Crying on Call Day

Crying on Call Day
By Matt Schuler

(Reflecting on the last three years, and the journey God has taken my family on, I wanted to share words of encouragement to the men, women and children about to embark on a godly path who may not be filled with joy by the end of the night. The last three years have taught me God truly is in control and knows what He’s doing.)

I remember walking into the Call Day ceremony three years ago confident, with a swagger of a guy knowing where he was headed. Surely, there were others with apprehensions about their final destination. Typically, that’s the case on Call Day. You’re a guy, in my case with a family, who has interviewed with a couple of churches looking for associate pastors, but you may not have any idea where you’ll be headed.

I felt sorry for those guys, the ones without any clue, because they could be sent almost anywhere, to any kind of congregation. I know the district presidents work diligently to match up the future pastors with the congregations they’ll serve, and while sometimes it’s a good match, it doesn’t always work out. 

Throughout the process, Liz and I were pretty open about where God was sending us. We were always commenting about how we hoped for the best fit, and weren’t tied to any geographic destination. While we were from Michigan, we didn’t demand to go back or to be put within a car-drive’s distance of the Mitten State. We had a few interviews with various churches looking for associates. While we were open to go most anywhere, there was church that stood out. 

We felt like the pairing was phenomenal at this church, and while we had said open to every other church we’d interviewed with, we said we preferred to be placed there. The senior pastor told me they requested me, and it felt like a done deal. I walked into the Call Day service knowing where I was going with my head up and eyes wide open. 

I remember the service details, where I was seated, where my family was seated, how long the preacher shared the Word. I remember hearing other candidates assigned to churches I’d interviewed at, crossing them off the list in my mind. Row by row, my classmates and fellow future pastors listened and heard their names and churches called out. Sole pastors, associate pastors, and church planters were being sent all around the country. Minnesota, New York, Texas, Iowa and more states were called.

My row rises and begins its walk towards the future. The service is being live streamed in two ways. The Concordia Seminary St. Louis is streaming it via their official channel and I have my iPhone in my suit coat pocket, streaming it live via Periscope. Here we go.
When they read the announcement for the candidates it flows: Name. Title. Place. District.

Name. Title. Place. District.

Name. Title. Place. District.

Matthew Schuler. Pastor. (Wait. That’s not right. I wasn’t supposed to be a sole pastor. I was supposed to be an associate pastor. Time slows down in my head. You can’t see it in the live stream, but you can see that I start tapping my leg on the video my dad was recording from the angle they were watching. They were supposed to say “Associate Pastor.” The confident swagger of a man who knows where he’s headed evaporates immediately and is replaced by fear and trepidation.)

Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Oxford, Michigan. 

Michigan District.

“Where’s Oxford?” I mumble, loud enough to be heard by the people watching my live stream on periscope. (Now as an aside, Oxford is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from where I grew up in Canton, Michigan. It’s the last suburb of Metro Detroit heading north, but I didn’t really have an idea where it was, because living in the western-most suburbs, I had no idea what was going on in the northern-most suburbs.)

I’m handed a packet with my call documents and details about my destination. (They tell you not to open this until after the service, when things calm down and you can look at it rationally.)

I’m walking through the congratulatory handshake line. “Are you streaming this?” asks one of my professors. I’m absolutely streaming this, I say. “Of course you are,” he responds.

There’s still a palpable shock to my system as I’m shaking hands through the celebration line. “Don’t slide into the pew,” quips seminary President Dale Meyer, referencing an intramural softball play, where I stepped into a hole running the bases, breaking and dislocating my ankle. He’s seminary’s Opa (which means grandpa in german), and he would later sign his name “Opa” on my Master of Divinity diploma with a crayon. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

His hand is the last one that I shake, I glance toward my family sitting off to the right with a kind of dumbfounded look as walk toward my seat.

What just happened? Everything I knew to be true was false. I sit down in the pew, and pull out my iPhone to people already making comments on the live stream.

“Oxford is just north of Auburn Hills where the Pistons play,” comments one watcher, giving me a tangible idea of at least the destination I’m going but this isn’t what I had in mind.

Everything else in the service is a blur. Nothing stands out. I’d learn later that when my call was announced, my mother and mother-in-law cheered our families return to Michigan, while my wife and daughter broke down.

I embraced my family with wide eyes after the service, hugging them, crying, consoling them and trying to make sense of what just happened. We sent our kids with the two sets of parents, and had to go through the formalities of meeting our new district president and his wife, and the candidates who were heading to the Michigan District.

I remember crying. I don’t remember anything that Liz and I said to each other. She probably does, because her memory is better than mine. I remember opening up our call documents (which they tell you not to do). We misread them, and in our quick perusal thought they were paying us half of what they were actually paying us (as a pastor they break out housing allowance from your salary), and we were dumbstruck. (We’d learn later from a financial advisor provided by the seminary and Lutheran Church Extension Fund, that we were being taken care of and there was nothing to worry about on that end. Which, in hindsight, gives me considerable understanding to why they tell you not to open your call documents that night. To any couple going through call day, I’d encourage you not to do what we did. Wait until you can read the documents with clear eyes.)

How can we be sent to this church?
Liz and I walk back into the chapel. The Michigan District President David Maier and his wife Pat Maier are hosting the candidates in the back of the chapel before we take a group photograph near the altar. Liz and I are sitting in the pews with red eyes, tears pooling and escaping. 

Conversations over the years with President Maier and the first lady, Pat, revealed that they were baffled by our expression and appearance. “Weren’t they from Metro Detroit? Aren’t they going close to family? Why are they so gloom? Why are they crying?” were questions they were thinking at the time and shared with us later. 

The time was fast approaching for us to take our group photograph. We composed ourselves, gathered with the other pastoral candidates and got setup for the picture. I remember laughing when I saw the final shot afterwards, because we looked pretty decent. You couldn’t tell that we’d been crying at all.

The evening’s festivities finish at the chapel. Both of our parents had already taken our three kids back to our campus apartment. Liz and I head back to join them.

We walk in to our apartment and see a mix of smiles and blank expressions and comments of “I didn’t think you were coming back to Michigan.” We didn’t either. 

Three years later, with a longer perspective than the evening could provide, I’m glad to be where God sent me. I’m glad my family has been able to put down roots in a community, to make friends and grow as we follow Jesus. Things have not been perfect. Things would actually get much, much worse before they’d get better. There have been really low “lows” along with some truly high “highs”. 

If I had any advice to share, I’d tell you to seek out a support system. I had three people in mind when I left the seminary that I wanted as supports in my life: a pastoral mentor, someone who’s been down the road before to help and guide me and love me pastorally; a coach, someone to keep me on track and to make sure I’m doing what I said I’d be doing; and a counselor, someone I can talk to about life’s challenges and struggles. 

Talk about what’s going on in your life. Talk to your fellow pastors, engage as you’re able with your family in your PALS group. Seek someone to talk to. Recognize that you are not alone, and that the struggles you have are shared by your brothers around the world. Peter tells us the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, and he wants to devour you, your spouse and your children. He will use any means to do so. “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9)