe everything you hear about government workers. Most of them really are faithful servants who work hard for less money than their private-sector counterparts.)

Though the job titles both include the word “manager,” there was obviously a big difference between my job of city manager, leading all the city departments including a $20 million budget, and that of the office manager role for a church.

Even with that in mind, Emily and I decided I should pursue the position. I had no idea that the office manager role would evolve into becoming a pastor at Granger, so, as you might imagine, this was a huge decision.

I’m forever grateful to Emily for encouraging me to take that step. I had invested many years and a lot of money in two degrees, internships, moves to different parts of the country and opportunities to move up the leadership ladder. I was in a position of leadership most 20-somethings don’t have. Emily was encouraging me to surrender all that and give my life to helping others experience the same transformation that God had made in my life.

It was a big risk. At least—it seemed big at the time.

It was actually about two years before I saw that job listing that God started to fuel my passion for engaging the ministry of the local church. A friend gave me a copy of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church. It was the first time I had read about a new way of engaging ministry to reach people outside the church and outside the faith.

I read the book through cover-to-cover in a very short time and soaked it all in. Then I read it again.

This idea of a church reaching people far from God was captivating to me. So captivating that Kayla, who was only two at this time, started referring to that book as “Daddy’s Bible.” It’s a good book, but it’s not that good. (Sorry, Rick.)

After finishing the book a second time, I remember two things:

First, I remember that sense that God was preparing me to be a part of a church like Rick Warren described in his writing. I had this strong pull to serve a church in a leadership role. Though, I certainly didn’t think it was going to be as a pastor.

Second, Emily and I had created a list of specific prayer requests that we were trusting God with as we were about to move to South Bend, Indiana. One of those prayers was that God would lead us to a church like the one described in Purpose-Driven Church. We had no idea that he was preparing me for full-time ministry just a year later.

A few years before I read that book, I stood in the auditorium at Willow Creek Community Church for the first time. This was the early 1990s. My friend Matt invited Emily and me to go along for some youth ministry training in Chicago. (Yes, I used to volunteer in student ministry… although it was called “youth group” back then.) After the training that Saturday, we drove over to Willow to attend a service on Saturday evening.

That was the first time I ever heard anything other than an organ or piano involved in church music.

It was the first time I ever sat in a sanctuary without pews.

It was the first time I ever saw a pastor teach and address real-life issues.

It was the first time I realized it was permissible to be the church without being churchy.

That first service at Willow brought back vivid memories of a recurring dream I had in the years after I accepted Christ. Though I had never experienced a worship service like it, I dreamed the sanctuary was full of people. Having fun. Enjoying each other. Worshipping Jesus. Engaged by the teaching. Laughing. Crying. Applauding. Again, I had never experienced worship like that before. If you knew the faith tradition in which I grew up, you would understand that the Sunday services weren’t designed to evoke that kind of response.

I honestly can’t remember a lot of details from that Saturday evening at Willow. All I remember was the experience and thinking to myself, “This is what I’ve been dreaming about all these years. I think this is what church is supposed to be.

About five years before I experienced that service at Willow, I was with a bunch of my high school friends at my youth pastor’s house. I can’t remember the occasion. That’s been more than 30 years ago. For whatever reason, though, our senior pastor also stopped by the house. At some point during that gathering, Jack, the senior pastor, pulled me aside and said something along these lines, “Tony, one of these days, you are going to be in ministry. God’s going to use your gifts for the Kingdom.”

Words matter. I was a high school student.

I remember initially thinking, “That was a very pastor thing to say.” I shrugged it off in the moment. But it’s funny how, all along the way, those words stuck with me even when I thought it was the furthest thing from reality.

A couple of years before that, I sat in Charlie’s living room. Charlie was a family friend. He was my former junior high principal. I was a sophomore in high school at the time, and I was wrestling with life. Looking back on that season, it was probably the first time that I really experienced anxiety issues that have been a part of my adult life on and off. Fortunately, it’s been years since my last panic attack. It’s amazing, though, how the challenges in our lives also shape the ministry opportunities we have in other people’s lives.

But back to Charlie. In the weeks that followed, I met with him every Saturday. He’s the first person to encourage me to open the Bible. He’s the first person who took the time to explain who Jesus was and the sacrifice he made for me.

And several months after I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, he’s the first person who encouraged me to engage in ministry by teaching his Sunday School class. I was a brand new believer. I’m not sure why Charlie thought that would be a good idea, but I’m glad he pushed me to do that. I’m guessing he didn’t realize he was beginning to equip me to do the work of God.

In the twenty years since I transitioned into full-time ministry, I’ve had opportunities I could never have imagined I would experience.

I’ve stood in the water and helped baptize hundreds of people in one afternoon.

I’ve seen over 800 people give their life to Jesus over the course of one weekend.

I watched God heal friends physically, relationally and emotionally.

I’ve also seen the body of Christ at its best when people are grieving the loss of dads who were way too young to be with Jesus.

I’ve seen leaders gather from all parts of the world to learn and grow so that they could help their churches have a greater Kingdom impact.

I’ve watched my friends in ministry help hundreds of churches get unstuck and pursue sustained health.

I really can’t believe this has all happened. And, if I can be honest, I still don’t think I deserve the opportunity to do what I do every day.

That said, I’m grateful for how God reveals his plans for our lives.

By the way, I have never heard the audible voice of God. I do think God designed us to share life with other people, though. As you can tell by my journey into ministry, God used several people to direct my path.

Charlie introduced me to Jesus and gave me my first ministry responsibility.

Jack intentionally spoke into my life and helped me see something that would take years to comprehend.

Matt invited me into youth ministry, let me have leadership responsibility as a volunteer and then gave me opportunities to learn and experience aspects of ministry that I had never experienced.

Tim gave me a copy of a book about church leadership knowing it would fuel my passion and understanding of what the local church could and should be.

Emily encouraged me to fully surrender my life to Jesus. Yes, I became a Christ-follower many years before, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1998 that I fully understood what it meant to surrender everything.

Mark and Tim hired me to help pastor a church when I was overly qualified to be the office manager they were originally hoping to hire.

I could go on and on and on naming names. They’re mostly people you’ve never heard of, but every one of them shaped who I am today.

This is what I’ve learned:

If you want to know God, you need to know his people. If you want to know God’s will, you have to share life with God’s people. If you want to know God’s purpose for your life, you have to be willing to enter the messiness of other people’s lives. If you want to live a fulfilled life, you have to love others.

If you want to know God’s purpose for your life, you have to be willing to enter the messiness of other people’s lives. If you want to live a fulfilled life, you have to love others. Click To Tweet

In other words, it’s not about me.

Twenty years of ministry, and I’ve learned one big lesson. For us to experience the life God wants for us, we must love God and love others.

20 Years in Ministry Click To Tweet

It’s so simple and yet it’s so difficult… especially when I get in the way.

Can’t wait to find out what God has in store for the next twenty years.

Thank you, Jesus, for giving me this mission.

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