“When he arrived and saw evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” Acts 11:23 (NIV).
The apostles had a nickname for a certain Joseph, a native of Cyprus, a Levite and an early church stalwart. They called him Barnabas, “The Son of Encouragement,” and he lived up to the moniker. When ministry needed bolstering, Barnabas was on the scene. He gave Paul credibility with the originally suspicious apostles. He mentored the emergent church at Antioch. He established Paul in ministry there and supported him on his early evangelistic forays. And he restored John Mark in the ministry after the latter’s shaky beginning.
It’s that kind of influence that Cherith and Robert Nordling, Calvin’s co-directors of spiritual leadership development, are already having after their first year on the job.
“They are exceptional with students,” said Shirley Hoogstra, Calvin’s vice president for student life. “They build into student’s lives.”
Since July of 2002, the Nordlings, working under the combined auspices of the Lilly Vocation Project and the student life office, have been hanging out in a meaningful way with the Calvin student body, overseeing worship activities in the dorms — Bible studies, hymn sings, late nights and retreats — developing student leaders and hosting students in their home.
“We work with students on campus and off, encouraging their growth in Jesus Christ and their expression of that in community,” Robert said.
“Our question to these older students has been,
not whether you are going to be a role model for younger students, but
what kind of role model are you going to be? Raises the stakes significantly!"
“Coming here, we realized that Calvin has two campuses — the residential campus and the commuter campus,” Cherith said. “The older students (typically commuters) who are more mature in their faith have no way of speaking into the lives of the younger students.” The couple’s big goal, she explained, is to unite the two campuses and their ministries.
“Our question to these older students has been, not whether you are going to be a role model for younger students — that question has already been answered — but what kind of role model are you going to be? Raises the stakes significantly!” Robert said.
One way the Nordlings are unifying Calvin’s two student bodies is by cultivating leadership in the dormitories. Traditionally, the spiritual needs of Calvin dorm “congregations” have been served by volunteer spiritual activity coordinators (SACs) who plan Bible studies, devotions and hymn sings. After working with these student leaders for a year, the Nordlings proposed a rejuvenation of the SAC position. Enter Barnabas.
In fall of 2003, 18 junior and senior Calvin students will serve on Barnabas Teams, creating a worship community for dormitory residents. Under the Nordlings’ supervision, Barnabas Team members (two per dorm) will work with resident advisors to plan spiritual activities, promote spiritual leaders and mentor underclassmen. “It’s older students in relationship with younger students, giving away the ministry. Barnabas Team doesn’t ‘do.’ Barnabas Team helps others to do,” Robert explained the concept.
“The model is to get the students to recognize themselves as the body of Christ …. In this place, you all belong to each other, so it’s every-member ministry,” Cherith added. She expects the Barnabas Team-sters to take ministry into unexplored territory, challenging them: “What do you think God has put into your heart to do? What do you want to do — things we haven’t [yet] seen.”
“I have been so impressed by the students at Calvin. I have found them interested, actually more than interested, excited about learning, ready to share an idea, or defend a position if asked to. They have been open to take on any challenge,” Robert said.
The couple also nurtures Calvin’s off-campus students. “This is something we haven’t tended to for a long, long time. We’ve paid less attention to them than we should. … We just haven’t focused in on that, but the Nordlings have. They live off campus, they’ve had students in their home,” Calvin chaplain Dale Cooper said.
Robert and Cherith have been in the nurturing business, in one way or another, since they became “the Nordlings.” “We always knew we were going to be in full-time ministry. No matter what you do — whether you’re a lawyer or a businessman — you’re in full-time ministry,” Robert said. Cherith, the daughter of noted New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, grew up in the various places her father happened to be teaching. Robert is a New Jersey native. They met at Wheaton College, where Cherith, who planned on a law career, asked Robert, a music major, to take part in a psychology experiment.
“I had a good reaction time,” he remembered.
“He did better than the rat,” she added.
After graduation and marriage in 1981, the couple moved to Philadelphia. “While Cherith did her paralegal studies, I painted houses by day and stayed up late, studying Beethoven symphonies by night,” Robert said.
In 1982, the Nordlings moved to California, where Robert studied in a music teacher’s private studio and Cherith worked for a private law firm. “Central to our life in California was First Presbyterian Church San Mateo,” he said. Robert worked there as a minister of worship, and Cherith, by day a paralegal, taught, preached and served on healing and prayer teams. “It became our social, our professional, our spiritual, our community life.” And I think that’s when we really grew to understand what the community of faith could be,” he said.
“San Francisco is an impossibly expensive place to live. We ended up sharing homes, sharing meals, living in community, including buying a home with a widow,” Cherith said. During this time, the couple had two sons, Zachary (now 17) and Jackson (now 15) and ministered elsewhere in the U.S.
Her work on healing teams, which often exposed her to people with deep psychological wounds, challenged Cherith to look closer at the intersection of therapy and healing ministry. “The upshot is that I realized through that period of study that my questions were not psychological questions; they were theological questions.” (She earned her master’s degree in theology from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., where she sat under her father’s instruction for the first time.)
In 1997 the couple moved to England, where Cherith studied for her doctorate in systematic theology, first at Kings College and then at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
In 2002 the Nordlings were introduced to John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The following year, Robert attended the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. “John and I just hit it off famously, and he had a whole list of positions open at Calvin that he talked to us about.” Many of these opportunities were components of the Lilly Vocation Project, Calvin’s five-year study of Christian vocation.
The Nordlings’ amalgam of gifts enabled them to meet several needs at Calvin when they arrived in 2002. They share the directorship of spiritual development. Robert also filled a vacancy as Calvin’s orchestra conductor, and Cherith teaches part time in the religion and theology department.
And they embrace their new community. “It’s just as much of a cross-cultural experience as England. We’ve never lived in the Midwest, let alone the Dutch Midwest, which we love,” Robert said.
“They have a deep faith commitment and are eager to share what God is doing in their life and in the future,” Hoogstra said. “They are high-energy, compassionate, thoughtful and committed to the mission of the college.” Like that guy the apostles used to know.
— Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.
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