Life changed after my born again experience. My head was theologically turned, altering my perspective on everything. I now saw God and the world through Protestant eyes wearing fundamentalist spectacles. I stopped going to Mass and started attending a house church with six other people. I no longer prayed to Mary or believed priests had the power to do the two things Catholics used to think made Mother Church the sole means of salvation—forgive sins and transform the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ.
I quickly learned that we Evangelicals took our faith seriously enough to go door-to-door and to accost strangers on street corners. That summer I joined the Blitz evangelistic team and traveled to the University of Oklahoma. Open-air preaching and witnessing scared the snot out of me but peer pressure kept me from running.
In 1974 I took my new bride, the former Susan Wright, to Fairhaven Bible Chapel in California for the nine-month Discipleship Intern Training Program. The intensive experience confirmed my desire to be in full-time ministry; a passion I pursued for the next thirty years. Everything during those decades revolved around knowing God and making him known.
Susan and I returned to the house church in Denver in 1975 where I became an elder at the age of twenty-three. How’s that for a misnomer. The church grew to more than 100 people, moved to a trailer park clubhouse and became Fellowship Bible Chapel. I quit my job at a chemical plant in 1977 to devote myself to the work.
Like a sprinter who attacks too soon in a stage race, I ran out of steam a few years later. Tired of butting heads with an older elder and frustrated with the meager salary, I resigned from Fellowship and moved my young family to Cedaredge, Colorado. By then we had three small boys, Aaron, Nathan and Matt.
I spent the next eighteen months decompressing and working as a part-time carpenter. Then we went west to Portland, Oregon to join Laurel Park Bible Chapel. Bruce McNicol, a friend from California days, served there. In time I became a teaching pastor. We spent nine happy years in Portland among some of God’s nicest children but once again I found myself marching to a different cadence from the church.
In 1990 the Hamels, with the addition of daughter Julie, moved to Wheaton, Illinois to join Interest Ministries. Bruce had become its president a few years earlier. I served in various capacities for the next five years. Susan and I also helped start Servants Church, which has since grown into Trinity Vineyard in St. Charles, Illinois.
Interest Ministries got squeezed between conservative and progressive groups of Brethren like a walnut in a nutcracker. A lawsuit ensued and I decided I’d had enough of passionate believers fighting over petty issues. I left Interest and turned down an opportunity to start something new with Bruce and another Interest staffer, Andy Holloman. Instead I moved to San Jose where my friend Greg Davis and I tried to create a self-funding mentoring ministry we called EMT (Experience, Model, Teach). We couldn’t pull it off and so the Hamels moved to Colorado Springs in 1996.
We tried to help a church plant called New Harvest that didn’t get off the ground. I didn’t want to go to a Brethren church but we wound up at one anyway. We enjoyed the people at Harvest Bible Fellowship and I soon found myself preaching and helping with small groups. There were other factors at play but it seemed like the more time I invested, the more people left.
BF eventually went under and I found myself looking back over a checkered ministry career. The years had been filled with wonderful people and worthwhile endeavors but I could see little of lasting fruit this side of heaven. John Wooten once cautioned, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” I had certainly been active—but what had I achieved?
- Fellowship Bible Chapel – defunct.
- Laurel Park Bible Chapel – grown into Spring Mountain Bible Church after I left.
- Interest Ministries – defunct.
- Servants Church – grown into Trinity Vineyard Church after I left.
- EMT Mentoring – stillborn.
- New Harvest Church – defunct.
- Harvest Bible Fellowship – defunct.
I didn’t blame myself for people and circumstances beyond my control; still, I felt like a failure. I didn’t know if my ratio of “defunct-to-surviving” efforts was normal for spiritual entrepreneurs but my record disillusioned me. I began to question everything. I tried to argue with God but he wouldn’t talk back, not in any way I could perceive.
I had abandoned Catholicism in my teens when I found what I believed to be a more biblical way of relating to God and life. Now, as I reached the mid-century mark, I could no longer accept a fundamentalist worldview. It didn’t jibe with my experience or adequately explain what I saw happening in the world. The most painful part of this transition was not having anything new to replace the old.
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“Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask,
‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me,
‘This is going to take more than one night.’”