I preached my first sermon when I was twelve years old. It was Youth Sunday and that meant the kids and youth were running the worship service. We were the greeters and ushers, candle lighters and scripture readers. The children’s choir took the place of the adult choir. We made the prayers of the people and led the congregation through the morning’s liturgy.
Normally, the youth pastor would give the sermon on Youth Sunday. I don’t remember if we didn’t have a youth pastor that year or if he just didn’t want to do it, but the job somehow fell to me. I don’t remember what I preached about, but I do remember how nervous I was as I put the sermon together. I modeled my sermon after the good reverend. Start with a relevant story. Read the passage. Explain the passage. Give them some application. I worked and reworked getting the timing and transitions just right.
When it was time, I ascended the old-style pulpit raised above the altar, stood on a box so the congregation could see me, and delivered my sermon. The moment I began to speak, all the nerves disappeared. I loved it. What I didn’t enjoy so much was standing in the pastor’s position in the receiving line following service, trying to die so I wouldn’t have to listen to everyone gush over how wonderful my sermon was.
But, in the midst of the platitudes, one elderly woman stood out with her comment. She told me, “That wasn’t just good for a 12-year old. That was good. I think you’ve found your calling.”
Her words haunted me and when I got home, I rushed straight to my bedroom to pray. My prayer went something like this: “Dear God, I will do anything you ask of me. I’ll be a doctor and travel to third world countries. I’ll give all my money to the church. I’ll even follow my dad and be an accountant. There’s just one thing I cannot do. I cannot be a preacher.”
At first, it seemed like the prayer worked. I didn’t become a middle school preacher. I continued to take part in church and youth group, but it was a personal thing. Faith was something that took place on church grounds, not something you shared with others. Some of those others in the church may have recognized something as I was invited to take part as a high schooler in a district program intended to shepherd young members toward the pastorate, but it never really stuck. In fact, due to a misunderstanding with the pastor of my church my senior year, I left for college intending to leave religion behind, entirely.
Growing up in Oregon, going to school in Maryland was the perfect opportunity to leave behind lifestyles that had been imposed by my parents. I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why I wasn’t going to church on Sunday morning. No one would recognize me as a church boy and find it odd that I stayed in bed. In fact, as a Plebe (freshman) at the U.S. Naval Academy, Sunday morning was the only time that was mine. It was the one day of the week I was allowed to sleep in, catch up on rest, or follow a hobby of my choosing. No one would think me weird for choosing to spend that time somewhere other than church.
I arrived at the Academy on a Tuesday. When that first Sunday came around, I had every intent to turn off my alarm and sleep all morning. And then, I woke up, anyway. There was no conscious thought involved. I got up, got dressed, and walked to chapel. Over the course of Plebe Summer (The Academy’s version of boot camp), it became clear to me I needed church far more than I needed sleep if I wanted to be restored and recharged. Over Plebe Summer, I was just a Midshipman sitting in the back of the high Episcopalian church service. By the end of Plebe Year, I was a leader in the church.
I was a member of the Protestant Midshipman Club, Officer’s Christian Fellowship, Baptist Student Union, Navigators, and the chapel Sunday School program. I held leadership roles in most of the above. I also served the Academy Chapel as a cross bearer for military funerals and other special services. I remember thinking in my Youngster (sophomore) year that going to school was the price I paid to be able to take part in my passion: church. If I had only known what was to come.
The Protestant Midshipman Club (PMC) was a youth group for big kids. We had a weekly meeting with a short time of worship that looked more like Young Life club than Sunday morning church, but it was mostly an opportunity to unwind and hangout with people who loosely shared faith. We had morning prayer groups for those who were interested. We put on quarterly retreats and monthly field trips. We brought in regional musicians to play concerts.
In the military, personnel are regularly transferred and it just happens that at the end of my Youngster year, there was a complete switch of Protestant Chaplains. The last Chaplain to transfer out was high church and felt our massive youth group was an offense to God and the church. His final act on leaving was to write a letter to the Commandant canceling the program. When I returned that summer for a class on naval weapons engineering as an officer of the PMC, I was shocked to learn it no longer existed.
