Thursday, August 24, 2017

Reflections on my 2 Years in the Salvation Army Ministry Discovery Program Internship: Serving in Escanaba, Michigan

The views on this blog do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Salvation Army organization or it's membership.  These are my personal views.  God be praised. 

I suppose it doesn't matter too much what has happened in my own personal life over the past two years, as I've stepped into Christian ministry, but I thought perhaps my experiences might encourage and find identification with those who are enduring struggles to carry the message of Jesus to the world.  I've been blessed to enter into ministry in the Salvation Army, the coolest church ever in my humble opinion.  So I thought I'd share with you about my internship with TSA.  Perhaps your considering such a vocation in full time ministry?  I hope this reflection will be constructive to you!  

Here is what God has done in my life; And listen, I'm not a missionary in a 3rd world country, I'm not an imprisoned saint in North Korea, I'm just a recovering junkie that Jesus found.  Later on, The Salvation Army decided to take a chance on me and see if I could handle the rigors of ministry.  So let's talk about that journey.  
"He gives power to the weak
and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
and young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint."

-Isaiah 40:29-31

I remember when I first found out from the Salvation Army that I was heading to Escanaba.  I was quite surprised.  In fact I was hoping for somewhere warmer.  But God knew what He was doing.  I got on my knees after receiving the news and asked God: "Is this what you have for me?  Is this where I belong?"

And God seemed to direct me to look down at my shirt.  I didn't know why.  But then I realized as I looked down I was wearing a dark blue shirt with a red shield on it.  

Mom and I went to see if we could find an apartment in Escanaba.  It was difficult at first.  Nothing seemed to be working out quite right.  The harbor tower was full at the time, we couldn't find anything decent under $500.00.  

I remember I'd had a dream that I was in an apartment and I looked out the back window of the apartment and I saw a white house with a music note symbol on it.  So I joked to mom, watch for a place where you can see a music note from the back window.  And she said, yeah, maybe near a music store!

We found a place, and when I walked inside, I looked out the back window, and sure enough, there was a white house behind the apartment, and just above the line of bushes, there was a black music note on the house.  

I'd lived in Wausau all my life, so moving to another state was quite a shock to my mind.  Wausau's population plus the surrounding smaller towns is 100k.  Escanaba was about 10,000.  Visiting I wondered, what could be the need here?  I saw tons of churches, dozens of them.  But I also noticed many homeless, and while visiting I asked several waitresses at the local diners: "What is the most serious issue that faces Escanaba?"  The usual answer was drug addiction, either meth or heroin.  

I realized that God had work for me to do there.  But more so, he had a lot for me to learn.  So I obeyed the Lord.

After moving in I struggled a great deal with isolation, confusion, depression, and the most severe anxiety.  It was exceedingly difficult.  One of the hardest times I've ever faced.  My cats were similarly discombobulated.  But at least we were struggling together!

I went to the church services at the Salvation Army Escanaba corps.  There were about 60 in attendance.  I was introduced, and after the service I was heartened by the surge of support and encouragement I found in the people in attendance.  It was a blessing.  I felt very much welcomed as part of a new family.  That did much to help me to keep moving forward, even when afraid.

That is one of the essential truths I've learned in the past two years: Move forward even when your afraid.  It's hard, but it's true and it works.  

The first few months of my work at the corps was very strenuous.  I had a hard time emotionally and socially, beginning to deal with complex situations, coworkers, and after-work hours commitments.  It was very tough at first to go to work in the morning, run home for dinner, then head back to work in a few hours to do youth activities or Bible study.  

My advice to those in a similar situation is if your feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, exhausted everyday; don't give up and assume that you can't do it.  Keep trying to do it, even when it's really hard.  Don't give up, keep pushing even when your at the edge of your wits.  No one said this was going to be easy.  Be persistent, don't give up too easily.  It gets easier over time.

I had to lean on my support system. Thankfully I had some ladies in the corps who really had my back and were there to support me.  I had my recovery groups in the area, and I was seeing a counselor.  Even more important than that, and probably the only reason I made it through the tough schedule, work stress, difficult coworkers, and all the rest was because I diligently prayed.  I didn't just say I prayed, or talked about praying, I actually prayed, every morning, before every meal, and every night.  And I did my devotions and read my Bible.  The center of my support system was and is, God.  I'm not saying that to brag, but to encourage people to not neglect this.  Without continuous prayer, devotions, and daily Bible reading failure in ministry work is 100% certain.  It's neglected out of ego, pride, and lack of discipline.  That's my opinion. 

