Accepting the Call
Reverend Tori Heath’s “yes” to God’s calling on her life came after saying “no” multiple times. Her first “no” was in the eighth grade.
“It actually was at my grandfather’s funeral of all places… I was just visiting with people and comforting others, how I thought people were supposed to, and the pastor of my church at the time came up to me and said, ‘You should think about being a pastor.’ And I laughed in his face and said, ‘No way. Absolutely not. Definitely not.’”
But he continued to be a bug in her ear, pointing out to her that the things she liked to do were things pastors did.
“Church has always been the thing that I have loved with a passion. Sharing Jesus with other people has always been a passion,” Tori says. “But I continued to think that being a pastor was never something that I could actually do.”
Nevertheless, throughout high school, Tori considered pastoring her backup plan – just in case nothing else worked out. Then, while in college, she decided she’d go to seminary one day and figure out what to do once she got there.
After Tori’s first semester at Asbury Seminary, a series of events led her to confront her hesitations. She was asked to give a sermon one Sunday at a church in her hometown. She was riddled with fear. She thought, “What am I going to talk about? I don’t even feel like I am called, and I’m in seminary. I’m such an imposter. I’m supposed to have this figured out by now.”
Tori’s mentor suggested she find something in Scripture that could speak to her calling. When reading through important people in the Bible, Tori came across Moses. “Moses is known for saying ‘no’ to God multiple times and then being a vessel of freedom for the people,” she says. “God still brought him along in the journey that God had planned for him. So through studying that scripture and through preaching that sermon in January of 2015, I, for the first time, believed that I was called to be a pastor and that I could do this.”
Tori is now Senior Pastor of Asbury Global Methodist Church in Waterford, PA. Senior means “only” in her congregation of about 110. Her first four years at Asbury GMC have helped her grow into the person and the pastor she thinks God has created her to be. Yet this growth has come in the midst of surprises.
What They Don’t Teach Pastors in Seminary
Tori still remembers what Reverend Dr. Jessica LaGrone said to her, during her last year in Wilmore, about seasons of being surprised by ministry: “The things that you are worried about now are probably not going to be the things that you need to be worried about. It’s always the surprises that you didn’t think of that will totally take you aback.”
Tori, who has led her congregation through two unexpected transitions, finds Jessica’s words on point. Nine months into Tori’s role, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. And her church is still in the midst of transitioning from the United Methodist Church into the Global Methodist Church.
These transitions have helped Tori utilize her pastoral gifts. “I think I am blessed with the gift of hearing a lot of voices and being able to bring the group to at least a majority consensus, that we can feel comfortable and confident in a decision going forward… I think that’s something that I’ve been able to grow in since leading through kind of tumultuous times in world history and church history.”
Her church people continue to say to her, “They didn’t teach you this in seminary.”
But Tori’s first surprise began before the pandemic, as soon as she entered her role. She was the first female pastor for her congregation, and she thought she’d be walking into a lot of discussion around her gender. “In fact, that really didn’t happen,” she says. Instead, she got comments about something else. “You’re so young,” they would say. Tori was 27 when she got to Asbury GMC. “People thought that I was someone’s granddaughter when I would be introduced to another church member,” she says.
Tori’s age was shown to be an asset when the pandemic hit, however. The first Sunday they were not allowed to be in church, she made a YouTube channel and recorded worship in her living room for her congregation, “because I’m a millennial,” she says. When her congregants looked back at the pandemic, they said, “I don’t know if we would have survived or thrived if we didn’t have a young pastor.”
Another big surprise for Tori has been the hard work of preaching. “Preaching every week is a gauntlet,” she says, while acknowledging that this has strengthened her preaching skills. “I have repented of all the criticisms of bad sermons that I have heard from the pulpit on a Sunday morning because, man, it’s so hard… It is incredibly overwhelming for me to sit down and to bring something out of nothing.”
A Nurturing Community
Though Tori’s first four years in ministry have taught her a lot, Asbury Seminary did as well.
Tori chose Asbury Seminary because a sense of peace had come over her and her parents while visiting. She could tell that Christ was living in the people she encountered during her visit, and that “the Spirit was just hovering there.” In addition to finding clarity on her calling, Tori found a place that nurtured her theologically, spiritually and academically as she worked toward her Master of Divinity. She also found a great community there – really great friends, a role as an R.A., and fellow students she’d someday form a Wesley band with.
That wasn’t all she found. Halfway through her degree program, Tori met her husband, Dustin, who was also a student at the Seminary. They got married in January before graduating in the Spring. “We never would have met it if it weren’t for Asbury… We got to graduate sitting next to each other, which was really sweet and really meaningful,” she says.
According to Tori, Dustin’s calling experienced a turn at Asbury Seminary as well. He had always thought he was going to be a professor. But the Lord changed his plans drastically during a semester of CPE at a local hospital. During that time, Dustin fell in love with hospital chaplaincy. He now works as a hospital chaplain. “We are a clergy couple, but we’re not the traditional clergy couple where I have a church and he has a church… we are a different looking kind of clergy couple than others.”
Surprises aside, Tori says that many in her congregation have a strong work ethic and truly believe in the value of doing good in the world. She thinks her congregation walking through the transition to the GMC has strengthened them. Not only did they need to meet at times to discuss complex issues; the transition has also given them the excuse to focus on small groups and discipleship bands.
Prepare for the Call
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