A Sign of Our Calling
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love (2 Peter 1:5-7, ESV).
When the apostle Peter wrote these words, he had begun by talking about all the power followers of Jesus had gained and the great gift received whereby they can escape the corruption of sin even in this life. Not that we are perfect, but because of the power of Jesus Christ, we are being perfected; we are growing. So, Peter writes, our faith should expand to include increasing virtue and knowledge and self-control, and on and on all guided by this faith in Jesus.
To that end, in the fall of 2016, I began my doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. The promise of this program was that over the course of four to six years, I would continue to add to my faith and knowledge, and that knowledge would enable me to be a better follower of Jesus and a better pastor. That is why I began, and that is why I continued in the program for more than five years. Through staffing transitions, organizational changes, and a little thing called a global pandemic, I kept my hand to the plow to reach that goal. It is, in the words of a phrase from my childhood, all over but the shouting.
The Goals and the “Thank you”
The extra letters that are now attached to my name were not the goal, and to be honest, it feels a bit weird to think of myself as Rev. Dr. McGowen. I mean, it is very odd to even write my name in that way. In truth, if the goal had been a diploma and a new title, it would not have been meaningful enough. And the focus and resolve did waiver at times. There were moments, especially in the last 18 months, when crossing the finish line was in doubt (at least in my mind). But remembering the great power of Jesus Christ and the purpose of following him more closely and serving his people more effectively, that was meaningful enough and motivation enough to reach the end.
I am so thankful that my wife, Jules, and my children have been incredibly supportive in this effort. They have demonstrated Christ-like patience in the middle of the most stressful moments. They have been encouraging with words of affirmation when I felt inadequate. They have been creative in their time and given me space to bury my head in books and complete projects. For Jules, Caleb, and Hannie, they made my goal, their goal, and I am grateful for all their sacrifice in this process.
The goal was personal, but it was also broader. Pursuing my doctorate was about being a better pastor in general, but specifically as a pastor for the First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland. I was called here more than eight years ago, and then my children were babies. I didn’t even have a beard yet! But in those first three years of ministry, my desire grew and grew to be a better servant to this congregation. From rethinking the practical nature of Kingdom-theology to articulating a missional mindset for all areas of the church to becoming more equipped to utilize the cultural moments of our day for redemptive purposes, I pray that I have been able to demonstrate that to this community in a variety of ways.
And this congregation has been incredibly generous and gracious on this journey. The flexibility of the church giving me time to study, write, and prepare my projects has made this much more pleasant than it might have otherwise been. Not only that, but individuals have been so supportive in their prayers, their kind words, and their inquisitive interest throughout the entire process. To you, the people of FPC Lakeland, thank you! Thank you for demonstrating such godly kindness and patience during this season. I know many other brothers and sisters in ministry who had to travel the road to their doctoral degrees alone, and I realize how blessed I am to have you all on my side.
The question has come up more than once on this road, “What’s next?” It has come up more and more often in the past year as I have approached the finish line, and I imagine it will increase all the more. The implication being that once I had those extra letters attached to my name and new sheet of paper on my wall, I would go on to pursue other callings, other goals, climb another rung on the ministry ladder. “What’s next?” To be honest, that was probably my thought process as well a few years ago. The “doctor” title would mean I need to branch out, do something different, take on more authority at a different congregation.
But, that is not how I think God works, and that is not how I think a ministry calling should work either. There are no higher rungs on the ministry ladder. The highest rung a ministry leader can attain is to be in the center of where God has called them. That may be as a “tent-making” pastor of a small start-up congregation, as an assistant children’s director of a mega church, as a solo pastor of a rural congregation, or something else. The idea that “bigger is better” or that “titles matter” in the kingdom of heaven is false. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” Jesus said. “The one who wants to be a master must be the servant of all.” Another Jesus original.
Additionally, ministry leaders must also remember their calling to their families. The apostle Paul is pretty clear about this 1 Corinthians 7. I am called to be a godly husband to Jules and a godly father to Hannie and Caleb. My calling to them is more important than my calling in ministry. Too many who lead churches do not understand this, and I think we are seeing the results as one pastor after another falls to temptation, sin, and moral indiscretion. The idea that “bigger is better” and “titles matter” only feeds into that failure for so many.
So, what’s next? Let me state this as plainly as I can: for the foreseeable future, I hope and pray that I will continue to be the Outreach Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, FL. There is godly work to be done, and I feel called to be part of it. There are godly pastors and leaders I want to continue to partner with for the sake of God’s kingdom in Polk County. There is a solid foundation upon which we can build for the future, and I want to help draft out what that building may look like. There is a strong and vibrant staff who are committed to Jesus Christ in their own lives and who are passionate about seeing others live into that passion as well. There are volunteers who consistently and vigorously serve in the light of the gospel, and I don’t want to miss seeing them shine.
This is a good church for my wife and children to grow in their faith, and my role here enables me to live into my calling with them. The strong staff and leadership mean there is greater flexibility so that we can all prioritize our relationship to the Lord and to one another. The children’s ministry and student ministry here are led by faith-filled and kind disciples, and these are places I want to see my kids grow in their faith. The worship services each week are more and more inspiring, healing, and engaging, and they are communities I want to be part of.
We never say never, of course. I’m sure Abram at 75 years old did not think he would begin a decades-long journey to the Promised Land. Moses certainly did not think that as an exiled murderer he would return to Egypt to liberate the Hebrew slaves. Simon and John as trained fishermen probably hadn’t entertained a life of spiritual and religious revolution in their early adulthood. God does call when we aren’t expecting it. So, I never say never, and I will also be open to God’s call – wherever it may lead. But for now, God is calling me here to bloom where I have been planted for the last eight years, and to do what I can to help FPC continue to bloom as well.
My prayer for FPC in this season is to look to your own journey as individuals. God’s calling does not end with pastors or ministry leaders. Everyone has a calling, but we can only truly engage it as we remember not to stop with our faith. Faith in Jesus Christ is paramount and of utmost importance, but calling comes from adding to that faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, affection, and love. This is a soul-searching journey that calls us to constantly ask the question for ourselves, “What’s next?” And may that question not be limited to our jobs, or paychecks, or climbing corporate ladders – may it always be related to what God is calling us to do in every area of our lives.
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
Rev. Dr. Zachary McGowen was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but moved all over the world during his formative years. For nearly 25 years, Zac has been preaching and teaching God’s Word, and he loves inspiring congregations to reach their friends and neighbors for Jesus Christ while utilizing technology to communicate the gospel message more effectively. During his years at Florida Southern College (FPC’s neighbor to the north) he led the largest entirely student-run ministry on campus called BEYOND. Since 2001, Zac has served the Lord in the PC(USA), beginning with the First Presbyterian Church, Haines City, Florida, before taking his current call in Lakeland. Zac came to FPC Lakeland in 2013, and he has served on the board of The Fellowship Community, the Presbytery of Tampa Bay’s Commission on Church Vitality, as well as being active with PEACE (the ecumenical county-wide justice ministry). He holds an M.Div from Reformed Theological Seminary and Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. Zac is married to his beautiful wife, Julie, and together they have two wonderful children, Caleb and Hannah. Zac likes to spend time with his family at one of the area theme parks (he is a major “Disnerd”), go for a run, stay current on tech-related news, and watch college football – especially his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide (ROLL TIDE!).