To InterVarsity, With Love

visionstatement-rect2A few weeks before I turned 22 years old, I drove to Westport Plaza, a business park just northwest of Saint Louis, to interview for a full-time position with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I had spent the previous year as an intern with the organization, which included a six-week stint living with Sudanese refugees in Cairo, Egypt. I had led a freshmen Bible study, run some leadership meetings, and spent every Sunday night with other interns and young staff in Saint Louis, learning how to be an adult and fighting to survive the first year of ministry together.

On the drive, I thought about a phrase that my staff partner, Esther, had mentioned to me in passing as a teaching from her undergrad days in InterVarsity. A speaker at her large group meeting had used the phrase “tithe your twenties” as a challenge to students to dedicate the decade, including the final two years of undergrad, toward sowing intentionally and deeply in the work of the Kingdom, regardless of their vocation.

As I made the half-hour drive in my best “business casual on a missionary budget” attire, this phrase – “tithe your twenties” – popped up in my mind and refused to be ignored. I wondered to myself, what would it be like to tithe my twenties to InterVarsity, to the vision of seeing students and faculty transformed, campuses renewed, and world-changers developed?

Four months ago, I turned thirty. After today, I will no longer be working for InterVarsity.

Both of these realities are strange and bittersweet. They fill my heart with a mix of nostalgia, hopefulness, and gratitude that in no way feels fully processed. I suppose this blog is a first step along the way toward understanding just how much this community has meant to me.

In the end, my exit from InterVarsity was much like my entrance: an unforeseen doorway that opened on my way to something else. I originally thought joining the organization would simply be a one-year stop on the way to seminary and church work. The decision to leave nine years later came together quite quickly after pursuing and then being offered a promotion. Both decisions caught me off guard; both looking back now seem drenched in the leadership of the Spirit.

A year ago, I was excited about the prospect of taking a promotion within InterVarsity and moving our family across the country to North Carolina to become an Area Director in the Research Triangle area encompassing Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. We flew out to prayer walk on the big campuses in the area, interviewed for the position, and were eventually offered the job. Along the way, as we were discerning with our community, two big realities begin to come to the surface:

  1. We love Saint Louis – the neighborhoods, the schools, the people, the churches, the campuses – investigating a new place mostly just reminded us of all the things we loved about home.
  2. I felt a deep longing to do everything in my limited power to get the local church more involved in the Kingdom work that needed to be done on local university campuses, particularly those with deep city roots, like our state and community colleges.

We ended up turning down the promotion. Somewhere in there, I met with a good friend who works for the city office of our denomination (Southern Baptists). I shared with him my heart to see college students establish a firm foundation in a local congregation long before graduation and to see church pastors and planters find unique ways to engage students more holistically in the life of the church starting their first Sunday freshman year. I wondered aloud if there might be space for a bridge-builder type position in his office. We prayed and brainstormed and made a few calls and waited to see if God was in it.

Five months later, I’m happy to announce that God met us in a thousand ways since that first conversation and a job came together that feels like a linear next step from my time with InterVarsity. Starting tomorrow, I will be taking the role of Director of Campus and Community Engagement with the Saint Louis Metro Baptist Association.

This new position has two parts, both of which fascinate and excite me:

  1. My main job is to be that very bridge-builder person as I originally pitched to my friend in the denominational office. I long to see the churches of Saint Louis reach the students of Saint Louis more effectively and build lifelong connections on our university campuses. I long to see college students reach their friends on campus while thriving in their development as followers of Jesus in our local churches. I’ll be spending the bulk of my time strategizing with students and church leaders to see these two dreams come to fruition.
  2. The other piece of my job is to develop a growing partnership between our association office and Mission: St. Louis, a local non-profit with which my family has deep connections. I’ll be spending some time each week working to connect students and churches in our network from all over the city and country to serving alongside Mission: St. Louis as they work to empower low-income communities through job training, housing repair, and a number of other impactful programs.

As I look excitedly toward the future, I want to say thank you to the organization that gave me a shot nine years ago to reach and empower students in this city that I love.

To InterVarsity,

Thank you for teaching me to love Jesus and his Word above all other things. Your insistence on communal discovery, manuscript study, asking important questions, and hearing from a plurality of voices has illuminated the Bible like no other guiding voice in my life. The Bible mystifies and delights me and that is in no small part thanks to your investment in me.

Thank you for showing me that leadership in the Kingdom is not about professional people with particular personalities and skill sets; it is about empowering every person from every corner and walk of life to use the gifts given by Jesus to do their part in seeing every inch of Creation brought back under the Lordship and Renewal of Jesus.

Thank you for exposing me to the global voices of the Church beyond my borders. From the main stage at Urbana to the refugees in my neighborhood, you taught me that the U.S. is not the keeper of the keys to the Kingdom and you awakened in me a longing to worship as part of the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-lingual Bride that Jesus came to save.

Thank you for opening my eyes to issues of injustice and the calling that all followers of Jesus have to pursue reconciliation and justice, not as a side-bar passion for a few, but as the main outworking of our surrender to Jesus. When Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, just a few miles from my campus, it was your leadership and your networks that led myself and so many others into responding with open eyes and hearts to the cries for justice coming out of our communities. I fail in this pursuit every single day but you continually called me to show up and listen as a learner in spaces where I don’t have the answers.

