Called to Faith: Bluffton pastor finds peace in ministry, at last

Pastor Joey McDonald, photographed Tuesday, started at Bluffton United Methodist Church about a year ago.
Pastor Joey McDonald, photographed Tuesday, started at Bluffton United Methodist Church about a year ago. Jay Karr/The Island Packet

Called to Faith is a monthly series profiling leaders of local congregations.

It took Pastor Joey McDonald most of his life to learn that giving in -- for the right reasons -- can be a good thing.

McDonald grew up in a Christian family in Floydale, located about 60 miles north of Myrtle Beach. His parents were active in their 25-member United Methodist church, and he served as acolyte when the time came.

"There was never a time when I didn't know who Jesus was," McDonald said.

He said he's been a deeply committed Christian for as long as he can remember. But McDonald said when he was younger he never imagined working in the church.

Yet that's where you can find him every Sunday. A Methodist pastor for almost 18 years, McDonald became pastor at Bluffton United Methodist Church about a year ago.

But the road to ministry was not always an easy one for the 45-year-old Bluffton man. He had quite a struggle with God. He didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew it was not becoming a pastor. He said he had irrational fears about working in ministry, and ultimately Satan was trying to discourage him from his calling.

"It was really an assault of evil to try to keep me out of the church," he said.

After high school, McDonald studied business at the University of South Carolina. He graduated in 1988 and applied for every job he could find but had no luck.

"In hindsight, what it was -- God had closed the doors," McDonald said. "It was time for me to sit there and listen to him."

With nowhere else to go and no job to pay the bills, he moved back home with his parents for a year. He was miserable not being able to work -- his parents had instilled a strong work ethic in him, and he couldn't put it to use.

But a sermon at his hometown church changed it all. McDonald said he felt God speak to him through the preacher that day.

"It was spot on," McDonald said about the sermon. "It was like she just peered into my soul. ... God used her as his mouthpiece."

He said it wasn't just what the pastor said that got to him. It was the feeling he got that went along with what she said. He knew right away it was time to go to seminary, no matter how much he opposed the idea.

McDonald spent three years at Erskine College and received his master of divinity degree at age 26. And even after seminary, he didn't want to go into ministry. But he couldn't pay his bills. So he took a job as director of Christian education at a Presbyterian church in Darlington. He worked there for 14 months. He said the church was wonderful, but the job just didn't click for him.

"And I said, 'OK, God, that was my shot at ministry. I gave it everything I had. It didn't work out. Now I'm going to go and do what I want to do,'<2009>" McDonald said. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but it was out of the church."

He resigned and struggled once again to find work. Then he was asked to be the pastor of three small churches in Lee County.

"It turned out to be absolutely wonderful," he said. "It sent me off into the ministry inally fantastic way."

McDonald was pastor of the churches for four years and went on to lead several other churches before moving to the Lowcountry.

Just a couple of weeks after taking over at the local Methodist church, McDonald made another major life change -- he got remarried. He and his wife, Mickayla, have a combined five sons.

While he didn't particularly enjoy wrestling with God all those years, McDonald can appreciate the lessons he learned along the way. He's happy he gave in and answered God's calling.

"Had I known what the ministry was going to mean to me and to my family, I wouldn't have taken so long to get there," McDonald said.