Back to School

I’m an open book. Anyone who’s talked to me for a few minutes and asked a simple question such as “How’s your family?” can attest to my candidness on most any topic. In retrospect, this openness likely began as a tool to disarm people and - if I was really lucky - even make them laugh. It was a win-win on the first day of teaching a new group of college students: I was able to confess my fear that the backpack I carried made me look unprofessional but that I was too cheap to buy a briefcase, and my students were able to chuckle to themselves and say “This class might not be so bad.”

I’m not saying there was anything wrong with being honest for the sake of comedy (I really did feel that way about my backpack, after all), but it definitely wasn’t an act of compassion for my students. It was what I’d now call “introductory honesty,” that is: a surprising frankness in an interaction that would usually be guarded or surface level to ensure a good first impression.

Again, it’s absolutely an okay thing to do.

As the years went on, however, the Holy Spirit changed the way I lived and interacted with others so that my “open book” attitude did more than elicit laughs from unsuspecting college students. It allowed me to connect with people. It allowed others to know me and feel safe being known by me. Recognizing that the Bible talks A LOT about God’s desire for us not to isolate ourselves but instead to know and care for each other (examples include Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 22:36-40, Romans 12:10), I became honest in ways I hoped would make people not feel so alone. I began to talk more openly about my past wounds and experiences, and though it felt awkward at first, God put people in my life who needed to hear from me as much as I needed to hear from them. You can’t make sense of something entirely on your own.

Despite the aforementioned honesty, there’s one topic that I’ve been less forthcoming about over the last six years: my exit from the University of Kentucky. And I probably would have continued to stay tight-lipped on the subject without experiencing the major reminder God put in my path this week: My registration for graduate level seminary courses.

Ready for some honesty?

God has been calling me into ministry for a long time, probably as far back as 2009, but I ultimately chose not to listen. I had a good thing going in academia, after all, so why would I rock the boat? As is the case for many who’ve made uninspired decisions, I decided to “make a career move” that my heart wasn’t in at all. I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Communication because that was “the next step” after my masters degree (which was a great decision, by the way, as it opened the door to me becoming a teacher). I pushed God somewhere close to the back of my brain and moved to Lexington, KY so I could be a professor and enjoy that sweet, sweet job security.

From 2010-2012 I took all of the courses required for a Ph.D., earning an “A” in every one of them (believe me, I’m not bragging). It only took working seven days a week for at least ten hours a day (often many more), struggling to sleep, developing heart problems, and experiencing multiple syncopal episodes (i.e., passed out due to exhaustion and stress).

All the while - by the grace of God and the grace of my wife - I went to the Saturday evening service at a large church on the outskirts of Lexington (technically Nicholasville), Kentucky. This church - Southland Christian Church - will always be a special place to me, as it’s where I began to not only listen to God’s calling but also to respond to it.

I left the doctoral program, my position as president of the Graduate Student Association, and the courses I would have taught the next academic year, and instead chose to become healthy again. Of course, I had a really cool coach throughout this process: my newborn daughter, who knew how to live with joy.

A couple of months later I finally responded to God’s calling to do vocational ministry, as I was hired to be a children’s minister at the aforementioned Southland Church. Every weekend I watched third-fifth graders jump up and down, play messy games, and pray pure, Christ-seeking prayers. And my heart did something different than it did during the worst days of my doctoral program: It lept. This was what it felt like to listen to God: A heart leaping, not breaking.

My wife got her dream job back home in Auburn, and as she had so graciously moved her entire life to Kentucky for me three years before that, I was happy to head back south with her. Although I found an awesome job as a college instructor rather than a pastor, I knew God would eventually call me back to vocational ministry. And He did just that in 2017 when He opened the door for me to serve my church as their first-ever youth minister.

Doing full-time ministry and seeing firsthand the impact it makes in people’s lives quickly made me want to go to seminary. I felt a sense of urgency to learn more so I could be a great youth pastor for years to come and eventually even lead an entire church congregation. I felt behind, knowing God first called me to go to seminary eight years prior. But God - wisely, of course - led me to devote this year entirely to the development of Embrace’s youth ministry. And we’ve benefited from it.

I received my acceptance letter to Asbury Theological Seminary in January of this year and was overjoyed once again by God’s goodness. He opened the door for me to be a minister at my church the previous year, and now He had opened the pathway to seminary. Over the last couple of months I’ve enjoyed talking about seminary with others, praying about it, and learning more about the courses I’ll take. I even took a campus visit with the famous Asbury alum, Josh Agerton. These were fun months of basking in the glow of the beauty to come.

But then, this week, it was time to register for the specific courses I’ll take this fall. I looked at ten different syllabi, talked to an advisor, and considered my options.

And then, like many things we suppress and are not honest about, it all came back. The memories of the heart problems and the lack of sleep and the endless work. The memories of a failure of sorts. And I was afraid. I was afraid of going back.

After a great deal of prayer and a conversation with our church staff, I began to see more clearly that though I’m going back - I’m not going as the same person, and I’m not going to the same place. This is a path of redemption (isn’t it always when God’s involved?), one that leads to the healing of a past wound. It’s no coincidence, then, that I’ll spend a few days each academic year just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, at a seminary campus that’s on the same road as the church where I began my formal ministry. It’s no coincidence that a dear friend will also be starting his seminary journey at the same school, the same week as I. And It’s no coincidence that - as I write this and think of the future - I no longer have any fear.

After all, as Paul said to Timothy, “...for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV)

And that’s the honest truth.