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Dr. Tracy Jessup: Answering God's Call to Action

Big, life-altering decisions don’t have to be difficult.

Complicated? Sure. But not always difficult.

Exhibit A: Anderson University Vice President for Christian Life Dr. Tracy Jessup.

A little backstory might help.

Dr. Jessup seemed destined for a career in ministry. His father, Buford, is himself a pastor. He grew up in the Bible Belt—Mount Airy, North Carolina, to be specific—and earned a bachelor’s degree from a Christian university (Gardner-Webb.) From there it was off to Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, where in 1994 he earned a Master of Divinity. His doctorate came from the University of Nebraska, from which he completed his coursework while serving in a ministerial role at Gardner-Webb.

It was there he met his wife, Teresa, and started a family. Together they raised two children: Christian and Anna.

Their life together was set and stable, Tracy and Teresa ministering to students at the very school where they’d met.

And that brings us back to big, life-altering and ultimately easy decisions—specifically, the one that brought the Jessup family to Anderson University a little over a year ago. As to how it happened? Let’s let Dr. Jessup tell that story.

Tell me what led you to Anderson University. How did you learn about the opening and what events led to joining us?

I’m going to try to give you the abbreviated version, but it is such a God thing that I’m afraid if I If I don’t tell it, I’ll leave something out. So, in September of 2021, a friend of mine called. I’m very close to this person, and they had heard about a position being available at Anderson University as Vice President for Christian Life. They told me that they were interested in that position and thought it sounded similar to what I did at another institution. And so, they wanted to talk with me about what that kind of position entails. We had a great conversation.

About two weeks later, they called me to let me know that that the timing just wasn’t right for them. And, honestly, I never thought twice about AU again. The Wednesday after Easter in 2022, I was sitting in my office and I just heard God clearly say, “I’ve released you from your work here.” And not that everybody has to have a verse of Scripture through which God calls them to ministry, but the verse of Scripture that God clearly used in calling me to ministry was Hebrews 11:8. “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed, not knowing where he was going.” When God called me to ministry, I said to God, “I will go wherever it is that you want me to go.” But what’s odd is that I stayed in the same place for 30 years. I studied there two, did seminary, and then went back to work on staff there. And never did I dream at the age of 55 that God would say, “OK, here’s the part of not knowing where you’re going. You’re not going to know where you are going at age 55.”

Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby has been very influential in my own spiritual formation, and one of the statements that he makes in there is that when we are looking to join God in his work, that we are to be faithful to the last thing we know God called us to do. Well, the last thing that I knew God had called me to do was ministering faithfully (at Gardner-Webb.)

The following day was a Friday. So, from Wednesday to the following Friday, a colleague at that institution came to me and said, “did you know that Anderson University has a similar position available as the one you have? Would you ever think about leaving this institution?” They had no idea that God had already spoken to me. And I said, “well, if God were to lead, I want to be obedient.” What I left out was telling my colleague about the Wednesday when I went home for lunch, on the day when God had spoken to me and said, “I release you.”

When I walked in the door that day after work, my wife saw it on my face before I said anything. She said, “what’s going on?” And I told her. I said, “God has released me.” She said, “is the position still available at Anderson University?” We had not talked about that. So, from September of 2021 to April of 2022, we had not even had a conversation about it. And that’s the first thing that came out of her mouth, which is a testimony to my wife’s faithfulness. I was dreading telling her because we had built a life there, and her response just gave witness to our wedding vows, when we actually repeated the words of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. My people will be your people and my God, your God.”

Even after Teresa had mentioned that to me, I still didn’t go on the website to see if the position was available.

God had always brought opportunities to us. And so that was the first time on that Friday that I knew the position was still available, and I still didn’t do anything about it. On Sunday after church, Teresa and I went to Folly Beach just for a spontaneous overnight trip. And we’re sitting on the beach on Monday. And she said, “since I brought up Anderson University and that colleague brought up Anderson University, do you think God would give you the freedom to reach out to Anderson and just to see?” And I said, “no, God’s never worked that way in our lives before.” And she jokingly said “well, maybe we just need to pray that if it’s God’s will, that someone from Anderson will reach out.”

