The Step Establishment Process

How Running From God Semi-Accidentally (but we all know it’s providentially) Turned Into Running Toward God

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The Step Establishment Process

Russell Dietrich | Nov 27, 2017, 13:37 PM

How Running From God Semi-Accidentally (but we all know it’s providentially) Turned Into Running Toward God

If I’m being honest, I never envisioned myself becoming a campus missionary, which in hindsight doesn’t make a ton of sense because I was a bonafide church kid. I grew up in a strong Christian home, my mom led me to Christ when I was four, I had been baptized twice, and I made sure to raise my hand every time a speaker or preacher gave us an opportunity to let Jesus into our hearts. I was involved with Awana, Bible memorizing, sashes, puppet ministry, VBS, Sunday School, sleepover camps, and youth group. I was in deep, and I really loved being involved in the church, but I always had a little something withheld, a part of my life that I didn’t necessarily want my church leaders knowing about. When I was in junior high, it was the fact that I had smoked on a few occasions and played backyard basketball while slightly inebriated after a couple of my friends and I drank some wine coolers we found in a parent’s garage. I also enjoyed swearing profusely (like many 12-year-old boys). Once high school rolled around, it progressively got worse, and my life began to become more and more segregated.

I was riding high on a wave of spiritual momentum. And then once again, my plans got hijacked by the Lord’s establishment of my steps.

Two personalities began to emerge: Church-Russ and Cool-Russ. Church-Russ went to church on Sunday, youth group on Sunday night, men’s bible study on Monday night, and served in the worship team. Church-Russ had a select group of Christian friends that he held close but wasn’t always truthful with. Cool-Russ would drink with his friends, smoke the intermittent cigarette, swear constantly, tell dirty jokes, and was a serial dater. Cool-Russ exclusively dated non-Christians, and to help suppress his guilt for being “unequally yoked,” he would try to make these relationships long-term and monogamous. Cool-Russ and Church-Russ would sometimes find themselves in uncomfortable situations — like when his “cool” friends would ask him why he didn’t really act like a Christian or bring up a challenging theological topic. Or when his “church” friends would wonder why Church-Russ had a hickie or had a group of friends that they never really interacted with or knew much about. Russ was caught between two worlds.

When I was maybe 13 or 14, one of my youth group leaders told me, “Russ, one day you’re going to be a pastor.” I literally ran away from her screaming, “Nooooooooooo!” Even as a teenager, people saw it in me, and I saw it in myself. I knew I was a leader, and I knew I loved God’s people, but I think it scared me. I knew being fully invested in the church meant that I would have to live differently. I would need to give up parts of my life I really enjoyed, and there would be parts of Cool-Russ that I would have to let die. I would need to become a more integrated person. But when you’re young and you have friends who don’t have the same Christian ethical pressures you have, it’s hard to resist. I got married in May 2015, and my wife and I decided to get the phrase “Establish our steps” inscribed on the inside of my wedding band. It’s a reference to Proverbs 16:9, which says, “The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” The reason we chose this verse on a macro level was because we wanted to live our lives in constant submission to the Lord’s plans, intentions, and desires for our time on this earth. But on a micro level, this verse was and is an encapsulation of my journey with Christ — even all the way back to that night at youth group when I was being confronted by one of my leaders with the reality that I had the makings of a church leader. As I’ve lived, my heart has charted out many foolhardy plans, and the Lord, in his mercy and kindness, has established my steps in the right direction. The plan I chose that night was to run as far away as possible from the calling God was putting on my life.

As I ran away from God, I ran hard toward a different pursuit — romantic relationships — and basically from the age of 14 to 23, I dated nonstop, going from one long-term relationship to the next. These relationships were not God-honoring, and most of the time the girls I dated were not followers of Jesus. I had justified it by attempting to “evange-date,” where you use your relationship as a means to cajole your partner into a profession of faith. From firsthand experience, I can say this method doesn’t always work out for the best. And I’m sad to say that much of the time, my “missionary dating” ended up marring the beautiful picture of who Jesus was and is.

When I got to college at the University of Illinois, it continued to get worse. I was in the midst of one of those unhealthy relationships, and this one was long distance for two years. During this time, my relationship with God was struggling deeply. I was mired in sexual sin, I had doubts about the existence of God and the authority of scripture, and I had progressively, from my freshman to junior year, isolated myself from Christian community. God did not forget me though and slowly but surely began to establish my steps in a new direction. During this time, I had loyal Christian friends and family praying for me, and during a wild weekend in Cincinnati at a Promise Keepers event (more on that in another article), a group of men prayed over me that I would find a church family. And about two months later, I ended up finding my church home for the past 10 years: Illini Life Christian Fellowship.

