I’m not an avid conference goer, but especially of Christian ones. Yet somehow there I was in Atlanta attending one of the largest Christian conferences in the world, trying desperately to keep my sarcasm in check and feeling exhausted from the effort.
It was October 2012, one month until I was to be fired from the Muncie Campus House and, whether from a premonition of my upcoming need, frustration with my current job, or else to get away from Mitt Romney’s face in the Presidential debate coverage, I walked into the empty hotel lobby, poured a cup of cardboard coffee, and began to write. Several hours later, I emerged with the jitters and two descriptions of my ideal ministry. One document, labelled Why, spoke of sacramental awareness of the movements of Grace in others that fueled my vocation as a pastor, which in its turn was fed by the sacraments. The second paper, How, detailed the methods by which liturgical practices and an elevation of the Eucharist could deepen evangelical worship and develop communities of love and service. I thought it was both true and well-written, but ultimately useless since it would be meaningless to my current boss.
Then, well . . . you know.
Months later, I was (again) proofreading my email to Brad at the Campus House in Missouri and remembered those writings and tried to decide whether to include them. On the one hand they were a solid representation of my vocation as I understood it, but also quite esoteric. Knowing they could just as easily help or hinder my cause, I attached them to my resume with more than a little doubt. The response I received surpassed my highest hopes: not only did he appreciate the breadth of thought and approach, but it resonated with their community’s current conversations on establishing a “why” before “what.”1
Soon, Brad and I were regularly speaking on the phone and I quickly realized that, though our personalities differed greatly, there was an easy harmony between us and conversations quickly began orbiting possible employment. Aside from needing to meet us in person and “see me in action,”2 there was also the issue of his Board. He explained that they were well-meaning men, but disconnected with the ministry day-to-day and its vision for within the larger campus community. It was difficult to gather these men for meetings and even more challenging to reach decisions, so the deliberation on hiring me could potentially stretch on for months.
So, my first Board was disinterested and biased and my potential new Board was incompetent. Sweet.
Nevertheless, we were invited to attend their Spring Break retreat in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. While not to the booze-fueled orgies I had grown used to in Bible college, I supposed the ancient rolling Appalachians would do for a much-needed vacation. The plan was to present me as the “worship leader” for the week and use the opportunity to get to know the ministry’s vision, students, and staff. So March finally came around, we packed our bags and the three of us left the dismal flatlands surrounding Muncie for the green hills of Gatlinburg.
Once the awkward blind-date introductions were over we settled into a beautiful week with worship gatherings, discussions, games, and hiking. The students were curious, earnest, and full of energy; as quick to laugh as to launch into deep discussions of life and faith (so, you know, college students). Yet there was something different about this group, something in the atmosphere cultivated by the staff or in the students who found a home in that community that felt healthy, centered, graceful.3 In those mountains we found something for which we had deeply hungered but could not name, an intuition of our healing and the road to wholeness. We were besotted and desperately hoped to be part of this community as much for ourselves as for the students to whom we would minister.
We drove away that week full of rest and hope – and promises from Brad to press the Board for a decision. We didn’t know they would stretch the deliberations for almost two more months, nor did we understand until later why almost the exact moment we crossed back into Indiana we began to fight again, our fragile armistice falling apart. We did not see how desperately we simply needed to get out, nor could we possibly know the ones responsible for delaying our welcome by months would one day decide in days to push us out, but for now we looked to the horizon and saw amidst the desert of our lives a flickering image of hope. Whether it was real or not was still to be seen.
1. Having greater concern for how we hold our beliefs (i.e. how does your faith, whatever it is, drive you to act in the world) than stressing the individual tenets of faith.↩
2. Church-speak for live audition – though, to Brad’s credit, that also included extended conversations with staff and students and our own discernment.↩
3. Except for Sam, he’s the worst. But he also deserves an honorable mention for his perseverance in the Facebook comments following every post.↩