The new Protestant Chaplain who had been tasked with overseeing the PMC was shocked, as well. After meeting with the Commandant, the Chaplain came back to me and made me an offer. If I could write up a complete program, including activities, resources needed, a budget, etc. in the 8 weeks before Fall Semester started, the Commandant would approve it and we would have our Club back.
The Chaplain gave me a key to his office so I would have a quiet place to work, told me his job was only to encourage and oversee, that I would be building the Club, and instructed me to dream big and write out that dream, not to merely recreate the past.
I knew our events were more than a big draw. They were a big part of who we were. We continued our Fall and Winter Retreats and added a longer-distance Spring Retreat with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as our speaker. We planned field trips to the Smithsonian for fun and culture and took three busses of Midshipmen to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. for Veterans Day.
But, our big change was our weekly, Sunday night programming. We still gathered around a meal and included time for relational connecting, but we encouraged people to use that time for prayer or guided discussion in small groups. Our big group meeting moved from a gym-like space to an auditorium with a worship band on stage, prayers, a sermon, and weekly communion. By this time, the rest of the officers of the club had returned to class and we worked on the program as a team, but my role was to pop in on the small groups and check in with them, meet people one-on-one for prayer and counsel during the week, preach most of our sermons, and consecrate the communion elements.
Imagine my shock one Sunday evening after service the winter of my Second Class (junior) Year when Andrea, a Plebe, came running up to me on the way out of church, yelling, “Pastor Caedmon! Pastor Caedmon!”
What? Me, a pastor? I haven’t gone to seminary. I’m not ordained. No church has called me or set me to this position. I’m just a fellow student doing what came naturally. It took a group of my closest friends to point out that with 8 weeks of planning and some amazing encouragement, I planted and then pastored a church of 300-people.
I asked them not to call me pastor. They did, anyway. Eventually, it sunk in.
Earlier, I mentioned I felt like going to class was the price I had to pay to get to enjoy my passions in my after school activities. That spring, I realized the military was the price I had to pay to get to serve the church. The problem was, I hated the military. I was a pacifist who had taken a personal vow never to touch a weapon unless I was given a direct order. I had no interest in projection of power (one of the core reasons for the existence of the Navy) on the global or personal level. I didn’t fit in. In the spring of my Second Class Year, I left the Academy to pursue vocational ministry.
I’d like to say I ran straight to God and embraced my calling as a pastor, but that just isn’t the case. After a short period of enlistment to pay back the government for my education, I transferred to a Bible College in my hometown and earned a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry. While working on my degree, I was employed by a small, rural church in a capacity that was part youth pastor and part associate pastor. I loved the work and I loved them. Then, they started talking ordination.
They didn’t make any overt promises, but one year out from graduation, they started talking about ordination boards. They offered to sponsor me and suggested we should set them for shortly after graduation. Here I was, looking at likely ordination in a legitimate denomination, and I ran. I made up some holy sounding excuse and resigned from the church.
I left the church, but the denomination wasn’t done with me. During my senior year, a representative from one of the denominational seminaries came to me with one hell of an offer. He was offering a full-ride, including housing, to the seminary and a guarantee of a paid associate pastor position while in school. If you’re following God’s calling to become a pastor, how do you turn down an offer like this? Somehow, I did.
The twenty years since I left the Naval Academy have been like this. I take a position in a church and just when it’s starting to go well and everything is lined up, I freak out. I tell myself I’m a “transitions pastor,” helping churches get from one point to the next. But really, I’m just scared. It goes all the way back to my 12-year old self in prayer. I know I’ve been called to be a preacher, but I’m scared out of my mind. Let me do anything else, God.
Today, I am an associate pastor in a small, missions-based church. I’m sitting at my desk in the parsonage I share with the senior pastor looking at a diploma that reads Master of Divinity. In college, I said I couldn’t be a pastor because I didn’t have the degrees, didn’t have the ordination, didn’t have the title bestowed. Today, I have all of the above and I’m just as scared.
I love what I do. And I believe God has used the circumstances of my life to prepare me for service in this community. I’m where I belong. And yet, I’m still a little scared. This time, I’m not scared of the preaching. I’m not scared of being pastor. I’m scared after all these years of running, I won’t know how to stay put.