The Call of the Wild

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David Stone (Mdiv ’99) Discusses What Happens When Your Dream Job is Not the Reality God Wants for You

By Niki Bliss-Carroll

He was sitting on the porch watching the sun set across shimmering waters and had just completed his boat patrol shift as a park ranger with the Corps of Engineers at Lake Hartwell, Ga. But something was wrong. A nagging feeling caused him to take a deep breath. He had just asked his girlfriend, Christin, to be his wife. He had successfully earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resources management from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. He was a blessed man. Every detail in his life was falling into place just exactly as he always hoped it would. He had landed his dream job. But a voice inside of him silently pleaded, “God, if this isn’t what you want me to do, what is it?”

“How about Baptist campus ministry in the mountains of Western North Carolina,” the gentle voice answered, more as a fleeting thought than a thunderous revelation.

“That’s when I laughed,” GWU Master of Divinity alumnus David Stone admitted. “I don’t think I laughed so much out of doubt or disbelief, but because it sounded too good to be true. I wrestled with whether it really was God calling me or me wishing I was back in college far away from the real world.”

The moments spent with the Lord that day in the waning afternoon sun revealed some things for which he wasn’t fully prepared. “Though it was the job I always wanted, I hated it,” Stone reflected of his position at Lake Hartwell. “That’s when I started processing my call to ministry.”

Stone sought Godly counsel from those in whom he trusted, reaching out to the pastor in the church where he grew up, the pastor of the church he attended in college, and his campus minister. He talked to his future wife’s family who had served a lifetime in ministry. “Her parents struggled with the decision,” he recollected. “They knew what we were being led into and that it would not be easy.” Everyone he talked to shared their concern and also their encouragement.

“When I started applying to divinity schools, I finally settled that I did believe God was calling me, but I still wasn’t certain if it was really to serve as a campus minister,” he shared. “I felt it would be nice if it were for something like that, but those jobs just aren’t out there to have, especially when you consider a specific geographic area.”

Amidst his career shake-up, Stone felt led to the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity.  He noted with interest that the university offered an internship opportunity as a campus minister for students (now a full-time position at GWU). Not long after starting his first classes, he began working with Dr. Tracy Jessup in the Office of Christian Life and Service as the campus ministries intern.

His connection with Jessup proved to have kingdom purpose following graduation in 1999. The Baptist State Convention was searching for a campus minister to serve at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. “I couldn’t believe it. I applied for the job in 2002, and was promptly hired in 2004,” he laughed. “Maybe I stuck it out the longest and that’s why they hired me.” Looking back, Stone understands it was all part of the way God worked in the situation to build his faith.

For nine years, he worked with students, churches, and other members of the community, providing meals, ministry opportunities, Bible studies, and worship times.  Then, in April of 2013, upsetting news came. The Baptist State Convention, that had funded Baptist campus ministry for decades, had voted to dissolve their affiliation with—and withdraw their funding of—ministry on college campuses. The action, in many ways, served as a pink slip for campus ministers across the state.

“What I didn’t understand was how it would play out. For me, it was a time of reprocessing my call.”

He continued, “I had felt the calling on that porch in Hartwell. So I had to have a long sit-down with God on a mountain behind our house. I said, ‘God, what are we doing here? Did you call me to this for just a season? Is this work now complete and you want me to shift somewhere else?’ I never got peace that we were done. It was just, ‘Stay the course.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”

In the year since the funding source shifted, Stone said not much has changed for students. He worked with several Baptist pastors to establish the Western North Carolina Baptist Collegiate Ministries, a 501(c)3 non-profit that is as inclusive as possible. “We have stayed true to our Baptist heritage, but we welcome opportunities to work with a wide range of denominations,” Stone reported.  “For me, it’s a continuing process of asking, ‘How do we build from here?’”

“Last year, when we did not have the student center at UNC-Asheville, we moved our weekly fellowship meal up onto campus, along with our worship service,” Stone explained.  Weekly meals are now served to college students in a program called “Cooperative Campus Ministries Lunch,” provided by local Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, and non-denominational bodies. “In addition, we appreciate that the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity continues to sponsor lunch meals for our students once a year,” he pointed out. The local ministry chapter, now called the Baptist Student Fellowship, works with any Baptist church or entity who wants to partner in discipling students.

Stone continues to keep his focus centered on God as he makes plans for the coming years. “In five years, I’d like to see this program fully-funded. Currently, I am serving at Western Carolina University and UNC Asheville, but I’d like to see our program fund a full-time campus minister at each school.  I’d also like to connect with MDiv students at area institutions, like Gardner-Webb, and provide them with internship opportunities in campus ministries.”

He loves the picture of Christian harmony that effective campus ministry can reveal to students. “Faith development is a one-step-at-a-time thing,” he said. “Our central common background is Jesus Christ. I know that sounds like the Sunday School answer, but it is. When I was a student at Western, I noticed that the campus ministers from different denominations got along. It’s the same here. We love Jesus and just want to convey the message of Christ to college students who need to hear it. Discipling them is the part of the calling that I really love.”