I had ongoing conflicts with coworkers, one in particular which made each day at work quite stressful.  I struggled with a great deal of anxiety day by day.  I struggled with a lot of fear and weakness early on.  Often I dreaded going to work in the morning.

I was green as green could be at the start.  I insisted early on that I only wanted to do one year in Escanaba, then go to training college.  Major Ralph knew better, and encouraged me to stay the full two years.  

Just two weeks later, a godly man named Major Meyer invited me to dinner with the leadership of the division.  This was a God-given appointment.  I had been asking God: "Do you want me to stay for 1 or 2 years?"  And these godly men, Major Meyer, Thom, Kevin, others, they encouraged me to stay the full two years.  And to this day I'm so thankful that they talked me about ministry, about the rigors of it, about how much I could learn over two years, about how it wouldn't set back my ministry path, because "in the internship you will be doing constant ministry."  God set that up, and it was good.  It was also encouraging for such important men in the division to sit down a green new intern and give him some time to talk.  That meant a lot.  So it was decided, I would stay 2 full years.  And I haven't regretted it. 

My boss Major Ralph took the CSM (Corps Sergeant Major- the chief lay leader of the church) and I through preaching classes early on.  I shadowed Major Ralph in all he did, went with him to his service club, food drives, out to the dump, out to the storage unit, United Way meetings, donation pickups, conferences, canathons, fundraisers, and other activities.  

I started doing home visits with church members, which was awesome.  And I started visiting a nearby nursing home 4 days a week.  I did visits with members of the nursing home, and began to share scripture and devotions with them.  It was one of my favorite things to do, and a welcome distraction from the stress of the work environment at the corps.  

I put my expertise in social media to work at the corps, taking over the Facebook page of our Salvation Army corps and building it up with pictures, videos, updates, and new followers in the community.  I asked to set up a Twitter page for the corps and this was approved, and I began tweeting about our corps, and about the scriptures and Jesus.  This was a rewarding pursuit.

Early on the social worker was away for a while, so I had the chance to do social services work.  I really had a hard time with it.  I tried to say no, but there were people that really did a good job of manipulating me.  And pretty soon word got out that the Salvation Army would pay your bills and I was having visits with several people each day asking for money.  I was so relieved to get out of that position once the social worker returned.  It was an ugly realization when I understood that people had been using me and telling me stories that probably weren't true.  But you live and you learn.

I recall one day it was pouring rain, and I saw a homeless man standing in the rain.  He was holding a sign asking for help.  I parked my van and walked over to him, and held up my umbrella so it was covering us both.  I said, "Hey, we have a homeless shelter here that you can go to and get out of the rain."  

He said,"No thanks, I'll wait for someone to buy me a hotel room."

So I told him about our daily meal program and then walked back to the van.  This incident helped me to realize that for some, they don't want help, they're just leaching off the good will of others.  In fact for the rest of my time there I saw the same guy at the same intersection, holding a sign that said "traveling."  Apparently he didn't make it very far. 

The first pasty week was hard for me, all those people everywhere.  It really stressed me out.  But I fought through it as best I could, and actually began to enjoy myself.  More and more I was realizing that everything good in life was on the other side of the giant mountain of fear in my life.

I had surgery that winter to remove several lumps from my arms and torso, to see if they were cancerous.  My friend Beverly at the corps helped me get through that difficult time.  They gave me vicodin after the surgery, which was a serious danger to my sobriety. Thankfully the prescription ran out, and that was that.  

I was interviewed on the TV news for one of our programs, and later did a radio interview as well while my boss was away.  God was really giving me an all out introduction to life in officership. 

As we approached kettle season I heard stories of how previous interns had given up and quit during kettle season because it was so hard.  I determined in my mind early on that I was going to do my best to persevere and not be a quitter.  So we did the canathon in front of the grocery store.  It was cold and long, but also surprisingly rewarding. Shortly after kettle season took off. I was at the corps constantly it seemed, from 10 am to 10 pm sometimes.  I split kettle counting with Major Ralph, he did 3 times a week, I did 3 times a week.  Actually some of my fondest memories were in kettle season.  I felt a joy and strength, that God was raising me up in strength as I went through that month and a half of heavy work.  It was quite rewarding.

I began to pray for my coworkers, and pray for those in my life who were driving me nuts.  This helped me to love them.  And it seemed like God honored those prayers, and would heap burning coals on the heads of those I prayed for.  As odd as it sounds, it's true.  If I love my enemies, God goes to work on my behalf. 

