Read an Excerpt
Waking to God's Dream
Spiritual Leadership and Church Renewal
By Dick Wills
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1999 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Telling the Story
I was the firstborn child of my family; my two sisters were born later. As the firstborn I was taught to do the right thing. Firstborn children often grow up a little faster than other children do. I think that happened to me. I was the child who wanted to succeed at whatever I attempted, as well as to please people and to be loved.
Working hard was the norm of my earliest memories. When I was old enough to play Little League baseball, my dad signed me up and even volunteered to be an assistant coach. He worked with me to help me learn the game. I can remember my first summer in Little League. I went to every practice, but I never played in a game that first summer. Only the best players were allowed to play. I had contracted polio when I was one year old. One of my legs is smaller than the other, but I never felt at a disadvantage to the other players. Even though I did not play, I worked very hard; and in my last year of Little League baseball, I had the highest batting average in the league. Hard work had paid off, though I was surprised that I had done so well. A good work ethic would later be a contributing factor in the way I would answer God's call into the ministry.
I first felt the call to ministry when I was in the seventh grade. I was walking on a dirt road in Texas on my way to nowhere on a hot summer day. I was just a few blocks from my home. I was thinking about life, and it just seemed that Jesus wanted me to be a minister. Shortly after that experience my parents told me my dad had been transferred to Florida. After moving to Miami, Florida, I became active in a local church. The church was evangelical, and its message about Jesus confirmed the call I felt from Jesus on that dusty road in South Houston, Texas. I was going to be a minister.
Of all my family, my grandmother Bessie Hanna was the one who offered me the most encouragement. In fact, until her death in 1982 she would call me regularly to talk about the things of God. It was not uncommon for her to phone me at five o'clock on a Sunday morning before I was to preach. She would ask me a question like: "Dickie, do you know how many times love is mentioned in 1 John?" I would answer, "No, Granny, I have no idea how many times love is mentioned in First John." She would then tell me the answer, "Thirty-three times," and close by saying, "Don't forget today that love is the most important force in the world! Good-bye!" and hang up. Denominations never seemed to matter to her. Just because I was in one denomination and she was in another never became a point of conversation. Jesus was all that mattered. She was delighted to hear of my call to ministry.
After high school, I worked summers at our denominational youth camp. It was at the youth camp that I met Eileen, the most special person in my life. Five years later she would become my wife. Her dad, Warren Willis, was a minister and the director of the summer camping programs in our state. He would become my mentor in a very special way.
I graduated from a Christian college and enrolled immediately in seminary. My seminary days were filled with study, getting married, and working as a youth pastor in a church near the seminary. All of these events confirmed my sense of God's calling me into ministry.
At some point during my seminary years, I experienced a shift in focus. The word career quietly replaced calling in my life. My denomination never taught that my life was about becoming a success in a career, but firstborn child that I was, I quickly learned what it would take to be a success. It was all about career. I was not just a follower of Jesus; now I was also someone who had to make his way in the world. I would be in charge of my career; God would be a very distant second in my life. God had given me all the things I needed to work out life my own way. Secretly, I wanted to be well thought of by people, especially my peers. I would simply follow the external rules of my denomination to make my way to the top of the career ladder.
I understood that to be successful in a ministry career, I must do the things my denomination told me to do and do them as well as I could. I expected, initially, to be assigned to a little church with a handful of sheep. If I did well with them, then I would be assigned to another church that would be larger, pay more in salary, and have more sheep. I understood I would keep doing that until one day my denomination would recognize me for being successful and give me an assignment that did not have any sheep. I know this sounds strange, but that is the way I understood my denominational system to work.
I did all the things my denomination told me to do. As promised, my denomination kept rewarding me with larger churches and more sheep. I was on the "success track" in my career. I had been chosen by my peers to chair a judicatory board that reviews and recommends candidates for ordained ministry. Almost everyone who knew me would have said that I was definitely a success in my denomination. However, all of that would change when I was assigned to Christ Church in 1986.
Christ Church was a large-membership church that had suffered through a very painful time. I was the third senior pastor in four years. I believe the person who headed the music department was largely responsible for holding the church together during this time of rapid rotation of senior ministers. The church focused with some pride on its classical music program. Just about a year before I was assigned, the music director became ill with a terrible disease. Eventually, he was released from service at Christ Church. His departure in January of 1986 divided the congregation. I arrived at Christ Church five months later.
