Late one night, as my heart thumped and my attention stayed focused on the speaker, I made a crucial, life-changing decision. At my first youth conference, as a newly saved teen, I stood up to take my first steps into ministry. The speaker had given an invitation to come forward to those wanting to go into ministry.
Earlier that morning, I felt the call of God to dedicate my life to full-time ministry, but I had a problem. Most of my other peers who wanted to work in church leadership didn’t have my past. My fear took over, and I wondered, “Would anyone follow someone like me? Can I lead?”
My parents divorced when I was two, and both of them went into same-sex relationships. Raised by three gay parents, I grew up in the LGBT community. My mother and her partner were activists. And over the course of my childhood, I learned to hate Christians.
Later, God took hold of me, and I embraced the gospel of grace. I accepted Christ as my Savior in high school. And now, as I contemplated the speaker’s invitation, my desire to go into full-time ministry grew. I wanted to be a pastor. But how?
Would anyone relate to a pastor who had my kind of past? Could God use me (as a spiritual leader) despite my past—what I had experienced in my life or what I had done? These questions raced through my mind as I debated walking down the aisle to commit my life to full-time ministry.
Have you ever tried to talk yourself out of where God is leading you? If my congregation finds out what I did a few years ago, they will ask me for my resignation. If the people in my sending agency knew all of the beliefs I used to hold, I don’t think they will trust me as much. If others on staff discover the details of my addiction and what I used to do, they will disown me.
The Worst of Sinners
One of my favorite people in the Bible is Paul. You probably don’t need a long introduction to him. He’s the last person anyone (from his day) would want to follow as a leader, right? He persecuted the first Christians, oversaw the execution of Stephen, despised the followers of Jesus, and so on. But, then he had a “come to Jesus” moment and literally saw the light. From that day forward, the former persecutor would now face suffering and persecution.
When Paul became a Christian, he wanted to pastor and lead people. He almost immediately started preaching. However, Paul seemed to have no credibility to lead. In Acts 9:13–14, 21, and 26, Luke records what happened after Paul’s conversion. Christians felt unsure of him because of his past. He claimed to love the Lord, but he looked like the same guy who intensely hated and persecuted Christians. Would anyone follow a leader like him?
Later in his ministry, Paul writes strong words about himself, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:12–14).
In other words, Paul mentions and doesn’t hide his sordid and wrecked past. Paul says that because of God’s grace, everything was forgiven. He continues his thoughts in 1 Timothy 1:15. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
I think if Paul wrote this today, some Christians would accuse him of beating himself up too much about his sordid past. Here’s what those who read this passage for the first time don’t know—Paul, reflecting on his past and God’s grace, wants to draw in the reader. He wants others to lean in so he can make his point:
“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16, italics mine).
Paul teaches a tremendous truth we need to remember about our pasts: What is redeemable is relatable. Paul says that God’s mercy in his life is an example to those who will come to faith in the coming years. Even though he had a horrid past, would he be successful in ministry? Could he lead others to Christ? Would they accept him and follow his lead?
As you know, many did listen to what Paul had to say about living a life worthy of God’s glory. I think Paul’s belief that “what is redeemable is relatable” drew people in. People couldn’t relate to a “perfect” Pharisee, but anyone could relate to a broken, messy person with a redeemed past.
Paul tells his readers, if God has redeemed your past, he will use it to help others who have a questionable history. When God redeems your story, he relates your story to others. Your past, however difficult it might be, allows you to connect with others.
Leaning into the redemption aspect of your past gives credibility to relate to the stories of those who will find redemption in Christ. God’s grace will shine through, not your past. People will see the work of God’s mercy, and they will “lean in” so they can see an example of someone who believed in Christ, found forgiveness, and received eternal life.
Would God use an addict or someone with a history of using? Would God use someone with a difficult upbringing? Would God use a lawyer with a very graphic past? Would God use someone who has served a prison term? Would God use someone who struggles with depression?
The answer to all the above is “yes” because what God redeems, he uses. God calls us to follow him and trust him with every aspect of our lives. He wants us to believe “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
I stood there among other youth in that conference many years ago asking myself, “Would God use a pastor with gay parents—raised in the LGBT community—for his glory?” As I stepped forward that night to commit my life to full-time pastoral ministry, I continued thinking about my past. Would anyone follow a leader like me?
That night I chose to believe God would use my past for his glory. I walked slowly toward the front to dedicate my life to ministry, believing God would use all of me. And I know God continues to use my past even today.
Trust God with your past. You have no idea who needs to hear your redemption story. If you choose to relate your history to another person, you will see how much God can use your past. Why? Because what is redeemable is relatable, and God can use a leader like you.
About the Contributors
Caleb Kaltenbach is a current DMin student and author of “Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others without Sacrificing Conviction.” Caleb serves as lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, California, and speaks widely on the subjects of reconciliation, faith, diversity, and grace.