One of the hardest things for me was learning youth ministry.  This was a central focus for Major Ralph, building up the youth ministries at the corps.  Which is certainly a wise thing to do.  Sadly I had no experience in working with kids or teens.  I mean 0.  I had never, ever done anything like it before.  Every job and ministry position I'd held prior was working with adults.  That's what I knew, working with young adults, adults, homeless, and elderly.  So I struggled badly early on in working with the boys club.  I remember early on I threw a basketball to one of the kids and it knocked the kid over.  Apparently I hadn't realized the force of my throw, or the 7 year old's ability to catch a ball flying at that speed.  Oh boy!  

The struggles for the first year continued, but slowly but surely I realized my spiritual muscles were beginning to grow.  Like early on in any rough workout schedule you feel so weak, like your unable to continue.  But if you keep after it day in and day out, eventually you realize you've got new muscles and found new strength.  

Meanwhile my work at the Bishop Noa nursing home was developing into something new.  I was visiting an old lady named Marget, and her roommate joined us for the devotional several times.  From this spawned an interdenominational Bible study on Fridays.  More and more were attending and eventually we had about twelve elderly ladies and men sitting in the chapel as I led Bible study.  It was great.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was at the end of my first year in August when I was asked to lead Vacation Bible School.  It was a source of a huge amount of stress for me.  But I was putting too much pressure on myself.  The Majors were there to help me through all of it, and guide me in what I ought to do. 

I became the host on stage, and managed to lead and answer questions quite well.  During the five day week I got to do five devotional messages with the kids and host trivia questions, prize giveaways, and give out candy to people who answered questions correctly.  On the last day I invited children to come on stage and stand with me to declare that they had received Jesus Christ as their savior.  The stage was filled, truly a glowing moment in my short life in ministry.

I discovered a joy in working with the day camp kids during VBS week.  I really did.  This was exceedingly surprising to me because I had always said that I had no interest in working with kids. But sure enough, I'd found a real interest in ministering to children.  Praise the Lord.  

The week came together beautifully and many of the kids turned their lives over to Jesus.  My goal through VBS was to win them to Christ, and give them the word.  I hope it worked.  And I pray that work continues.  Only God knows.  

Let me say that the first year was very, very hard.  I was new to nearly every area of ministry.  But I didn't give up.  Don't give up, don't ever give up!  Keep marching forward, even if it hurts.  God will make you able to do what your called to do over time.  Don't assume your present inability is permanent, God transforms us into able people, but He calls us to it while we are still totally unable.  That's faith, believing that God will make us able in the future.  

The second year seemed to fly by. I really began to enjoy certain aspects of ministry.  My favorite part was preaching the word.  I really enjoyed putting together a powerful sermon, inviting God to minister and guide my words, and to give it on Sunday with passion and zeal.  And I loved sharing the word in Bible study at the nursing home.

I became very close with the congregation at the Salvation Army church.  I went to dinner regularly with Art and Grace, and regularly spent time with Beverly and Tom.  I became good friends with Stanley and Carla, Rick, and many others.  They were my support network in many ways.

I was preaching half-time, twice a month, and I began a 12 part series based on what I'd learned from the Truth Project, the book "I don't have enough Faith to be an Atheist" by Norm Geisler, additionally influenced by RZIM, Reasonable Faith, and Cross Examined ministries.  If you'd like to read or listen to any of those sermons go to "Christian Worldview" on the menu bar of this website.  

Victory after victory came about in the second year.  Hard fought victories came about.  I had the difficult experience of helping let go a fellow employee. That Christmas season I was placed in charge of scheduling bell ringers and experienced dealing with some bell ringers who weren't serving up to expectations.  There were many difficult experiences, and I made some mistakes along the way as well.  I struggled in certain areas, usually related to dealing with people, and triumphed in other areas, usually related to pastoral care and platform ministry.

I took a test administered by staff from DHQ and it helped me to understand my leadership style.  Unsurprisingly my results were in the category of "the imaginative leader" in that I find new ways to translate the timeless truths of scripture. This style was compared with past leaders like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. 

The year seemed to fly by.  Pasty week happened twice in there.  Unlike the first year, the anxiety and fatigue began to melt away.  It melted away more and more.  And I realized that my spiritual muscles had grown a great deal.  And I realized that God had stretched my tank, so it could be filled with more responsibilities and more weighty spiritual concerns.  I was becoming more and more "myself" than I'd ever been in the past.  God was stripping away the damaged, crusty burnt pieces of my soul and renewing me in the water and Spirit of his love, all in the crucible of ministry. 

