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Disappointment – The College Years

So I have a friend, his name is Taylor. The more accurate thing to call Friend Taylor is “Taylor, Friend and Unpaid Creative Consultant to Embassy, The Blog (and Hopefully, Someday, 'Embassy, the Movie')”. He's the blog fan in my life and is much much more blog-literate than I am. He's the reason this blog exists, which is the reason why all the negative email feedback goes to him and not to me.

As part of his “work” as Official Unofficial Unpaid Creative Consultant, Taylor shared recently that he wanted “a million words on disappointment”. After reading what I've written and talking to me in person about what I want to say and who I want to say it to, he put his finger on this emotional state as being a constant companion on the road of a Workplace Missionary, and I agree with him that a million words, thereabouts, is probably appropriate. Luckily for me, and you, I have not yet learned how to write a million words all at once, so we're going to start that thousand mile journey with a couple steps today.

This is the first in a series of stories on disappointment. Some will end in happy endings, some will end in open ended ways, and some will end and remain in grief. I hope, eventually, to feature other people here, but for a bit here you're gonna get stories from my life. I was brought up by my father to swing for the fences, and if you're going to live your life that way, you're gonna catch a lot of air and more strikeouts than you were probably prepared for before you actually hit that baseball over the fence. Consequently, I've got plenty of stories of diappointment.

My Internship with Chi Alpha Campus Ministries

This is a story with a happy ending. I guess. It feels happy to me, looking back on it.

The second time I dropped out of college, I had been attending and serving with a campus ministry group called Chi Alpha Campus Ministries. We were among the smaller groups at all the campuses I ended up serving at, but if you have ever attended a state school in the US you might have heard of similar groups like Campus Crusade for Christ (which has gone by CRU for a while now, since having “crusade” in the name was not helpful with college kids), The Navigators, Christian Challenge or Young Life. All of these groups have their own personality, both nationally and regionally. Chi Alpha, being the Campus Ministry arm of the Assemblies of God, US Missions, usually have groups that have more international students, more students who speak a language other than English at home, and then a fair number of students who's home church is either AG or Pentecostal in character. I'm in the last category.

My twenties were largely characterized by this desire to be able to formulate and elucidate a plan for my life. Late in my twenties, I eventually adopted a nihilistic approach to “plans for a person's life”, that they're largely garbage and pointless and a waste of time, and that hard edged perspective came from crashing and burning a lot in my late teens and early twenties. Looking back, trying to remember, I think I thought I might be, in roughly chronological order;

  1. A construction worker
  2. A Teacher (of any subject)(even though I hated my time in school)
  3. A Spanish Language Interpreter (even though I knew almost no Spanish)
  4. A Software Engineer
  5. A Campus Missionary
  6. A Computer Hardware Engineer
  7. A Youtuber
  8. A Podcaster (audio is easier)
  9. Back to a Computer Hardware Engineer
  10. A Mathemetician
  11. etc etc etc

You get the idea. I had settled in to a rhythm, by the time this story takes place, of “I enjoy the though of doing X as a career”, “The Novelty of X is wearing off”, “preparing to do X is extremely hard and I have no idea whether I'll want to do X after this is done”, “I'm not an Xer, Xers don't have this kind of trouble getting started, I must have missed my calling, I need to go back to the drawing board”, to, at the last, “I enjoy the thought of doing Y as a career”. Rinse and repeat.

Keep that in mind.

So, that summer, my campus missionary had resigned to go back to school and become a therapist, and the state director, a guy named Alex, had made the decision to merge the staff and student leadership of my group and his group, which met in the college town 45 minutes East of us. This is for a lot of actually good reasons and a couple of the challenges inherent in this arrangement didn't rear their heads until far enough down the line that morale was pretty darn high for quite a while during this whole arrangement, but this story isn't really about that.

I had recently given up on college for the second (but not the last) time, with no direction and, critically, no plan to give to the adults in my life who helpfully/unhelpfully ask “so what are you doing now?”. The anxiety of only having a reply in the shape of “Well, I just dropped out of college and I'm working part time at a big box hardware store and I'm just gonna do that forever” was unhealthy in it's scale, and that anxiety had me looking for a place to land after I had already jumped off the last branch. I was like a juvenile flying squirrel, leaping into the air before even deciding where it was I might want to land. And in to this mental space, an opportunity arrived.

I had known Alex from seeing him at youth events around the state for a long time, and we had hit it off again when he came through town. During those conversations, I came to a couple of conclusions;

  1. I loved the kids and staff in my campus ministry, and I loved meeting new ones.
  2. I hated working my current job, which was a dead end and a pain in the ass in any case.
  3. The work of the ministry seemed to be the most important kind of work you could do.
  4. The more I went with Alex around on the job, it seemed like his job was mostly mentoring young people, teaching the Way of Christ, building a community of faith out of young people and sending them out to change the world.
  5. I think I could do that for the rest of my life.

