During my high school years, the idea of being called to serve God’s church as a minister grew and developed. The prayers changed from, “Lord, what dost Thou want me to be?” to “Lord, I think I am called to be a minister. I think I want to be one. If that is not Thy will, then stop me! Make me fail in the necessary courses or put something in my way so I cannot serve. Close the door. But otherwise, I am going to pursue it. So stop me, Lord, if that is not Thy will.” Not only did God not stop me providentially, but He continued to use my fellow-saints to encourage me in the pursuit of the ministry.
While there were no internships during my years in the seminary, the seminarians did a lot of “speaking a word of edification” I was on the pulpit over 140 times while in seminary. During the summer of 1970, I spent many weekends in Randolph, Wisconsin. Six weeks of the summer of 1971 were spent in Forbes, South Dakota which was followed by five weeks in Doon, Iowa. The God of all grace kept opening the doors, each time in answer to prayers, confirming the call which I increasingly experienced within my soul. However, I and my fellow-seminarians were very conscious of the fact that no matter how much we may have felt inwardly called, what was ultimately required was an external call which God would send our way through a local congregation.
The hours and hours of oral exams required to graduate from our seminary took place before synod at its meetings in June of 1972 at First Church in Grand Rapids. The graduation ceremony for Candidates Bekkering, Kamps, and Van Overloop was a few days later. Then we waited. Had the Lord really called us to the ministry of His Word and sacraments? Would the internal call be confirmed by an external call? For each of us that call came, for myself from Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Ordination into the ministry took place on a well remembered Thursday night, October 5, 1972.
Almost seven years were spent with the good saints at Hope. A very young minister was carefully nurtured by godly, experienced elders. Baptism into the ministry was by the fire of funerals. The first funeral was only eight days after ordination—an older (by comparison) saint died of cancer at the age of 61. By comparison he was older because in the next nine months there were three more funerals, of a 22 year old, then his 18 year old brother, and then of a 10 year old. Before another calendar year closed, there were four more funerals, two for a set of twins who died two weeks apart shortly after birth, and two more for beloved saints who, while still in their 40s, left their mates and children.
During the time at Hope many catechism classes were taught and pastoral calls made. One year the number of pastoral calls almost equaled the number of days of the year. Powerfully God used every experience to mature and develop me in the service of His church and people.
Also during my ministry at Hope, the consistory sacrificially took a decision to send me, their pastor, away for seven months, in order to meet a need presented by Synod and the Committee for Contact with Other Churches. Those seven months were spent at a small, Presbyterian congregation in Christchurch, New Zealand. Sue and I still remember the long, wearying flights with four young children to and from New Zealand. The experience in New Zealand was powerfully used by God to teach me the breadth of the body of Christ and it instilled in me a desire to teach to others the rich Reformed tradition in which I had been raised and often took for granted. This experience undoubtedly played a role when, a year later, I had to consider the call from South Holland PRC to be a home missionary in Birmingham, Alabama. God was pleased to use a weak means. And every step of the way He used to equip me further. Included in that which God used to further develop me for the ministry were children. During our almost seven years at Hope the VanOverloop family had grown from two to five children.
The seven fruitful years of growth and development spent at Hope were followed by five years of missionary work in the deep South from 1979 to1984. God used new experiences to bring further development during these years. Birmingham is located in what has been called the Bible Belt, where churches of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist denominations filled the towns and dotted the countryside. But there was not a congregation with “Reformed” in its name in the whole of the state of Alabama. So this was different (read “difficult”) work. But it was most enjoyable work. It was work which taught me patience. It is with good reason that the Scriptures frequently draw a parallel between the work of preaching the gospel with that of the farmer who sows the seed and then waits, praying that the Lord of the harvest will cause the seed to sprout, grow, and bear fruit (cf. Mark 4:26-29). It was while we lived in Alabama that God added a sixth child to our family. And God graciously continued to use these experiences to develop me in the ministry. I was growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. And God was increasingly teaching me love for His church.
After five years of labor in Birmingham the calling church, the Domestic Mission Committee, and the Synod decided that it was time to move the home missionary and his family to another area. Good interest in the Reformed faith had been found in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. This was located much closer to the calling church, about an hour away from South Holland. While I was in Birmingham and in the northwest suburbs of Chicago the consistory and congregation of the calling church proved to be excellent caretakers of the spiritual and physical well-being of myself as their missionary, of my family, and of the saints to whom I was ministering.
