Giving our testimonies

grace

When candidates for ordination (elder and deacon) are examined at my church, we don’t ask them questions about their theology or their understanding of church government.  Maybe we should, but we don’t.

Instead we ask them about their religious experience.  In reality, we ask them to give their testimony, to tell us how they came to faith and how God is currently visible in their lives.  We have a dinner meeting, and for more than two hours we listen to story after story about how God has changed lives.

Each year that I’ve been a part of this “examination,” I have found myself deeply moved.  The stories are often surprising.  I didn’t know, for example, that the parent of one of our deacons committed suicide when she was just 26 years old. I didn’t know that another was the son of pastor, but for many years had not been a part of the church.  I didn’t know that still another was soon going to start receiving chemotherapy and would, by next week, be without her hair.

Telling these stories was easy for some, difficult for others.  Some are clearly comfortable standing at a microphone and telling jokes and embellishing a life story.  Others read from a crinkled manuscript and struggle to finish without stammering and crying.

I like to lead by example, so by the end of the evening I was thinking that I should tell my story.  And here it is.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer or editor or somehow involved in the publishing world.  I served on the editorial staff of the college’s student newspaper, and for a couple of summers I worked at the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Co., a publisher of excellent theological books. 

While there I noticed that all of the senior editors had advanced degrees from important theological seminaries, so I decided that that’s what I should do too, if I wanted a career in publishing.  And so, I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary after graduating from college, and for two years I thoroughly enjoyed my coursework. 

However, as I approached my third and final year, I realized that I was not going to graduate without doing “field education,” which all of my classmates had already been doing each weekend, usually in nearby churches.  I had little interest in the church at that point – an understatement, to be honest – and had avoided this path.  But I had no choice.  I either had to work in a church or not graduate.

So, between my second and third years of seminary, I served as a student pastor in a church in Iowa City, Iowa, a Big Ten university town.  A few months after my arrival, the senior pastor left to accept a new call, and I was asked to be the primary preacher for the remaining eight months of my commitment, for a congregation made up mostly of university faculty and graduate students!  This was precisely what I didn’t want to do, and I ended up doing it every single Sunday for the remainder of my time there, often both morning and evening services.

The truth is, I wasn’t very good.  My performance evaluations confirm that fact.  But the church loved me anyway.  In fact, I started to see that quality everywhere in church life.  These church members knew how to love each other!  Freely, genuinely, unconditionally. 

One Sunday night, as I was preaching a sermon about the prodigal son (a bit of irony), I suddenly choked up and couldn’t go on.  What happened, I realized later, was that I finally realized the truth of what I was talking about.  In the middle of my sermon, I understood something that I had never really understood before.

Talking with my supervisor the next morning (when the pastor left, one of the church’s elders was assigned to “guide” me), he gently helped me to name what I had experienced.  And I quickly found the word.  It was grace – an overwhelming experience of unconditional love and acceptance. 

I had never felt something so good or so wonderful before.

And so, not only did I have a life-changing spiritual experience, I also had a dramatic vocational clarification.  I went back to seminary on fire!  I felt called to take my experience of a church filled with grace and try to replicate that wherever I might be called. 

And that’s been the focus of my ministry since then – God’s grace. 

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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15 Responses to Giving our testimonies

  1. Paul Burgess January 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    Doug: Thank you for your story! God’s grace does marvelous things! I’m so glad that you heard His call to be a pastor! I have been blessed byh it!

  2. Sandy Steffen January 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Thank you for sharing Doug!! We are so blessed that you are our pastor! Sandy ( :

  3. Kathy Craven January 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    The Elder/Deacon Dinner is, by far, the highlight of the church year. I have always felt privileged to be able to attend. I never thought about it before but “unconditional love” among our church families is God’s Grace. It is pure and simple and right there for all of us.

  4. Lynne Myers January 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    While I’ve heard you tell this story before, it bears retelling. You might be interested in looking up a blog by Susan Krummel, EP of Great Rivers Presbytery. Her Jan. 2013 blog talks about God’s grace in relationship to Les Mis and telling her then young daughter. Great juxiposition. Thank you and Sue for reminding us about grace all over again.

    • Doug January 10, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

      Thanks for remembering my story! And thanks too for the tip about Susan Krummel’s blog. I’ll take a look. Happy retirement, Lynn!

  5. Georgia Hamilton January 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    Doug,

    I seem to remember your sharing your testimony while at FP, but thanks for sharing it again! I am struggeling with some churtch commitments, so it was good to be reminded of God’s grace.

    Georgia Hamilton

  6. Mary Lynn Lovejoy January 10, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    Doug, this is such a beautiful testimonial. Thank you for sharing and for being such a phenomenal spiritual leader for all of us. I have told you many times that I feel that you preach directly to my heart, and you’ve just done it again.

  7. Laura Foster January 11, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Grace. Simply amazing. Thank you for sharing this story. The raw emotion and joy I have had the privilege of witnessing at the Elder/Deacon dinner reaffirms how God is alive and working in our lives.

  8. Mike January 11, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Until fairly recently I’ve been one of those people who has been “on the ledge” when it comes to talking about my personal faith. That reluctance has receded and I’m thankful for the wonderful experience that is the Elder/Deacon dinner – it provided a welcome push on Tuesday. It would have been wonderful if everyone at FirstPres could have witnessed those testimonies.

    Passing-on Doug’s blog to everyone at FirstPres – and beyond – might prove to be welcomed inspiration for a lot of people, too. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t fit on a highway billboard.

    • Doug January 11, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

      Another way of saying I’m wordy?

  9. Mike January 11, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    I was wrong about the billboard – it does fit. Check your inbox DB.

    • Doug January 11, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      I published it, Mike. Thanks.

      • Mike January 11, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

        Counting on you to protect my anonymity…that billboard location belongs to ClearChannel and it has Ballpark Franks ad on it. Could be trouble for me if they knew I hijacked it to support your mission.

        Wait…never mind. Disruptive for Christ….I like that.

  10. Ericka Kilbourne January 30, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Dear Doug,

    I used your story as an illustration in my sermon this last Sunday! Of course, I quoted you and cited your blog! Thank you for sharing your testimony! 🙂

    • Doug January 30, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      Great to hear from you, Ericka! I’m so glad for your ministry. And thanks for maintaining those high ethical standards. (But wouldn’t your congregation be more impressed if you quoted from Jurgen Moltmann?)

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