The following seems like it was yesterday. It was among my first assignments once I answered God's call. It still speaks to how quickly God can take those whome he called and set them on the course he prepared before the foundation of the world.
The Spiritual Autobiography of Tom Spence
I begin in the present. I am the stated supply of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Burns Flat, Oklahoma. One year ago I became the moderator pro temp[ore] of our session and was instrumental in the formation of a pastoral search committee. At that point, I did not envision that I would be the fruit of that search. That is not to say that I did not expect to fill the pulpit on a regular basis. I did. I also expected to reassure the congregation that we would be just fine, that the head of our church was not the pastor we didn’t have but Christ himself, and that Christ would still be the head even when we did find a pastor.
I knew that I was called to be moderator. I knew that we were a larger church than when I filled the pulpit between pastors before (2003) and that I would need more help filling the pulpit. I discovered that we had grown more than in our numbers. Our ministries had grown and were still growing. I knew that I needed to be more involved—more than just filling the pulpit, preparing the bulletin and newsletter, and more than just waiting to see what the search committee would find. I was called to minister to this congregation. Still, I did not expect God to call me to full-time ministry. In hindsight, I was in denial—ok, blind—to the fact that God was calling me.
In December 2007, several of the elders, search committee members, and some others from the congregation found our way into the vacant pastor’s study. This was following an evening service and this was an impromptu continuation of the fellowship that had begun that evening. Someone asked if I had considered the ministry. The conversation became dominated by that topic. I told everyone that I thought my ministry was to serve the congregation while we searched for another pastor. I did tell them that I would ask God if he was calling me.
I asked. He answered. People that previously had not said much to me, told me this was my calling. Instead of the cordial nice sermon remark at the end of the service, people hugged me and simply said, go get ordained. People gave me this message in places other than church and many were from other congregations and some were pastors from other denominations. None of them knew of my promise to pray about this.
I would have preferred an email from God, marked important—better yet: URGENT! In fact, after praying, I checked my inbox more frequently than normal. My answer was to come from God’s people not my computer. My choice was simple. Kick against the goads and continue to pull my own yoke or accept the one Christ offered. I knew the answer. In a single night, I began my trek to the ministry. I searched the denomination website and was disappointed that there wasn’t much there, but I picked a couple email addresses that I thought were appropriate and I also emailed George Estes who had worked with our church in a period of revitalization and whom I kept in the loop on various things going on in Burns Flat. He guided me to Dr. Campbell and the appropriate committee of my Presbytery. I completed pastor information forms and sent them to the denomination, Red River Presbytery, and made one for our search committee. One of the first things I learned as a Marine officer was that an officer must never be timid and that was the last thing that I was at this point. I had my marching orders and wasn’t going to be indecisive. I take comfort in that my Marine Corps background was in perfect harmony here. God did not give us a spirit of timidity.
At the time I gave my package to the search committee, I discovered that they had a candidate that many were excited about. I gave them my packet in a sealed envelope and asked them not to open it if they were actively pursuing a candidate. I knew that I was called to the ministry, but not certain that it would be to my home church congregation. The last thing that I wanted to do was cause any dissent in the committee. At the elders retreat a few days later, I asked for the session’s blessing and endorsement to pursue ordination via the program of alternate studies. The session was as excited about my choice as I was.
Some paperwork, interviews, intelligence, and psychological evaluations and reports, meetings, and more meetings later bring us to present day: Tom Spence, stated supply at Burns Flat Cumberland Presbyterian Church, endorsed for the PAS by Red River Presbytery, and ready to dive headfirst into this program.
My childhood involved attendance at churches all over the United States; most of them were Disciples of Christ denominations. Sunday School and Vacation Bible School were important events in my life. I was baptized as an adult in the Episcopal Church and married by an Episcopal Navy Chaplain, but most of my adult life was spent in the Presbyterian Church with a few ventures into Baptist congregations. I had never heard of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church until I moved to Burns Flat in 1999. The first service I attended told me that this would be our church home. Before joining, I invited the Pastor to the house and we discussed several things. I wanted to make sure of the central beliefs of this denomination and to make sure it wasn’t some off-the-wall sect. Jim Fisk was the pastor at the time and he gave me a one-minute history of the denomination and answered my questions. He was interested in how a Marine officer had reconciled being a professional combatant and a Christian as his son was currently serving in the Army.
A significant part of my adult life was as a U.S. Marine Corps officer. I see no dichotomy between battle and serving God. God has called many to battle. While my time in a combat zone was only one year out of twenty; preparing for battle on a daily basis has helped me in my current spiritual journey. I truly enjoyed my time in the Marine Corps. Among other things, I learned to be a life-long learner in the Corps. To learn and master new skills every year is still a passion of mine. To teach, train, mentor, and see the fruits of your efforts in young men and women is an experience that few enjoy to the extent I experienced as a Marine. I believe that my time in the Corps was a blessing from God.
I have no road to Damascus experience. I was taught, I believed, and I have grown in my faith. That’s not to say I have not had trials. I have and for the most part they have strengthened me. Those that have not are because I struggled against what God wanted me to do. Surrender is a tough word for a Marine to pronounce, but I learned when I surrendered all to Christ, He gave me victory.
All in my family are saved. Sharman, my wife, and I both love our church family. She is an elementary teacher and that is also her ministry. Burns Flat is a town with a large transient population. Many children that she teaches have parents in prison, using drugs in their presence, or absent from their lives. Much of the love that these children receive comes from Sharman in the classroom. We cannot go anywhere in southwest Oklahoma without getting hugged by knee-high people. I have also become an expert shopper of crayons, pencils, and folders. If K-Mart is having a blue light special on school supplies during PAS, I will need a 1-hour excused absence to go buy a cubic meter of crayons.
Both my children, Heather and Christopher, are out of the house and doing their best to make their own way in the world. I have no grandchildren yet, but cherish the fact that God through his grace has better prepared me for that role now that I know Him better. My body is 52 years old and I put it through some pounding during my time in the Corps; but, my excitement to pursue full-time ministry is as intense as any I have experienced. I get out of bed in the morning ready to see what God wants me to do today!