The work in the northwest suburbs was different still. There I, the missionary/pastor, and the saints who formed the core group learned together that God required faithfulness in all evangelism efforts. We were not to be weary in well-doing. Be faithful and He would bring the increase. From 1984 until 1989 we labored together, using every lawful means available and within our means. God slowly and surely brought others who joined the mission. In March, 1989 the mission effort became an organized congregation of thirteen families.
Normally that would have meant another move for our family (which now numbered nine, as the seventh child was given of the Lord). But the new congregation, which took on the name, Bethel Protestant Reformed Church, extended a call to me to be their first pastor, which I was led of God to accept. The work of evangelism never slowed down as many efforts to reach out into the community with the precious Reformed faith continued. But now there was another emphasis to my work. Now I was to help the congregation rule itself. As a missionary I had worked toward their development so they could be self-governing, not needing the supervision of a calling church or of a missionary. Now I was the pastor of this new congregation, and together I and the new consistory sought to do things decently and in good order. We sought to learn the Church Order, which now was our rule for good order.
In the summer of 1994, I received the call from another new congregation which was looking for its first pastor. For the previous ten years God had been pleased to use me to be His instrument to nurture a new congregation. Now He made known His will to use me in a similar work. Much of the work was similar (nurturing and developing, growing together in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ), but whereas the work in Bethel was almost exclusively with those who had not been members of the PRC, the work at Georgetown was with those who had been members of the PRC. The Georgetown congregation was a daughter of Hudsonville PRC.
For the past seven years (1994-2001) at Georgetown PRC the work of serving Christ and His church has been the source of continued joy. Preaching, teaching, pastoral work within the congregation, and the opportunity to lend a hand in denominational work keeps one busy. The work can be wearying at times, but for the most part the work itself is a source of joy. It is always amazing to me that God, in His wisdom, ministers to me through every opportunity He gives me to minister to others. Through every part of the work of the ministry I am being molded and shaped, and thus prepared for the next thing God is pleased to use me. That God is pleased to use just an earthen vessel is increasingly the reason for gratitude.
Weakest means do fulfill His will! Nothing is impossible with the Lord. This is what must be considered by the young men who think they might be called to the gospel ministry. Young men who wonder whether God would call them to the ministry must examine themselves whether they have (though never to the degree that we ought) a heart for God, for the church of Christ as manifested in the Protestant Reformed Churches, and for the souls bought by the most precious of all blood. They must pray earnestly for God to give them this love, and that God will graciously cause this love to develop. Undershepherds must love. The sheep in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America are just that, sheep. Their nature is to wander, to butt each other, to be easily anxious. But they are God’s sheep, bought with the highest price He could pay—His own and only begotten Son.
This characterizes the young sheep too. God has given to me a love for our young people. I believe that in most ways, today’s young people are not different from what their parents and grandparents were. The times in which we live today have not essentially changed (there is nothing new under the sun). Nevertheless the forces of evil are much more open and blatant in their attacks. This is not, therefore, a time to be at ease in Zion. Constant and watchful effort must be put forth by those shepherding the lambs, just as it was for their parents and grandparents. And I am convinced that every effort must be put forth to urge our young people to grow in grace, i.e., to know ever more intimately their Savior and Lord and all He has done for them. This growth in grace arises from a growth in the knowledge of Him—Who He is and What He has done. They must know what it is to be loved first. And, in response, they must love Him, the truth of His Word, and the church of His Son.
God uses weak means to accomplish His will. My life and work in the ministry are a testimony to that. God calls and uses whomever He will. And He equips, and never stops equipping, even as He uses them. He gives abilities in the measure He wants and He gives opportunities for those abilities to be used. God opens and closes doors. My life is a testimony of these truths. It is truly amazing!
I believe that this is true, not only for the ministers, but also for every young person. Our usefulness in the church of Christ depends not so much on the native intelligence God is pleased to give to us. Rather it depends much more on the fact that God is pleased to use us, and that He develops us for His use every step of the way. Our calling is to strive to love Him, to love the truth of His Word, and to love the Church of His Son. As we strive to fulfill those obligations of gratitude, God will use us for good. Weakest means fulfill His will!