Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Bushnell faculty member Melisa Ortiz Better, Ph.D.

By Lars Coburn ’14, M.A. 

My current role as Director of University Relations at Bushnell has me on the road. This includes a lot of packing and unpacking, loading and unloading, driving, and flying. One lesson I’m learning as I watch baggage carousels go round and round, ready to claim my suitcase full of used clothes and treasures mined for the tired journey back to my home and family. Relationships are worth it.

Relationships are like suitcases

We fill them with experiences, conversations, and the exchange of value and interest. We unpack, sort, wash, reflect, repack, and meet again, hoping that nothing gets lost in transit or fractures and frays with carelessness.

It’s spring of 2023. I “open a suitcase” with Pastor Bob Johnson. As I pull into the parking lot at Bridge Church in Wilsonville, I wonder, “What bag will I be unpacking today?” Pastor Johnson has a history with Bushnell University and is excited to meet me. After some conversation about my role coordinating church relations, I ask, “What can Bushnell do for your church?”

“Relationship. This is it. What you are doing right now is what Bushnell can do. I don’t want anything from Bushnell except a relationship.” Bob goes on to share what so many others express. Genuine care through listening and consistent personal communication (face-to-face whenever possible) is the most important service pastors and churches need right now from their supporting friends and agencies. Since Bushnell has always existed for the church and its pastors, this is a good reminder.

Not long after my time with Bob, I drive to Turner, OR to attend the Northwest Christian Network’s leadership board meeting. Hugs and fist bumps are abundant as I sit with current pastors, retired pastors, and passionate lay leaders who have become my friends. Our friendship comes from a deep desire to see the kingdom of God lived out in our cities and region. We believe Jesus when He suggests that growth and transformation will take place “if we have love one for another” and live in unity.1

It’s a pleasure to meet almost every pastor, listen to relevant stories from their churches, and find the joy in “packing and unpacking bags”. In some cases, this means shaking out and dusting off moths and cobwebs, when relationships have gone untended. It other cases, this involves celebrating a whole new wardrobe of new connections. Add up all these relationships and they feel more like a large walk-in closet, or even a storehouse of possibilities.

Events and programs are hangers for relationship

My boss, Keith Potter ’84, is a long-time pastor and Vice President for University Advancement. One of his refrains is that “events and programs are hangers for relationship. The specific events can be large or small. The programs can be seasonal or enduring. But their purpose is to give structure to relationship.”

While events and programs provide opportunities and excuses for us to gather, active listening and intentional learning are the true value. In 2022, I began a year of focused, intentional observation and listening to find direction for church relations. Where are our students coming from? Where are our students, faculty, and staff naturally serving? What efforts to connect with churches are already working well? What might be missing or what needs to be resurrected? Who do we know? Who should we know? And while we haven’t yet formulated an entire strategy, we are seeing the value of the events and programs that bring us together.

One of the unique benefits of having a regional Christ-centered university is being able to provide professional development opportunities to pastors and church leaders. Hosting and participating in these “hanger” events is a cornerstone of our strategy. We’ve recently held community worship services, pastor and church leader symposiums, student church fairs, and strategic community chapel services.

In 1986, the Rice-Siefke Institute for Preaching was established to carry on the tradition of gathering the church together to be resourced. This lecture series focused on bringing influential voices on preaching and oration to campus as an inspiration and practical help for all preachers and teachers. As years went on, the focus shifted toward the Restoration Movement heritage and the Stone-Campbell Symposium was born. Some facets of both experiences remain.

Before the pandemic, we hosted Andy Crouch on campus, speaking to issues of faith relevance in today’s complex culture. At the time, he was editor in chief of Christianity Today. After the pandemic, we hosted “Preaching and Communication for the Church,” renewing the original spirit of the Rice- Siefke lectures. Fulbright scholar and Bushnell Professor of Speech and Communication Dr. Doyle Srader spoke on the power of active listening. Other speakers addressed “The Power of Absurdity,” “Don’t Preach Alone,” “Lifelong Discipleship,” and “What is the Christian Response to Social Media?”

After publication of his book After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It (2021), Bushnell’s Dr. A.J. Swoboda was an event keynote. Author and psychologist Dr. Richard Beck came from Abilene Christian University to address “Faith in a Polarized World.”

Most recently, Dr. Steven Garber, a senior fellow with the M.J. Murdock Charitable trust, spoke on “Faith & Work.” As a renowned scholar on vocation and calling, Dr. Garber blessed our campus community and regional pastors.

The heart of all these events is to bring church leaders in our region and the Bushnell campus community together to address crucial questions faced by every church. While the tools of communication are changing, how do we share the unchanging message of the gospel with excellence and relevance?

Coming to where you work and serve

While we love hosting events on campus, we’ve also increased our commitment to show up for our friends. We’ve grown our involvement in Northwest Christian Conventions, Disciples of Christ regional assemblies, camps and conferences, pastoral ordination, commissioning and retirement celebrations, prayer meetings and summits of One Hope (a regional fellowship of faith leaders), and community worship services.

Perhaps most important, many of us at the University have shared hundreds of coffee and lunch dates all over the region, visiting churches and ministries and expressing our genuine interest in the success that comes from shared concern and integrated resources.

For generations, Bushnell students, faculty, and staff have been going out to regional churches to serve in strategic ways. This is still true today. From rural Franklin Christian to urban Court Street Christian, from First Baptist of Eugene to St. Mark’s Christian Methodist Episcopal, Bushnell is filling needs for pulpit supply and interim ministry. The vast majority of these requests to preach and lead come from personal relationship with churches and their leaders. My friend Bob was right. So much takes care of itself if we have relationships.

As the representatives of the University serve in church pulpits, the churches serve the University. Recent graduate Annalee McIntosh ’23 reflects on an experience preaching at First Christian Church of Eugene, the historic Disciples of Christ congregation in the heart of downtown:

…I felt so supported and loved by the people in the church, as though I had known them for years, even though I had just met them. They affirmed me deeply as a speaker and spoke goodness and truth into me that blessed me richly…. Experiences like I had at First Christian help me see how Bushnell can be a part of this process of unity and reconciliation with churches, just like the heritage of the school began as a unity movement on the frontier…

Beyond preaching, faculty and staff are available to speak at small groups, sunday school classes, men’s and women’s groups, camps, conferences, consultations, and retreats. President Joseph Womack and the entire campus community believe serving the church by sharing the gospel with clarity and conviction is core to our sense of purpose.

This is what church relations at Bushnell is all about: growing the kingdom of God through relationships with local church partners. Our bags are packed. Our tanks are full. The anticipation for new adventures and fresh relationships is growing as our own scope and influence continue to grow. At Bushnell University, we love God’s Church and we are eager to know and serve wherever God allows.

We have become the church’s servants by the commission God gave us to present to the church the word of God in its fullness…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. [Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end we strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in us.” – Colossians 1:25-29, New International Version

1 John 13:35 & 17:23

Bushnell students serving at a Christian summer camp

Guest speaker Richard Beck, Ph.D.

Bushnell faculty member A.J. Swoboda, Ph.D.

Murdock Senior Fellow Steve Garber, Ph.D.


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