Twenty years ago, I thought I wanted a career in higher education administration. I had been a professor for several years and had added some administrative responsibilities to my teaching load. Most people in higher ed love the research or the teaching and abhor the administrative part. I tolerated it well.
One spring day twenty years ago this year, I noticed a competitive program that would allow you to work as an intern for a year in an institution other than your own. It was a way to try out the idea without being trapped. I knew our president a bit, having gotten to know him during coffee breaks while he spent a semester sabbatical on campus, long before he was our president. So I asked him one day if he would think about recommending me for the program, if he thought I had what it took to be an administrator.
I think it was about a month later that he stopped by my office and asked me to come to his. Rather than replacing the VP for Development who was leaving, he was considering expanding the office of president to include development and wondered if I would consider becoming the Assistant to the President, helping him with admissions, alumni, development, and other activities relating to the capital campaign we were starting. He said that rather than sending me somewhere else, he’d like to help me learn by helping him.
We were a small college, but it was a exhilarating thought. After talking with Nancy, I said yes. We had to wait for the board to approve the concept. They did, and I worked with Don for two years.
It was a challenging time. After about a year, we realized that the institution was not large enough to continue as it was. There was a lot of discussion and research and study. Finally, we merged with/were acquired by another college. Rather than everyone losing jobs by closing or many people losing jobs in a desperate restructuring, only a handful of us lost jobs (including Don and I).
It was a spectacularly misunderstood and heroic decision on his part. Nearly two decades later, people don’t know the cost for him.
He went back to being a pastor. I moved on in higher education. In each of my next two jobs, Don’s recommendation was instrumental. Then I moved out of higher ed and into being an administrative pastor. Again, because he knew me and the new role, his word was helpful, both to me and my prospective employer.
Don pastored for several years and then retired. After he retired he traveled to other countries, teaching in seminaries, preparing the next generation. He and Carolyn were at the church where I was on staff for part of this time. We said hi, we had a handful of conversations.
Two years ago, I began conversations that brought me to my current position as executive pastor. Of course Don was contacted. Of course he was supported. And intriguingly, he had been the pastor at the church we are part of now forty years ago.
Today was the memorial service for Don Gerig, who died a couple days ago. I looked around the room at the faces I knew, faces from the last 20 years of my life, from places where Don and I crossed paths. I remembered that I am about the age Don was when he heard of my interest in administration and took a chance with me.
So I’m thinking carefully tonight.
- Am I listening to people in their thirties, looking for interests, making connections, providing opportunities (more than offering advice)?
- Am I staying in touch with people I’ve mentored, helping them across time?
- Am I mentoring anyone?
- Am I ready to spend the next twenty years encouraging, touching, growing, laughing?
- Am I risking my reputation, my job, on people, betting everything I have that I can help them grow (like Don did with me)?
I’m late in writing this, of course. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t clearly and simply tell him how much of my path his words and acts shaped. I should have. I’m pretty sure that he would forgive me, as long as I learn from that, and that I spend the next twenty years completing this internship.
An internship in helping people grow.