I’m so excited to introduce you to my good friend, Jess Shults. Jess is the lead pastor of Standale Reformed Church in Standale, MI. Jess and I have been a part of a learning community for the past 4 years and, with 6 other pastors, are currently working on a book about personal and congregational transformation. She is one of the best pastors I know and, if I wasn’t a pastor myself, would happily choose her to be my pastor. Jess embodies why I believe woman are just as called to the pastorate as men; and she does it with more grace and courage than most men I know! This is her story, and I’m excited for you to hear it. Enjoy!
From a very young age I sensed a call to ministry, but assumed that meant Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, a college campus or at a camp. Until I went to seminary, I had never experienced a woman serving in any area of ministry within the context of a church. I’m not quite sure how I even ended up in seminary except that my academic advisor encouraged me to dream much bigger about the places God might call me to, my college chaplains affirmed gifts which would only be used with a seminary degree, and as I neared graduation and interviewed for roles which my undergraduate degree in Christian Education qualified me for, I felt no peace. And so off to Western Theological Seminary I went, very clear that I felt called to be there, but just as clear that I would never become a “real pastor.” For the past nine years I have served in a pastoral position at Standale Reformed Church in a variety of roles. Currently, I serve as the lead pastor.
Brene’ Brown defines courage as being able to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. It has taken me a long time to have courage.
Finding courage was hard because my story seemed radically different than the story told by other women in my community. In the Christian circles I grew up in, no one told my story and those who tried paid a great cost.
My story, the one I tell with my whole heart, is about being a wife to an incredible man, a mother of two precious boys, and a pastor of a daring congregation. My story is different than the story my mom tells, my sisters tell, the story other wives and mothers in my congregation tell, and in many cases, the story the church universal tells of the right way to be a Christian woman. Stories that differ are often made wrong, and so for a long time I only told part of my story because of the shame I experienced when I told it with my whole heart.
Before I found courage, it was easy to allow others to tell my story. That way I didn’t have to. And along the way, others took joy in trying to do so. They would tell the story they wished for me or a story they believed was more faithful to God’s role for women. For a long time, without even knowing I was, I let them. Why? Because just like everybody else I wanted people to like me, to accept me, and I thought the way to do that was to hide who I really was or only tell part of the truth.
My fears were re-enforced by events along the way and the meaning I made from those experiences. One of those included a phone call a week after we began sharing the news that we were expecting a second child. The phone rang at about 9:00 p.m. and on the other end was one of the current church leaders offering his congratulations. After a little small talk, the real reason of the call was revealed. He said something like this, “As I work on the church budget for next year, I assume that I can write you in with a part-time position, rather than full-time, since you will have two kids.” In shock, I fumbled over my words lacking the ability to have a crucial conversation in that moment.
Even in the midst of my lack of courage, God was powerfully writing my story even when I resisted letting him. Experience taught me that the place of greatest peace for me and my family was when I choose to be faithful to my story. God’s story for my life, which included weaving together the roles of wife, mother, and pastor in very full yet faithful ways.
As I lived in the tension that my story was different than other women in my life, there was a powerful moment that took placed in the context of a women’s Bible study. We were doing a study about discerning the voice of God and during that particular week our homework included exploring and reflecting on the following: The author suggested that scripture commands specific obedience of all believers on some matters. Some areas, however change based on each individual and what the Lord wants to accomplish in his or her life. In these instances the author suggested that scripture tells us the Holy Spirit will call us by name, giving us detailed directions personalized to our lives.
She asked us to recall the story of the little boy called by name, “Samuel, Samuel!” To remember when a woman – deeply disappointed and confused – was looking for the tomb of her crucified Lord and heard, “Mary!” And to reflect on the powerful encounter, the blinding light, on the road to Damascus when he called “Saul, Saul.” As I read those words that week emotions overwhelmed me, tears flowed and I heard, “Jess! Jess! This is what I made you for. You don’t have to hide, you don’t have to be filled with shame, you don’t have to pretend you have not clearly heard your name.”
Being radically obedient to my Savior means I must be able to tell the story of who I am with my whole heart.
It isn’t about me being right and others being wrong. It isn’t about others being right and me being wrong. This is my story, my call, and my responsibility. To say yes with my whole heart.
Somewhere along the way I had come to believe that a courageous person must have the “Adventure Gene” as well as possess the characteristics described as “novelty seeking.” I was very clear that there was not an adventure gene in my body. Because of this, my hope had always been that was off the hook and that God would then never call me to do courageous things for him. I’ve come to realize I was completely wrong. Ambrose Redmoom said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” In those moments when I so clearly heard God call my name something in me shifted. Telling the story of who I am with my whole heart became more important than all my fears. I was able to define myself. I was able to say, “This is what I think, this is what I feel, this is what I want, this is what I choose to do,” while at the same time allowing (and even inviting) others to say what they think and feel and want to choose to do. It isn’t about being right or wrong, faithful or unfaithful – it is about being me.
When God called “Jess, Jess!” he said I have created you to be a wife, a mother and a pastor, and until you are willing to courageously tell that story and accept that this is your unique story you won’t experience wholehearted life with me.
Our stories are not meant to be the same.
This is my story, and mine alone. And I’m learning to tell it with my whole heart.