The Beginning of the End, 2: Magic and Madness

The day finally came: our family helped the Smith’s pack their belongings into a moving truck and made our goodbyes. We walked back to our home, deeply saddened to see our friends and colleagues go, knowing we were thrust yet again into the social no-man’s land of campus ministry, but also excited. Brad’s transition had been smooth. His work at Campus House had been thoroughly celebrated, but he had taken great pains to humbly fade to the background and allow me to step forward in leadership. Once we had properly grieved our friends’ departure, we went to work.

We immediately began re-establishing connections with our supporting churches, trying to mend any strained relationships and reinforce strong ones. We planned for the upcoming year’s events and started preparing our incoming student leaders for their role in the new reality. Unfortunately along with the Smiths we lost several older students, many of them official and unofficial leaders, so we knew much of the next year would be a rebuilding process, but tried to see it an opportunity to make new footprints without sacrificing too many sacred cows.

Though I have already gushed about our first leadership team, that unique blend of pain and triumph that broke open my heart and prepared Mikala and I for our best years of ministry and marriage, the group will also have a lasting place in my heart as they were the only one we had the opportunity to lead from day one. Their patience and confidence in me, their willingness both to encourage me and tell me where I could shove it, plus the adorable (is that where we’re landing with that?) Millennial “meh” that cropped up at times imprinted them on my heart.


Where was I? Oh yes, new footprints.

One of the first changes was to move our leadership retreat from a local affair to The Farmhouse where, as usual, many began the trip dubious of an eight hour drive to a house in the country when twenty-minutes from their dorm would produce the same result. As everyone does, however, all had fallen in love with it by the end of the trip and came back spreading the Farmhouse gospel. For me, that experience kicked off what was a roller coaster of a year, with shining, magical moments when I felt more alive than ever before, and dark nights of madness when I felt the pressure of leadership would swallow me whole.

We continued investing in the staples of the Campus House calendar, but with a distinctly me-ish twist: besides the Farmhouse retreat, our Vision Week experience gathered a much more contemplative flavor,1 leadership team meetings began with meditation and ended with the Prayer of St. Francis, and our Spring Break teachings on the book of Jonah took most of our students right up to – or over the edge – of their comfort zone regarding their views on the Bible.2 Our year-end activities, the Something to Eat campaign and house building with Casas por Cristo, was prefaced with discussions around the American-savior complex and how (or whether) we could participate in such ministries from a new frame of mind.

Perhaps the initiatives I felt the most pride in were our dinner with the Muslim Student Association, and the Inter-Faith Dialogue. The meal with our Muslim friends was a beautiful experience and left us hopeful for more meals, sharing of our cultures and faith experiences, and possible further partnerships. The Dialogue was the one activity from that year I can truly claim as my brain child: the combination roundtable and panel discussion included participation from Christian ministries of all stripes, multiple Muslim student groups, the atheist student organization, and a few others. I cast the idea during a gathering of religious group leaders in the fall and began spearheading meetings through the winter, until one night in April we set up tables and chairs in a university ballroom and waited to see if anyone would show up.

Slowly, students of many nationalities and faiths started to walk in, filling the small ballroom to the breaking point and causing us to run for the managers asking for more tables, chairs, and other supplies. People tried to mix their table make-up3 and, guided by faculty members who agreed to help, walked through the questions compiled and edited by our planning team. The collegiality and excitement in the room was electric and the discourse remained cordial when we moved to the panel. By the end, the student union staff were begging us to be done because we’d gone over our time, though no one wanted to leave.

It wasn’t perfect, and I looked forward to how this event may have changed in the future, broadening our representation of beliefs and practices, and sharpening our focus on the best aspects, but it became a fitting encapsulation of my first year: at times I felt overcome by the madness of the planning and the worry that it would fall utterly flat – dark nights lying awake, assuming we would see five people show up and pretend to be interested before shaking their heads and leaving. Yet just like that year as a whole, I was rewarded with a bright, beautiful mess that “might have been different, but could not have been better.”


1. Five days before fall break we transformed the main gathering space into a walk-through “devotional” experience. That year, ours included guiding thoughts from the Desert Fathers, Julian of Norwich, Teilhard de Chardin, etc., and even a prayer labyrinth at the final stage. Brad and Kara Pickens (from the Farmhouse) wrote pieces for us, as did Mikala, plus the pieces I wrote (for this and previous VW’s) were always some of my favorite writing moments.

2. There is much to say about this week and the ripple effects of this teaching series. Let’s just say for now that this was (spoiler alert!) specifically mentioned later by the Board when they canned me as a “cause for concern” . . . because I, you know, said the story might have been a parable and the fish might have been a plot device.

3. Though it was rural Missouri, so 2/3 were white Christians, let’s be honest.

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