An Examined Life by Don Shockley

It is sobering to realize that I may have lived my life in response to a Wesleyan cliché: “let us unite the pair so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.” I guess it would be less unsettling if we updated the language to say that our task is to foster dialogue between learning and spirituality. Put that way, I am not reluctant to embrace the sentiment involved.

As a sophomore in a Birmingham, Alabama, high school in the fifties I got a wake-up call when my report card for the previous six weeks showed three F’s and a D. Some of my friends teased me about the D. But my developmental situation was more complicated than these facts suggest. For example, it does not reasonably follow that I was at the time active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship and, in fact, one of its leaders in our local church’s chapter; or that I was singing in the chancel choir at the time.

The Avondale Methodist Church (not United yet) was a good, solid congregation in the tradition of Wesleyan spirituality, i.e. it was not fundamentalist or even evangelical in the contemporary sense of those words. Suffice it to say that when I presented myself to our pastor at the close of the Easter service in my junior year in high school and told him that I came forward in response to his altar call, folks were surprised, myself not least of all. The pastor, who was elderly and ill and had not been with us very long, said something like, “Son, you are already a member here, aren’t you?” I told him that I came down the steps from the choir to answer a call I heard in the closing hymn, “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” I had a powerful sense that the text of the hymn was intended for me. It was a classic “call to preach.”

That’s how it all began for me. It was way too early; I was not ready for all the consequences that decision would bring, beginning immediately. As the report of what I had done went around the high school one of my classmates had an immediate response. “What a pity!” is what he said.  There would be many moments when I thought his response was right on target. But, for the last half century the original calling has continued to echo in my mind and heart. And it has continued to be unsettling.

My immediate path was clear. I would improve my academic performance in high school enough to go to the Methodist college across town and after that I would go to seminary. What was not clear was that at the end of my first year in the college, I would be assigned as pastor of a small church about 35 miles from the campus. I was not consulted about this! A fellow student whose father was a district superintendent heard about it and told me it was a done deal. It is still hard to imagine this happening, but I was pastor of that church from the beginning of my sophomore year until I graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1959.

So, at the age of 19 I had the responsibility of preaching every Sunday morning and, in this case, every other Sunday night. And there began my lifelong task of trying to unite learning and spirituality. When you have Geology 101 and Western Civilization on week-days and preaching on Sunday you have to unite knowledge and piety as well as you can. I don’t believe that, at that point in my life, I had even heard of campus ministry. I was not involved in the Methodist Student Movement on the campus because I had a church to look after. I had to study for my classes and prepare those sermons at the same time. And still have time for some social life. I was already in love with a wonderful young woman who had been my sweetheart in elementary school and to whom I have now been married more than 55 years. Needless to say I was involved in a complex life situation in which the foundation of my future was being sorted out. There would be nothing remarkable about that were it not for Robert Frost. In one of his great poems he said,

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living’s to unite my avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sake.

Frost was not only well represented in my American literature class; he came to our campus to read his poems and we all had the opportunity to meet him and get his autograph, which I still treasure. The point is that I was already hoping to find ways to reduce the distance between who I am and what I do and the great poet confirmed that such would be a worthy goal. In retrospect I know that, for me at least, campus ministry would offer the chance to do what I love and get paid for doing it. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to choose that path and that made all the difference for me. (Don’t miss this further allusion to Frost’s poetry.)

If you are still reading at this point, I hasten to tell you that I do not plan to go over the story of my life in the kind of detail this beginning implies. I had two more years in a rural pastorate followed by two years on the staff of an affluent suburban church in Birmingham. I already knew that the direction my life was taking had to change. I half-heartedly began to apply to graduate school in New Testament studies. Then someone told me that my alma mater was looking for a chaplain and, not really knowing all that would involve, I applied for the job and got it. I kept that position for eight years, then moved to the chaplaincy at the University of Redlands in southern California for seven years, followed by eleven years as chaplain of Emory University in Atlanta.

My final assignment was as a general staff person for campus ministries related to the United Methodist Church: Wesley Foundations, ecumenical ministries, college and university chaplains and more. It was a fortunate way to bring my active career to a close. In his research on the stages of human development Erik Erikson coined the wonderful term “generativity”: creativity in behalf of the generations. How nice that after all the years in campus ministry I could devote myself to helping others find their way in the profession. From the beginning I had sought to understand and interpret our work to others. This involved a lot of writing and speaking long before it became a formal responsibility and although I have slowed down to a crawl now, I am still trying to help where I can.

