As soon as the Directors and I hung up, a deep unquiet entered our home. Once she got over the shock, Mikala asked what I was ignoring: how much will you say? These questions could be answered in one to three sentences with a list of Bible verses, or could each spin entire series of books. I spoke with trusted friends and advisors, hoping without hope for a way out.
My ever-cagey father said to write as little as possible – “That way they have less to hang you with.”
Harv was worried. He just kept repeating, “Josh, this doesn’t look good for you no matter what you write.”
Kellan joked I had to “show my work” when he heard instructions to “include Scripture to support our answers.”
The couple of students whom we let in simply couldn’t understand. After all, hadn’t they heard me preach? I wasn’t a heretic! Hadn’t they seen the students’ growth and felt the depth-change in their lives? We were effective! Why would the Board, a group of men they had never seen, be concerned with something that was working so well? Surely I was overreacting and this would end up a non-issue.
At our annual retreat, my fellow Farmhouse Board members were less optimistic. Sure, they all tried putting on a brave face for me, but the truth was in their initial, “Well, you’re screwed.” We read through the entire list like some sadistic game, each raising a hand when a question would be the likely cause of our termination. Every hand went into the air on question one.
Thus Mikala and I entered into the “game theory portion” of our final months at Campus House.
(Oh right, don’t forget she also had to answer these, as well as our new hire. How would he approach it? How would she?)
If I write a short answer for this question about the Bible, will they want an extended verbal follow-up? If so, would it have been better, more clear and succinct if it had all been written?1
What if I go all out on this question regarding homosexuality? Do I deal with each “clobber” passage? Aren’t there already several books with clear, extensive arguments?
How do I keep from being sarcastic in this question about women in leadership? It’d be more fun to say, “Woman should do what they want and are gifted for – including your jobs!”
Ultimately, I knew this was an exercise of power and control; a challenge of whether I would share what I truly felt or fade back, cowed and compliant. Mikala and I spoke multiple times about this, wondering if we were supposed to play along – or not. We both knew exactly what we could have written for each question. The game was not difficult to master: I knew the passages to reference and the simple answers they wanted. I could make those twenty-five landmines last two boring pages.
Only I had no interest in lying.
What blew me away was the subtle invitation to do so. It was as if they were begging me to prove I’d toe the party line, whispering, “just write ____ and we can move on.” But we simply couldn’t do it. We knew our jobs were on the line (though we tried desperately to convince ourselves and others they weren’t), and we knew the follow-up discussion would be frustrating and fruitless, but in the end, we could not bring ourselves to write anything less than what we truly believed as peacefully as possible.
The irony is that till then I had never been bombastic in my opinions. Irenic by nature, I never felt the stage gave license for controversy, and had been careful thus far to package difficult and even counter-cultural concepts in an open, non-threatening manner. If I shared a heterodoxical or simply non-conservative view, I tried (though I’m sure I didn’t always succeed) to offer disclaimers and reasonable counter-arguments so students didn’t feel pressure to choose between their home-faith and their pastor.2
Yet for all the we were, staring down the barrel of twenty-five opportunities for controversy. Some were innocuous enough: What are your spiritual gifts? Others were laughable in their breadth and presumption: What is your view of the nature of the Godhead? While still others were obvious trap questions: Does God distinguish differences in the roles of men and women in the church? and What is your view of homosexuality and how should it be addressed in the body of Christ?
So we stopped planning for the upcoming semester, sat down, breathed deeply . . . and began to type.
We typed for days. Years, it seemed. And on the other side, Mikala held in her hands nine pages, some questions barely touched on due to her complete lack of interest (What is the “Restoration Plea” and why does it matter today?) and others attacked with her badass brand of workaday bluntness.
I on the other hand, continued typing. When I finally emerged, dishevelled and coming down from a monstrous caffeine headache, I printed off some 35 pages of the most beautiful single-spaced self destruction you’ve never read. One friend recognized the almost hyperbolic erudition displayed in my answers to be “A big middle finger to the Board,” and I must admit he was partially right. Though my answers never crossed the line into disrespectful, I made sure if I was going to do this ridiculous exercise that, first, they would have to make an effort and second, that I would do my very best considering the circumstances. It wasn’t perfect and even as I edited I could see my views evolving or sharpening, but it would have to do. I attached it to an email with all the Directors’ addresses and, with trembling fingers, clicked “Send.”
That was mid-May. Over two months later, we finally sat to discuss the questions.
I nervously twitched in my seat, knowing this was the moment of truth – whether we had wasted our efforts. As we waited for a reply we had worked, and planned, and studied for the upcoming semester. We had welcomed our new hire and his wife into the Campus House and our home. We held meetings and conversations. Sermons were written, initiatives laid out, and events planned. A retreat for the leaders was scheduled.
Now we would discover if any of it mattered.
We showed up, sat around the table and immediately dove in . . . to the new guy’s answers. For almost 90 minutes, he spoke about his couple pages of responses. Once his were finished, I wondered how in the world we would ever cover even a fraction of Mikala’s or mine.
The answer was we didn’t. They decided his had taken long enough and mine should wait for a fresh meeting (you know, because we hadn’t already been kept in suspense long enough).
That’s right, mine could wait. Mikala’s? Well, she was never to get the courtesy of discussing a single one of her labored answers. Just as she was asked to leave the previous Board meeting, she was not allowed to discuss her views on, well anything. Not for the last time!
Less than a month later, a mere week before school began, we finally met. You may be scanning to the end and noticing there’s not much left to this post and may be thinking, “Wait, wasn’t there some big Battle Royale over your answers?” No, in fact the meeting was relatively boring. I felt the question What are your views regarding the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Scripture? was germane to the rest, we discussed a couple points in that answer, piddled around with a couple others, then ended. The Directors said there were several answers they would like “To continue discussing” and we set a tentative date to pick it back up.
As we walked out I felt relieved, exhaling the breath I had not realized I’d been holding. We’d made it! We’d been given our own death warrant, had signed it, and then miraculously been allowed to leave the execution chamber! Now, we could get to work. Tired but excited, I turned back to my sermon series that was to begin the next week and Mikala continued preparing for her semester with a new group of leaders and exciting service opportunities.
That first Sunday I felt light, almost buoyant. This ministry’s leadership had been entrusted to me and we had steered through one whole year without any major accidents, and now there we were, on the brink of year two with some momentum and the first group of students I had known since freshman year. I had never felt more alive in ministry.
Until the second Monday.
Two Directors – the chairman and my friend – walked into my office.
And handed me a letter.
1. Succintish. Let’s be honest, doesn’t matter if I’m writing or speaking, you’re in for the long haul, but at least in writing you can scan down to the bottom and know when relief will come.↩
2. Counter-cultural for Missouri of course. And yeah, it’s amazing how many people still believe that if a pastor says something, it’s true, regardless of how crazy (in either direction) it is, and require constant reminders to take your words lightly.↩