In my last post I explained why I believe God wanted Priscilla and me not to make direct appeals for support, but instead rely on Him to provide through prayer, when we were volunteer campus staff members with Graduate InterVarsity (Grad IV) at Michigan State. But how were we led to follow that approach in the first place?
I was expecting to move into another full-time salaried position when I left my pastorate in East Lansing in 2008. Over a period of many months I applied for a variety of teaching, chaplaincy, and pastoral opportunities all over the country. But this widespread job search did not yield even a single interview! At the same time, however, two other things were happening.
First, the dozen or so graduate students who’d been attending our church asked us to work more closely with them in Grad IV because their staff member had just left. And so I helped lead the group’s Bible study that summer, and we worked closely with the student leaders to plan that fall’s New Student Outreach (NSO). We realized that we wanted to keep working with this group for as long as we were in town, and that in that case we really should come under the authority of InterVarsity. So we both applied to become volunteer campus staff members and were accepted.
Meanwhile, provision began to come in. Part of it was through unsolicited gifts towards our living expenses, some from close friends and some from unexpected and even surprising sources. Another part was through freelance work that I could do in time that wasn’t required for ministry responsibilities. Some of this was a continuation of things I’d already been doing, such as consulting with the International Bible Society (now Biblica). But much of it was work that “found me,” rather than anything I went looking for. (As I write this, I realize that it’s is a story of its own that needs to be told some day. Stay tuned.)
Eventually it dawned on us that we likely weren’t going anywhere in the near future, but that this was all right, because we had a ministry that we really enjoyed, and the means to carry it on. I remember telling God in prayer one day, “You’ve got yourself a deal. As long as we’re able to keep doing this, we’ll keep doing it.” My measurement of whether we were able to “keep doing this” was a bookkeeping account I initially named “Survival,” but later changed to the less dramatic “Living Expenses.” So long as it remained in the black, I felt, we were good to carry on. And it stayed in the black the entire time we were volunteer staff, at least on an “accounts receivable” basis: On the few occasions when it dipped into the red, this was never by more than the amount I was owed for freelance work already done and payable.
I should specify that when it came to funding our ministry with Grad IV, we didn’t feel that God had forbidden us to ask directly for support. Rather, as specific needs arose, time after time we felt a positive leading to pray and wait for God to provide for them in a way that would also serve the larger purpose I described last time.
I’ve reread all of our ministry newsletters and I’ve only found two places where it could be said that we did ask for support. One place is in our very first newsletter, from October 2008, where, along with reports and photos of NSO and an explanation of our new status as volunteer campus staff members, this notice appears:
Audience wanted for news of God’s great works on campus
We believe that God is honored when His great works are made known, and so we’re looking for people to share the latest news with about what God is doing among the graduate students at Michigan State University. Please let us know if we can send you prayer requests and ministry updates. We’d be honored to have your partnership in our ministry in this way. Also, as volunteer staff we’re donating our time, but we can raise support for expenses such as travel, supplies, and conferences. We’re both hoping to attend InterVarsity’s Following Christ conference in Chicago at the end of this year. If you would like to support our work in this way, please let us know, and we’ll tell you how you can. Thanks very much!
So clearly we did not feel a positive leading not to ask for help with our ministry expenses. In response to this one notice, a loyal band of friends committed themselves to giving towards those expenses each month and they were always covered, including things like the conference costs we mentioned. But we did feel led not to say anything about living expenses, only that we were “donating our time.” Nevertheless, these, too, were always covered, through generous and timely gifts, and work that “found me.”
Other than this, all five years of newsletters contain almost nothing on the subject of financial needs except grateful reports that we’d finished the calendar year or the school year “in the black” in terms of both ministry expenses and living expenses, and invitations for our friends to rejoice and thank God with us for this. The one exception comes in August 2011. Priscilla’s desktop computer had stopped working and it would have cost almost as much to repair as to replace. My laptop computer was ten years old at that point, and while it was still going strong (those iBook G3s lasted forever!), it could no longer keep up with the latest browsers and so I was unable to use essential student ministry tools such as Facebook and Google Docs effectively.
I suppose we could have waited to see if anyone asked us whether we needed new computers. (Something like that had actually happened to us before. A few days after we identified a chest freezer as something we needed to support Priscilla’s ministry of hospitality, someone asked us, “Do you know anyone who needs a freezer?”—and gave us hers!) But we did not feel led to take that approach this time around. Instead, in our August 2011 newsletter we mentioned the need for replacement desktop and laptop computers and asked whether anyone had ones a few years old they could give us. Alternatively, we suggested, people might “contribute towards the purchase of new computers.”
But even though we made this direct request, God still provided for this need in a way that spoke of His reality and present activity. We soon did receive one generous check from friends of our ministry in response to this appeal. But the next day we received another check that had been written before we made the appeal! Three days later a local friend brought her brother, who was visiting from out of town, over to meet us. After a great visit they said their goodbyes and left. A few moments later the doorbell rang. It was the brother. The look on his face said, “You’re probably going to find this strange, and as a matter of fact, I’m finding it a bit strange myself.” But he had returned because as soon as he’d gotten into the car, he’d felt God leading him to make a gift to our ministry. He didn’t know about our need for computers. But he nevertheless gave us a contribution that made the total in our computer fund sufficient for us to purchase a desktop computer, particularly when we followed our InterVarsity supervisor’s advice and got a refurbished one online at the Apple Store.
Later a friend who served with a Christian ministry was given a computer upgrade at work and he was allowed to donate his previous laptop to us, because we too were in ministry.
The first two stories in our inaugural Grad IV ministry newsletter