Nearly fifteen years ago, I took my first call as Campus Pastor and Executive Director at Pres House, the Presbyterian campus ministry center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. My wife, Erica, joined me as my partner in life and co-pastor at work. We were fresh out of seminary with lots of ideas to preach and programs to run.
But the ministry to which we were called had zero student members. Pres House had been dormant for several years by the time we arrived. It was our calling to rebuild and resurrect what had in the distant past been a thriving campus church. The first thing I did? I built a desk. To be more precise, I ordered a big box from a big box store that came full of pieces of particle board and screws. I spent a couple of days putting all the parts together into a desk. It is the desk I have written hundreds of sermons on over the years, and it is the desk upon which I write these words now. I built this desk, hooked up the internet, invited one student to join us, and we got started.
Fast forward to today: Pres House now serves more than 750 students each year. The building is full every day of the week with people experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ, exploring God’s desire for their lives, and being sent out into the world by the Holy Spirit. We built a seven-story, $17 million student apartment community that is home to 240 student residents. Our annual budget has increased by 1500% from $150,000 to more than $2.2 million. Donors have more than $5 million to support this growth. There has undoubtedly been rebirth here at Pres House.
People often ask me, “How?” and “What did you do to attract students, raise money, build the infrastructure of a thriving ministry?” and so on. The first thing I say is that God has been faithful and has done a miraculous work in and through Pres House for more than 100 years and is continuing to do so today. The second thing I say is that there have been many incredible people who have contributed to the rebirth of Pres House—board members, donors, volunteers, employees, contractors, and of course, students. The third thing I say is, “I don’t know. We just did it, step-by-step, day-by-day, year-by-year. We just did the next thing, and now here we are.”
Perhaps a parable provides a clearer answer. A few years ago, I taught my daughters to ride their bikes without training wheels. This was very exciting for me, but it was also very difficult. You see, I am an amateur bike racer. I ride and race more than 8,000 miles on my bike each year. So while I was super excited to teach my kids to ride, I soon realized that riding a bike is automatic for me. I just do it.
How do you teach someone to ride a bike? It’s harder than it sounds. You just get on and ride, right? But when I was teaching my daughters, I had to break down each step and really think about what goes into riding a bike. How does it work? How do you get from point A to point B?
This feeling of excitement coupled with a loss for words is a lot like the feeling I get when I am asked how we rebuilt Pres House. I am so excited to hear about campus ministries, youth ministries, churches, and nonprofits undertaking bold moves to rebuild and grow. But how does this happen? Let’s take a step back and think about what goes into this sort of endeavor. How does it work? How do we get from point A to point B?
It turns out that there are a lot of similarities between rebuilding a ministry or nonprofit and riding a bike. During this four-part series on the story of Pres House, I will be sharing my reflections on how we put our feet to the pedals and started to move forward. Not everything we have learned here at Pres House can be applied everywhere else, but I hope that many ideas will resonate or spark your own thoughts.
In the end—just like learning to ride a bike—there is only so much that can be described or taught. You cannot learn to ride a bike by reading a book or watching a YouTube video. To ride a bike, you have to get on it and go. You will only learn how to balance, pedal, and move forward as you try and fail and pick yourself up and try again. So let’s go for a little ride.
This post is the first in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. Coming soon, Mark will explore the three remaining steps in subsequent articles:
Look Ahead to Where to Want to Go: Focus your attention on where you want to be.
Let Go of the Brakes: Commit fully.
Don’t Forget to Oil Your chain: Pay attention to the details that make a big difference.
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Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.