Full Circle: Back to Bethel This Fall!

Let me tell you about a dream come true, twenty long years in the making.

Sweet Salsa and Sweet Dreams Coming True

I had lunch this past week with Dr. Gary Long, the chair of the biblical and theological studies department at Bethel University. He was welcoming me to the adjunct faculty at Bethel where I will be teaching Introduction to the Bible this fall! Returning to Bethel to teach has been a dream 20 years in the making. I’m elated and deeply honored.

I took a class on the Prophets of Israel with Dr. Long about 21 years ago. This lunch meant the world to me, as Gary wanted to hear about my journey since graduating from Bethel. With chips and salsa and a margarita, I told my twisty tale that has led me full circle to this dream fulfilling moment. Here’s a recap.

Around the year 1999 I was struck by an arrow from Cupid’s academic cousin Veritas. A sports jock who never read for fun was transformed into a learner who began to crave knowledge and truth and wisdom like he used to crave 3-point swishes on the basketball court.

My athletic trophies were boxed up, and books began to decorate my shelves. I began to roam the library stacks instead of the gym. Childhood heroes such as Michael Jordan and Kirby Puckett were replaced by giants in biblical scholarship. If theologians, philosophers and biblical scholars were placed on collector cards, I would have albums full and ready to trade my baseball cards for them in a heartbeat.

A fire was lit.

A passion was ignited.

A future as a university professor was all I dreamed about.

During my sabbatical this summer, taking a break from the church ministry that has been my life for the past 17 years, I came across some emails exchanged with a few college professors from 20 years ago. Here’s a little nugget from one of my dearest profs from my Bethel days, Mark Reasoner:

July 28, 2001

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for your message. It's great to hear that you want to study the scriptures and someday teach them.  I'd be happy to talk with you about that. Tell me when you have free time, and then we can schedule a hour or two when we can talk. It was a Bethel professor (Al Glenn, Professor of Theology), who first gave me the idea of teaching Bible or theology.  It happened in my senior year.  So now is a good time, I think, for you to start prayerfully dreaming and planning.

I vaguely remember pulling into Dr. Reasoner’s driveway and having that conversation in his home — the first time a professor opened up their personal world to me in that way. That was special.

A year or so later I wrote the following pregnant words to Dr. Michael Holmes that pretty much sum up where I still am twenty years later — somewhere between the church and the academy, Jerusalem and Athens:

August 4, 2002

I am uncertain as to the specific direction of my studies, yet God has really placed on me a burden to bring the truth of God's word up against the lies of this age. I don't know if this mission will be fulfilled inside or outside the Church. Both fields are ripe for harvest!  What an awesome responsibility it is to be a herald of God's word! 

“An awesome responsibility” … “a herald of God’s Word” … confronting “the lies of this age.” That fire still burns white-hot in my bones. The lies just keep changing.

I escaped to a lake cabin a couple weeks ago to reflect on the past 20 years of life and ministry, to recalibrate my dreams and gifts and calling. I journaled over 70 pages (!) those 2 days on Potato Lake in Park Rapids. Still licking my finger and holding it up to see which way the Holy Wind is blowing.

I’m in my prime. My own Veritas arrows fill my quiver, looking for victims.

I’m overflowing with Kingdom wisdom and perspective.

I have a passion for the Jesus-shaped life the world desperately needs.

I’m ready to teach the Kingdom and the Scriptures wherever I can find eager disciples and curious learners. In a church building. On a college campus. On a hillside overlooking a lake. Or across the table at a restaurant. I am a teacher first, and a pastor second. The two can easily coexist, but they are not the same.

Reflecting back on my adult life I noticed that nearly all the random jobs I have had along the way were teaching roles. First, did you know that my first declared major in college was Elementary Education and Special Ed? Three semesters of credits and a field experience at Centennial Middle School, and I knew I didn’t want to teach 12 year olds how to multiply fractions. Teacher? Yes. But what to teach? Hmmm…

So I was a swim instructor and summer coach in college. I then taught at-risk teens in a summer employment program as I graduated. During seminary I was a high school basketball coach and a certified driving Instructor teaching 30 hours of classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel with 500 teens. I paid the bills as a substitute teacher (grades K-12) in five public school districts for 6 or so years.

Upon graduating from seminary, I was a youth pastor and Christian education director, followed by the past dozen years as a lead pastor, preacher, and disciple-maker at MainStreet Covenant Church. Finally, a college professor at Solid Rock Discipleship School and teaching opportunities currently at North Central University, University of Northwestern (St. Paul) and Bethel University.

My cup runneth over these days. As I try to find a new bi-vocational rhythm balancing pastoral leadership and classroom teaching, I can say this for sure: God has established the church as His Body and instrument to further His Kingdom purposes on earth. He didn’t establish a university to accomplish this all-important task. My heart is to serve the Church with my teaching gift and keep my eye on the main thing: making Jesus-shaped disciples of the Kingdom.

On the other hand, the church (especially the Evangelical church that is gripped by some strong anti-intellectual and populist tendencies) desperately needs the work and wisdom of those in the academy who are called to do scholarship for the church. While I don’t know how all the details will work out, I do like the idea of having one foot in each of these realms.

Sabbatical will be winding down in the coming weeks, and I’ll be winding up for a full and exciting fall of church ministry and classroom teaching. But this is a moment to just stop and celebrate coming full circle back to the place where EVERYTHING was changed for me. A young and impressionable mind sitting in a Bethel classroom. Professors sharing knowledge and wisdom with a desire to open new worlds and vistas to student. Seeds planted and future plans rearranged. I am both humbled and thrilled for the chance to try to give back to Bethel a bit of what was given to me 20 years ago.

So, that salsa was sweet and delicious–almost worth waiting 20 years for–and Dr. Long is way cooler than I remember. Cheers!

Dr. Jeremy Berg is the founding and Lead Pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN, where he has served since 2010. He is an Adjunct Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University, University of Northwestern—St. Paul, North Central University, and Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy earned a doctorate in New Testament Context under Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary (Chicago). He and his wife, Kjerstin, have three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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