"You're giving up a real job to do what?" Joe and Carol Guthrie weren't prepared for that response from Joe's father when they announced God had called them to ministry.
When Joe, a 35-year-old real estate executive, and Carol, a 34-year-old Christian counselor, broke the news that they were moving from close-knit Manchester, Mich., to attend seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Joe's father went ballistic.
"We thought he'd be happy for us," Joe recalls. "It took years for my dad to understand why I left a good-paying job to attend seminary and move into a lower-paying ministry position."
"It was tough on our daughter, Becky, since there was emotional tension at holidays," Carol says. "Joe's dad kept dropping his favorite comment, 'If you had a real job …' Becky, who was about three at the time, heard her grandfather say some pretty negative things about her father. She couldn't understand why Grandpa would talk that way about her daddy."
Gradually, Joe's father accepted that his son's family was called to ministry, but it took years of bridge building for him to fully accept the idea.
Joe and Carol's experience isn't unique. Many couples who enter the ministry find themselves at odds with their extended families, especially as the number of ministers who are first-generation Christians or in second careers increases.
"My father couldn't understand why I gave up a pre-med scholarship to enter the ministry," Dr. Howard Hendricks, professor of Christian leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary, says. "But I never rejected him as a person. I kept in touch with my dad. I sent him notes, called him, let him know I hadn't separated myself from the relationship — even though I chose to ignore his counsel as far as vocation was concerned."
Hendricks, known for mentoring his students as they enter ministry, suggests practical steps to live out and explain the call when those who are closest to you don't understand.
Hendricks is concerned that young Christians, in their enthusiasm, can become insensitive to their parents. "I've seen students get all excited about winning their parents to the Lord and helping them understand the call to ministry — and the students rush home to place a tract on the napkin next to their parents' plates."
How the call is communicated makes a big difference in how it is received, according to Hendricks. "Everybody likes ice cream, but nobody likes it thrown in his face," he says. "The Christian's call may be the best thing in the world to him, but if he throws it in his parents' faces, it won't be received well."
Hendricks refers students to 1 Peter 3:15: "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect."
Then, Hendricks says, "It would be helpful to let your parents know that you still love and care for them, even though you have chosen to follow a different path from one they might have chosen for you.
"Jesus made it clear to his followers that obedience to his call would, for many, mean leaving father and mother, without looking back or second-guessing their decision. That's tough to do, but you must be obedient and put Christ first, even over your parents. However, as you do so, try to live in such a way that they see Christ in your life."
Hendricks says, "I was very blessed, because after years of following God's call in my life, my father told me, 'Son, you did the right thing.' And just four months before my father died, he accepted Christ."
Brian Wilson was a college senior accounting major; his wife, Lisa, was working on a music degree. They were surprised when Lisa became pregnant with their first child. After their son was born, Brian and Lisa both worked part-time jobs while struggling to finish their degrees. They looked forward to the start of Brian's career, when Lisa could become a full-time homemaker.
Just three months before graduation, however, they strongly sensed that God was calling them into full-time ministry. They agonized for weeks, finally concluding it was indeed the Lord leading. Brian applied at a seminary in Kentucky, 400 miles from their Indiana home.
Lisa told her mother about their decision. To Lisa's disappointment, her mother responded weakly, "That's nice, Honey."
"Don't assume parents don't support your decision because of their initial reaction," says Dr. John Vawter, minister of Bethany Community Church in Tempe, Ariz. "They may be shell-shocked. They need time to process their shock, denial, anger, sorrow and eventual acceptance, because what they are experiencing is grief, fueled by the perceived loss of their children."
Lisa said it took two years and several painful discussions with her mother before they understood each other's pain. "I realize now that my mother hadn't sat through all those long talks Brian and I had when we discussed our move into the ministry," Lisa says. "Mom hadn't worked through all the things we had."
Dr. Joe Fisher of Orion International, a consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., compares the parents of newly called ministers to families who came to him for counseling when their children dropped out of college.
Fisher would talk with students for a few minutes, and they would candidly tell him what they wish their parents understood about them. "I'd ask, 'Have you ever told your parents this?' They would act shocked and say, 'No, they never listen.'
"Then, I would bring in the parents and say, 'Your child has something to tell you.' And I would say to the child, 'Now look at your parents and tell them what you just told me.'"
Fisher says he was amazed when he saw parents really listen to their kids. Often the terrible and very real fear of rejection had kept the children from speaking honestly about their dreams.
He advises, "Ask your parents, 'What's bothering you about my plans?' Perhaps you could openly communicate your concern for their well-being by saying, 'This move of mine is not going to be perfect. I know it will cause you some pain. What can I do to help make this easier for you?'"
For Lisa and her mother, the turnaround came one afternoon. "It was like the light went on as my mother and I both recognized that she was shocked and saddened about our move because I was taking her only grandchild away from her," Lisa remembers. "Once we uncovered the real reason for her pain, it was easier to discuss our move, and our relationship grew stronger."
While searching for experiences of people who entered the ministry despite skeptical family members, I discovered one story in my family.
My father, Gaylon Cothern, a retired church planter and minister, told me that his father (my grandfather) watched in disbelief as my dad packed his suitcase and headed off to college. Dad was one of seven children, but the only one to enter the ministry.
Dad moved away from home, graduated from college and earned a master's degree in seminary, all the while praying his father would become a believer and understand his call to Christian service. It took years for those prayers to be answered.
Dad's faithfulness to the call, his steady ministry to others and his consistent concern for his father helped my grandfather see the heavenly Father's heart.
Years after Dad left home, we visited my grandfather — "Daddad" — at his home in New Mexico. A grizzled old cowboy who usually spoke his mind, this time my grandfather chose his words carefully.
"Gaylon," he said to my father, "I never quite understood why you took a turn down a different road from the rest of the kids. Seems to me you made the right choice."
Years later, when Daddad's stubborn will was worn down with cancer, my father witnessed the answer to a lifetime prayer. In a shaky voice, Daddad rasped, "I guess this beat-up old rancher just ain't got what it takes to make it to heaven on his own steam. I understand what you been tryin' to get across all these years. I'm ready to ask for help from this Jesus you been a preachin'."
Ever feel like you need to wear a mask to cover up who you are? Are you concerned that, if people knew who you really are and how you really felt, they wouldn't understand?
One minister, two jobs and the family that's at the top of the list. The number of bivocational ministers, those in full- or part-time ministry who carry an additional job, is estimated by some researchers to be as high as 30 percent of ministers nationwide.
"You should see the church they attend," Lucille said, armed with bulletin and newsletter. Creases formed across my brow as celebration gave way to comparisons a trap that had sprung too many times.