The church was in a difficult place financially and was being held together by the remaining wonderful staff and a core of very dedicated laity. I began doing all the things my denomination had taught me to do in order to be successful in my career. The harder I worked, the better things seemed to go at the church. Being a firstborn child who wants to do the right thing, I gave Christ Church my all. I even gave the church time I should have been spending with my family. But then, I wanted to be a success in my career, and any sacrifice would be worth it. Or would it?
By 1991 I had become weary of doing good. I still wanted to please people, and deep down I wanted to be loved. When I had a lot of energy, the church seemed to do well. But as my energy ran low, the church seemed not to do as well. This was a time when I felt that everything depended on me. My energy level had to remain high just to keep the church from slipping backward. I went to so many meetings that really did not seem to matter. I felt the strength within me ebbing away. I did all the right things. I preached each week and was faithful to the biblical text. I made hospital visits weekly, kept regular office hours, visited, supported other groups in the church, counseled troubled individuals, had numerous breakfast and lunch appointments, prayed whenever asked, and spent very little time with my family. This was what I understood to be the path to success.
I went to hundreds of meetings at Christ Church in those first five years. As I look back now, most of those meetings really did not do anything for the Kingdom. All they did was to take up a huge amount of my time. My involvement in all those committee meetings really did little more than keep the organization alive. In fact, I had led our people in such a way that we had substituted meetings for ministry. By focusing on my career and wanting to please people, I had left behind the things of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.
I was very tired and weary. I was tired because of the emotional strain I had been under for such a long time trying to get this church to do better. I was weary because without the power of the Holy Spirit, the work I was doing was all on my own. I began to think that if I could be the pastor of another church, then my life would not be so wearisome. Perhaps my denomination would send me to another (better) church. Or since I was too young to retire, maybe I would be able to keep my career path on line and not have to serve a local church. I began to know why some middle-aged males begin to hope to be called to do something on the denominational level. You can get so weary that you will do anything, as long as it is different. The weariness from trying to do good, be loved, and to have a successful career was really a spiritual issue. My weariness came from having left behind a daily walk with God, substituting in its place taking control and wanting to be successful in the eyes of others.
In 1990 a good friend of mine told me he had really enjoyed his time spent attending a World Methodist Evangelism event. I thought that an event far from home might provide the relief I needed from my weariness. I sent for a brochure that said the World Methodist Evangelism Conference was in Tahiti. I thought to myself, "What a wonderful place to do evangelism—Tahiti!" I applied and a few weeks later received word that I was one of about ten North Americans accepted to the 1991 event. The only problem was that I had misread the brochure when I applied. The 1991 event was in South Africa! Tahiti was to be the following year.
I felt a sinking sense of disappointment about going to a country that was going through such difficult times. Apartheid was still in effect, and there was much violence and poverty. Yet, I had a compelling feeling that I was supposed to go to South Africa.
The cost of the trip became a problem. Once in South Africa, I needed to pay only $200 for the ten days of the conference. But the airfare was $2,050! I did not have enough continuing education funds to pay for the airfare, and the church was in no position to grant it to me.
I decided to speak to a wealthy, evangelical layman about my trip. I thought he would say, "Dick, that's great! Let me pay for the airfare!" But when I presented him with the opportunity, he said, "Dick I don't think you should go. I think you need to stay here and help us raise the money for our new Life Enrichment Center." I did not know what to do. I felt I was supposed to go, but there were no funds for the airfare. I did not pray about this, because at this time in my life I only prayed in public settings and when asked. I did not have a daily walk with God. I was still trying to be in control.
The trip was one month away, and I still did not have the funds for the airfare. A stranger came to our early service one Sunday. As he went out the door, he said, "I was praying this morning, and I am supposed to give this to you." It was an envelope. I slipped the envelope into my hymnal. After the services that day I opened the envelope. It was a check made out to me for $2,000! I knew I was supposed to use it for my airfare to South Africa.
