In 1981, I began working at MasterTag—the Montague company that makes plastic plant tags—where I worked my way from printing, to shipping, to office work, to management. It was a small company, so I got to do a lot of things. I established and ran the customer service department. I was in charge of the annual catalog. I worked with our advertising firm. I traveled for trade shows and to call on major customers. I learned every aspect of the company, from production to promotion.
In the 1980s, I began performing in Montague’s music and comedy revue, “Showboat.” I fell in love with performing. I wanted to stretch my wings. I got myself booked at an open mic night at a Grand Rapids comedy club. I bombed, but I had confidence that I would learn how to play to the crowd. I really wanted to take a stab at being a professional comic.
At the same time, I thought a lot about becoming a Lutheran minister. As the years passed since I had become a Lutheran in my early twenties, I found myself more and more thinking that I could do the job and would love it.
It was now the summer of 1990 and I was miserable with myself. I had grown completely discontent with my job at MasterTag. Nothing changed there—it was a wonderful place to work—everything changed in me. Therefore, I was growing frustrated with my entire life, even though my life was set up exactly as I always hoped it would be.
That summer, our children were aged eight, six, four, and one. A few months earlier, in my yearly performance review at work, I had decided that my job had changed enough that my value to the company had exploded. I asked for a fifty percent raise. I hoped that I might get as much as twenty percent, never dreaming I would get the whole thing. I got the whole thing. Finally, after years of struggling, we had a good income and could catch up on our debt.
And I wasn’t happy. And there was no way I was going to tell my wife, Kim.
Become a stand-up comic? Are you kidding? Most never make it. Many, who sort of make it, never make any money and are never home. The few that make it—well, the odds are the same as a local sports star succeeding in the pros. Infinitesimal.
Become a minister? Are you kidding? I first had to finish college, which I barely started right out of high school with two poorly-undertaken semesters at the local community college. Then, I would face four years of seminary. Meaning: no income and lots of expense, which would add up to the pile of debt we were finally getting out from under. And, when I got done, pastors don’t make a great wage.
None of it seemed doable, achievable, reasonable. I was set for life, so why couldn’t I just get over it and be content with all that I had?
I never said a word to Kim. I continued to stew about it just awful, and I never would have said a word to Kim.
Enter a marvelous lady named Jan Pobursky. (For years, I could not reveal Jan’s name, only her good deed, so humble was she. I only began using her name after she fell asleep in Christ.) Jan was a member of our church, recently widowed when her beloved Al had finally succumbed to heart disease. Jan was convinced that I should be a minister. In early September of 1990, she asked if she could come over and talk with Kim and me.
We sat at our dining room table as Jan laid out her idea. She reiterated how she thought I would do so well as a pastor. With Al gone and being set financially, she was going to take the job-opening as church custodian and save the money. Then, if I ever decided to go to seminary, she would help us with a monthly check.
Kim and I were speechless and I was in trouble. Because of Jan’s vision and generous heart, I was going to have to tell Kim what was going on inside of me.
Jan left. I mustered the gumption to spill the beans. Kim was shocked. Sure, she was sad that I had not told her what I was feeling, but she understood how I thought it could never happen.
Every day, we would talk about the possibility of pulling up stakes and heading for the seminary. One day, we were sure we could do it. The next day, we were not. One day, we knew the Lord would provide. The following day, we would be filled with doubt about how He would do that.
By November, we were talked out. I was prayed out, so I found myself praying the same prayer every day: show me your will, Lord, and help me to follow it. I thought my prayer would never be answered.
Enter December 7, a Friday, and the day I have come to call my own Pearl Harbor Day because of the bomb-like news that was dropped on me from out of nowhere. My boss told me that he and the owner would like to see me about an exciting proposition. I could not imagine what they had in mind.
Our company had a division in England, started in the early ‘80s. It never got off the ground as the owner had hoped, and the general manager had recently left. I was the connection with the British branch. Having grown with MasterTag as it grew, I had experience and knowledge unlike any other employee. I knew how every aspect worked: sales, marketing, customer service, manufacturing, shipping, billing, you name it.
