I thought I would share with you my commencement speech for the recent, and also last, commencement celebration for Fuller Seminary here in Sacramento. I got a pretty good response for it, but this was definitely something I was preaching to myself. I needed to hear this just as much as I needed to write and share it. More now that I sit, yet again, with another job outside of my education and goals.
Here I sit weeks away from being laid-off from a job I was really enjoying. I am one week away from being distanced from opportunities and networks I was forming and putting into place. I am one week away from having to re-evaluate and re-adjust my “plan” after having felt comfortable enough to even have a “plan” to begin with.
So, hopefully this speaks to you as much as it did to me.
I would like to start by congratulating the graduates on this huge accomplishment. I remember what it felt like having made it to this point. I can recall the relief you’ve all felt as you sent off that last research paper. I also know the slight twinge of fear that might be forming in your hearts and minds as you begin to wonder, what’s next? When I graduated *WAY* back in 2012, I was not exactly sure what was waiting for me on the other side of this stage either. As your fellow alumni now, I thought I would take a few minutes to let you know what that “What’s next?” question looked like for me. I know that some of your stories may look like mine and some may be completely different. But, hopefully there’s something for everyone here.
First of all, about a year before I graduated I stepped out of full-time ministry in order to work towards “bigger and better” ministry opportunities. I had been a youth pastor for nearly seven years and wanted to try to work towards whatever that “What’s next?” looked like for me.
To give you a peak at how this story ends, I have not held a full time, part-time or even stipened ministry position since.
I’ve worked as a graphic designer for the Crocker Art Museum here in downtown Sacramento. I’ve worked for a home infusion company verifying health insurance benefits. And most recently, I stand here as an Admissions Counselor for Fuller which, as most of you know, is ending in a few weeks.
While I have not worked in a church or in professional ministry for nearly 5 years, in many ways I’m still asking, “What’s next?” But, since I’ve walked across the commencement stage, it’s strange how ministry opportunities arise and my education at Fuller has been put to use
One of my first “non-ministry” moments came when I was working at the Crocker Art Museum. I was excited to go to my very first staff meeting to see and meet my new coworkers. At the end of the meeting though, everyone got up and left. I had this strange feeling that, “We need to close in prayer.” But, I realized…that’s right…I’m not working at church anymore. They don’t do that here. But, a unique ministry opportunity came in my relationship with my boss. He was an openly gay man and through conversations I had with him, I learned that his devout Catholic parents had essentially told him that they loved him but they were sad he was going to hell. He knew I was a Christian and I’m sure he thought I would say something similar. Rather, I told him that I was sorry his parents had told him that, and I chose instead to try and demonstrate and communicate the love, grace and mercy of Jesus to him whenever I could. Later I would have the opportunity to lead a short class about one of the works of art in the museum and he came up to me later and said, “You were using your pastor voice there.” Even though I was talking about a work of art, and not overtly bringing my faith into play, it was clear to him where my passion and drive to teach others had come from. We continue to be good friends.
My next job verifying health insurance for a home infusion company was about as close to being in the movie “Office Space” as I could get. I had to clock in and out, worked at a cubicle, had strict 30 minute lunches, my day to day work was constantly being measured for efficiency and production. There was even one point where a consulting firm was brought in to determine how our processes could be made even more efficient. About the only thing I needed to complete the image was a red stapler. Again, through conversations with my coworkers, people began to very quickly pick up what I was about. After learning that I had a Master of Divinity, one of my cubicle neighbors asked, “Then what are you doing here?” It was a question I had asked myself on more than one occasion while I worked there as well. But, one day a friend came up to me and said, “You’re a pastor type person right?” I said yes and then she said, “Can you pray for me and my family?” Other coworkers would regularly ask my advice about all sorts of things. From how to handle their kids to relationships and even what type of bed sheets to buy. In a way, I became the resident “pastor” simply because people knew who I was and that I cared about them.
So, while my “What’s next” does not include stepping into a thriving and unique ministry. Nor does it include planting the next best church in the area. I’ve learned that answering the “What’s next” question does not necessarily mean you take a full-time position in a church or grow or develop a ministry. Answering “What’s next” does not mean you’ve taken your next steps towards ascending the glittering steps of the academic Ivory tower.
To answer the “what’s next” question, it’s tempting to trot out Jeremiah 29:11 as supporting verse in this time, “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope,” which most people take to mean that God is moving you towards some better plan than where you are currently at. Instead, I take encouragement from a few verses earlier, Jeremiah 29:7 where God tells the exiled Israelites to, “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” Obviously, I have no idea what it looks like for my city to be conquered, my temple burned and to be marched off into exile. But, I stand here knowing that I will be laid off at the end of the month and I honestly have no idea “what’s next”. But, an essential part of my “What’s next?” story has been to promote the welfare of wherever I have found myself. “What’s next?” meant praying for where I was at and the people that were around me. “What’s next” meant showing up and doing a good job even though it was not the job I wanted at the time. It means showing up and doing a good job even though that job is ending. I may not end up working in a church, but I know that wherever I go, God will give me sheep to tend to. During this time I began to refer to myself as a “Freelance Minister” because I was learning to be open to any and all ministry opportunities as they arose. It forced me to listen to the needs and concerns of others to know how to pray for and promote their welfare rather than to try and convince them of my vision for ministry and their life.
So, my fellow alumni. Answering the “What’s next” question does not always mean you know where your next job lies. Being able to answer “What’s next” means being able to take what you’ve learned, theology, Greek, Hebrew, ethics, history, preaching, counseling, etc. and being able to synthesize and apply that to whatever context, career, city, neighborhood or circle you find yourself in. Sometimes you become Paul, sent to the ends of the Earth to spread the word. Sometimes you become Priscilla and Aquilla, wife and husband team church planters. Sometimes you become Tabitha who was known for “always doing good and helping the poor.” Sometimes you become Joseph and are called to be faithful wherever both in prison and Pharoah’s house.
I don’t know what’s next for any of you. But, what I do know is that as long as you are praying for and promoting the welfare of wherever you are at, you are using this degree you are about to receive to its fullest potential. May you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the opportunities God has placed before you wherever “What’s next?” leads you.