Engineer gets call to ministry in secular country
By Lindsay Peyton
Looking back at 20 years spent on a different career path, before becoming a pastor, the Rev. Paul Meiller has no regrets -- even though there were countless struggles and challenges along the way. After all, being a chemical engineer is what led him to Belgium. And that paved the way for a transformation, one that would eventually lead him to the clergy. Each step of the way, a divine force urged him forward. “God lines things up,” Meiller said.
Meiller never anticipated becoming clergy. He graduated from Texas A&M University in chemical engineering in 2000. He met his wife Alison, also a chemical engineer, while on campus.
While being a pastor is a challenging job, it’s one that Meiller finds infinitely rewarding. “I find grace every day,” he said. “It’s all about finding that bit of who can you help and where do you see God working. That’s the beauty of this job. I get to follow along and see the Holy Spirit at work.”
Meiller was an ocean away from his home in Lake Jackson, Texas, following his career to Antwerp, Belgium, when he began to feel the call in 2008. An incredible church paved the way.
Meiller was Lutheran at the time, but there were not a lot of English-speaking congregations. In fact, there was only one option – Antwerp International Protestant Church.
The church ended up being better than Meiller could have ever expected. “It was such an epiphany,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience.”
The church was more diverse than he had experienced in the past. Members came from all backgrounds and different countries. Some were refugees, others immigrants and many were finding temporary homes in Belgium.
Dozens of different languages were spoken in the pews. About 100 worshiped each Sunday -- with no permanent church building. Instead, the congregation met in a school auditorium.
Meiller grew up going to churches with members who were primarily white and middle class – and this felt like a whole new world. “This was really eye-opening,” he said. “We read about the Kingdom of God. My thought the entire time I was there was, this is what the Kingdom would be. They had this spirit of one family in Christ.”
The Holy Spirit was at work each Sunday, Meiller recalled. “It was such a spiritual place,” he recalled. “I felt the Holy Spirit really strongly.”
The experience was so powerful that Meiller began to rethink his career. At the same time, he realized that many Belgium residents were not religious. They considered his church attendance to be a hobby. “What does my faith really mean?” Meiller wondered. “Is it a hobby for me?”
Then, his daughter Emilie was born. “Being a parent changes your theology,” Meiller said. “You start to think about legacy. What did I want to pass on to Emilie? And how do you measure success?”
After two years, the Meillers returned to Texas and settled back in Lake Jackson. It was still just the beginning, however, of Meiller’s spiritual struggle. “It took me about seven years to come to grips with my call,” he said.
He kept trying different ways to volunteer or work at church, to rationalize his calling. “God kept saying, ‘No. That’s not it,’” Meiller recalled.
He credits Alison with his breakthrough. “My wife is very wise,” Meiller said. “She’s kind of my spiritual mentor in a lot of ways.”
She asked him what he wanted to do directly. “I want to go to seminary,” he replied.
It was the first time the words came out – and they surprised even him. But right away, they sounded right.
“I’d been thinking about it for long time, but it was one of those moments when I said it aloud, I thought, ‘That’s it,’’ Meiller said.
Around that time, the Meillers started attending a Methodist church – Chapelwood UMC in Lake Jackson, after hearing many in the community singing Rev. Peter Cammarano’s praises.
Meiller spoke to Cammarano about his idea to go to seminary, and by 2016, he was signed up for Perkins School of Theology. He took a reduced schedule at work and began making way for his new life.
“It was very intense, but I felt like I was finding the path,” he recalled. “I found where God wanted me to be moving. It felt like this is what I was supposed to do.”
He graduated in May 2020. At seminary, his connection with Methodism solidified. “I found Methodist theology to be very honest and practical,” he said. “And for all the Methodists I met, it wasn’t just about going to church or doing the right thing. There was a service piece. It made a lot of sense.”
And it reminded him a bit of Antwerp International Protestant Church. “That’s what I’m searching for,” he said. “I want to find it again, that beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God.”
Meiller would find another vision of it at Galveston Central Church, where he served his pastoral internship at Perkins with Pastor Michael Gienger. “That was another super formative moment for me,” Meiller said.
While in Galveston, Meiller was touched with what he witnessed. “I saw people literally give the last dollar they had to another,” he said. “It was little moments of profound grace, radical grace.”
Like in Belgium, the congregation united individuals of different backgrounds, different races and socioeconomic statuses. “It’s about, let’s make a space where we can be children of God all together and help each other,” Meiller said.
As he neared his graduation, COVID struck. He was appointed July 2020 at Aldersgate UMC in Santa Fe, Texas and the Meillers moved into the parsonage, all at a time when the pandemic made meeting a new congregation a challenge.
On top of that, Meiller was a completely new pastor. Because of COVID, he had to rethink almost everything. Even the first communion he presided over was drive-through. Worship was online.
“Everything was new,” he said. “And the normal playbook didn’t work. You can’t go visit people. My telephone became my best friend. I just called people all day long. I met people over the phone.”
In time, Meiller felt more and more at home. Now, he’s been at the congregation for more than a year. Worship has returned to in-person, but the challenges of COVID remain.
Still, the pastor believes that the pandemic has provided numerous lessons. “I see a lot of light,’ he said. “There’s excitement and opportunity. It’s about finding those possibilities and seeing what new ministry God has in mind.”
Already, members at Aldersgate have started to go to Galveston Central to learn about the church’s outreach, like offering showers, laundry and meals to those in need. “I could preach 1,000 hours, but it’s not as effective as going down there,” Meiller said.
It started in January 2021, when Pastor Gienger was asking churches to come to Galveston to serve lunches. “Our church has a cooking team, so they took that and ran with it,” Meiller said. “They jumped in.”
Now, members go to Galveston once a month. “What’s really interesting are the discussions that have spun off of it,” Meiller said. “They’re coming to me to see what we could do to make it happen here.”
Aldersgate UMC is poised to move forward and exploring ways to spread God’s love. Standing at the helm, Meiller is excited to be along for the ride. “I feel like this is where I am supposed to be,” he said.