This is the history of Emma and Dan’s summer. What we’ve been doing since we finished College last year, what we hope to do this year, and how God has been at work through it all. Sorry, it’s a bit long for a normal blog post but I hope you’ll find it helpful and you’ll pray for us.
I had a five year plan once. It involved finishing MTS (Ministry Apprenticeship), and completing 4 years at Theological College. At the end of last year, I reached the end of the plan. Somehow, I had managed to overlook the fact that by the time you finish a Five-year Plan, you’re going to need another one. Emma was in a similar position, we both had some ideas about what we’d like to do, but mostly the future was blank. It was like Emma and I had sailed into that bit of the map which reads ‘Heere be Dragons’.
At the end of November 2010, I completed 4 years of study for the Bachelor of Divinity at Moore Theological College. Emma completed a 1 year Diploma of Bible and Missions. We had no money (we’d both been living on Austudy – the Government student allowance). And our accommodation (provided by Moore College) required us to leave by mid-December.
For a couple of years, I’d been testing out the idea of going on to further study after Theological College. In particular, I was keen to undertake a PhD in Philosophy (picking up my undergraduate study from ANU). Ever since Emma and I undertook a short term mission trip to South Africa (2008), I’ve been convinced of the significance of the role of Christian academics in the developing tertiary education institutions of the 2/3rds World. Since travelling to Germany last year, I’m just as convinced of the need for the post-Christian world. In both Germany (University of Leipzig) and South Africa (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal) I was astonished by the size of the philosophy and theology programmes. So many young people are looking to these academic disciplines to answer their spiritual questions, but the answers are uniformly sceptical, critical, and destructive of a living, hopeful faith in Christ. It doesn’t need to be that way. Evangelical Christianity has every right to be taken seriously in the University context: both in the theology faculties as a testimony to the historic faith in Christ passed on through generations; and in the philosophy schools as a valid standpoint from which to engage in open discussions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. This is the sort of thing I love doing. I love working with University students, I think I’m a decent teacher (although I’ve got a lot to learn), and I love seeing Jesus Christ honoured as the Holy Spirit disciplines our hearts and minds and projects toward conformity with the Kingdom of God. Hence the PhD.
At least that’s what I thought. I put my PhD and scholarship applications into a couple of Universities and waited to hear back. Universities don’t usually let you know about admissions until early-mid December. In the mean time, Emma took a short term job as the Summer Accommodation Manager at the St Barnabas’ Terraces: a group of student residences in Glebe, owned and operated by a local Church. The job at the Terraces was a real provision from God. It gave us a place to live and enough money to survive for the three summer months while we prayed, waited, and tried to figure things out.
I heard back fairly quickly from Macquarie University. They made me a conditional offer of a PhD position and scholarship – the condition being 1st Class Honours in my degree from Moore College. This was a bittersweet offer. I knew that I was borderline on getting the mark from College. I had to wait for a couple of weeks for the marks at College to be finalised, but eventually they were released to me while I was in Canberra on a national evangelical student conference (NTE). I missed out on the mark by 1.2%. It was painful. The worst thing was knowing that there were so many things I could have done differently at College which would have given me better marks.
My potential supervisor at Macquarie was wonderful. He told me not to give up and asked me to write again to the University admissions department. He also wrote in support. I thought for a while that we could turn it around but eventually they came back and confirmed their decision. By the end of December it was clear that I wasn’t going to be offered a scholarship. Emma and I really didn’t know what would come next. It was a tough period.
A little while previously I’d been approached about the possibility of working for the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) at the Cumberland campus of the University of Sydney. There is a strong and effective ministry on the campus (Evangelical Christian Union) that has been well served in recent years by a number of very capable female staff. The campus is dedicated to training Health Sciences students (Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech Pathologists, etc). There is a preponderance of women in these professions, but are also a good proportion of blokes. The campus ministry has been looking for a male staff worker to focus on training and outreach with the male students. At the end of December I got back in touch with the ECU leaders and began the process of getting to know them, the ministry, and working out whether they thought I’d be suitable for the task.
During this time it became clear that Macquarie Uni was willing to offer me a PhD position where they would pay my tuition but without the extra scholarship. I asked my potential supervisor if he would be willing to accept me as a part time candidate for the first couple of years, and then I raised the possibility of working part-time with the Cumberland ECU. My supervisor was very happy with the arrangement but the leadership of the ECU wasn’t so sure. We engaged in a long process of discussion about what the ministry component of my week would look like as we sought an arrangement that would be beneficial to the ministry. This took quite a long time and it was only last week that everything finally fell into place.
So here it is: I’m going to be working 4 days per week for the ECU at Cumberland, with particular responsibility for training and pastoral care of the male students, and for ministry development among the graduates. I’ll also be working 1-1.5 days a week on my PhD research with Macquarie University. My provisional title is: A communicative theory of forgiveness and its application to the formation of personal and social identity. That’s very vague but I’ve got some good lines of investigation and I’m excited about getting started.
