I sat waiting at the Illini Orange Canteen. The smell of fall was in the air at the University of Illinois. I had squeezed 4 years into 4 ½, and now the time had come to go out into the “real world.” I would be graduating in December.
I spent many hours at the Illini Orange – the bustling location where I had picked up mail during my college days was also a prime spot for late night greasy pizza – but now it was serving more noble purposes. Bill Tell, the director of Navigators for the state of Illinois, had asked me to get together, and I was pumped about what I supposed was his agenda. Up to this point, my plans after graduation were unclear, but it wasn’t for lack of trying – my interviewing had begun in earnest.
The School of Commerce and Business Administration at the U of I had a good reputation, and I was finishing with a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Business Administration, but my heart had never quite been in it. In truth, I had “majored” in the Navigators, learning to share my faith, lead Bible studies, and disciple men. But here I was…trying to put my business degree to work. That meant interviewing.
I remember the set up. Companies would ensconce their recruiter in a business school classroom, or various rooms at the Illini Union hotel, and upon the prospective hour, you would show up in the uniform: dark suit, white shirt and red tie with little paisleys on it, a style in vogue at the end of the 1980s.
Of course, the idea was eventually to get a job offer, but the second interview was the immediate goal, usually meaning an invite and all-expenses-paid trip to the company’s headquarters. I had lots of interviews on campus, but only two big trips that I remember: Frito Lay had brought me to Dallas, and Dow Chemical had flown me to Michigan, but no offers of employment had followed. All in all, this meant lots of rejection letters, with which, following custom, I dutifully papered my dorm room door.
And now Bill Tell was recruiting, but it wasn’t really an interview: Bill had come to offer me a job.
I had looked up to him for a long time. In the tradition of the Navigators, he was a great student of Scripture with a quiet, strong manner, a crooked smile with a twinkle in his eye that made you feel he was on your side. In the Nav hierarchy, Bill was high on the food chain, and yet, much more than that, seemed to know God.
I remember his testimony. He had come to Christ during his college days through another student who, after leading him to Christ and briefly discipling him, dropped dead of a brain aneurism…the kind of experience that would tend to put eternity on your heart.
So as graduation was approaching and my plans were yet unsure, I knew that I wouldn’t be spending too many more hours at the Illini Orange. But I was looking forward to this one.
After pleasantries that afternoon, Bill spoke up: “Rog, we’d like you to consider coming on State Staff with the Navs.”
“State Staff” was a new hybrid position with the organization. It involved raising support to work part time for the Navigators and getting some sort of job for 20 or so hours the rest of the week. I would be doing ministry, and getting paid for it. It was really what I had always wanted, and I told Bill I would pray.
In some ways I had been heading this way since West Point. Even back then I had told Bob Maruna that I wanted to be a pastor, but my father had directed me away from my interest in Moody Bible Institute with a telling word: “I had always wanted you to go to a real college.”
So now I was finishing a degree from this real college and considering doing some unreal ministry work. Dad was a Christian now, and I knew he would be supportive, but what did God want?
I decided to talk it over with my dear friends Jim and Sharon Cooper.
Jim was the full-time Navigator staff member over the area of campus with a half dozen look-alike dorms known as the 6 pack. He and Sharon had been second parents to me ever since they had come to Champaign before my junior year. Not only did they disciple me in the faith, but they had me over to eat constantly, talked me through girl troubles, loaned me money ($500, a debt I think they forgave), and all in all treated me like a son. They were models of life-on-life discipleship.
And yet, to this day, I’ll never forget the advice Jim gave me: “Rog, before you go into ministry, first prove yourself in the marketplace.”
Jim had been an engineer and Sharon an accountant at Caterpillar in Peoria before coming on staff with the Navigators, and so I suppose they had lived their own advice, and it was natural to pass it on to me.
Prove yourself in the marketplace.
Jim’s advice was not a principle from Scripture, but it made sense. So, with Jim’s 5 words ringing in my ears, I turned Bill’s offer down and took a sales job with a automotive aftermarket company called Premier Autoware out of Cleveland, Ohio. It was for Premier that I would begin the task…of proving myself.
To be continued…here
On Monday, June 1st, we’ll turn to consider 2 Corinthians 4.