This past week has been one of my busiest of the year in graduate student ministry. It was new student outreach week, or NSO, as acronym-loving InterVarsity staff like to call it. This was technically my second NSO as an InterVarsity staff worker. Last year, though, I was in the beginning of the planting process and had no students. So, it was just me and some brochures, trying to recruit new grad students to start a new fellowship at CMU. Thankfully, those efforts were successful. So this year, my NSO work involved more than just inviting people to a fellowship that didn’t exist, yet.
With my missional core, we planned a barbecue, a kick-off worship service, and two international student outreaches. We also arranged for some publicity as new students arrived.
Almost nothing went according to plan. A lot of our publicity efforts fell through for various reasons. It rained, a lot, on the day of the barbecue. No new students showed up for the worship service. For one of our international outreaches, only one new international student showed up. Quantitatively, this NSO seems like a disaster. If I would have been told two weeks ago that this is how NSO was going to go down, I would have expected to feel discouraged by now.
Thankfully, though, and even to my surprise, I’m not discouraged. In fact, I actually feel a deep sense of satisfaction. As I look back, I see how God worked in ways that I couldn’t have planned. I think of our international student outreach, where a returning international student met and talked with an American pastor for English conversation, only to discover that he once visited her small hometown in China, and that she once lived in the small town in Ohio where this pastor now lives – only a few streets away from his house. I think of how the small attendance at our worship service enabled us to prayer-walk the campus, and pray in each grad student’s office for their work and witness there. I think of how the rained-out barbecue led to being able to offer lunch to over 20 people the next day, including 6 newcomers to Pittsburgh.
All of this has taught me three encouraging lessons:
First, I think of Jeremiah 29:11, which begins “I know the plans I have for you…” This verse is quoted by a lot of people. It’s almost a cliché. However, I think I still need to be frequently reminded that these are God’s words to me, not my words to God. Much of what God did through our NSO activities couldn’t have happened had things gone according to my plans.
Second, even before NSO started, God had been bringing to my mind the parable of the mustard seed. Everything about this NSO was smaller than I had anticipated and planned for. It all seemed insignificant and tiny. Praise God, because Jesus says that’s how the Kingdom of God starts coming.
The third lesson came on Sunday when I praying the midday prayer office. One of the written prayers had this line: “Grant that those who labor for you may not trust in their own work but in your help…” I realized when I prayed this that much of my planning for NSO was an act of relying on my own efforts. Rather than trusting God to bring our fellowship in contact with new students, I was trying to rely entirely on emails, fliers and postcards. I spent more time in logistics than I did in prayer. I became an event-planner rather than a minister.
Nothing in the past week seems to have gone according to my own plans. Pray that this continues to be the case, and that God brings to completion the good work he started this semester!