A Spiritual Rebirth: Mom Examines Her Life, Decides to Leave the Pew for the Pulpit
by Donny Seagraves
Special to the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, January 25, 1998
WINTERVILLE, GA.–Brenda Mullis felt she was on the verge of insanity the day she left her home in rural Winterville seven years ago and traveled to Covecrest, a conference and retreat center in the north Georgia mountains.
She and her husband Bob had married young, when Brenda was 17 and Bob was 20. After 25 tumultuous years, Mullis had reached a point in her life where something had to change.
“Being married to bob was like living in the middle of a stew pot,” Brenda said. “When you’re in the stew pot and everything is boiling around you and you’re bobbing up and down with the other vegetables, you can’t see what’s going on outside your world.
“But it’s so chaotic that you don’t dare stop what you’re doing because you’re just trying to make it through the day. You’re just trying to survive.”
Covecrest, with wooded vistas and crisp mountain air, offered a tranquil atmosphere that was missing from Mullis’ home.
“At Covecrest, I stepped out of the stew pot of my marriage for the first time in 25 years, and it felt very strange,” Mullis said. “For years I had been responsible for raising four children and helping Bob with his carriage-building and restoration business and the chicken farm. I also had run a day-care center out of my home. There had always been someone to look after.
“Suddenly at Covecrest, I was alone, with no one to take care of or to tell me what to do. I realized that during my 25-year marriage, I had not looked after me. I had forgotten that the caregiver needs caregiving.”
One evening, Mullis sat in a rocking chair on the porch of a Covecrest cabin. “It was dusk,” she remembered. “I said, ‘OK, God. I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t deal with my life anymore. Something has got to give or I will go totally crazy.”
As Brenda rocked and gazed at the nearby pond, something that her late father used to say came to mind.
“Daddy would always say, ‘Whatever people say or do, don’t be afraid. They can cuss you out, they can be ugly to you and treat you badly, but they can’t eat you.’
“Daddy’s odd but comforting words had come to me before in times of crisis. That night, his words helped me realize that I do have the right to make my own choices in life. I do have the right to say yes or no, and no one can take that away from me. I realized that my life did have meaning and that my opinions counted.”
With those thoughts in mind, Mullis made a life-changing decision.
“I decided that I would not spend the rest of my life with Bob,” she said. “I was tired of living with someone who told me how to look and how to dress and what to think, someone who told me what to believe and what not to believe. I decided that night that I didn’t want that kind of life anymore.”
Mullis’ visit to Covecrest led to a divorce that took two years to finalize. During that time and afterwards, Mullis faced the dilemma of how to support her two younger children (their two older siblings had already left home) and her ill mother. She sought career advice from friends in the community, including a former teacher, Joan Biles, who had become a Methodist pastor in mid-life.
“At first, I thought I wanted to be a youth minister,” Mullis said. “I needed a degree to get that job, so I enrolled in college.”
Not long after starting college, Mullis was sitting on her bed one night, praying. She remembered saying, “OK, God, I have screwed up my entire life. The only good things in my life are my four children. What should I do now?”
Mullis was surprised by the next words that came to mind.: “I want you to pastor my flock.” To Mullis, the notion of becoming a pastor-in-charge, rather than a youth minister, was almost unthinkable.
“I told God he must have me confused with someone else,” Mullis said, laughing at the memory. “The idea of getting up and speaking in front of a group of people, as you do in church, terrified me. I could not imagine myself leading a congregation.”
But the idea of becoming a pastor persisted as Mullis continued to juggle family responsibilities with college classes, working as many as three part-time jobs simultaneously. At one point, she was forced to declare bankruptcy. After that, she depended on college loans and scholarships, more part-time jobs and sometimes even strangers’ donations to support her family.
Despite financial hardships, Brenda remembered this as a happy time during which she learned to make her own decisions.
The next step involved a six-month Methodist preparatory program.
“It took me 12 months to complete this program because I was still not sure that I was pastor material,” Mullis said. “One of my assignments was to interview three active pastors. Because of my indecision and doubts about my career choice, I interviewed 12.”
Mullis still had problems envisioning herself as a minister in charge of a church.
“I went through this period of insecurity about what it takes to be a preacher,” she said. “I thought a preacher, especially a female preacher, was supposed to dress in church clothes all the time and act formal and proper. Again, I was falling into that familiar trap of wanting to please everyone, of playing a role rather than being myself.
“As I studied what it takes to be a pastor, I learned that the best pastor I can be is me. I will never change for anyone again in my life, as I did for Bob. If God wants me to change, then I will change for Him. But I will never change for another human being.
“We all have the right to make our own decisions and to be committed to those decisions. Don’t settle for a life that is not what you want. When you’re miserable and unhappy, don’t settle for it.”
Mullis compared life to a merry-go-round ride.
“The things you want in life are like the gold ring on the merry-go-round. Just reach up and grab that gold ring. Try for it anyway. My biggest battle with myself, and I think we all have battles with ourselves, is procrastination. That’s my disease. I get mad at myself sometimes because I have some really good ideas but I don’t act on them because of procrastination.”
Today Mullis is 47 years old. She has a bachelor’s degree in child and family development and lives with daughter Jody, 11, and son Eric, 17, in a parsonage provided by the Methodist church. Besides attending seminary, she pastors two small churches part-time under a student appointment.
Mulllis said being a full-time pastor of larger congregations will be challenging. “I don’t want to be responsible for other people’s souls. To me, that would be a big burden. But now I know that all God is asking me to do as a pastor is to lead others in the right direction. He is not asking me to be a miracle worker or to be a puppeteer or to change someone or to save someone from Hell and damnation. He is the only one who can do that. I don’t have that power.”
Mullis plans to become a licensed therapist in addition to becoming a full-time pastor after graduating from seminary.
She also hopes to remarry some day but said: “If I don’t ever remarry, I can live with that too. At times, I am very lonely. You miss the adult companionship of a spouse, not the way it was in my marriage, but the way you dream of it being.
“I have come to a place in my life where I make a conscious effort not to judge people, including Bob. Even if I know what they are doing is evil and wrong, I pray for them rather than judge them. That’s all you can really do.”
Mullis thinks the negative experiences of her life have helped to prepare her for the role of pastor.
“I used to feel that I had wasted my life,” Mullis said. “But if someone else can learn from the mistakes I’ve made and the problems I have lived through, then my earlier life was not a waste.What I learned from my mistakes and my ability to share that knowledge was worth what I lived through.
“I’ll be 50 years old when I am ordained. For me, 50 is the right age to begin a new life. I no longer have any doubts about my career choice. I’m excited about my future now because I know I’m doing the right thing with the rest of my life. When I step behind the church pulpit each Sunday and preach, I know I’m in the right place.”
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1998. It was syndicated in 60 other newspapers across the US and Canada. No reprints without permission of the author.