I left for South Africa in May of 1991. The day I arrived there had been bombings in Johannesburg where the World Methodist Evangelism Conference was to be held. I can remember telling the man who picked me up from the airport that I was uneasy being there. Scared is a better word. He said to me, "Dick, you don't have to be afraid anymore because now you are surrounded by the loving arms of the church." And he was right. I was never afraid from that point on.
There were two hundred people at the event. They came from all over central and southern Africa. Most were very poor and enduring great hardships. I was immediately struck by their obvious joy. I began to wonder how these people, living under such difficult and violent conditions could have such joy? It was a stark contrast to my own situation. I live in one of the most affluent areas of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I have a wonderful family and a beautiful home. I am serving one of the most prominent churches in my denomination. I had every mark of success. Why was it these people in Africa had this joy and I did not? I knew I wanted that joy in my own life.
Halfway through the conference I was told that there would be a "hymn sing" on Saturday evening. I am not much on singing, and after about twenty minutes I am usually ready to move on to another activity. On that Saturday evening, I deliberately took a seat on the back row. I thought I would be there for about twenty minutes and then slip out to go back to my room and do some reading. The hymn sing began at seven o'clock. The people began singing; and when I looked at my watch, I discovered it was after ten o'clock. I had been there for three hours! I simply could not believe these people had such a joy and song in their souls. I wanted to know that kind of joy.
I spent time with a number of these people who were very poor. After a while I began to discover that joy was a product of walking with God no matter what your external circumstances. That led me to understand the first principle God was trying to teach me.
Joy comes from walking with God and is not dependent on external circumstances.
I cannot point to a specific moment during my trip to South Africa when I experienced rebirth, but rebirth is what happened. I just know I experienced a joy that, since my time in South Africa, has never dissipated. It would be another eight or nine months before I could begin to make sense of what had happened to me there. At the time I knew only that my heart felt different.
My first Sunday back in Fort Lauderdale, I asked the congregation for forgiveness for my lack of spiritual leadership. The strange thing was that no one made any comment to me about that remark. I had hoped that someone would ask me a question about my lack of spiritual leadership. Even though no one questioned me, I think people knew that something important had happened to me in South Africa, but they were not exactly sure what.
My experience in South Africa left me with an openness to begin the journey of choosing to be part of what God wanted to bless rather than my trying to get God to bless what I was doing. Most of my ministry I had been trying to persuade God to bless my good ideas. In a way I was trying to be God. Now I was beginning to see that what God wanted was for me to simply join God in what God was choosing to bless. My new prayer of asking God to help me be part of what God was choosing to bless was important in helping me understand that I am not God and that I am not in control. This has become fundamental in helping me to move from trying to be in control of everything to learning to trust God.
I began to realize what Jesus was talking about in John 3:3: "Jesus said, 'You're absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom'" (The Message).
Since I was now sure that joy was found in learning to be obedient to God, I wanted to learn to trust God with all of my life. So I began to pray each day for God to help me and Christ Church be part of what God wanted to bless.
God blesses obedience.
I am convinced that God blesses obedience. The more I align my life with God's will and learn to give up trying to control and direct so much of life, the better I seem to get along in all areas of my life.
I learned the futility of trying to be in control from my children and from my English bird dog, Alice. I did my best to control our four children. As each child reached adolescence, I gave up trying to tightly control their lives. I retreated to our dog, Alice. If I could not control anyone else, I could control Alice. If I told her to "sit," she would sit. If I told her to "go to her bed," she went to her bed. People were always impressed that I had such control over Alice. Then one day I discovered that Alice obeyed me as long as I had eye contact with her. But when I turned and entered into conversation with another person, Alice would simply do what she had wanted to do all along. She was obedient until I turned my head. I really did not control her at all! Alice taught me that I do not control anyone really—a hard lesson for someone who so wanted to be in control of other people and things as I did.
As I came to realize that I am not really in control of anything—even my dog—it became clear to me that my journey was leading me to choose to give all that controlling stuff to God. I was at the very beginning of choosing to begin to be obedient to God. All of my carefully laid plans must now be put aside, and I would have to begin to trust God with all of my life. This was not an easy choice for a person so used to trying to be in control of life, family, and church. Yet I knew that God would bless me as I began to choose to surrender my life for a brand new life that I had begun to experience in South Africa.
Excerpted from Waking to God's Dream by Dick Wills. Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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