Rev. Thomas Winger

Are You Listening, Jonah?

I have a friend in England who took two degrees in theology, but had no intention of becoming a pastor. Like me, he was a pastor’s kid; like me, he grew up in a distant land where his father served as a missionary pastor. So the ministry was always in front of his eyes, but he never grasped at it. Instead he studied what he loved, taught it to others as a religion teacher—until the Lord finally chased him down and laid on him the yoke of the pastoral office. On the occasion of his ordination I wrote to him that the Lord had finally got His Jonah!

Perhaps that was an exaggeration for him as well as for me, but it’s not far from the truth. Neither of us ran to the other end of the inhabited world to evade God’s call. But I think we saw the pastoral office a bit like that. It was always in front of me, growing up in a parsonage and watching a man at work who was loved by his flock as much as by his children. But I kept it at arm’s length. It gnawed away at me as I learnt to be comfortable in front of people, teaching Sunday School and playing music. People at church told me I’d be a good pastor (how important that encouragement was!). But I had other skills and interests.

In high school it was maths and sciences that excited me. I was in at the ground floor of the computer revolution. One summer I had a student internship in “Silicon Valley North”, working as a programming debugger at an entrepreneurial start-up in Waterloo. I worked on the very first IBM PCs. But those months in a dark basement facing a computer screen all day were stale and dissatisfying. I longed for human contact.

Changing directions, I went off to do a degree in music—but decided to work on my biblical languages on the side. Was I just hedging my bets or did I know that I would become a pastor? I certainly had made a decision to head to seminary and study the Scriptures; but I hadn’t yet decided what I wanted to do with that education. My organ teacher used to ask me why I was studying organ when I was heading for the ministry. Well, I did it because I liked it, and I wasn’t yet sure about being a pastor. I think it wasn’t till my vicarage year that I realised, “I can actually do this; I can actually enjoy this.”

There are men who are far more deserving of the name “Jonah” than I. But I tell this side of my story to make two important points. Firstly, it’s so important to study what you love. I loved music and the Bible. And those two things have never left me. If there’s any single thing that drew me towards the ministry, it’s the love of Bible study, infused by my father and topped up by a few other special pastors. That hasn’t changed—in fact, it’s increased—as I’ve moved from parish ministry into seminary teaching.

The second point is about the way God draws us into His plan. We don’t make the first move. We make false moves, though God finds ways to use them, too. But He eventually He finds us and leads us down the path He’s chosen for us. We rarely know it at the start. And, as I often tell seminary students, you don’t know for sure that you’ve been called into the ministry until hands are laid upon you at your ordination. But along the way God gives you hints. Do you love the Word of God and want to wrestle it to the ground until it blesses you? There is a vocation where you can fulfil that passion as your very life, where you’ll be surrounded by people ready to become as passionate about God’s Word as you are. Come to seminary and find out!

Okay, there’s a third point: listen to what people are telling you. If they say you’d make a good pastor, chances are they’ve seen a spark in you that should be fanned into a flame. We pray God to give us direction, but He doesn’t usually call to us in the night as He once did to Samuel! His answers usually come from the people He places around us. They’re worth listening to.

Pastor Thomas Winger, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, Ontario

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