On that Monday night, we’re driving home from Folly Beach. We’re at the intersection of Interstate 26 and Interstate 77. And, you know, that’s a pretty crazy intersection. Traffic was heavy. The phone rang and it was Clayton King. And I told Teresa, “just let it go to voicemail.” It was just a sort of generic message, you know, give me a call. And so Theresa texted him back on my behalf and said, “if this is not an emergency, can Tracy call you tomorrow?” And he said, “sure, have a safe trip, safe travels.” So, on Tuesday, I called Clayton back. And this is exactly a week from when God had released me. Clayton said, “Tracy, I was talking with Dr. Whitaker and he mentioned a huge stack of resumes that he had for the VP for Christian life position. And he said, ‘I just don’t believe that the person who’s supposed to be in that position is even in that stack of resumes. Clayton, do you know of anybody?’” And Clayton said, “yes, I do, but I don’t know if he would be willing to leave the institution he’s currently serving.” And Clayton said, “so, Tracy, I’m just asking: can I give your information to Dr. Whitaker?” And I’ll be honest with you, I just broke down on the phone. I mean, I just literally broke down on the phone, and I shared with Clayton and, outside of Teresa, Clayton was the first person I shared that God had already been doing a work in me and I was trying to determine the next step God had planned for us.

You know, it’s one thing to be released from something, but the next part of that is being called to something. And so, the next several weeks just followed a discernment process in which I talked to Dr. Whitaker, came to the campus and he and Mrs. Whitaker showed me around. Teresa and I continued to pray about it, met with the team and the team was just incredible and we knew that these were people that I would enjoy serving alongside in ministry. And I loved the campus-wide commitment to the Christian mission and identity of the institution. There was buy-in from everyone at the University. And it was just a beautiful thing and something that I’m not only thankful, but quite honestly proud to be a part of.

So let’s go back even further. The big question for all who believe in listening to God’s call is, ‘Why?’ Why were you called to pastoral ministry? Did you always know that's what God wanted you to do?

Well, I’m the son of a bi-vocational pastor. My mom had really encouraged me that if I could do anything else other than ministry that I should do it. She saw, as the spouse of a pastor, how difficult that life is—especially for a bi-vocational pastor. I’m from Mount Airy, which is literally Mayberry. And growing up in a small town, if you felt called to ministry, you were called to either be a full-time senior pastor or missionary. Now, I’m musically inclined, but in the town that I grew up in, there were very few full-time ministers of music. There were volunteer song leaders at my church. I mean, churches didn’t have music ministries; they had song leaders. Same way with youth. Youth ministry was led by volunteer lay leaders. And I really didn’t feel called to be like a missionary in the traditional sense of the word or a pastor in the traditional sense of the word.

It wasn’t until I went to college that God opened my eyes to a plethora of opportunities that were out there in which I could faithfully serve in vocational ministry. I actually did my undergraduate in music education. I didn’t know if it would be my vocation or not, but when I had the opportunity after I graduated to serve at the institution where I studied, that’s when I saw the bigger picture of Christian higher education and the great opportunity that there is to be able to shape hearts and minds and to nurture students in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

But my calling was broader than that because I didn’t just want to minister to students, I wanted to be able to be a pastor to faculty and staff as well. I did not, in any way, want to undermine or take the place of the local church, but I wanted to come alongside the local church ministry staff in ministering to faculty and staff in their time of need. A lot of times, faculty and staff get news about their family or difficult situations when they’re on campus. And I’m the closest point of contact pastorally to them. And it’s wonderful that I am able to truly come alongside the pastoral staff of their church and to support and to lift them up, so to speak, in that way.

What has your first year been like? Tell me about your experience and how you’ve felt about your ministry since coming to Anderson University.

