Responding to the Call: A Conversation With Margaret Smart-Wheaton

Margaret Smart-WheatonI met Margaret when we were both attending McMaster Divinity College. Although we did not start off on the same page, I quickly came to respect Margaret. Eventually we were able to serve together at a church for a year which was a great experience for me. Margaret has pastored at St. Mary’s Baptist Church and I am thankful for the way that God is using her.

Could you share a little of your background including your spiritual journey?

I grew up in a Christian home where my parents lived their faith with integrity. They served their church and taught me well. Through the witness of my family and church community I came to know Jesus as my Saviour and was baptised as a teen. In the years following I worked out what a personal faith really meant and it was not always a smooth learning process. I questioned, doubted, wandered and searched but even during those times God was very present. During a very difficult time in my family’s life it seemed that everything I trusted and knew fell apart – relationships that seemed solid were shaken and people I relied on were struggling with their own brokenness. But when everything else fell away I found a firm foundation in my faith. I found guidance and support through worship, scripture and my church community where the transformative power of Christ was evident. It was from this time that my call to ministry emerged and I headed to seminary. I met my husband while we were studying at Seminary and we were married the same week that we graduated in 1999. My relationship with my husband and the birth of my three daughters has driven my understanding of God’s grace to new depths. These relationships have revealed to me the power of sacrifice, the necessity of forgiveness and the need for a fundamental dependence on God’s sustaining power.

What lead you to attend seminary and begin a life of pastoral ministry?

Well the short answer is God.

The long answer begins like this, pastoral ministry was nothing that I ever envisioned for myself or sought. But there are key moments when I saw this path offered and responded. I returned from University to discover that my home church had hired a young female pastor. We bowed in worship to pray and as she spoke my head snapped up with the very clear thought – that could be my voice! As our pastors preached and prayed into the deepest places of our family struggles I literally felt the Spirit of God healing broken places in my life. I would sit in worship listening to God’s word come to life and found myself thinking, “If I could do this for someone else I would.”

As I spoke with friends and work colleagues about my faith they would engage and share and eventually encourage me to become the pastor they were seeking. Then there was the blind date a friend set me up on. It turned out that the gentleman and I had little in common but at the end of the date he suggested that I had described my faith in such compelling manner that I should consider becoming a pastor! When I shared the story and my growing sense that this was something that I might do with my own Pastor she celebrated and encouraged me.

All of this got me heading in the right direction but the defining moment came when I shared my desire with my mother. My mother has always been a mentor and woman of deep and passionate faith. I thought she would be excited when I said, “I have been thinking of becoming a minister.” Instead she responded with uncharacteristic skepticism. “Margaret,” she said, “ministry is not a career it is a calling and unless you are called don’t even consider it!”

I was prepared to forget the whole sorry mess except that the more I let the idea go the more it grew. Almost twenty years later I still remember the prayers, the pain, the dying to myself and taking up of God’s will. I am grateful for my mother’s challenge that sent me to a deep place of seeking. In the years that followed it has been the clarity that I walked out of that time with that has remained.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a pastor?

The most rewarding experience has been seeing people come to and grow in faith and knowing that I am in some small way a part of their story: the meeting where someone who is often silent, makes a motion that will lead us into significant ministry, a growing confidence and peace in another, passionate commitment to Christ emerging in someone else, hearing someone speak of scripture in ways that are clearly Holy Spirit led.

Baptising people: in the church, in the river, in a hospital!

I am invited into people’s lives to witness the most vulnerable and raw parts of their story and to bear witness to God’s presence. This is an honor that I have not earned that I do not deserve.

That moment in worship when God’s Spirit is palpably present in the Word read and spoken and sung.

All of these are; all gift; all grace.

What steps do you take to balance ministry and family life?

I am diligent about reminding myself that I am just NOT so important that I cannot take time away. I take a day off – every single week. I take all my holiday time – every single year. When I am tempted to think that the church cannot survive without me – I book study leave or a prayer retreat.   This is God’s church, Christ’s body and ministry is not me it is the people of God working together.

I am also grateful for the congregation I work with. They have made trying to balance ministry and family possible. They trust me to be self-disciplined, to work hard, to set priorities and to be about the work of God. So, I have great flex-ability to set the hours that work best for my family and me. When necessary the congregation has made sacrifices to support my family. They have navigated three maternity leaves, started up nursery care and Sunday school classes for my children. Most of all they have lovingly adjusted to the changing dynamics of how much my husband and I have to offer as our family has grown. For example, on returning from my first maternity leave I was feeling overwhelmed trying to juggle responsibilities, my leadership team very gently said, “So don’t do evening studies or meetings for awhile! We will be fine!”

Finally, I would say my family is also a big part of this. They understand when I get called out for an emergency that my presence if important to others and equally they are not afraid to tell me when they need me to focus on them. Mostly, they willingly embrace a rhythm of life focused around activities at the church. When I recently thanked my 13 year old daughter for her participation and positive attitude after a weekend full of Church meetings and events she looked at me askew and said, “Of course this is where I would be. What else would I do – this is who we are!” That ministry and family life become seamless is one of the things that can make being a pastor challenging but it is also one of the blessings of this calling.

If you were to give advice to a person just starting out in ministry, what would you tell them?

I guess I would say what my mother said to me, “Ministry is not a career it is a calling and unless you are called don’t even consider it!” There are many days when ministry is easy. You get to sit and think and pray and study, drink tea with people and talk about life and God. What could be better! But the hard days threaten to tear your soul to pieces, the painful moments could crush your spirit, the recognition and responsibility of loving God’s people can get overwhelming. It cannot be done alone, and it cannot be endured outside God’s will and God’s strength. So if you are clear that you are called then: Love yourself, your family and your people well. Most of all lean into God’s presence and enjoy the ride!

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