I might as well make it official: This fall I’ll be starting the M.Div program at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Cassie and I are pretty excited…here’s my personal statement for my application to Palmer.
My sense of vocation in Christian ministry has consistently progressed over the past several years of my life. A strong foundation for this vocation was established by my family and has been built upon by friends and mentors in ministry. It has been challenged, tested, and strengthened as I have served in various contexts. The call I am hearing is hard for me to characterize but may best be described as a rural community development pastor. As I consider a faithful response, my need and desire for theological education and a strong ministry framework has been amplified. I know weaknesses will be overcome and strengths will develop as the Lord prepares me to lead. Through it all, it is my desire to submit to His Lordship and seek first His Kingdom.
My family has played a vital role in laying a foundation that has sustained my faith journey. This began with my parents’ dedication to serving and knowing Christ. Rather than just taking me to church, they were personally involved in guiding my faith. Their service in our local church was a great model for me to follow and imitate. As I grew older, their influence only grew. My dad led me and my two best friends in an accountability group for three of my high school years. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a father who taught me to study God’s Word by his own word’s and example. My older brother was also a major influence on my faith. In his junior year of high school, he began our small school’s first Fellowship of Christian Athletes and led its weekly meetings for two years. His courage and boldness inspired me to step into my first leadership role in ministry after he graduated. As I pursue a theological education, I am thankful for how each person in my family has shaped me and continues to encourage me in faithful discipleship.
The Lord was faithful in providing a community of believers as I pursued undergraduate education at Auburn University. This community, the Auburn Wesley Foundation, built upon the foundation established by my family and quickly became my new home. Wesley provided friends, mentors, and opportunities to put my faith into action. David Goolsby, who serves as Wesley’s director and campus minister, became like another father to me. As a student leader at Wesley throughout my five years at Auburn, I was fortunate to spend time with David planning ministry events and soaking in his wisdom. He was a great teacher and counselor. I visited him often when I needed encouragement or advice for whatever situation I faced. He showed me how to listen and care for others and equipped me for leadership in ministry more than any other person I have known.
Several experiences in my life have shaped the call I now hear. The first of these experiences came during a series of short-term missions to Honduras that began in my sophomore year of high school and continuing for the next five years. While I cleared land by machete for growing crops and heard the stories of the poor, rural people of Honduras, the Lord planted in me a desire for ministry. Our mission team was split into three groups: medical, children, and construction. As a regular member of the construction crew, I worked alongside Hondurans to roof houses, dig latrines, and lay blocks for church buildings. It was always exhausting work but at the end of each day I felt more refreshed and full of life than ever before. My faith came alive in Honduras and I waited with great anticipation for our return each year. As I kept returning, it became more and more clear to me that our faith should be manifested in our actions every week of the year. The mission of God was not something I could pursue as a yearly vacation but, rather, was rather a lifestyle to be practiced daily.
With a growing desire to put my faith into action, I decided to serve with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) as a construction coordinator in my hometown the summer after my first year of college. ARM hosts mission work teams and volunteers who repair homes for under served families and provide Christian education opportunities with children in summer day camps. As a construction coordinator, I visited families to assess their needs and helped match each group with projects to fit the skills they provided. I had many day-to-day responsibilities with keeping the projects going and hosting the teams, but the time I enjoyed the most was spent visiting the families. I had spent my entire childhood driving past these houses, but I never knew who lived there and never cared to know. As I visited and heard their stories, my ignorance and apathy quickly faded. I discovered that there were real people with real needs right down the street. Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self was no longer an abstract idea. ARM taught me that loving my neighbor begins with taking the time to know them.
The Lord continued to teach me about loving others the very next summer. While serving as an intern for eight weeks with Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT), I experienced what it meant to share God’s love in practical ways. SIFAT is a ministry based in Lineville, AL, where they train leaders from around the world in community development practices. They also operate development ministries in Quito, Ecuador, and two rural communities in Bolivia. In Ixiamas, SIFAT has partnered with a Bolivian non-profit to open an internado, or boarding home. Ixiamas is situated just on the edge of Bolivia’s Amazonian rain forest and is literally the last semblance of civilization for several hundred miles. Children come from the surrounding villages that do not have adequate schooling to stay at the internado and attend the school in Ixiamas. I, along with five other interns, lived at the internado with approximately fifty children and worked alongside the full-time staff. We helped build septic tanks, new bathroom facilities, and a rainwater collection system. We also assisted with hosting of short-term mission teams throughout the summer. In Ixiamas, the Lord taught me about the adventure, the risk, that is inherent in following Him. I spent time reflecting on Hebrews 11, and the great stories of adventure in the history of our faith seemed to capture my heart. At the same time, the hard labor of our day-to-day life drove me deeper into prayer as I came to end of my strength. For the first time, I truly experienced the wonder and joy of being sustained by God’s grace as I emptied myself in service to Him. In the midst of this spiritual transformation of sorts, I was learning and observing firsthand the ministry of long-term development. Caught in this mixture, my understanding of mission began to shift. It became less about how I could do this or that for someone else and more about how the Lord could use me to empower someone to do this or that for themselves. Since my time with SIFAT, I have sought to translate these ideas into my own life and the lives of those in my faith community. It is my deep conviction that pursuing a theological education at Palmer Seminary will empower me to boldly live this adventure of faith as I seek to love God and empower others in His name and for His glory.