My opportunities are growing. I realize that trust is earned and respect is earned. And, you know, the familiarity that I had after being somewhere for 30 years was not here at first. I am a rookie. I’m starting over, so to speak. But it really is like a pastor of a church coming in and learning the congregation. And so that, quite honestly, has been one of the biggest challenges for me, learning a new congregation and wanting to be visibly present, to be able to earn their trust in some of the most sacred moments that they will experience in their lives. And I will say that there have been a couple of things that have been helpful in regards.

From a student perspective, the Anderson University Care Team is huge. The team learns from professors and staff about situations that students may be encountering. Now, they do not violate the trust of students, but when appropriate, they let our office know about challenging circumstances. And then I’m able to determine how we are to best deal with that depending on the student.

From a faculty staff perspective, I just have to give a huge shout out to (Anderson University Director of Human Resources) Amy Porpilia. I approached her in the very beginning. I told her, “I know that time during new employee orientation is precious. But can I have five minutes on the agenda for new faculty and staff, just to let them hear my heart for being a pastor to this community?” And Amy did not hesitate. She opened the agenda to allow me that five minutes. And that has, I think, gone a really long way in building trust. I’ve also had the opportunity in staff meetings held by deans and department chairs to talk to them and share my heart. They have been really good to let me know about situations like that. That’s something that I aspire to see grow as my time here continues.

We often talk about Great Hospitality as one of Anderson University’s core pillars. How does that inform your work and the joy you take in ministry?

I think I just want to reiterate how grateful I am for the team that I minister alongside and the Office of Christian Life. They truly are phenomenal people as followers of Christ, but also as ministers who love and care for this community of faith and learning. It truly is a team effort. I’m very grateful for the team.

And then the other thing is just the leadership of Anderson University. How grateful I am for Dr. Whitaker and for the Senior Leadership Team and for the way in which they have embraced me coming to AU and truly giving value to the position that I hold here. I don’t take that lightly. They embraced me from the very beginning, and I have felt so much a part of our legacy of hospitality.

I really wondered, after the honeymoon wore off, is it still really going to be like this every day? And it is. I mean, the people that I encounter, it’s the same as when I first set foot on this campus. And to be a part of that is truly something special and something that I feel like is already an innate part of who I am. But to be able to do it alongside people who truly live out Great Hospitality every day is incredible. It’s like Anderson hires people that have it in their DNA. And I witness it every single day. I’ve never seen anything like it—not even at Disney World! Anderson takes it to another level, you know.

Tell us a little about your family.

I don’t know how far back you want me to go, but my mom and dad are Buford and Shirley Jessup. They still reside in Mount Airy. My dad, at 84, is still bi-vocational pastor, and my mom plays the piano at the church where my dad pastors. And honestly, in terms of pastoral care, I learned more from my dad and watching my dad than I did in seminary and in any class. That’s where I learned about the ‘ministry of presence,’ about being with people and genuinely loving people and it not being a chore. It is something that you’re called to do. It’s been said, ‘if you don’t like the smell of sheep, you shouldn’t be a shepherd.’ That’s the way I feel. I saw that in my dad, and my mom was very much alongside him. And I’m thankful for the helpmate that God has given me in Teresa.

When your time on earth is through, and you hear those words, “well done, my good and faithful servant,” what will be on God's mind when he says that to you? What in your life will inform those words other than your salvation?

Well, thank you for saying “other than your salvation,” because ultimately it’s not anything that I’ve done. And I have to remind myself of that because I think especially in helping professions and ministry professions, it’s easy for us to get caught up in our identity, being wrapped up in what we do and the people that we touch. Caring for people is so important. I mean, that’s why I feel called to do what I do. But ultimately, our salvation is by grace through faith. And I have to remind myself of that.

But I think when, as I aspire to hear those words, I think of the words in Colossians 3:23. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” And the reason I say that is because I hope, as a husband, that I’ve done everything that I’ve done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I hope, as a father, that that’s the way I’ve tried to parent my children. I hope, as a minister, as a friend, that’s the way I’ve lived out my ministry. I hope that regardless of my role—as a husband, as a father, as a friend or as a minister—that I’ve done everything that I know to do and that I can possibly do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Written by Andrew J. Beckner