I have never had a job that did not involve stress. Young people need to understand this when looking for their place in the world of ministry and work. The above may sound like once I entered the chaplaincy the rest was smooth sailing. That was by no means the case. I have frequently been on the other side of issues that some powerful people (e.g. college trustees, District Superintendents, et al.) were agitated about. I think I stood my ground without doing too many things that were stupid. In difficult times the caring and support of colleagues made a big difference. That is one of the reasons why professional groups such as the National Campus Ministry Association are so important. But they are also important because they are so much fun!

I retired fifteen years ago and, although I served on, and chaired, the board of directors of the Wesley/Canterbury campus ministry at Vanderbilt for a few of these years, I am aware of how out of touch I have become. The campuses have changed, the culture has changed, the situation of the churches has changed. Although I was extensively involved with all kinds of ministries on all kinds of campuses near the end of my career, I never attended as a student or served as a campus minister on any but private, church-related campuses. I wrote a book on campus ministry, but it came out 25 years ago! (I can’t resist saying, however, that the book was recently used in a class on campus ministry with the students saying it is still relevant.)

Now here is the basic thing I want to say. I will have my 77th birthday this summer and I have just admitted to feeling out of touch and over the hill. But that refers to the every day, practical realities of ministry on the campuses. I am still very much engaged with the issues related to spirituality and learning that I mentioned in the opening lines of this little essay. I write a little, teach adult Sunday School classes a little, and engage in spirited conversations with friends all the time. A philosopher whose name does not spring to mind at the moment said that we have a moral obligation to be intelligent.  How true! What we don’t know—maybe refuse to know–hurts people. In whatever ways I can at this late date, I am still trying to find ways to help unite knowledge and vital piety!

My final word is to express my gratitude for the opportunities I had to serve in, and love, campus ministry for so long. I am especially grateful for all the friendships that were born and nurtured among colleagues over the years, many of which were enabled by the National Campus Ministry Association, now celebrating its 50th year. Happy Anniversary NCMA!

  (June 2014)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Examined Life

 

 

It is sobering to realize that I may have lived my life in response to a Wesleyan cliché: “let us unite the pair so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.” I guess it would be less unsettling if we updated the language to say that our task is to foster dialogue between learning and spirituality. Put that way, I am not reluctant to embrace the sentiment involved.

 

As a sophomore in a Birmingham, Alabama, high school in the fifties I got a wake-up call when my report card for the previous six weeks showed three F’s and a D. Some of my friends teased me about the D. But my developmental situation was more complicated than these facts suggest. For example, it does not reasonably follow that I was at the time active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship and, in fact, one of its leaders in our local church’s chapter; or that I was singing in the chancel choir at the time.

 

The Avondale Methodist Church (not United yet) was a good, solid congregation in the tradition of Wesleyan spirituality, i.e. it was not fundamentalist or even evangelical in the contemporary sense of those words. Suffice it to say that when I presented myself to our pastor at the close of the Easter service in my junior year in high school and told him that I came forward in response to his altar call, folks were surprised, myself not least of all. The pastor, who was elderly and ill and had not been with us very long, said something like, “Son, you are already a member here, aren’t you?” I told him that I came down the steps from the choir to answer a call I heard in the closing hymn, “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” I had a powerful sense that the text of the hymn was intended for me. It was a classic “call to preach.”

 

That’s how it all began for me. It was way too early; I was not ready for all the consequences that decision would bring, beginning immediately. As the report of what I had done went around the high school one of my classmates had an immediate response. “What a pity!” is what he said.  There would be many moments when I thought his response was right on target. But, for the last half century the original calling has continued to echo in my mind and heart. And it has continued to be unsettling.

 

My immediate path was clear. I would improve my academic performance in high school enough to go to the Methodist college across town and after that I would go to seminary. What was not clear was that at the end of my first year in the college, I would be assigned as pastor of a small church about 35 miles from the campus. I was not consulted about this! A fellow student whose father was a district superintendent heard about it and told me it was a done deal. It is still hard to imagine this happening, but I was pastor of that church from the beginning of my sophomore year until I graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1959.

