The Gifts of Waiting

Post Author: Therin Fenner

When I can help it, I do things early.

I learned to ride a bike at five, moved away from home at sixteen, and graduated college after three brisk years. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry.

And yet, I couldn’t hurry a call.

I tried. Believe me, I tried. I’ll spare you the gory details—but, suffice it to say, I spent a year unemployed and several more years broadening my understanding of ministry. I worked for a Catholic nonprofit and then Renewal Ministries Northwest, a dynamic prayer ministry in the Seattle area. In 2016, I was ordained to an unconventional, part-time ministry shepherding the remnant of a congregation that had departed the Presbyterian Church (USA) for A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In late 2018, I wrote and published a devotional for teen girls (Simple Truths). I felt like I was making lemonade, growing gills. I could feel the Spirit pushing me toward surrendering my idol of ordained ministry.

And then, abruptly, She called me back to it.

I received the call itself through a series of unexpected events. I had finally found a rhythm with my work at Renewal Ministries, and Simple Truths had just been published. Then, the phone rang. On the other end: someone from the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) from my hometown back in Tennessee, wondering if I’d throw my hat in the ring. They weren’t even offering me a position, just a chance at one—and it unraveled my world. I spent a week in tormented talks with my husband. Could we move? Did I really want this (anymore)? Is this what a call feels like?

Part of my dilemma, I think, was that I had felt called to traditional ordained ministry before. That call led me to seminary, where I learned and grew for three years and finished all my assignments well in advance of their due dates. After seminary—the time when I was supposed to learn and grow “on the job”—that call never seemed to take shape despite my sincerest efforts.

I began to wonder if I’d misheard, or substituted my own aspirations for God’s. Over time, I persuaded myself that God was calling me to put down the binoculars and pick up the magnifying glass. I walked through the first five years after seminary as though in a fog, my range of vision limited to two feet in front of my face. It was a time, like any, of spiritual highs and lows. I felt closer to God when I wasn’t trying to outplan God—but I also felt the sting of rejection every time I logged onto facebook and saw one of my seminary classmates celebrating a work anniversary at her installed position. We also started a family—a blessing, if ever there were one—but caring for small children made a traditional ministry career feel even farther out of reach.

The call from my hometown PNC was the first domino to fall—and the chain led me to my current call. I called the PNC chair back a week later, hoping to convey both my delight in being asked and my regret in having to decline. But I couldn’t re-box what the PNC’s inquiry had unpacked; the call to ordained ministry had endured. Instead of trying to move beyond it, I honored it even as it left me feeling vulnerable again. Three months later, I’d received and accepted a call to pastor a church in Olympia, Washington.

As I was reflecting on this whirlwind experience—this sense of call restored after years of wandering—I thought of my children. I think of my relationship with God often when parenting my toddlers. Is it any wonder? My kids often act impulsively and against their own interests. On my best days, I respond with patience and gentle instruction, guiding them toward the healthy behaviors that will give them peace. Just yesterday, my two year old resisted his nap. I had closed the door to his bedroom, and, wailing my name, he thrust his fingers underneath the door to reach for me, clawing at the carpet. So long as he kept his fingers there, I couldn’t open the door. I couldn’t comfort him.

Fingers under the door isn’t a bad metaphor for my time after seminary. I wanted to hurry up and get there. Perhaps if the door had been open, I’d have started my ministry in a hurry, too. I might have treated my call as another race to run, another finish line to reach. As it is, I spent years experiencing life in the pews as a working mom. I developed a passion for new church development and experienced the joy of deeply investing in the children of my neighborhood. What I’d thought of as “making lemonade”—using my gifts in God’s service even when things “hadn’t worked out”—was ultimately just as formative as seminary.

Here’s the thing: I do think God called me to ordained ministry—but I had to step back from the door for it to be opened. When I left seminary, life without a call felt like the wilderness. But slowly and painfully, sometimes resentfully, I made that wilderness my home. Along the way, I found new ways to draw closer to my neighbors and closer to God. And now, at the start of my first traditional call, it’s hard to imagine serving God’s people without the perspective I gained in the years I doubted this day would come.

You can’t hurry that.

Therin Fenner lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and two sons. When she’s not wiping spilt milk off the kitchen floor, she likes to read, write, and run with her dogs. She currently serves as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Olympia, Washington.

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Used with permission
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