In addition to that powerful moment at Promise Keepers, I also had a slightly secret and slightly more motivating factor for my church hunt: my non-Christian girlfriend was coming to Illinois, and I wanted to make sure that we had a church we could go to in order to continue my evange-dating efforts. Being in a Christian community at Illini Life for the first time as a couple was pretty radical. We began to see how problematic our relationship was. And I was beginning to realize just how deeply divided my life had become. Cool-Russ and Church-Russ hardly knew each other. Over the course of our first year at I-Life, our new church friends were trying to lovingly point out how damaging our relationship was, but I wouldn’t hear it. I was defiant. And I was confident that I could win her over for Christ. However, one year into being involved with a real church community and three years into being involved with me, she did the hard thing (which we both knew was the right thing) and broke up with me.

That breakup led to a chain of events that changed my life forever. I had been passively attending my campus church, and I finally decided to commit to attending weekly on Sundays and being a faithful member of a small group. This choice to be in community ended up being a safety net around me as I struggled with the pain and heartache of a three-year relationship ending. I rebounded hard, and through the pain of many bad post-breakup decisions, I began to reveal secret sin in my life. All the while, I had my new Christian community helping me along as I began the slow process of turning around and taking step after step back to Jesus.

I made a commitment to read the New Testament and Old Testament (it only ended up taking three years) because even though I had been a Christian since I was 4, I had never done that. I decided to stay a fifth year at college so I could try leading a small group. I went to counseling and worked through the root causes of my idolatry of romantic relationships, and I told my pastors that I felt called into ministry and that I wanted to come on staff. I had rededicated my life to Christ; I was integrating Cool-Russ and Church-Russ into one awesome man called Cool-Church-Russ. I was riding high on a wave of spiritual momentum. And then once again, my plans got hijacked by the Lord’s establishment of my steps. The pastors of I-life told me I wasn’t ready to come on staff yet. I needed more time to heal from my past wounds and work on finding wholeness in Christ. To put it plainly: I needed to grow up. I may have been in the church for a long time, but I was pretty young in terms of actually living for Christ. At the time, I was very upset that my leaders made me wait two years, but in hindsight, it was a huge blessing, and I’m so grateful that they made the hard choice to protect me from myself.

In college I had decided to study art, with an emphasis in graphic design and painting, but once I recommitted my life to Jesus, my dreams of being a graphic designer or a painting professor had been upgraded to the dreams of being a campus missionary. I wanted to participate in the work that God used to pull me out of the muck and mire of my own sinful life. But that dream was being put on hold. In a way, I never really wanted to work in the secular workforce, but I was forced to so that God would have some time to work on me and prepare my heart for the challenging work that is being a support-based, campus missionary.

I decided to pursue graphic design because, frankly, it’s more lucrative than selling my weird paintings. It allowed me to make some money to buy a car and a laptop and build up my savings account. My whole time working professionally I had to learn a bunch of hard lessons that would eventually end up being a huge asset for me as a minister. I developed a work ethic. Graphic design is a client-driven industry, and (unfortunately) the client is king. This taught me humility and how to be a servant and defer to someone even though I disagreed. I learned how to winsomely cast vision for a certain direction that I thought a company should head with its brand. I learned how to work with a boss who was in authority over me. I think most importantly I learned time management — specifically how to prioritize my church community while working a full-time, 40-50 hour/week job. Looking back I’m so grateful I learned how to do this because I think this is the number one struggle for college students and young working professionals. Many of the students I work with aren’t going to be full-time ministers; they’re going to be working regular jobs, and there is always going to be a temptation to make church involvement a lower priority. Having worked in industry, I can now testify to how vital it is to prioritize Christian community because it’s one of the primary ways we stay connected with Jesus as professionals.

In learning to prioritize church, I figured out ways to humbly appeal to my employers to give me flexibility as to allow me to serve and be involved with my church — a skill I can now pass along to the young people I minister to. If I needed to leave early on Tuesday for a church meeting, I would stay late on Wednesday or show up early on Friday. I did what I could to work hard and to have an ethic that reflected my relationship with Jesus. I even got my boss to support me financially for a weeklong mission trip I went on. Work was good, but after about two years, I was so happy when I got to apply to staff with Reliant full-time and I was able to quit my job. I started working as a campus missionary on September 15, 2012, and it’s been amazing to reflect on the many steps that got me to that point. As I built my ministry team, I was able to use a lot of the skills that I learned in industry, and I think my time working professionally has helped me be a successful missionary.

As I get older, I’m trying more and more to align my plans with God’s plans so that the “step establishment process” doesn’t have to be so painful, but it’s still a work in progress. I’ll still make declarations like, “I’m never going to that place for the summer ever again!” and then I end up going there four more summers in a row, which is humbling to say the least. I try to hold my plans loosely now because as we’ve just seen, it’s always better to be aligned with the Lord’s path than to constantly kick against the goads. My path to full-time ministry could have been a straighter line, and as I reflect on that, I think I could have avoided a lot of pain and frustration. But it’s been amazing to see how God has consistently used my bad decisions for good.