Every two years, Christians from all over Florida (and a couple other places) gather in Orlando, FL in July for a weekend seminar called "The Spiritual Growth Workshop." I was able to attend this year, and here are some of my reflections...
• As I was driving down on Thursday, it hit me that it was exactly eight years ago at this conference that I began to receive my call to full-time ministry. Some people get uncomfortable talking about a call, and I understand that; I'm just not shy about it. I don't think I'm extra spiritual, though, because I have a moment to point toward. I read a book in undergrad about personality type & religious leadership, and the book told me that my personality type (INFJ) tends to experience "a call" to ministry very strongly.
(However, I do think I am extra spiritual because of my personality type. That same book proclaimed that Jesus was probably an E- or INFJ. So, basically, I'm a lot like God)
SGW 2000 happened after my freshman year at Florida. I was majoring in Chemical Engineering. I had excelled chemistry & math in high school (and hated liberal arts stuff), but I was beginning to grow disinterested in those subjects. I was really beginning to thrive in my faith, and even remember thinking about taking a possible future role in church leadership seriously. It occurred to me that I might be a future Elder or Deacon in the church, and if that were going to happen I ought to take my faith more seriously. So I was doing a lot of reading and searching, and exploring the spiritual disciplines.
The minister of my home congregation had tried to put a bug in my ear a couple of times before about ministry. In a very flattering way he would say, "Boy, Philip, I think you've got a lot to offer, and I'd really like to see you become a minister." When I ran into him at this workshop 8 years ago, he couldn't help but do it again. I remember replying that I had been thinking about being an Elder or Deacon one day. A few moments later, his friend Wayne Kilpatrick (a regular speaker at SGW who I had just listened to) passed by and he introduced me saying, "Wayne, meet a future Elder or Deacon in the church." I can't remember the last time I'd been so flattered & embarrassed.
As I was wandering around the convention area of the hotel that afternoon, looking at the book exhibits & fraternizing with others off and on, an uncomfortably direct question hit my head: "What's stopping you from pursuing a life of full-time ministry?" Having just come out of a serious romantic relationship, and feeling relatively untied-down, the simple one-word answer was even more unsettling: "Nothing."
I remember feeling very intimidated & shaken when worship began before the evening keynote session. I was sitting with my friend Kristen and her Mom, and Kristen noticed that something was off with me. I imagine that I looked like I had seen a ghost. She asked if I was okay, and I told her I'd talk about it later.
And we did. She gave me some great advice: take a few months and stew on it. She said that if it was a whim it would settle down, but that if it was a real yearning then the desire would grow even more. After a couple months of careful consideration, I decided that I would transfer to Harding the following fall. And that was that!
• So, I brought warm feelings down to central Florida with me. Instead of catching the Thursday evening keynote, I spent that afternoon and evening with Kristen & her husband Justin in Gainesville. They are fantastic people -- Kingdom servants of the highest order. We chit-chatted about a host of things, and our old campus minister Donny D. came over for about an hour and we engaged in our old pastime: SPADES! I can't explain how much that card game was a staple of my UF college experience. You just would have had to experience it to understand. Let's just say... lots of late nights, with lots of store-brand Mountain Dew, and lots of goldfish crackers, and WWF wrestling was involved with all of that somehow as well.
• The speaker quality seemed a little down this year. Other than Randy Harris (who really did just a marvelous job on content, even if he recycled a bunch of old jokes I'd already heard -- I am a sermon hound, however, so I may be the only one who caught the repitition), Randy Lowry (new Lipscomb Prez), and Wayne Kilpatrick, there wasn't really anyone else I enjoyed. There was this especially poor speaker named Matthew Dabbs. I hope they never invite him back.
• I typed that last part with my tongue firmly pressed in my cheek. The author of Kingdom Living is one of my "best good friends," and it was so much fun to see him get an opportunity to speak. I already told him this, and he probably recognized it, but I just sat through his session with a big, goofy grin on my face. Matt has a special mind, and it was encouraging to me that he was given a platform to speak. He did a great job talking about the Kingdom of God out of the Gospel of Mark.
• Another fellow minister that I enjoyed running into this weekend was Damien Barber. Damien's Mom Janice and my Mom got to be best buddies last year when they met at radiation clinic everyday (that's a picture of my Mom on the left in her profile picture). And it just so happened that both of their sons were, as my Mom would say, "Church of Christ ministers."
Mama loved Janice. Janice had never been to the beach, so this time last year she invited Janice and her family down to Panama City Beach for a week. They rented a 3-bedroom condo, and Mom took care of the bill. It dove-tailed with Damien & his new wife's honeymoon, so they stayed there for part of the week as well.
Mom *loved* doing stuff like that. She called it "Playing Santa Claus." Paul called it "being a cheerful giver." It comforts me that right before that Paul says that God loves those kinds of folks.
Damien gave me the news that his Mom is in remission. Praise God for that!
• You know, sometimes -- maybe even a lot of times -- the business side of Kingdom work can be awkwardly incongruent with Kingdom values. Matt & I spoke about a couple of situations like that over lunch Friday -- ungodly Elders, or ungodly ministers, or awkward leadership situations.
Its even sort of funny how selfish ambition can get caught up into a profession where you would expect the greatest leaders to be the most humble. There's a sense in which a conference-type atmosphere is a showcase for your own ministry skills: one's ability to speak, or to "work a room," or network with brotherhood power-brokers, or whatever.
I think I'd be dishonest if I said I didn't struggle with that. There's a part of me that feels like I have a word or two to share with that kind of an audience. And when I hear a speaker not quite deliver -- as I witnessed in a few occasions this weekend -- Satan can be suggestive in urging me to feed that little pride monster inside.
I think a great counter to selfish ambition, however, is spending yourself in encouragement. Rather than spending the weekend sulking over insulted pride, I chose to focus on building up others around me. There's something about "playing Barnabas" that heads off selfish ambition completely.
• Its good to receive that kind of encouragement, as well. At one of the final sessions I went to, I ran into an old UF buddy named Scott. You'd have to know Scott to appreciate this, but he looks JUST LIKE "The Rock." He can even do that thing with his eyebrow. One of the first things Scott said to me was, "When are you speaking?" I told him I wasn't, and he said, "Man, they need to get you on the roster. You should be speaking at this thing."
Scott is a great encourager. I remembered that I spent some of my last months in the campus ministry at UF teaching a Wednesday night Bible class, and Scott always had some of the most encouraging comments for me each night.
Scott introduced me to his new wife, and said, "This is Phil... he was in the campus ministry... '98-'02, right?" I had to correct him and say, "Nope -- '99-'01. I was there just for two years." Scott said, "Oh. Well, you just made a big impact."
Thanks, Scott ;)