RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Her words hit Seth Whitman* like a hammer.
The 37-year-old civil engineer was riveted by the stories he was hearing from a missionary who’d come to speak at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. The more she shared about how God was working in North Africa and the Middle East, the tighter God squeezed Seth’s heart.
“I just started to feel very convicted that … it was somewhere else He wanted us to plant our lives,” Seth said. What he didn’t know was that God also was gripping the heart of his wife Amy.
For the first time, Amy heard stories about God appearing to Muslims in dreams and visions. The more the missionary shared, the more Amy wanted to go.
“I was very jealous that people were seeing God move in miraculous ways, and I was like, ‘Lord, I want to see that.’ … And I just told Him right then, ‘Lord, if You’ll call Seth, I’ll go.'”
The rest of the church service was a blur for Seth as he grappled with this seemingly out-of-nowhere impulse to be a missionary. But when the altar call was given, inviting people who felt God may be calling them to missions to come down front, Seth did.
It was a moment Amy had spent the past 14 years praying for.
“I had been praying for Seth to be called to something our whole marriage…. Not necessarily to missions or to preach — I just prayed that God would call him to follow Him and that we would have a ministry together as a family,” Amy said.
While Seth was at the altar, Amy quietly sat in a pew, asking God if He was calling them overseas.
“When [Seth] finally came back to the pew, I could tell that he was overwhelmed with emotion, and I didn’t dare speak to him because I knew he was just about to lose it…. That day was the beginning of a new Seth. He was broken and God began to change him.”
But with that brokenness came a lot of pain, and the next few days were rocky for Seth. When he told his dad he thought God was calling him to ministry in the Middle East, his dad was less than excited.
Seth had spent the past 16 years working for his father, helping run a manufacturing company. Now nearing retirement, Seth’s father was ready to hand the company over to his son. But if Seth answered God’s call to the mission field, that would be impossible.
When Seth refused to drop the idea of going overseas, his father at one point became so upset he fired Seth — only to ask him back the following week.
“I think my dad feels like I’m throwing my career away,” Seth said. “It’s hard. And it still is … [but] this is what God has asked me and I’m going to be obedient to that.
“God just made it where I could take my refuge in Him.”
Seth had his own internal struggles as he came to grips with what God was asking. He didn’t want to talk about what was happening in his life. He wanted to run from it; to argue it away.
“I told God I am in a wonderful position here — I love my job…. We have a great church, our family is planted here, we have friends, I do stuff with the Little League, we have a great house — we have everything.”
“We both were calm,” Amy said. “We didn’t get excited, and we didn’t run out and do anything crazy, we just got up every morning early and read our Bibles and we prayed.”
By January 2009 — eight months after the Whitmans first heard God’s call — they knew without doubt that God wanted them overseas.
“I can’t really tell you [how it happened],” Seth said. “All I can really say is that the joy and contentment I had for where our life was — it just faded…. It was like God scraped the desires that I had out of my heart and He put this in.”
The Whitmans were “sprinting headlong” into the missionary application process with the International Mission Board when they hit a snag — selling their house. Nobody was buying, and it had to be sold before they could go. After missing an opportunity to be appointed in September 2010, leadership at Calvary Baptist offered to manage the sale of the Whitmans’ home so they wouldn’t be delayed any longer.
“Calvary stepped in and said, ‘If this is what you’re feeling led to do … then we’re willing to hold the rope for you and help you get there,'” Seth said. “To experience that type of commitment from leadership in your local body — there just really aren’t any words for that.”
IMB trustees officially approved the Whitmans as Southern Baptist missionaries Nov. 10 together with 55 other candidates who were recognized at an appointment service at Calvary Baptist. The Whitmans will leave for North Africa and the Middle East in spring 2011. They’ll work as church planters, sharing the Gospel among a people with very few believers.
“We’ve heard about God doing amazing things in other parts of the world, and I just can’t believe He’s going to let us have a front-row seat to that,” Seth said. “I just don’t understand how I could deserve that.”
*Names changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.