Wednesday, February 22, 2006

a call

The question of what to do with one’s life is a question every individual faces at some point in his life. For most individuals the issue of life purpose surfaces sometime during the early years of high school. During my freshman year of high school as I participated in various career tests and met with the school counselor to discuss my future, I began to consider what I wanted to do with my life in the coming years.

During those high school years playing football always seemed the way for me. I had loved the game since I was a child. My parents started me in Little League as soon as I was old enough to play, and I played every chance I could. A natural progression of playing football in Little League to Junior High to High School followed for me. I continued to play and love the sport. So, when it came time to think about careers, I naturally thought football.

Although I spent much of my time playing football, I was involved with another extracurricular activity, Bible Bowl at my home church. Bible Bowl provided me with year round competition as I traveled and connected with other students from my church. It also provided me with the opportunity to memorize a massive amount of God’s Word. Unbeknownst to me, through my Bible Bowl experience I believe that God began his heart work and call in my life. One of the best things about my years in Bible Bowl was the trips that our team took to round robins in various cities and tournaments at colleges around the country. Our team had a strong connection with each other similar to the one I experienced on the football team.

Although I greatly enjoyed Bible Bowl, I never would have considered joining it without encouragement from my youth minister, Dale Harlow. Dale seemed to see something in me that no one else saw. He encouraged me, helped me, directed me and even challenged me. I believe that years before the official call would come on my life, Dale saw a glimpse of it from a distance. Shortly before I entered high school, Dale departed from the Caldwell church to take a new position elsewhere. Even though my faith was shaken by his departure, God had begun a process in me that eventually would be completed.

It was during my senior year of high school that the future as I saw it became terribly shaky. In the third game of the football season, I sprained my right ankle very badly. The sprain was so severe that I could not play for three weeks. As a result, I lost my starting position to another player on the team. I never regained my position on the field and started only one game the remainder of the season.

I now stood at a crossroads in my life. Football seemed a distant hope as most colleges did not want to take a scholarship chance on a player who was hurt the previous season. God’s call, however, had already begun to work itself into my life. Years earlier, in my first year of Bible Bowl as a junior higher, our team from little Caldwell had gone to the North American Christian Convention, the site of the national Bible Bowl tournament. That team made up of older students made it to the final round and lost finishing second. As a result of being part of that team, many of the Christian and Bible Colleges around the country sent scholarship offers to my door. Now standing at the crossroads of my life with football hopes fading into the shadows, the only scholarship offers that I had were to Christian Colleges. Eventually I accepted an offer from Milligan College. Looking back, I now realize the beginning of God’s call on my life was to get me involved with Bible Bowl which would deliver me to the next part of God’s call on my life during college.

While attending Milligan, I was not sure what to do with my major and career options. Having spent so much time in God’s Word playing Bible Bowl, it seemed only natural to me to major in Bible. During my freshman year, I met and became friends with a non-traditional student in my humanities class named Nathan Dunman. We became friends because he would invite a couple others and me over to his house to study the night before an exam.

Nathan was the student minister at Ninth Street Baptist Church in Erwin, Tennessee, about thirty minutes south of Milligan. Over the next couple of years, Nathan began to include me in some of his student ministry events. He would take me to football and basketball games. He invited me to hang out with him when he had students over to his house. On several occasions, Nathan even hired me as the “bouncer” for his fifth quarter events at his church following sporting events. He would invite any student who would come to an event providing food, drinks, and games like Ping-Pong and air hockey. They would also see a special drama designed to share the Gospel. He needed me there to break up an occasional fight.

Over the course of these four college years, I began to see the in’s and out’s of student ministry in a local church from the perspective of the leader. I had seen plenty of student ministry events, but all of them from the perspective of a student. God continued his heart shaping call on my life as I began to look forward to and take great pleasure in times that I spent with the students of Ninth Street Baptist. Looking back now, my only regret is not having spent more time with those students and Nathan.

As my graduation from Milligan approached, I was again faced with the question of what to do with my life. I began to submit resumes to churches and went through the interview process with several congregations with an unclear call of what to do. At this point, I only had two of the three pieces of God’s call on my life. The final piece would not fall into place for another five months.