There’s another strand to this story. I’ve been focussing too much on my side of things. At the same time Emma and I were also trying to work out the best way forward for her, having finished her year of Bible College. Emma’s first inclination was to seek out some more practical ministry training. With both of us agreed on working towards offering for service with a Mission organisation, she felt that it would be really beneficial to have some more experience in the day-to-day life of pastoral ministry. We talked about this and spoke with our pastor at Northbridge Anglican. He was willing for Emma to have a part time paid ministry role with the Church but we’d need to work out what she’d do with the rest of her time. If I had received the University scholarship (which isn’t lavish), we would probably have needed Emma to work part time somewhere, as well as having her role at the Church, in order to keep us financially afloat. With me working part-time, the option of Emma continuing her Bible College study was much more viable. We went to and fro on this idea for a while, but eventually decided to test out the possibility of Emma switching from Moore College to Sydney Missionary Bible College (SMBC) in Croydon. There were a bunch of reasons for making the switch, mostly to do with our particular circumstances (I’m trying to be sensitive because the two Colleges have a bit of a rivalry). SMBC was happy to have Emma, even though she applied very late, and gave her credit for her year at Moore. Emma started with a week long New Testament Greek language intensive, and is now into her third week of classes. She really loves SMBC. We’ve both been blessed by the welcome we’ve experienced and the learning that Emma is already doing.
So, Emma is studying full-time in 2nd year of a Bachelor of Theology at SMBC (she’ll complete it next year). She’s also a student minister at St Mark’s Northbridge (where I was a student minister up to the start of this year).
I’ve been increasingly convinced that God’s plan in shutting down my full-time PhD hopes was largely to direct us into getting Emma some more training. Our plans were too focussed on what I was doing, not enough on our team work. God has also put me into a position where I can’t forget the end-point: ministry to, and among, university students. I think that, along with the benefits of studying full-time, would have come the temptations of self-absorption and dislocation from practical ministry. It’s been hard surrendering that plan, but I’m convinced that we’re headed in a good direction. I’ve been so blessed by seeing Emma’s love for the Bible growing and her ministry skills developing.
All through this time has been the frustration and worry about where money would come from. We’ve had enough income from Emma’s job and my student minister stipend from St Mark’s to pay for our food and day-to-day expenses. But we were hand to mouth and had no way of paying larger bills, car rego, costs of moving, etc. However, this has turned out to be the biggest blessing of all. At a number of definite points over the past months, people have approached us out of the blue and given us money. People from Church and our College communities have been on the lookout for us, and been used by God to teach us humble dependence. The culmination came a couple of weeks ago when Emma and I were sitting on the couch last night, looking at our finances, and wondering how we were going to afford our car rego which was due last week. While we were sitting there wondering what to do (I’m not kidding), a precious friend rang us up and told us she’d deposited some money into our account. More than we needed. Praise God! Why am I surprised at God’s provision, and the saints’ generosity? Because I’m a child when it comes to really, deeply, knowing the reality that Jesus Christ has been raised and is making an administration of all creation for the glory of God’s grace. The Holy Spirit delights to teach us and enlighten our hearts.
There are still a couple of outstanding things.
1. We don’t have a place to live. Emma finished up her job at the Terraces last week and so we’ve moved in with Emma’s parents for a while why we look for a place. Sydney is a ridiculously expensive place to rent, and looking can be depressing.
2. I’m beginning the process of fundraising for the ministry at Cumberland. AFES ministry among the students can’t be funded by the students themselves: they simply don’t have the financial capacity. But, pound-for-pound, I think University campus ministry is the most strategic and effective place for transforming people’s lives with God’s word. Through University students we impact and transform workplaces, Churches, and whole countries. I’m not making this stuff up, the history of university student ministry over the past 150 years demonstrates this time after time. The bottom line then is that we need graduates, friends, family members, and any Christian that has benefited from student ministry to carry the cost. It’s a ‘pay-it-forward’ situation. The benefit you’ve received for free in the past, now needs to be transferred to others. It’s gospel-nomics.
I hate asking people for money, most people in our society find talking about personal finances pretty uncomfortable, but for the next little while, this will be a major focus. The campus ministry can’t keep me on unless I comply with AFES’s financial policies. So I’ll probably have a few more blogs about fundraising and some shout-outs on Facebook to let people know what I’m doing. I’ll then try to contact as many people as I can personally. So, if you see my number flash up in the next few weeks, go easy on me. It’ll probably be an awkward conversation, but I’m calling ’cause I love and trust you and think we should be partners in this ministry. It’s going to require some sacrificial living by a whole group of people for the message of Jesus’ reign to impact and transform the lives of the students at Cumberland. It’s going to cost. But you should take the call, it’ll be worth it.