Isaac Villegas: Led into leadership

Long before Isaac Villegas discerned his call, the Spirit was at work through the hands of the community, guiding him into ministry, molding him into a pastor.

Hands. So many hands. The hands of 30 to 40 people reached out and pressed upon me as I stood in their midst. From every direction they converged upon me, drawing me into God’s calling.

What a strange position to find myself in, one I never would have imagined only a few years earlier. Raised Roman Catholic, I had left that tradition long ago for Pentecostalism and had later become a nondenominational evangelical. Just a few years before, I had entered a Protestant seminary, Duke Divinity School, but with no intention of becoming a pastor.

Yet here I was being ordained into ministry. And not in just any church. Perhaps most unimaginable of all, I was being ordained in the Mennonite Church, as pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.

How did I get here?

It was the hands. Even today, I cannot think about my life as a minister without remembering all those hands. It was those hands and those people who welcomed me to church, invited me into leadership, ordained me five years ago, and continue to uphold me as a pastor. It was those hands that pointed and guided and led me into ministry.

The first time I visited Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship eight years ago, Mennonites were a mystery to me. I had read about Anabaptists but had never experienced Anabaptist worship.

The moment I walked into the building, Elizabeth and Fred greeted me and asked if I would help put hymnals on the pews. They made me feel not only welcome but needed. After worship, as I was making my way to the door, another member stopped me, greeting me with a handshake. Introducing himself as Tom, he asked if I would be willing to read one of the Bible passages during worship the following Sunday.

 

Questions to consider:

  • Like many today, Isaac Villegas journeyed through a variety of denominations and churches on his path to ordination. What does this changing path to ministry mean for how denominations recruit clergy?
  • Seminaries are now often places where people go not in response to a call but to explore a call to ministry. How can seminaries help students discern a call as well as prepare them for ministry?
  • Many pastors remember "that still, small voice" calling them into ministry, while Villegas describes a deeply communal call. How do different denominations and churches understand a personal, subjective call? How does it relate to a communal call?
  • What are the unmet needs in your church or organization? What opportunities might those needs offer for someone to discover their gifts for ministry?

Come back and be a lector? At that point I had not even thought about whether I wanted to come back again. But Tom had put me on the spot, and I couldn’t think of a good excuse not to read from the Bible. So I went back the following Sunday and read one of the assigned lectionary texts. I’ve been going back ever since.

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship drew me back because they seemed to want me. They seemed to need me. If worship was going to happen the following week, they needed me to help.

It’s one thing for a church to embrace hospitality and tell people that their presence is appreciated. But it’s quite another actually to need the people who walk through the door on a Sunday and to put them to work in worship.

For a congregation, unmet needs can be an invitation for someone to discover her significance in Christ’s body. The church’s needs can create space for someone to discover how she is desired, how the church is dependent on her presence.

That was certainly how it worked for me, as the needs of the Chapel Hill fellowship began to lead me into my calling.

Before long, people discovered that I was a seminary student. Maybe I didn’t know why I was in seminary (except perhaps to explore a vague interest in faith and theology), but they were sure I was there to become a pastor. And since pastors have to preach, some members of the worship committee decided I should take my turn in the pulpit.

But when they asked if I would be willing to preach, I declined. Preaching wasn’t for me, I said. I wasn’t the kind of person who got up in front of people. And besides, public speaking has never appealed to me.

I could not have been clearer about my reluctance to preach. Yet when the new worship schedule was published, there was my name, listed as preacher with an assigned date to preach. My protests to the worship committee were met with apologies and an explanation that it would be difficult to find a replacement for me.

When my preaching day finally came around, I gave them my best, which wasn’t very good. To be honest, my sermon was terrible and the delivery not much better. After I preached, I returned to my pew and waited to hear what others thought. In our form of Mennonite worship, the sermon is always followed by a brief time when the congregation is invited to share any insights they have gained during the worship and sermon.

My sermon, though, was met with a long, awkward silence, which only amplified the pounding of my heart. It isn’t often that a sermon is met with silence, but when it happens, it is always tense. Finally, out of kindness or pity, a member rose and spoke into the wordlessness: “Thank you, Isaac, for that prophetic word.”

I often don’t know what to think when someone calls me “prophetic.” At times, it sounds like, “You’re a pain in the ass, but we’re generous enough to put up with you.” But that Sunday, it felt like a gift, like the congregation was simply trying to find something -- anything -- in my sermon to affirm.

Despite my lackluster performance, the worship committee continued to include me on the preaching schedule. I became a regular, with a turn behind the pulpit once every two months.

Meanwhile, the people continued to welcome me and pointed me to additional places where I could make a contribution. They made room within our common life for me to develop my gifts and discern my calling. Soon, congregational leaders invited me to help plan and lead worship. Gradually, I grew into my pastoral calling as the church asked me to lead different parts of our common life.

My call into ministry, my slow journey into the pastorate, didn’t happen in isolation, in a monastic cell or out in the wilderness. It all took place in public, among others, as I preached and led prayers, and my sisters and brothers patiently endured my errors, gently correcting me when necessary.

Finally, one Sunday in my last semester of divinity school, Sandra, a longtime church member, approached me after worship and asked if I would ever consider serving as pastor. The idea had never crossed my mind. I thanked her for thinking of me and promptly forgot the suggestion.

A month later, Fred -- the same Fred who had greeted me that first morning I visited -- pulled me aside and said that he and his wife, Elizabeth, had been thinking that I would be a good fit as pastor of our church.

I wondered, “Could this be the voice of the Holy Spirit?” I told Fred about my earlier visit with Sandra and suggested that they talk together. Meanwhile, I said, I would think and pray about it.

At our next congregational life meeting, the members and I discussed my calling as pastor. By consensus, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us for me to serve the community as the pastor.

Long before that moment, long before I discerned God’s call, the Spirit was working through the hands of the community, molding me into a pastor. With their hands, the people led me into ministry. I still remember Fred’s prayer on behalf of the community as they laid their hands upon me and impressed God’s calling upon my life: “Make us partners with Isaac in ministry, constant in support, gentle in criticism, prayerful in all things.”

The people of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship created space for me to discern my call as pastor. They continue to sustain me in ministry. Together, we discern God’s voice in one another. Together, we feel our way into the mission of God as the Holy Spirit reaches out to us through each other. Together, we are the movements of Christ’s body drawing us into communion with God.

If I am becoming a leader, it is because the hands of the people have formed and re-formed me into a vessel for God, a suitable container to receive direction from my sisters and brothers as they pour wisdom into my life. To echo the words of Argula von Grumbach, the first woman writer of the 16th-century European reformations, “It is my desire to be instructed by everyone.”