 

So, at the age of 19 I had the responsibility of preaching every Sunday morning and, in this case, every other Sunday night. And there began my lifelong task of trying to unite learning and spirituality. When you have Geology 101 and Western Civilization on week-days and preaching on Sunday you have to unite knowledge and piety as well as you can. I don’t believe that, at that point in my life, I had even heard of campus ministry. I was not involved in the Methodist Student Movement on the campus because I had a church to look after. I had to study for my classes and prepare those sermons at the same time. And still have time for some social life. I was already in love with a wonderful young woman who had been my sweetheart in elementary school and to whom I have now been married more than 55 years. Needless to say I was involved in a complex life situation in which the foundation of my future was being sorted out. There would be nothing remarkable about that were it not for Robert Frost. In one of his great poems he said,

 

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living’s to unite my avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sake.

 

Frost was not only well represented in my American literature class; he came to our campus to read his poems and we all had the opportunity to meet him and get his autograph, which I still treasure. The point is that I was already hoping to find ways to reduce the distance between who I am and what I do and the great poet confirmed that such would be a worthy goal. In retrospect I know that, for me at least, campus ministry would offer the chance to do what I love and get paid for doing it. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to choose that path and that made all the difference for me. (Don’t miss this further allusion to Frost’s poetry.)

 

If you are still reading at this point, I hasten to tell you that I do not plan to go over the story of my life in the kind of detail this beginning implies. I had two more years in a rural pastorate followed by two years on the staff of an affluent suburban church in Birmingham. I already knew that the direction my life was taking had to change. I half-heartedly began to apply to graduate school in New Testament studies. Then someone told me that my alma mater was looking for a chaplain and, not really knowing all that would involve, I applied for the job and got it. I kept that position for eight years, then moved to the chaplaincy at the University of Redlands in southern California for seven years, followed by eleven years as chaplain of Emory University in Atlanta.

 

My final assignment was as a general staff person for campus ministries related to the United Methodist Church: Wesley Foundations, ecumenical ministries, college and university chaplains and more. It was a fortunate way to bring my active career to a close. In his research on the stages of human development Erik Erikson coined the wonderful term “generativity”: creativity in behalf of the generations. How nice that after all the years in campus ministry I could devote myself to helping others find their way in the profession. From the beginning I had sought to understand and interpret our work to others. This involved a lot of writing and speaking long before it became a formal responsibility and although I have slowed down to a crawl now, I am still trying to help where I can.

 

I have never had a job that did not involve stress. Young people need to understand this when looking for their place in the world of ministry and work. The above may sound like once I entered the chaplaincy the rest was smooth sailing. That was by no means the case. I have frequently been on the other side of issues that some powerful people (e.g. college trustees, District Superintendents, et al.) were agitated about. I think I stood my ground without doing too many things that were stupid. In difficult times the caring and support of colleagues made a big difference. That is one of the reasons why professional groups such as the National Campus Ministry Association are so important. But they are also important because they are so much fun!

 

I retired fifteen years ago and, although I served on, and chaired, the board of directors of the Wesley/Canterbury campus ministry at Vanderbilt for a few of these years, I am aware of how out of touch I have become. The campuses have changed, the culture has changed, the situation of the churches has changed. Although I was extensively involved with all kinds of ministries on all kinds of campuses near the end of my career, I never attended as a student or served as a campus minister on any but private, church-related campuses. I wrote a book on campus ministry, but it came out 25 years ago! (I can’t resist saying, however, that the book was recently used in a class on campus ministry with the students saying it is still relevant.)

 

Now here is the basic thing I want to say. I will have my 77th birthday this summer and I have just admitted to feeling out of touch and over the hill. But that refers to the every day, practical realities of ministry on the campuses. I am still very much engaged with the issues related to spirituality and learning that I mentioned in the opening lines of this little essay. I write a little, teach adult Sunday School classes a little, and engage in spirited conversations with friends all the time. A philosopher whose name does not spring to mind at the moment said that we have a moral obligation to be intelligent.  How true! What we don’t know—maybe refuse to know–hurts people. In whatever ways I can at this late date, I am still trying to find ways to help unite knowledge and vital piety!

 

My final word is to express my gratitude for the opportunities I had to serve in, and love, campus ministry for so long. I am especially grateful for all the friendships that were born and nurtured among colleagues over the years, many of which were enabled by the National Campus Ministry Association, now celebrating its 50th year. Happy Anniversary NCMA!

 

 

Don Shockley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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