I never planned on going back to school. When I walked away from Candler School of Theology with my Master of Divinity I was relieved to be free of the trappings of academia. Freedom at long last! No more grades! No more tests! No more long drives from Alabama! Somehow I even made it through without ever trying on a bow-tie. Christ had set me free to be in “real” ministry away from the confines of Bishop’s Hall.
Oh man, does God have a sense of humor.
In June of 2011 I was appointed to Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) as Chaplain and Director of Religious Life. After 10 years of being a pastor in a local church, I was back in school. Not a state school like where I received my undergraduate education but a liberal arts institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Sound familiar? It did to me. The best part?
I had no clue what I was doing. See, God hadn’t called me to campus ministry. I was called to church ministry and that’s why I went to Candler. In one of those situations that could only be from God I begun to make the best of the change. I started imagining that my greatest gifts would be to help God speak into some huge life decisions. People often meet their significant others and best friends in college. I bet God will want to speak into that. People often decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives in college. I’m sure God will want to speak into that. When that changes the next three semesters God will still want to be there. I could cultivate students to be the best human beings they could be.
Besides those two opportunities there was a fantastic truth to this ministry that I discovered not here at BSC, but at Candler. General Chuck Krulak, the 13th President of Birmingham-Southern College loves to say that we educate, not train. Training is preparation for the expected, but education is preparation for the unexpected. My time at Candler did not train me to be a Chaplain; it educated me to be one. Here are a few things I learned at Candler:
First, I can listen to people. That may sound like a silly thing to be proud of or to be taught, but being able to hear and respect folks who are different from you is a lost art. My Interpretation of the New Testament class revolved around the book of Revelation; that is not a subject most people can agree on. Teaching Parish with Dr. Alice Rogers (Contextual Ed for preachers) proved as informative as any CPE hours. I was presented with plenty of opportunities to face complex and rich theological truths not just from books but from the lips of those teaching and participating in my classes. If I couldn’t listen to these people, I would not have succeeded at Candler.
As a Chaplain, I’m meeting people every day who did not grow up in an environment like myself. I didn’t take any courses that told me how to “win” these people, but instead learned how to love those people as Jesus Christ. I can see these young persons for their potential and not just what their parents raised them to think.
Second, people grow. What’s the point of educating a person if it won’t affect change? Should we seek a faith journey that we wrestle with or an easy path that is soft underfoot? When David Peterson pressed us in Old Testament to reach back and claim the risks and rewards of our ancestors, I was encouraged to know where I was did not have to be where I stayed.
BSC is full of fresh young faces who are not done growing. If I forget that I can sell someone short and cease being an effective Chaplain.
Lastly, the best thing I learned at Candler was with Dr. Charles Hackett Jr. He taught a class called “Shame, Guilt, and Reconciliation” where we looked at the way Christianity helps people overcome shameful, taboo, and broken experiences. I learned that God loves to speak into our mistakes. Is that not the purpose of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? To redeem that which is broken? Shameful? Weak? To bring new life out of old?
At Birmingham-Southern, I discovered I had forgotten a truth shared with me at Candler – not only was I listened to or given space to change, but when I messed up I was given grace.
That is important for a guy who didn’t always make the best grades or come out on the right side of theological debates. It is important for me as a pastor called not to the Church but to a campus.
I’ll close with a Scripture that was used at our Annual Conference this past year. 1 Corinthians 3:7-9: 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building (NRSV).
God gave me growth at Candler School of Theology.
Thankfully I’ve discovered that the church ministry I prepared for and the campus ministry I’m called to intersect in so many ways they are nearly indistinguishable. I still haven’t tried on a bow-tie yet, but I have discovered that the same principles of community held dear at Candler School of Theology prepared me to be the best Chaplain I can be. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.