Americans lead busy lives, and Vanessa Chitwood was no exception. Since the beginning of her marriage, Chitwood had worked to part-time as a nurse support her growing family. She also enjoyed volunteering at her local church.
Still, she felt God wanted more from her. “There were areas of my life I kept under my own control. God was speaking to me about the need to give everything to him.” One day in 1996 she pulled her car into a parking lot and breathed a prayer of complete surrender to God.
Eighteen months later Chitwood felt called to full-time ministry, but uncertainties kept her silent. It was not a direction she would have imagined for herself. “I kept these feelings to myself for about a year, thinking I was crazy, but the desire to serve just grew deeper, and in 1998 I acknowledged the call to my family and pastor and the process began.”
The process toward ordination in the Free Methodist Church was a challenge. First came the classes. It had been 20 years since Chitwood had been in school. After transferring general requirements from her nursing education, she enrolled in Bible and theology courses by correspondence from Methodist head- quarters in Indianapolis.
After a year, she completed the coursework and was accepted as a conference ministerial candidate. Her church appointed her as a part-time assistant pastor, and she began working there 20 hours a week. During that time, Chitwood took additional classes and went through relational/career profile testing. Finally, she and her husband were interviewed before she was approved for ordination.
“This is not an easy road, nor should it be. I love the fact that this church believes in putting the candidate right to work in a local church during the educational process. The books are very important, but nothing compares to hands-on experience.”
Chitwood’s local church was very affirming of her choice to pursue ministry. The senior pastor is a veteran with over 40 years of experience. Chitwood says she felt privileged to learn from his experience. “He models a passion for outreach and an ability to love people without compromising … in order to please them. He lets me know often that he wants me to succeed. He gives me many opportunities to preach and assist him in other areas of ministry.”
The denomination further assists ministerial candidates and pastors through pastor and spouse retreats and teaching seminars. The Pacific Northwest Conference funds all women who wish to attend the bi-annual Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy Conference. The superintendent makes time to shepherd his pastors. Chitwood feels blessed to be in a church that respects the call of God on both men and women.
‘All I need to do is ask’
From the moment Chitwood revealed her call to ministry, her husband Dennis stood by her. “He has always encouraged me to be all that God wants me to be. He was and continues to be my quiet support.”
Chitwood’s children were 8, 12 and 15 when she talked with them about her call. They were supportive but not sure what the process would entail. The steps Chitwood took to follow God became a learning experience for her children.
Her primary challenge was time management. In addition to working in the church, Chitwood continued to work part-time to help pay for private Christian school for her children. When asked how she balances work and family she says, “I don’t. God does. It sounds simple, but it’s so true. I believe if our priorities are right, we will have time for all that God calls us to do. My relationship with the Lord comes first, my family second and my job third.” She admits that this balance takes real effort, and it helps that her church supports these values.
There have been many times in the process when Chitwood doubted herself or experienced feelings of inadequacy. It was a challenge to stay focused on completing each step. The scripture that helps her most is Psalm 81:10: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”
“This verse reminds me that the God that brought his children out of Egypt is still in the miracle business,” she explains. “All I need to do is ask, open myself up, and he will fill me with whatever I need to accomplish the calling he has placed on me.”
Another way she stays on track is to seek out people to share her struggles with; people who would hold her accountable. She admits she had to sacrifice her pride. Admitting imperfections to other people made her able to look at places in her life that needed to be aligned with God’s will and work on them.
The flipside is that she has gained much more: a deeper love for God, authentic relationships, a renewed passion for winning others to Christ, greater self-confidence in working with others, and new skills in teaching and preaching.
‘It is never too late to obey his calling’
Chitwood’s decision to follow God’s call to ministry had an impact on two other generations of women in her family. Her mother Faye Thompson, who had never been a proponent of women in ministry, became her loudest cheerleader.
“Mom went home to be with Jesus in February 2001. Not long before [that], God used her to encourage me. She said, ‘You keep focused and keep going to accomplish what God has called you to do. I believe in God’s call and I believe in you.’” Chitwood thinks back on these words of encouragement almost daily, drawing strength from them.
The other generation of women affected by Chitwood’s call are her own daughters, now 17 and 20. “Watching me navigate through the process has helped them learn that when God calls us we are to be obedient regardless of the cost and that in obedience we find peace and contentment.” They know that nothing is out of reach if God is their center, and that it is never too late to obey his calling.
Poised for ordination
After four years of hard work, Chitwood was poised for ordination. A large contingent of family and friends joined the crowd seated in the auditorium at Warm Beach Campground. The ordinands and their spouses walked up to the platform to repeat vows of service. Other pastors anointed and prayed for them. Chitwood found the ceremony moving and rich with meaning. The depth of the commitment she was making in front of God and many witnesses touched her heart deeply.
She felt blessed by the support she felt from family and friends, though the absence of her mother at the ceremony made it bittersweet.
At present, the Rev. Chitwood is the associate pastor at Living Hope Christian Fellowship, a Free Methodist congregation in Renton, Wash. She leads the worship team Sunday mornings; directs seasonal choirs; recruits and trains adult teachers and small group leaders; preaches; and helps with visitation, especially with single women. She enjoys the variety of work she is invited to do by the senior pastor.
She has no idea where God will lead her next, but Chitwood is excited about the possibilities. “I know from past experience that he will give me what I need to accomplish his will anyplace. It may be right here doing what I’m doing now or it may be elsewhere.” She looks to Jesus’ great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 for inspiration and enabling. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
‘Don’t be detoured’
Chitwood says she hopes that women who are praying about entering the ministry will find her story helpful. Although sometimes she wonders what would have happened if she had responded to God’s call immediately, bypassing all the doubts and struggles, she firmly believes that taking time to confirm one’s calling is foundational to beginning the process toward ordination. “Look for confirmation of your call from God — in the Word and from others. Once you are certain your call is real and of God, begin and don’t be detoured.”
She warns that Satan will use feelings of inadequacy, personal distractions and other strategies to derail believers from following God’s call. “But there is no better place than in the center of God’s will — whatever it takes. There is nothing more peaceful than a heart that is totally surrendered to Christ. If God calls you he will equip you.”