Honestly over that whole time I was constantly obsessively thinking about huge world issues.  I naturally do that.  I pay a lot of attention to world issues, political issues, economic philosophy, social issues, and Christianity in the context of a world movement.  Mainly my mind would constantly focus in on the United States. I would sit there in my little office in Upper Michigan and think about the decline of church attendance in Europe and America.  I'd think about the debates in the church about gay marriage, abortion, and scriptural authority.  I'd watch the political battles between conservatism and liberalism.  I'd weigh the pros and cons and consider how Christianity could better reach people in 3rd world countries and scattered parts of the world.  I can't turn my mind off sometimes, and I constantly "get lost in my thoughts" as my campion-psych evaluation aptly noted.  

I would burn with angst about the state of our country.  I would burn with fear and sorrow and angst at the immorality, and often for the souls of children who are so led astray of a secular ideology pushed in public schools and universities.  And I'd think about the unborn babies being cut from the bellies of their mothers by the tens of thousands month by month.  I'd think about the people in 3rd world countries starving to death.  My mind constantly grappled with world issues.  

I was very active in the 2016 primaries and the presidential election.  I felt like the fate of the country was at stake, so I fought very hard and raised my voice constantly.  But I didn't bring that into my Salvation Army work.  I tried to keep those separate.  But I am a citizen of my country, and I have a right as a private citizen to advocate for those political beliefs which I believe best represent the Christian underpinnings of our society.  There's nothing wrong with that.  If your in ministry, there is nothing wrong with being active in politics.  In fact I would argue it's your duty as a Christian to be involved, privately.  But in the pulpit and in the uniform, it was my job to set aside partisan-politics and carry the gospel, serving those in need. 

The election ended and everyone was shocked, myself included.  I began preaching my last thirteen sermons.  It was a time of great joy in the ministry work.  I had a lot of child-like hopes about revival and awakening.  I had hoped to double the size of the church, but that didn't happen.  And I don't suppose it always happens like that.  In some assignments we might gather many, in others we may simply hold the line.  In and out of season we must serve, right?

God is good.  He put some very wonderful people around me.  Major Evelyn and Leonard were a constant encouragement to me. They had been retired nearly 25 years when I got there.  Talk about a sweet, wonderful, caring couple that could always put a smile on your face.  They were wonderful.

Still another support was Stanley and Carla.  On my birthday in April they invited me over and had a party for me.  They made us brisket and pie, with ice cream.  It was wonderful.  No one had ever done that for me before, never, aside from my parents.  That was really a blessing, to be surrounded by such a family.

I still say to this day that I was surrounded by a family I had never known before.  I arrived and it was like coming home to a home I'd never known.  It was amazing.  

I had to fight hard early on.  But once I got through that rough patch, it became more and more wonderful.  Taking kids to camp and serving at camp was really a surprise blessing.  I loved being at camp and sharing devotionals and have conversations with young people.  It was awesome.  I really love the camp ministries of the Salvation Army.  And I always loved Youth Councils, and Regeneration and other awesome conferences.  The youth ministries of the Salvation Army are truly special and blessed.  There is nothing quite like it.  It's astonishing.  

So things were going great and I was preaching my sermons.  Then my grandma Monica died suddenly.  She was in a nursing home, suffering, age 93, and she passed away that morning.  She had a wind chime that I gave her years and years ago.  And she kept it outside on her back deck.  It reminded her of me.  And every time the wind would blow and the wind chime would be going crazy out there she was amazed that it wouldn't break off and fly away.  But it never did.  She knew that when it was blowing all over that I was in danger in my life.  She equated it to me.  And she prayed for me, endlessly, endlessly and constantly.  And Jennifer a close friend of my grandma shared with me at her funeral that they were talking and she was thinking of stopping praying for me because it was just too late.  And it was then that she got the phone call saying that I had gotten clean, sober, and I'd come to know Jesus.  

It's interesting that the morning grandma died it was super windy in Escanaba, and it was so windy that morning as I was writing my sermon the storm window blew off the old house and smashed on top of the garage below.  I took that as a sign that her wind chime, her life had finally broken off, to be with the Lord.  I had the honor and privilege to give the eulogy at grandma Monica's funeral, and I used the opportunity to preach the gospel to my family, a gospel that they'd probably never heard before.  Praise the Lord.  