As the insights, stories, and ideas from these experiences and others coalesce, I struggle to describe the form of ministry for which the Lord is preparing me. My best attempt is to say I am seeking to become a rural, community-development pastor. It is my desire to lead others to a life giving relationship with Jesus Christ, teach them His Word, and walk alongside them as they seek to be His disciples. I qualify the pastor role with “community-development” to indicate both the type of pastor I desire to be and the context in which I seek to serve. I cannot imagine being involved in ministry that is not firmly grounded in a commitment to transforming the full spectrum of life, which seems to align with the principles of Christian community development. I include rural in this description primarily because I grew up in a rural setting and also because all of my ministry and service experiences to date have been in rural settings. This attempt to describe my expectations for ministry is admittedly a best guess effort. The details are fluid and I hold them lightly. I would rather approach God open-handedly, without the burden of my preconceptions, in order to be ready to step into whatever ministry opportunity He provides in His due time. However, since I cannot simply ignore the significance of how the Lord has specifically worked in my past and how I sense He is working now, I submit this description as my humble interpretation of the Lord’s faithfulness in equipping me for future ministry.
While I am thankful for how the Lord has prepared me for ministry thus far, I am also thankful, and very excited, to step into a new phase of preparation as I pursue a theological education at Palmer Seminary. This next step feels very natural as I consider my past service at the Auburn Wesley Foundation. As the worship councilperson for two years, I led a team of students who worked with the campus minister to plan worship services for our community each week. Molding a worship experience around the spoken Word required us to think critically about the theological impact of each part of the experience – from the words of each song to the arrangement of the chairs. As student president at Wesley, I was given the opportunity to step back from the details of event planning and begin focusing on ways to shape the ministry as a whole, provide a cohesive sense of purpose across each area of ministry, and lead the student council team to serve well. My capacity for theological reflection and my ability to translate the insight of that reflection into ministry were exercised on a weekly basis while I served in this position. This experience gives me confidence as I now seek a theological education.
My experience at Wesley also affirmed a core self-image that began in my junior high years. I cannot recall the first time I heard it, but I clearly remember being told by my parents and teachers that I was a leader. This image has defined me throughout high school and college, and it continues to define me today. It is an image that I have grown to accept, as it seems I cannot escape it. Naturally, I tend to shy away from the spotlight and avoid attention, which usually does not result in leadership. While I prefer the comfort of working behind the scenes, I also value hard work and apply myself fully to whatever task is at hand. Eventually, this leads me out from the safety behind the scenes and into a leadership position of some form. As a leader, I enjoy spending time with those I have been commissioned to lead. Currently, I co-lead a discipleship group through my local church. Other than time at home with my wife and time at work, I spend time with them at our group meeting or planning with my co-leader. I also enjoy spending time with my neighbors and friends at work as a way to release myself from the leadership roles I have taken on in other relationships. While the role of leader is one I approach with reluctance, it is a role I fill with great dedication and commitment.
While I sometimes feel unable to escape the pull of leadership, I also realize there are times when I should resist. However, these realizations are usually made in hindsight. One of my most challenging weaknesses is poor judgment when taking on responsibility. By not knowing when to resist the opportunity to do more, I harm myself and keep others from participating. When my desire to achieve and accomplish overcomes my need to rest, I am easily frustrated and the purpose of the responsibility is lost. Being overworked, I become inaccessible to others, and I even struggle to spend time with the Lord in prayer. Deep down, I suspect this desire to achieve is rooted in a vain attempt to exalt myself. It is my hope that my time with Palmer will teach me the necessity of rest and the importance of making space for others. I am often reminded of the story of Mary and Martha as Jesus visits their home. I, like Martha, am easily distracted by what must be done and fail to realize who has come to visit. I pray to become more like Mary, who, knowing what was better, chose to disregard her duties while she sat and listened at the feet of Jesus.
Ironically, while I struggle to simply sit and listen at Jesus’ feet, one of my greatest strengths is a knowledge of His Word. At a young age, I began memorizing Scripture, and I had a wonderful example to follow in my father. In conversations or discussions about topics of faith, I find I am reminded of a story or a verse that I can share. I remember learning about the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and I want my sword to be sharp. I want His Word to be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path, to hide it in my heart, because I was taught His Word would not return void. The Lord has blessed me with an intellectual ability I am eager to use in maturing my knowledge of His Word as I pursue a theological education at Palmer Seminary.
My personality and hobbies seem to fit well with intellectual pursuits. I am a stereotypical introvert, which can be both a strength and a weakness. I am able to listen well, but at other times I do not speak up when I should. My introversion gives me time to process events and conversations and means I am able to stay calm in most situations. However, some situations will demand a response, without time for reflection, and my introversion can then become a weakness. The primary challenge for me as an introvert is in opening my life to others whether it be sharing my thoughts, asking questions, or simply spending more time with them. My favorite hobby is reading, which is great for an introvert and prospective theological student. It can also be a good hobby for a pastor as long as it does not become an impediment to ministry. I also enjoy playing team sports like ultimate frisbee, basketball, or baseball. As a former Boy Scout and native Alabamian, I love a good camping or backpacking trip or taking a short day hike. While I love reading, I struggle to enjoy writing. This is a hobby I hope to develop during my theological education.
As I conclude, I thank God for His great faithfulness throughout my life. He has provided a strong and supportive family who has taught me to seek Him. He brought me to Auburn University where I found a community of believers at the Wesley Foundation who gave me a taste of authentic Christian community. He has given me the opportunity to serve His people in Honduras, Bolivia, and in my own neighborhood. Each time I have made myself available to lead, He has surrounded me with ample support and guidance. He has loved me more than I will ever know. As I begin to understand His great love for me, I become more aware of His great love for all people. This love now compels me to live not for myself, but for Him who died for me and was raised to life again. May His Kingdom come.