By the end of my first year in seminary, I was expected to find a "student ministry" placement in a local congregation. So I filled out the necessary paperwork, turned it in to the seminary's field education office, and waited.
One by one, my classmates received calls for interviews, and began finding placements. Waiting and watching was a strange experience. It was like we were members of the Quileute tribe, wondering who was going to "phase" next. Some placements were nearby, right in Indianapolis (where the seminary was located); others were as far away as Evansville, or even in Illinois or Ohio. Some were for a part-time position as the sole pastor of a small church; others were for associate or youth pastor positions in larger congregations.
One day I received word that a church in Pittsboro, Indiana was interested in talking to me about becoming their part-time youth pastor. We made contact, and an interview was scheduled.
I counted down the days to the interview with both fear and excitement. I knew that I had been called by God to be a minister, and yet I had a hard time picturing me - a shy, socially awkward young man - leading a congregation.
At the time I was working a temp job in a real estate office on the north side of Indianapolis. (The guys who ran the office had ventured into a side business promoting "Softspikes," a then-new feature of golf shoes that, in the years since, has become quite popular. I imagine those guys are rich today.) On the office wall was a detailed map of Indiana. I spent quite a bit of time staring at the map, following with my eyes the road that led from Indianapolis to Pittsboro, imagining myself driving that road several times a week.
Finally, the night of the interview came. Outside my apartment it was raining. Inside, I nervously adjusted my tie while murmuring to myself, "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." I kissed my wife, Ginger, and on my way out to the car I grabbed an umbrella and directions to a Pittsboro restaurant called Frank and Mary's, where I would meet the search committee.
Frank and Mary's, it turned out, was the only restaurant in Pittsboro, a small farming community of about 1,000 with exactly one stoplight. I pulled into the parking lot and gazed upon the mostly windowless, stone-brick building, noticing the drops of rain illuminated by the one outdoor light. It looked to me like the kind of place one sees in the movies, where crooked yet powerful people meet in semi-secret to drink, smoke cigars, and plot their next sinister move. Before stepping out of the car, I hesitated just a moment, wondering what would happen if I didn't make it back home, and how long Ginger would wait before calling the police.
Knowing (hoping?) that it was my nerves that made the situation seem more ominous than it probably was, I walked across the parking lot and into the unimpressive door on the side of the building ... and was greeted by some of the friendliest church people I've ever met. The conversation flowed easier than I expected it to, and a few days later, I found myself leading the youth program at Pittsboro Christian Church.
I stayed there almost three years, until I graduated from seminary. The people there treated me and Ginger better than any other church I've been part of.* We returned to Frank and Mary's many times - a place that became much less scary with familiarity - and once or twice I was even surprised when I went to pay my bill and was told that it had already been taken care of.
I learned a lot about ministry from the people of Pittsboro. I carry those lessons with me still. My time there was a great beginning to my ministry.
*Probably the main reason for this is that the people of Pittsboro Christian Church truly saw themselves as a community that had been called to nurture young pastors, and saw me for what I was: a student pastor. They taught me even as I ministered to them.