MasterTag’s owner, Rick Hughes, a neighbor with whom I became friends in my late teens, and whom I esteem highly—it was Rick, whom, in 1979, I asked take me to the Lutheran church for my first worship service—began his pitch by reminding me of everything of the previous paragraph. Then, he opened the payload doors: “Greg, we want to send you and your whole family to England, for what we think will be two years, to teach the British branch how we do business and finally get them off the ground. After you get things in place and the right people hired we will bring you home and plug you back in here.”
Rarely am I at a loss for words. I was at a loss for words. I was equal parts flattered and scared to death. After Rick and my boss fleshed out the proposition, they told me to go home and talk with Kim. I left, but I could not imagine this conversation with Kim, especially with our three months of struggling whether or not to leave home and head to the seminary.
I told Kim that I had the craziest news. She took it with amusement and real interest. We talked a lot. We had a Christmas dinner that evening at Dad’s house, with all of my siblings and spouses, and now we didn’t want to go. We went to Dad’s, but our minds were in England.
We got home from Dad’s and talked some more, till late into the night, until we were worn out. It really felt possible, that we could do more than head out of state to seminary, but actually leave the country. We both were shocked that we were taking seriously this exciting job offer.
The next morning, I headed outside to do my usual winter Saturday chore: throw firewood into the basement. Dad had convinced us to put in a wood-burning furnace when we bought the condemned house and remodeled it in 1984. He and I spent many winter Saturdays cutting trees and splitting the wood and stacking it so that it would be seasoned for the next winter. We had a shed, at the rear of our back yard, filled with the fruits of our labor.
Though it was only December 8, we already had a foot of snow on the ground. This being west Michigan, in the snow belt, that was not uncommon. I went outside around 9:00. I beat a new path in the forty foot trek from shed to basement window, loading my arms with five or six pieces and dropping them into the basement through the removed windowpane.
A half-hour into the chore, I realized something. The entire time I was carrying wood I was only thinking about one thing: becoming a minister.
I pause as I finish typing that paragraph, anticipating the next. I am crying. Two things in life make me cry, every single time: talking about Johnathan’s birth and death, and this. This was as big a moment in my life as I have ever experienced.
On the way back to the shed, at the halfway mark, I stopped in the path. I am there, right now. I feel the cold. I look into the sky, over the shed: clear blue, everywhere.
I realized that I had not spent a moment thinking about England, but only about the seminary. Then, it hit me.
“I am going to the seminary and everything is going to be just fine.”
In that moment, every question, every concern, every fear was gone. It didn’t matter that nothing had been answered; everything had been answered: the Lord would provide. I knew it just as sure as I knew anything. The Lord had answered my prayer.
I returned to my chore, using the balance of the time to figure out how to tell Kim.
I found her in the living room. I knelt by her chair. I said, “I know what I am supposed to do, and it isn’t England.” I explained what I just experienced and wrapped it up: “This one time, please, we have to do what I am saying and trust that it will work out.” She replied. “Okay. I’m scared, but okay.”
Boy, were Rick and my boss surprised, not to mention my family and friends. I told Rick that the Lord had used him to get me to recognize that I had to do something, that staying home in my current job was not an option. By then, stand-up comedy was no longer part of the mix. It was either England or the ministry—and it wasn’t England.
Rick, contemplating how much income I would lose for several years, drolly commented, “You realize, Greg, that God’s call is a collect call.” True enough, we took a huge financial hit. But, Jan was true to her word with a check every month, and the seminary provided many forms of support. It only took ten years to once again be debt-free.
The sense I had that day came true. I never had a single moment of doubt. The Lord paved the way for everything to work out. Even with the hardships along the way, my confidence never wavered.
Recounting 1990 makes me reflect on my life since 2013. This is the crux: what does the Lord want me to do with my life? Every time I have been in a spot to make a tough decision, I have prayed the same prayer, asking the Lord to lead me in His good and gracious will. In the last twenty-nine months, I suppose I have prayed that nearly one thousand times. I will continue to pray, trusting Him to answer my prayer when I am ready.