So we made arrangements for me to come on as an intern for that school year. In fact, one of three interns that year, but I didn't know that until later. Honestly the whole staff got double or triple it's size almost overnight, in a story that's worth it's own blog post. I went to train on how to raise my own financial support so that I could focus on the internship, and eventually the school year started.

It's maybe worth pausing here to make clear something that I took for granted, but I've since learned is a peculiarity of how our fellowship equipped missionaries to enter the field, financially. Let's say you feel the call to enter the mission field, any mission field, and you go to AG World Missions and say so. They look you over, consult the Holy Spirit in prayer and fasting and decide that yes, they agree that the Lord has called you to go to the Moon as a Lunar Missionary. They commission you, consult their tables and formulas to see about how much they think you're gonna need to feed your family and pay for pizza parties and coffee dates and all that, then they take that big number and give it to you as your budget.

Now, in some Christian traditions, the sending body would put the missionary, effectively, on salary and they pack their bags and go and get started. In the Assemblies of God (and other fellowships), the sending body is technically the Assemblies of God Churches in your District, so before you can go get started, you need to go to anyone who will talk to you and ask them to send money every month to support your work. You can't go in the field until you raise your budget, a process that can take a year for people who either have enough saved up to go full bore in to it or have enough interpersonal connections to get a meaningful head start and get some cash rolling to then snowball into expenses like gas and lunch. It can take much, much longer. I know missionaries who worked a decade long career in the field and never made a full budget.

This is an “eat what you kill” model, and there are a lot of good reasons, bad reasons, and stupid reasons for it. My feelings on this model are complicated (ie not decided and not overwhelmingly for or against) and may be worth another post if people care what a missionary wash-out thinks about the matter, but the relevant upside here is that I had a (quite small) missionary budget designed to support a young man on his own, living in subsidized (though not free) housing and spending his time talking to students and supporting the various weekly and quarterly events we did. The internship was a full time internship, really, and there was more than enough to keep me busy all day. It would have been very difficult to work a job and do everything I had signed up for.

I didn't raise a single dollar in support. Not for lack of trying, either. I had churches I knew, families who loved me, loved Chi Alpha, and already supported other missionaries who told me they couldn't support me and couldn't give me a real reason other than they couldn't (wouldn't?) support more missionaries with their budget the way it was. I was going to have to work a part time job just to make ends meet while trying to do my full time ministry internship.

(I learned later that this was a known fact among established missionaries, pastors and observers in my district. The sense was there just wasn't any more support available in the district for missionaries, with even some established families seeing their support dry up and having to leave the missions field. For what it's worth, all of the missionaries I served with in Chi Alpha are now local church pastors, either coming on to an existing church or planting, or have left vocational ministry. I don't know how much financial support pressure contributed to these decisions. It can't be “not at all”.)

The-in-the-middle part of this story seems, to me, in hindsight, the boring part. We made friends, we got to work, the wind fell out of my sails but I kept trying, mostly because my leadership loved me enough to remind me of my commitments and keep me from just dipping out because things got hard, and I eventually had to let go of the dream I had of being a vocational minister because the whole hustle had completely burnt me out. I decided in my heart that I wasn't going to do the next internship in line (which would have sent me to a big established Chi Alpha group in, I think, North Dakota, to prepare to run my own campus ministry) towards the end of the Fall, met and began talking to the woman who would become my wife about a month after that, and told Alex about a month later than I should have, because I was so anxious of disappointing him. He, of course, was supportive.

I didn't have to burn any bridges to do it, but I was out on my own again, without any direction. Again. And I would do this dance a bit more before giving up on it, but I would eventually. This post is already about twice as long as I thought it should have been, but I'll conclude really quick with the reason I told this story at all.

I've never really wanted to do something different with my life than to serve the Church, because that's where Christ was, and He was the thing that never changed in my life. I spent a lot of time in the campus ministry space, I know dozens and dozens of peers who felt the same way, who were completely willing to live on less and give up a retirement and any wage growth at all if they could just find a church that could pay them just enough and let them play worship for a living every Sunday, let them teach children how much Jesus loves them, let them teach adults how much Jesus loves them. In my experience, less than a fifth ever got to feed their family by preaching the word.

So maybe you're in that 4/5ths of my peers who had some kind of similar experience to mine, and you felt that dream fall out of your hands and land on the floor, crash into a million pieces.

I see you, and you're not alone.

Also, the God you serve is the God that entered into death, was broken into a million pieces, and became the Resurrected God shortly after He was made The Crucified Lord. So remember the day of your baptism, remember the day that you died and accepted Christ's invitation into His resurrection life, and remember that your brother, King, and God has made a habit, plan and even talent of bringing the dead back to life.

The song that meant the most to me during that time of my life is a song by a band called Colony House, called “Moving Forward”. You should listen to it. It still makes me emotional today, now, writing this. Alone, in the Starbucks. It's ok, it's 2023, a man can cry in public if he wants to.

This post is part of #100DaysToOffload, a challenge to blog a hundred days in a year hosted by Kev Quirk. This is post #7.

#ChristianMinistry #Embassy #ChiAlpha #Disappointment #Resurrection