Obedience in the Moment
by Susan Sytsma Bratt
"You’re going to be a minister someday.” 2005 Calvin College alum Matt Ackerman heard this comment numerous times as an adolescent, and even more as he prepared to leave his hometown of Kennewick, Washington for Calvin College in 2001. Matt recounts his struggle with such comments, “I always thought people said that because I was a good kid. The encouragement did more harm than good.” Matt began his time at Calvin interested in literature, Spanish and music, steering away from a pre-seminary academic route.
Yet, the refrain of “you would make a good minister” echoed in his mind through his first year at Calvin. Matt was always interested in worship and music, and he joined the Campus Choir. By second semester of his freshmen year, he decided to apply to the first cohort of Worship Apprentices, a select student group that explores the meaning and purpose of worship through planning and leading campus worship. Matt spent his second year at Calvin as a Worship Apprentice, focusing on chapel and Jazz Vespers. As the year progressed, Worship Apprentice mentor Cindy de Jong took him aside and encouraged him to apply to the Jubilee Fellows program, another college initiative exploring ministry leadership. Matt was lukewarm about the Jubilee Fellows program because he assumed it was a program for future ministers. Yet, “I prayed about it a lot, and people who I respected kept encouraging me to apply.” Matt could not ignore these external nudgings, and applied for the program. By the spring of his third year Matt was a Jubilee Fellow.
Matt quickly learned that the Jubilee Fellows program was not a program for future parish ministers. Instead, “it is a program for folks to see all of life as ministry.” A key component of Jubilee Fellows for Matt was the meal. Weekly meetings over food at then Chaplain Dale Cooper’s home were a source of encouragement to Matt. The Fellows learned “No matter what gifts you have, you can use them in ministry.” Indeed, this diversity of gifts was reflected among the Jubilee Fellows. Each came from a diverse background and expressed a range of opinions about what ministry could and should look like.
This diversity served as a foundation to Matt’s summer internship experience. Fellows scatter for a ten-week ministry internship in a variety of contexts. Matt and another Jubilee Fellow, Christina Baylor spent the summer interning at St. James Anglican Church in Hemingford Gray, England. St. James is unique in because of its part in a charismatic movement within Anglicanism. Together Matt and Christina experienced ministry from a different theological perspective than their Reformed roots. They spent the summer in theological reflection on the Holy Spirit and charismatic theology. Matt admitted that “There were times when I felt like I was the odd one out.” Their mentor Peter, the vicar at St. James, pushed Matt and Christina to openly reflect, and Matt was able to be open and honest about his fears, questions, and misunderstandings. As a result “I have a broader more diverse view of the Christian Church.”
The summer broadened Matt’s sense of vocation and understanding of ministry. He anticipated a role as a teacher, but found himself “doing a lot of little things like setting up, cleaning up, cooking, and connecting with people.” Those moments were the “ministry” for Matt where conversations unfolded and relationships were built. Amidst theological diversity Matt “learned I enjoy engaging people in a broader context, not just my tradition. I spent the summer trying to understand more than be understood.”
After that summer in England, Matt returned to Calvin for his final year. He lived off campus in a Project Neighborhood house. Living in community with fellow students, Matt felt called to ministry, but one that intersected the academic and intellectual life. Matt had connected with Peter Schurman, a Christian Reformed Campus Minister, while touring various Christian Reformed campus ministries over the prior spring break as a Jubilee Fellows funded research project. Peter offered some wise advice to Matt as he looked ahead to life after graduation. He said, “Slow down. Take your time. It’s important to get a post-graduate degree beyond a Master’s of Divinity to do campus ministry.” Heeding that advice, Matt decided to slow down and look at programs that would allow him to teach English as a Second Language overseas.
Budapest, Hungary was Matt’s next home. Matt traveled there with Teach Overseas, a para-church organization that trained and placed volunteers overseas. Matt was placed at a high school in Budapest. “The organization was a good fit because of the tent-making philosophy of ministry, and it allowed me to work in a community.” Matt taught for two years, and in his second year served in a leadership capacity mentoring his colleagues. Relationships were formed among the Teach Overseas staff. Matt met a fellow teacher during training, Marianne, who taught several hours away in Cheb, Czech Republic. Over the two years, a more exclusive relationship formed.
By the fall of 2006 Matt and Marianne were tired of long distance dating in Eastern Europe. They decided they “needed proximity stateside to see where God would lead.” Heeding Peter Schurman’s advice, Matt applied to graduate programs in linguistics. “The plan was to go to University of Washington, but I didn’t get in.” Marianne’s hometown was Cleveland, and she found a teaching job that started in the fall of 2007. Matt moved to Cleveland with no idea what to do, and job hunting was a challenge, leaving unanswered questions. Matt recalls, “I didn’t understand. Why Cleveland? What would I do? What was God doing?” Waiting tables at a local pizza joint filled some of his time, as did a part time job teaching ESL at the International Services Center in downtown Cleveland.
After Matt and Marianne became engaged in November of 2007, Matt’s thoughts turned again toward vocation and the future. “We planned a long engagement. We didn’t want to rush into things, but the thought of applying for linguistics programs and then going on for a M.Div. did not make a lot of sense. It was a lot of time in school.” Matt decided to apply to Master’s of Divinity programs. He applied and was accepted to several seminaries. After much discerning, Matt decided on Princeton Theological Seminary and was excited to return to an academic community that offered a challenge.
However, after Matt accepted and was set to move to Princeton, another opportunity came his way. He heard about a one-year position at the Campus Chapel of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Christian Reformed ministry on the University of Michigan campus. Matt applied and was offered the job, resulting in a one-year admissions deferral to Princeton Theological Seminary. Matt is excited to test the waters of campus ministry.
Looking ahead, Matt anticipates beginning the process of ordination in the Christian Reformed Church, noting “I have found freedom in the Reformed tradition as it is outward looking by definition.” As Matt looks ahead to campus ministry, “I hope to seek out engagement with both the Christian and non-Christian world.” Looking back, the external affirmation of those well-meaning church folk, coupled by his experience in the Worship Apprentice and Jubilee Fellows program brought Matt to an entirely unexpected place – even looking forward to being a minister.