Even though national park workers are surrounded by the immense beauty of God’s creation, the secular nature of the job does not make the parks obvious places for vocational formation in ministry. Still, I can hardly imagine my becoming a pastor without having experienced the life of a parkie for the past four seasons and befriending the beautiful and complex people who live in the parks.
My personal formation has been shaped by summers spent with God standing under towering pines in the rainforest, wandering through winding slot canyons in the desert, and breathing the alpine air in the mountains. My call to ministry, however, has been shaped by summers spent with other parkies working at the lodge front desk during closing shifts, scooping huckleberry ice cream in the park grocery store, and eating at the picnic tables outside the employee dining room. In these sacred spaces of secular life I learned more about pastoring than I have in all my years of Bible and theology classes in seminary.
I learned that the life of a parkie can be messy. It doesn’t conform to the structured rhythms that come with hymnals and liturgies and stained-glass windows. The parkie experience is transient by nature, with people flitting in and out as the seasons come and go. Some are seeking adventure and newness, but some are running from pain and heartache. The life of a parkie includes both wild hikes and mundane opening shifts. It comes with both immense growth and intense challenges. The life of a parkie, as I have learned, may mean you have a roommate who asks you to pee in a cup to help her pass her drug test.
The life of a parkie is interesting, to say the least.
But the life of a parkie is also beautiful—and not just because we’re surrounded by wildflowers and alpine lakes and moose and the Milky Way. The life of a parkie is beautiful because parkies themselves are beautiful people—interesting and messy, yes, but deeply beautiful. The beautiful parkies who have danced in and out of my life have shaped more of my pastoral identity than I ever would have imagined.
Conversations with parkie friends from across the spectrum of faith have taught me how to articulate my theology, how to speak the truth of the gospel not as one would to a professor in my oral exams, but to an 18-year-old facing a crisis of faith far from home. The experiences of my co-workers carrying religious trauma from their childhood have taught me to look critically at the church body I love so dearly and not to shy away from calling out the harm our faith leaders have caused while they used the name of Jesus. Living and working with those with worldviews so sharply contrasting with that of my Southwest Michigan, Christian Reformed roots has broadened my vision of what the kingdom of heaven will look like.
God has formed me through my life as a parkie through the mountains and canyons, the wind, the rivers, the sunsets, and the forests. God has shaped my ministry through the lives of other parkies, through co-workers who became friends and through friends who now feel like family. God makes himself known in the life of a parkie, in the sacred spaces of secular life where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary” (Matt. 11:28). Come to Jesus, every messy, interesting, beautiful, wild, and beloved child of the King.