Thank you for teaching me how to rest and care for my soul. I have a lot of friends in ministry and I know of no other organization that prioritizes spiritual formation like you do. I feel nostalgic about different pieces of my job every week but most recently I find myself realizing more and more how challenging it will be to find the spaces for silence and solitude that you have written into my work calendar for so many years. Thank you not seeing me as an organizational tool, but as a fully human person who needs to be cared for in order to care well for others.

I could continue on like this indefinitely. Trying to parce out to what exact degree InterVarsity has shaped my life is impossible. All I can say with any fairness is that I have no doubt that I will spend the next decade unpacking and re-applying what you have given me in this one. Thank you for making the return on my investment much more than I could have ever imagined.

“I thank my God every time I remember you…”
Philippians 1:3

Planting Lessons: Prayer and Preparation

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia
Acts 16:13-14a

One of my least favorite memories of my time as an InterVarsity staff at SLU was the time that I was asked to lead a prayer at Greek Convocation, a service held in College Church to celebrate the beginning of the year for Greek Life. I had spent a few months trying to start a Greek ministry on campus and it was starting to take off a little bit and some of the kind folks in the Greek Life Department asked me to say a prayer over the community as the rush season began. I felt really honored.

Not honored enough though, apparently, to overcome one of my crippling weaknesses in life – time management. I was having coffee with a friend right before the service was supposed to start and underestimated the amount of time it would take to get to SLU from the coffee shop. I also underestimated the amount of time it would take to park on campus (who decided Greek Convocation Day was also a good day to host another large conference on campus that used the parking garage?).

By the time I parked, it was five minutes before convocation was supposed to start. I grabbed my suit jacket, threw on my dress shoes, and ran from the garage to the church. By the time I got there, it was my turn to pray – unbeknownst to me, I was the first thing on the agenda. Awesome. I whipped my jacket on and huffed my way up to the podium – whoops, wrong podium – I was pointed across the stage to the other podium.  Fumbling with the microphone, I quickly realized, between gasps, that I had no idea how to introduce myself nor what came after me so I just decided to jump right in.

Then, sweat rolling down my face, I also came to the harrowing awareness that the run I had just taken was much further than I thought and it was gonna take me a good couple minutes to fully catch my breath – minutes I did not have to spare.  Suffice it to say, I mouth-breathed my way through what had to have been the most awkward prayer of all time, which was also a prayer I was making up on the spot (hard to prep on the way when you’re panicking about your time). Believe it or not, that was the only time they ever asked me to do Greek Convocation.

I tell you that story to give you a snapshot of one the key ways the Lord has had to break me over my years in ministry.  Before and during much of my tenure as an InterVarsity staff, I have been able to “wing it” through much of what IV staff has put in front of me. I love building relationships with people and love investing time deeply into college campuses; meaningful preparation for that time, though, has always been the shallow end of my talent pool. After all, doesn’t prep time just take away from time with students? Shouldn’t I just trust the Spirit to prepare me for my time on campus?

This year, my talent for winging it encountered the unsubtle brick wall of planting a new ministry on a community college campus. I quickly found that my charm and charisma (at least what little the Lord saw fit to bless me with) was quickly overshadowed by my fear of new surroundings and unfamiliar students. I walked around campus and simply had no idea what to do. How do you build a ministry where you know literally no one? How do you start conversations as a 28-year-old, non-student who had to use Google Maps to find the right highways into this part of town?

Somewhere along the way, the Lord brought to mind a passage I had led students through at our Urban Project over Spring Break this year – Acts 16 – the beginning of the church at Philippi through Paul’s interactions with Lydia. I love this story for so many reasons, but mostly because Paul’s normal plans for engaging a city fell apart right from the beginning. He normally went into town and looked for a synagogue from which to preach the Gospel. When he showed up in Philippi, there weren’t enough Jewish men to even have a synagogue. What do you do as a foreigner in a new place when your previous strategies can’t get you in the door?

Luke tells us that Paul went to where he could find “a place of prayer.” From that place, a riverside gathering of faithful women (not men!), the church at Philippi came into being. Everything came out of that place of prayer. Their interaction with the slave girl that leads to the conversion of the jailer later on in Acts 16 also began as they were on their way to the place of prayer.

This story came rushing back into my mind one day while feeling helplessly uncertain of my role on campus and I remembered back to my first time at Flo Valley, when the Lord showed me this soccer field just off the edge of campus. I remember feeling a serene sense of peace and acceptance in that place, like Jesus just wanted me to linger there awhile. It was one of the evidences to me that the Lord was calling me to Flo Valley – the presence of this peaceful place where the Spirit seemed to be so tangible to me. Perhaps this could be my place of prayer. Maybe the Lord would bring me a Lydia – some insider to the campus who would be receptive to the Gospel and through whom the entire campus might be reached by Jesus.

So to the soccer fields I go, every morning before I do anything else at Flo Valley. No more running from meeting to meeting, hoping my theology and experience and “eloquent speech” can carry me through to whatever “ministry success” I hope to find that day. I am learning to stop, to listen, to wait for the Lord. I am learning that these moments of prayer and preparation are themselves part of the calling – that the Lord desires to shape me in silence, stillness, and dependence as much as he desires to reach the campus in word, deed, and power.

It is from this place that I have seen the Lord do incredible things, even small ones, this semester. It is at this place that my co-workers, alumni from SLU, local pastors, and other friends have met me to prayer-walk the campus. It is at this place that many conversations with intrigued seekers, politely uninterested skeptics, and even a few believing professors have taken shape. I’m not sure if we’ve found our Lydia yet, but I feel like I at least know how we will.