As we prepare to move to Arkansas from Wisconsin, the most frequent question I get is, "Why Arkansas?" Sometimes there is an exclamation point added after the question mark.
Some friends and parishioners wonder if we have family in Arkansas (we don't), or if there was some special connection that drew us there--it's a good question, how do you get from Wisconsin to Arkansas? Still others are simply curious about the call process for pastors. Do you get assigned? Did you ask to go there? How is the connection made? Arkansas isn't typical Lutheran country, and in fact, I had only really been through Arkansas, never to Arkansas, until the interview process there. So it is a fair question.
I've considered offering some literary or cultural genesis for the move to Arkansas, such as: Oh, my favorite photographer is from there (Disfarmer), my favorite novelist (Richard Ford), one of my favorite musicians (Johnny Cash), as well as one of my favorite presidents (Bill Clinton). Then add on a kind of local color connection, that Gracia Grindal, my rhetoric professor at Luther Seminary and a great living hymn writer and translator in the Lutheran tradition, did her M.F.A. at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. And it's true, these are attractive hints answering the question: "Why Arkansas?"
However, this would be to present the case ex post facto. I've only accumulated this list of interesting Arkansas connections as we have begun to move there. It's a true list, but it's organization after the fact simply doesn't tell the whole story.
The longer story of "why Arkansas" remains to be told and discovered. In many ways we won't know the "why" until we move there. There's a whole congregation of people to meet and get to know, not to mention a whole city and part of the US that is new to us. It would be premature to announce grand answers to the question as if we already knew the answer and the whole future were already marked out and awaiting us.
I know enough of the biblical narrative to know that God calls us on ventures untrodden, to lands promised and not yet seen, and I assume that is true of each of our own lives. The journey is the destination itself, and not vice versa. God will keep cluing us in as we go along as to why this call, and now. There's that line in Genesis, where the Lord says to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you" (12:1). Well, here we are, on the way. I certainly don't want to claim this call to Fayetteville is as momentous or dramatic as Abram's call. I do think I should read my own (and all of our) call stories in light of Abram's call story, and see how they stand up.
The particulars of this call are interesting. When the bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod first called on the phone and asked if I was interested in interviewing at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, I said a polite "no thank you." It was in very unfamiliar territory, and farther from family than we had hoped. At that point, other possibilities for call were coming in from a variety of directions, one of the strongest of which was simply staying in place at a congregation we loved. We weren't interested in moving simply for the sake of moving. It needed to be a call.
That's it, that's why I need to answer the question, "Why Arkansas?" I'm trying to describe a call, God's call, in this blog post, or at least offer one description of one particular call, and how it has played out.
I kept drifting back to the congregational profile of GSLC, and my interest grew. Lots of positives emerged, including the beautiful location in vibrant Fayetteville, proximity to a university, high quality lay leadership, a strong and vital staff, the chance to travel to a new cultural context, as well as a certain je ne sais quoi I'm still puzzling out. It's a neat congregation.
We had to think through some major factors, such as saying goodbye to East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, a congregation and community we truly love and identify with, leaving Wisconsin, a great state, leaving specifically Madison and Stoughton, cities we love, greater distance from family, and many unknowns. These were not negligible factors. Visit Stoughton or Madison some time, and you'll see why we love it here. Visit East Koshkonong some Sunday morning or Wednesday night, and you'll see even more clearly. Note: to any neighbors or former parishioners reading this, we miss you already.
Even with those reservations, Fayetteville kept calling (or I should say God kept calling) more and more clearly. There was a rising energy, a synergy between my own sense of call as a pastor and GSLC's sense of where they were heading as a congregation and the kind of pastor and leader they sought. We have already been welcomed warmly, supported in our preparations to move, blessed with the energy of the synod visioning mission development and joint ministries in Northwest Arkansas, and in every way God is preparing a way for us. Note: to any future parishioners and neighbors, I hope I'm portraying this well, we're still very new to the neighborhood, and this is written with the passion of a novice.
I should add as a very simple caveat, something I know has come up frequently in conversation both with those from Arkansas and those outside Arkansas. There's an unfriendly stereotype of Arkansas, at least in some circles. I happen never to have pigeonholed Arkansas in this way, and I have thus far found Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas a wonderful place not simply to visit, but to live. I'm reminded of that great question Nathanael asked Philip when Philip announced the Messiah to him. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Remember that Philip said to him, “Come and see.” If you wonder, "Why Arkansas?" then I answer, "Come and see."
That being said, I should end by answering the question. Why Arkansas? Best answer so far: God. We're trying to be faithful to God's call on our lives, and believe and trust that this includes living in Fayetteville and my serving as pastor at GSLC. When a congregation issues a call to a pastor, they believe and trust that it is truly God's call. I do, too.