So why specifically do I feel called to college ministry? I could offer you plenty of statistics on the alarming number of young people who were raised in the faith, and yet become spiritually inactive during their college years. But instead of looking at the question from a more abstract view, I want to talk how I came to hear a specific calling from the Lord to be involved in campus ministry. On another section of this blog I have already shared the details of my testimony—that is how I came to the knowledge of a saving faith in Christ, and accepted Him as my personal Lord and Savior. But how was it that I came to be called into ministry with college students???
When I went off to college at Vanderbilt University, the thought of perhaps one day pursuing ministry full-time did not even cross my mind. I had always enjoyed many different liberal arts subjects, particularly English and history, and so I ended up majoring in history and minoring in English. Although I did take a few religious studies classes in college and enjoyed them, I never really thought about perhaps wanting to study the Bible, church history, or theology in any greater depth. I thoroughly enjoyed the history program at Vanderbilt, and even had the chance to write a senior thesis in British history, an exercise that helped push me towards the decision to pursue graduate work in that field. As I have already related though (see my blog entry “Reflections on a crisis of belief”), I also experienced a significant crisis of faith after my freshman year. And so while I did not know it at the time, the seeds God planted during that season of spiritual dryness would eventually bear fruit, bringing me to a vocational shift in which I would leave academia for the ministry.
After graduating from Vanderbilt, I applied to both law schools and graduate history programs, but given my academic background and interests, graduate work in history was always a stronger possibility than law. After receiving a scholarship from the University of Virginia, I decided to enroll in their history PhD program. My career plan at that point was to earn a PhD in British history and become a college professor. However after my first year in graduate school, I remember returning home to Montgomery for a period of reflection. Even though I was doing fine academically, I was no longer as sure of my intended career path, and I was sensing the first vague stirrings of a possible call into ministry. I had an in-depth visit with my pastor, Jay Wolf, and asking for some advice. He wisely told me to be patient in discerning God’s possible call, and offered two key pieces of counsel—stay rooted in Scripture daily, and find a ministry to become heavily involved in at Virginia. Only through the hands-on process of ministering to others would I truly learn if God was calling me to full-time vocational work, and in the meantime, His will for my life would be anchored in the truth of His Word.
Following this advice, I returned to Virginia and became active in their chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, where I had a chance to take on leadership of the graduate student ministry. I found great fulfillment in the chance to disciple others in a small group setting, and at the same time, I had started working as a graduate teaching assistant. Through my role as a T.A. I had a lot of direct interaction with students; leading discussion sections, grading, and holding office hours. I discovered that I enjoyed this personal interaction much more than I did the solitary pursuits of research that comprised much of my PhD coursework. In fact as the PhD program continued, I felt increasingly that the emphasis was exclusively on preparing students to become publishing authors at large research universities rather than committed classroom instructors. Thus as time passed, I felt myself increasingly drawn towards the thought of entering ministry full-time, and all of my ministry experience centered around working with college students.
Eventually I determined that I needed to follow God’s calling into vocational ministry, and the best way to prepare for that was to enroll in seminary and pursue a master’s of divinity degree. I chose Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, in large part because of its close connections to a larger university community. I knew that ministry to college and graduate students would be a central part of my life as a seminarian. Now although I was excited about getting my master’s of divinity, I didn’t want to quit on the PhD track. I felt I had come too far to abandon my PhD studies, and so after my first year in seminary I was able to travel to England to finish my dissertation research, and then I spent the rest of that summer working on my dissertation. I eventually defended it over the spring break of my second year in seminary, and thus received my PhD. While at Baylor, I had many opportunities to be involved in student ministry, both on the Baylor campus and through my local church home, First Baptist Waco. These experiences definitely confirmed for me a desire to minister to college and graduate students, and to use if possible my academic background as leverage for making connections in that community.
In retrospect, God used these distinct circumstances: a spiritual crisis at Vanderbilt, my dissatisfaction with the PhD program at Virginia, and the abundant opportunities for ministry at Baylor, to draw me specifically towards a passion for college ministry. I never could have guessed precisely how this would have turned out, and certainly the truth of Proverbs 16:9 is therein illustrated! “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” So while my eventual journey to campus ministry at CU-Boulder through the North American Mission Board may have been somewhat roundabout, there is no doubt that all of my previous experiences, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, have contributed towards leading me to this present moment.