Although I did not realize it at the time, God had already orchestrated the events leading to the final piece of His call. From the time I began school, my parents felt the importance of having me at church camp in the summer. I attended a week of church camp every summer until I graduated from high school. Following high school, I felt the emptiness of not having a week of camp so I volunteered to work as a counselor. I picked up a brochure and made a cold call to the dean of one of the weeks of Junior High camp at Round Lake. He accepted, and I became a Junior High counselor. I continued to volunteer each summer at Round Lake from then on. In most cases, it was the highlight of my summer. All the while, God was preparing the third piece of my call experience.

Having not been successful at securing a position in a church following graduation, my parents made the statement that should I not find a job by graduation time, they would be moving me back home to Ohio when they came for graduation. Their reasoning was simple economics. If I could not support myself financially, they were not going to pay for me to live in Tennessee when I could be living in Ohio for free. Not wanting to return home with my parents, I turned to the fast food industry and acquired a job at McDonald’s. I also decided to continue my education at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City. I spent the summer working and preparing for graduate school until August.

When August arrived, I was back at Round Lake as a counselor at a junior high week of camp. The final piece of God’s call puzzle fell into place there. All of the time spent in Bible Bowl, my college experiences with Nathan and the realization of my love for students came together in a single mental thought that week. It hit me that the other youth minister counselors who were helping that week did everyday what I would love to do with the rest of my life.” Suddenly everything made sense. Neither graduate school nor McDonald’s was my life passion. I was called and gifted to encourage students into a real relationship with Jesus Christ. The call was now complete although it took several years for all the various pieces to come together to see how God had led me to that point in my life.

Following that week of camp, I returned to Johnson City to the room that I was renting while I attended Emmanuel School of Religion. I came back, however, with a fresh passion. Emmanuel and McDonald’s were not the path for me, but working with students was. I followed a lead from a friend at that week of camp to check out a website listing the names, addresses and phone numbers of churches who were searching for ministers. Soon thereafter, I sent out about ten emails to churches listed on that site inquiring about their positions. Two of those churches replied with requests for a resume. By the end of the month of October, I had interviewed over the phone and was scheduled to visit both in person. By Thanksgiving, both churches had made me offers to join their church staff and I made the decision to join a church in Pennsylvania.

Over the next six years as I reflected on my call experience I identified several lessons from my life. First, God never wastes pain. It was a very intense time for me when Dale Harlow left our church in Caldwell. But it instilled in me the importance of a solid minister in the lives of students. Secondly, God often brings into or takes out of a situation just the right person at just the right time. Nathan Dunman and the other counselors at Round Lake came into my life at just the point at which I needed them. Dale Harlow went out of my life at just the point at which it would make an impression on me without harming my faith. If they would have come earlier or left later, I may have missed their influence. Third, events in our lives are not always as meaningless as they may seem. At the time, Bible Bowl just seemed like a fun thing to do with my church friends. Now I realize that I may not have made the choice to go to Milligan or a Christian College at all without those scholarship offers. I also may not have made the choice of major that I did without all of those hours spent memorizing God’s Word. Finally, I learned to never rush God’s plan. It was a serious temptation to take any church position that I could in the months before graduation so as to avoid working at McDonald’s. Had I chosen to do that though, I would have missed the final piece of my call puzzle.

Currently, I am staying true to my call of encouraging students into a relationship with Jesus Christ. I continue to be extremely passionate about that as well as developing new passions in other areas of student ministry. I have always believed in long-term student ministry. I am taking steps, therefore, like graduate school, to ensure that I stay in student ministry a long time. I also believe my calling requires me to join others in a team approach to ministry. One way I further a team approach is by spending a great deal of time training and encouraging the student ministry volunteers at the church for which I work. I believe my volunteers are also called by God to minister to the students we encounter. Outside of my church I take a team approach by working with other student ministers and not competing against them. I make it a priority to build connections with other student ministers locally and nationwide. Finally, I realize that I will not live forever so I am attempting to help make the next generation of student ministers realize their own calling.

In many situations of my life it takes several exposures to the same fact for me to understand the concept. My call experience was no exception. God used several events and people over a period of time to call me into full-time service. In my opinion, there is no better place to be. I have the best job in the world.

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