It’s been said that life is like a journey. As with any journey, there will likely be twists and turns along the way. You might encounter hazards or stormy weather, or heavy fog descends, and you can barely take the next step. For Rev. Eric Bagwell, the journey has certainly had its share of straight paths and winding roads. But Eric has always been able to trust his compass: his faith in God.
Even when he was surprised by an obstacle like depression, Eric knew God would see him through.
A Sudden Calling
Eric, a lifelong United Methodist and native of Huntsville, Alabama, began his vocational journey as a graphic artist. As a graduate of Auburn University with a good job and steady girlfriend, his life seemed to be on a sure path. That all changed one morning in Nashville as he drove to work.
“I was driving on a Monday morning to a job that was just OK. I liked what I was doing, but the atmosphere wasn’t great,” Eric said. “All of a sudden I felt something like a thump in my chest, a physical sensation. I knew immediately that thump was God was saying to me, ‘Hey! You should be telling people about Me! You should be telling people that I love them!’ I pulled the car over and thought, ‘What in the world?!’”
Eric immediately drove back home and called in sick.
“It’s ironic,” said Eric, laughing. “The first thing I did when God called me into ministry was tell a lie by calling in sick!”
While he wasn’t actually sick, he was profoundly shaken. “What just happened?” he thought. “Was this all in my head or a genuine call?”
Driving from Nashville to Huntsville, then Clarksville and back, Eric spent the rest of the day seeking counsel from three of his former pastors, various friends and then his mom and dad.
“My parents, each in their own way, were excited for me and encouraged me to pursue my calling. Mom was especially thrilled at the idea of me entering the ministry.”
His final conversation of the day was with Nancy, his then girlfriend of nine weeks. Nancy grew up in a United Methodist home and had clergy in her family, so she knew the rigorous commitment that would be required for anyone in his life. After taking a few minutes to process this change in vocational direction, she agreed that if God was calling him into the ministry, he should step forward in faith.
With the encouragement of so many who loved and supported him, Eric entered seminary in 1993 at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He and Nancy married the next summer.
Upon graduation in 1996, Eric began serving in the North Alabama Conference of the UMC. It was the first of several assignments, as pastors in the United Methodist Church are moved from church to church by assignment with varying frequency.
Joy Mixed with Sadness
Eric found life as a pastor to be truly rewarding, stretching and fulfilling. He served in several churches throughout the years, twice as an associate pastor and five times as the lead pastor.
“My favorite part of being a pastor is that people let you be a part of their spiritual lives. Because you represent God for them, people are quick to let you into their lives,” said Eric. “Families invite you into their holy moments like births, deaths, baptisms, weddings, sicknesses and struggles. That is a precious gift.”
Throughout his life Eric managed periods of depression through counseling, exercise, prayer and meditation, and when needed, with medication.
“Though in the past some have seen it that way, depression is not a character flaw or sign of weakness. Some people never experience the weight of depression, but many folks have been there. I think grief or depression might have been what David was talking about when he wrote about his ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death.’ And like David, I always knew that God walked with me through it.”
Even in the ups and downs, the majority of Eric’s church assignments were wonderful and life-giving. That changed when he found himself in a particularly difficult church assignment, one filled with church strife and conflict.
“That particular appointment didn’t come with the usual honeymoon period. There was no gracious welcome or the excitement of new potential. People were not only suspicious of each other, but of me as well. There were many landmines to avoid, and I stepped on some of them.”
Along with those conflicts was the distance of the church from services and medical experts needed for their daughter, Emma, who had significant health needs. Nancy spent a great deal of time driving to various appointments and events.
“Everything was at least an hour away. It was a very difficult time, and I did not get to see my family as often I wanted to. It was really very hard.”
The extreme stress of the placement and a gnawing loneliness led to a deep depression. Eric realized that the pastoral life that had once brought him such great joy was now draining the life out of him.
A Fork in the Road
Eric found himself staring at a fork in the road. He could continue on in pastoral ministry, or he could take different path. In the end, after exhausting every reasonable option, Eric chose to retire from his pastoral ministry after 20 years of faithful service. With the stress and loneliness at bay, it was time to heal.
For that leg of the journey, God led Eric to a familiar love: painting.
“I realized that painting was what God was calling me back to. And it was a huge jump for me and for my family. It’s a hard leap from pastor to artist. It’s scary. The income from art isn’t as steady as the art of pastoral ministry.”
Picking up the paint brushes proved to be therapeutic, and Eric began to feel his depression lift. Even through the change in vocation and depression, Eric always knew God still loved him.
“I had a pretty solid theological upbringing. I didn’t grow up in a judgmental church with a judgmental God, but with a theology of grace. I knew then, as I know now, that God is not out to get you. I know deep in my spirit that God doesn’t do bad things to people. God is in the midst of our lives, walking through these things with us. God is at work to make things better, to make things well. God didn’t cause any of the evil or depression I’ve experienced. God wants good things for you and for me. I know these things deep in my spiritual bones.”
All About Connection
Now, instead of preaching from a pulpit, Eric uses his art to share the story of God’s love.
“When I paint, my process is to try to communicate a spiritual idea, a theological concept, or tell a story from a passage of scripture. I’m trying to communicate how God desperately wants to connect with us. God wants to be in relationship with us.”
Eric enjoys painting series based on biblical themes and stories. When he displays his art at various festivals and art shows, he draws people into conversations about God.
Eric loves sharing God’s message with the world around him, whether as a pastor or a painter.
“God is trying to connect with us. I think God (is) always at work attempting to connect with you and me. God wanted to be with us so much, He humbled Himself to become human and came here to be with us. Then He suffered rejection humiliation and death. And even so, God is still reaching out to us. God’s love is amazing!”
To view Eric’s artwork, visit www.ericbagwellart.com, or on Instagram @ebartist. He just wrapped up a three month solo show at Uncorked, a wine shop in The Village of Providence in Huntsville. His next show will be at Panoply Arts Festival in Huntsville, April 26-28. (Also see www.artshuntsville.org.)