Great Mentors

Today in Chapel Hill, NC, there will be a celebration of the life of Bob Phillips.  Bob served as the campus minister at UNC for thirty-four years . He passed away from cancer at the age of 76 on August 28. I have been grieving since learning of his death but am so glad that a few years ago I had the opportunity  to share with him just how much he meant to me personally and how much he influenced who I am today.

I had the incredible privilege of working with Bob for two years while I served as the campus ministry intern at UNC for the Baptist Student Union. I later had the privilege to be his colleague as I served as the Baptist Campus Minister at NC State and for the Raleigh area before his retirement.  Many times in ministry, I have reflected on how much I learned from my years with Bob. This morning I’d like to share a few of those nuggets with you and hope they encourage and challenge you as much as they have me.

  1. You have to have life outside of ministry. Bob had experienced some personal tragedy earlier in his ministry career because of the hours he poured into his early years of ministry. Until my position at UNC, ministry was always something I did in my free time. It did not have to have boundaries because it had natural boundaries. When ministry is what you do in your full time, there are no natural boundaries.  People will always want more, the organization will always expect more than is possible, and as another mentor once said, there will always be a great list of the unfinished in ministry hanging over your head. After long weeks of mission trips or weekends retreats ,he would always ask how was I going to take time off in the following weeks. He would encourage me to take time away from the building where I lived to really escape and recover. I didn’t always do well with boundaries while living at the Battle House (sadly, now the former BSU house at UNC) but in my first years of ministry, the permission he gave for recovery, and even insistence for it, were invaluable! I think many of us need permission to have boundaries in life. I tell coaching clients all the time, boundary work is the hardest work you do in life but it is the most important work. 
  2. You always need some kind of ministry outside of your full-time ministry.  You need it and the people you are working with need it. This is something I didn’t really get until later. He said that the students in our ministry needs pieces of the ministry they felt were their own, that neither of us were directly involved in. He needed expressions of his ministry that didn’t involve the students. Otherwise, those you are ministering to rely too heavily on you and you begin to see this ministry as your own and your identity becomes enmeshed in this one world. This piece of wisdom I have followed in every ministry position I’ve ever served in. Outside of my full-time positions I have served as a life and leadership coach, a church consultant, a three year old choir teacher, an undergraduate adjunct professor, participant and leader for Baptist Women in Ministry of NC, freelance writer, preschool Sunday school teacher, and the list could continue. With each one, I’ve learned about myself and gained a clearer view of the ministry I was working with full-time. It’s not always possible, but these other roles do not have to be over and above the hours you work committed to your full-time ministry role. You can give more completely and with better perspective when you are able to step outside your current role. None of us can be completely fulfilled and keep a healthy perspective when we focus on just one role in our lives. 
  3. Don’t take anything too personally. Most likely, people’s response to you says more about their personality than anything about you. Bob had a great understanding of Myers-Briggs and used that lens when looking at people. I’m now certified in another personality assessment, Workplace Big Five and I know that while I’d always loved personality assessments, he had great influence on helping me use personality to understand others and differentiate myself from other’s needs and reactions. Bob and I were incredibly different in personality but I always felt safe, not judged, and appreciated. Some leaders tend to be threatened by differences but Bob seemed to thrive on them, finding ways to work together. I don’t always take constructive criticism well but Bob had a gentle way of guiding me. I didn’t understand until later how much that spoke to his own strength and confidence and how guidance like that takes a great gift.
  4. So much of leadership happens outside of traditional office hours. So many times in ministry leadership, we fall prey to a culture that expects you to work traditional job hours behind a desk or in an office. If you are not available when they need you, you are doing something wrong. He once said to me later when I was serving as a campus minister myself, “They are not just paying you for the hours in the building. They are paying for the time you spend waking up in the middle of the night worrying about the ministry and students. They are paying you for the time you spend in the shower thinking through what needs to be done for the next event. They are paying you to relate to other organizations, run errands, etc.”  Any good leader realizes those are all part of the role as well. Boundaries can only be formed when you realize how boundaries are not always possible. As a campus minister, I had students who always expected me to be in the building whenever they stopped by. It didn’t matter how late I was going to be there at night, I needed to be there when they were done with their 8:00 class. It didn’t matter than my responsibilities included working with churches, being present on campus, etc. Later as a pastor I had church members that would call the church office promptly at 9:00 and wonder where I was. These were the same church members who would also check in with the home bound and “home bound on Sunday” to see how regularly I was visiting them. Good leadership does what needs to be done. Good leaders do their jobs with integrity while recognizing their own needs and the value of other relationships in their lives. Sometimes work happens in the shower when your thoughts are running wild and no one outside ministry will understand the burden you feel in those moments. It’s like a quote I once saw, “You cannot make everyone happy. You are not nutella.” 
  5. The state of our world affects people more than we realize. I had just started at UNC when 9-11 happened. I had been in divinity school classes all day and while I knew the basics, the first time I saw the images on TV was with a crowd of students that had gathered at the Battle House to watch and be comforted. There was a great sense of desperation on campus in the months that followed. Suicide and suicide attempts hit record numbers. Students did not know how to process how this made them feel. Bob compared the desperation he saw to the culture when the Vietnam War started. As he helped me to name the panic our country was experiencing, he helped me to love students by knowing how to name that for them. Recently while teaching leaders for young adults I talked about this season, comparing it to the current season in the country and in the world. Our students, and adults in our congregations, are experiencing this level of panic, anger, fear and desperation in our world and one of our roles as their leaders is to help them name it. We help them to differentiate from the panic in the world where possible and then give them hope and peace by holding their hands through the rest. 

Bob, thank you for the gift of your leadership. Thank you for the ways your legacy lives on in me. Rest in peace.

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