Two weeks later, I kid you not, my Grandpa Bernie Check died of a heart attack.  My prayer warrior died, and Bernie the man who had given me my first Bible and shared the gospel with me died two weeks later.  I felt like I'd lost my two arch-angels.  But it was God's will.  I had the chance to speak at his funeral and share what grandpa had done in my life.  

The time flew by.  I worked with a friend in town who was trying to stay clean, Kristy.  We met together, went to meetings, support groups, and church services for about my entire second year. And right before I left Escanaba I had the chance to baptize Kristy in lake Michigan.  It was amazing.  Praise the Lord. 

One of the regrets I have from my two years there is that I didn't make more close friends, that I didn't connect with more people outside church and develop relationships.  I think if I were to start over today and do it again, that would happen much more naturally.  But I was fighting hard just to keep my head above water in the stresses of the move, the new job, and the new responsibilities.  So I think I did the best I could.  

If you can be a bit of a perfectionist like me, remember to give yourself grace, because God does, so who are you not to?  He gives you grace, and He knows you aren't perfect.  That's the whole point after all, that's why we need Jesus Christ as full and total savior over us.  We can't do it perfectly.  Only He can provide that righteousness that is beyond us.  

During my second year, throughout I felt the spiritual warfare ramp up to a new level.  If your experiencing the same thing in ministry, let me tell you now: You aren't imagining it.  It's real.  I would have nightmares almost every night, very dark, disturbing images would be placed before me.  When that happens and you wake up in the morning relieved to be awake your first reaction should be a big smile across your face.  Why?  Because the enemy is attacking you.  Which means that you are standing for Christ, and Christ is being glorified.  What a wonderful reminder that we are on the right track; When we're attacked by the enemy!  

I did not get a lot of thank yous or atta-boys from my commanding officers.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  It's simply their way.  They expect you to do your duty.  Words of encouragement aren't necessary.  And it helped to strip away some of my entitlements, my attitudes of deserving certain things in life.  

As a minister of the gospel, which is critical to understand, I have no conditions before God, there are no negotiations on where I go or don't go, God is in charge, I'm His servant.  I don't have certain rights, I don't get a say in what I do, I follow His leading, and rightly so, He is God, and I'm just a man.  There is no point in arguing with God, His plan is always right.  I didn't know that early on, which made it hard, but I found that when I follow His lead everything does work out in the end, for His glory.  

Additionally I would say to all those in ministry: We have no right to any sort of pride, pride is cancer to ministry.  It festers within and destroys the godly man's ability to do anything good at all, ever.  Pride should be feared and shunned.  But it's insidious, it sneaks up on us.  And when I got a harsh talking to from my commanding officer, my pride was damaged, and rightly so.  Pride should be damaged if it's there, it has no place in ministry.  I'm a servant of the flock, and yes, I'm a leader of the flock, but no duty is below me, no rebuke is below me, and if I'm wrong, then I ought to thank the person who let me know.  

There were innumerable dynamic duties as a ministry intern, I was called upon to carry boxes, stock shelves, do interviews with media, write letters, develop curriculum, lead Bible study, lead corps cadets (teen group), lead adventure corps boys club (5-8 years old), lead songs in worship, write and preach sermons, do home visits, visit nursing homes, visit the jail, pray with people at the hospital, stand outside in the cold taking can donations, schedule bell ringers, make pasties, take tickets at the entrance of the fair grounds, attend United Way meetings, unload donations at the post office, drop cardboard at the dump, canvass small businesses for donations, lead vacation bible school, take kids to camp, and a dozen other assorted tasks.  To be a minister I learned is to do a bit of everything, and learn to be dynamic, responding at a moments notice to diverse situations.  

If your considering officership (pastoring) in the Salvation Army I'd encourage you to look into the Ministry Discovery Program Internship.  It was an incredible blessing to my life.  It showed me so much about officership and I've learned that I can, God willing, become an officer.  

Right now I'm a new cadet at the Salvation Army college for officer's training in Chicago.  I'm incredibly blessed, humbled, and honored to be here.  It's a whole new experience to be here, and I feel somewhat like I felt when I first got to Escanaba.  But fundamentally it's good.  There are wonderful people here, and the staff and leaders are incredibly encouraging, kind, and approachable.  I can tell they really want us to succeed.  Even more though, God is here with me.  Just as God was with me in Escanaba, God is here, now.  He leads me wherever I go.  It's amazing, it's grace and love.  I'm so blessed, and I know the future is bright.  Thanks for reading. 

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