Pastor Jennifer's dog, Eleanor Rigby, sits by the Coble's sign featuring a shiny new nameplate.
Image credit: Jennifer Shimota
I should be used to it by now, but God’s grace catches me by surprise again and again. This time around, I find myself serving a call in a gentle community, and I am here because God worked graciously through the work and prayers of those who steward the call process.
Prior to my current call at Coble’s Lutheran Church in Julian, I served as the coordinator of seminary enrollment at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary of Lenoir Rhyne University. Because that was a specialized call, the letter of call comes from the churchwide office of the ELCA. Therefore, I served in South Carolina but I remained rostered in the synod in which I most recently served—the North Carolina Synod. Remaining in the NC Synod was meaningful as I moved away from friends and family to a new city/state and a new type of ministry. When the pandemic hit just six months later, my connection to the synod staff I knew and trusted became vital.
In December of 2021, I felt the beginnings of a stirring of a possible discernment of being called back to parish ministry. In the previous sentence, can you read the tiny nature of that stirring? It was a slight nudge of the heart, no great lightning bolt, no grand epiphany.
So, I prayed.
My prayer life is a mix of things. When I am discerning a thing, I often lie back in the reclining end of my sofa with my dog’s head in my lap, my fingers in her fur, and simply get quiet. Once I’m ready to speak about the nudging of my heart, I call my mom. Then, maybe another day, I call my dad, a retired pastor. This time, I also reached out to Amber, a trusted pastor friend in Minnesota. Each of these phone calls is an act of prayer. I deeply believe God speaks to me through people, not just in quiet moments on the sofa with my dog.
As a prayer of discernment, I called Bishop Tim Smith. He listened to my heart and my questions about available calls. He inquired about my gifts for various types of ministry and named the gifts he already sees in me. How good it is to trust my bishop with my heart and discernment, knowing he is praying for me.
Pastor CeCee Mills serves as assistant to the bishop for the call process. Over the years we have served together in the NC Synod, I have come to trust Pastor CeCee and know her to be a woman of prayer at all times. So, placing one of my prayer-calls to her was not only natural, but it was also a logical next step in the discernment process about returning to parish ministry.
Pastor CeCee listens well. During the phone call, she prayed for me, for the ministry to which God may be calling me, and for the seminary I might be leaving. Since it had been nine years since I last was up for a call, I had lots of questions about the process. Pastor CeCee had the answers and encouragement I needed.
Meanwhile, Pastor CeCee was working with the congregation of Coble’s, Julian. They were in a lengthy interim period, lengthened in part by the pandemic. I recently asked members of the call committee about the call process from their perspective. Cindy Garrett said, “Working with Pastor CeCee was a dream! She really listened to us, encouraged us, and it was clear she cared about us.” Call committee chair Laura Garrett remembers when Pastor CeCee met with the council and call committee, “She really took the time to listen and affirm each person who shared, and we left that meeting with much optimism.” As is her practice, Pastor CeCee spent time praying with them and reminding them God was attending to their prayers for a pastor.
When the time came for Pastor CeCee to deliver names to the call committee, she believed she had seen their new pastor. It was—me.
“I was taught by the best at suspense—the Sandra Cline—to keep them waiting and deliver the names at the end of the meeting after I have said all the important things,” Pastor CeCee shared.
She continued, “So at the beginning of the meeting I said, ‘I am 80 percent sure your next pastor is in these names.’ And ten minutes later I said, ‘I am 90 percent sure your next pastor is in these names.’ I think I went up to 95. I meant it. I felt it in all my prayers and in my heart. Call Process is not a series of job interviews, it is a discernment journey and when we listen, we wind up with wonderful mission partnerships like this one.”
Discerning whether God is calling me to something new is never easy. It takes time, conversations, and quiet moments on the sofa with the dog, all of which are prayer. I am ever grateful for the partnership of synod, congregation, and rostered leader as we are persistent in our faithful discernment of God’s call.
The critical work of the Call Process for congregations and rostered ministers is funded by your Mission Support dollars. Thanks be to God for your faithful giving!