Blogger Shannon Waite is the Interim NCMA Executive Director. She is a former campus minister and is ordained in Presbyterian Church USA. This blog post explains some of her origin story.
"Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime's work, but it's worth the effort."
-– Fred Rogers
People are often so interested in call stories of ministers and how people end up on this path. It is something that is different for everyone, but yet all seem to have the same threads, generally revolving around the community that surrounded them and the way the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. When I think back on how I ended up in campus ministry and now as the interim executive director for NCMA it feels a lot like something that I fell into, but at the same time maybe it was a path that I was on the whole time.
I am a cradle-born Presbyterian. We joke that my family has been Presbyterian back to the bought that brought them over from Scotland. I am really grateful for the church that I was fortunate enough to grow up in the generation of youth and leadership that I did. I know that not everyone who was my age or a few years on either side had the same experience, but for me church was my safe space. It was one of the few places where I felt like I was fully a part of something. There were a few brief moments where I wondered about stepping onto the path where I could end up working in a church, but every time I brought it up, I was greatly discouraged from it. I’m so glad I was. I needed the time of questioning what it was I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.
Enter college where it was a time during which I drifted away from the more traditional faith and church ideas. I ended up with many friends who were also doing the searching that I was, people of faith who were wandering without a home. Having grown up in the Northeast, it was a bit of a culture shock to move to be in the Bible belt in North Carolina. Suddenly the groups that I came across were not discussing the same types of things that I had learned in church. I decided that instead of joining a faith group and I would join a variety of service groups. Through these groups it felt like I was still living out the faith I claimed. I loved my time with them and learned a lot that would serve me well in my future career path. It was also during this time that I decided that a career in science wasn’t my passion, but what I really wanted was to work with people and switched to Human Services (which was defined as the art and science of helping people). Throughout this time, even though I loved my friends and the programs I was involved in, it did always feel like there was something missing and an element of community that I had lost.
Upon graduation, I decided to use my degree while at the same time taking some time off from school and began working with AmeriCorps on a college campus to bring together community organizations and students to create partnerships supporting the non-profits. In one of those times when the saying that we make plans and God laughs applies, this was when I decided to go to seminary. I say this because throughout my working through my major and then with AmeriCorps, we had limitations on the work that we could do with religious organizations. I still wasn’t sure that it was the path that I wanted to go down, but the program that I was looking at had a joint MSW and M.Div where I could stick to more of my original planning with and MSW and then through in this other niggling element in my brain. I ended up applying with the thought that maybe I wouldn’t get in and then I would know to go another way. Then I got in. Then I decided I probably couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t end up going anyways. Then the financial aid package came through. I decided that having the change to move to Richmond sounded like a good plan and since everything kept lining up, maybe I should just go with it.
I spent my first semester of seminary rotating between having an amazing experience where I was meeting all of these wonderful people and feeling like I had completely gotten myself in over my head and wanting to quit. Then one of those people who I had met approached me about working on starting a campus ministry together. There had been money set aside for creating this group and while he had the right energy and experience with the people and programming side of a campus ministry, he wasn’t as familiar with the school side of things. With my experience having worked at a college, we felt like we could be a good team to get this thing up and running. Having never gotten involved in a campus ministry, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. Like some of the best unexpected things in our lives, it ended up being the beginning of a love story for me, a love of campus ministry, that is.
Getting everything up off the ground wasn’t always the easiest, but seeing the way it came together and how a group of students, who, like me in college, were searching for community and for a place to ask questions and learn more about what it was to be people of faith was richly rewarding. Getting to explore what a new ministry could be and how we could meet the needs of the students and find ways to connect them over their questions around faith was something I had never experienced before and filled me in ways I never could have expected. I spent the next three and a half years working with the ministry, building, growing and dreaming. We even managed to grow to the size where the group gained attention and could now afford to have a full-time staff person. Upon graduating from seminary, I was called somewhere else though.
I entered into the next 5 years in college ministry with an ecumenical ministry. I already had found out how much passion I had for working with students in college in my last position and now I began to fall in love with full-time ministry, particularly with the fun that comes with ecumenical ministry. When people would ask me what is next, I would always say I don’t know, I thought working in a campus ministry and with students would be a forever thing, that I would always be in full-time ministry moving from call to call. Yet, once again, I think I hear God laughing. Life sometimes goes in unexpected directions. Fast forward several years, while I still have a heart for college students and campus ministry, my life has changed in unexpected ways: marriage, loss, a big holy no at the question of continuing in my position another year, and twin babies arriving any day now. Another thing that has changed is a part of my call. Through several different arenas that I had ended up in, I find myself drawn to working with and serving other people working in ministry. From finding ways to create connections to finding ways to meet the needs of ministers working in our current climate (in both the secular and church world), I am drawn in and have begun to wonder what this means for where my life is headed.
It was in this last position that I discovered the National Campus Ministry Association. Something that I never expected to change my ministry and in some ways my life in such drastic ways. I saw a Facebook post talking about this new thing called the Bethany Initiative where they were looking for new campus ministers to be a part of this group that would be joining in spiritual exercises and fellowship together. It was a rich experience for me and I think probably the only thing that kept me from leaving ministry entirely due to burn out. Campus ministry can be a very lonely field, there may be other ministers around you, but often they are working in parishes and don’t understand the world of ministry in higher education settings. The connections I made through first Bethany and then NCMA at large and the conferences were feeding to my soul and my ministry. I quickly entered the world of the Coordinating Committee and became President. During my term, the parallels of transition for both the organization and my life continued to amaze me. We are in this place of dreaming what’s next for the organization as I have been dreaming of what is next for me.
It fell into place that the time where NCMA was trying to figure out how we could get the help we needed, hopefully in the form of some additional staff, was the same time that I was realizing that my husband and I loved our life where we are and what we thought was going to be one baby turned out to be two. Full-time ministry suddenly wasn’t in the plan for me anymore. CoCom decided that we needed someone in the interim who could help start moving on all of the hopes, dreams, and plans we were making while we continued to put together information for a permanent part-time person. It felt like even though God has laughed all along that it was a path where things lined up just a little bit perfectly. I could hit the ground running and begin to get all of our plans moving where we wanted them too. I have big dreams for where NCMA and my own ministry can head and my prayer is that God will keep laughing and leading all the way through.