Appropriate that I learned to play a game called “Fishbowl” at a place I once thought of as just that.
We ended this year’s Tour de Faith bike trip at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY—a place I lived for three years in my mid-twenties. Then and now, Asbury was often referred to as The Bubble, a snowglobe of sorts that allowed Christian leaders to incubate while sheltering them from many of life’s harsher realities.
But, like any small community, Asbury was also a fishbowl. People knew one another on more than just a casual basis, and so harbored both opinions and expectations of one another. The same network that felt so supportive during times of crisis could be suffocating during times of questioning and growth.
I hated Asbury. And I loved it.
To find myself back on campus fourteen years after I graduated was a strange feeling indeed. When I left, I was twenty-five years old and still one of the youngest students. I returned on the edge of forty with a group of college students who routinely refer to me as old. And when they laugh at beer commercials that I now find absurd, it’s hard to argue with them.
On the last night, Blake, one of our Wesley alumni who is now a student at Asbury, invited us to play a game he called “Naked” (as preferred by the students) or “Fishbowl” (preferred by me and my fellow campus ministers). We threw clues into a bowl and used them to play a relay-type game that included rounds of charades, password, and sound effects.
In a way, it was one those “you had to be there” moments. Fatigue and the late hour made ridiculous things hilarious. Dave’s one-word description of Abraham Lincoln (“axe”) and Amanda’s sound effect for North Korea (“ba-BOOM!”) sent us into hysterics.
But even now, a week later and 700 miles to the west, I look back on that last night of bike trip and think of it with a bit of wonder—not because of the game itself, but because I was invited to play.
I spend a fair amount of my time as a campus minister nurturing community. I continually insist that everyone not only be welcomed at Wesley Foundation, but also included to the degree that they choose. I try to act as pastor, caring for the sheep and guarding against wolves.
But, as my professors at Asbury warned me when I was a student, shepherding can be a lonely occupation. I often find myself loving people who are unsure whether they should try to love me back, and if so how to go about such an awkward thing.
What happened that last day of bike trip, however, was something different than what I see in most churches, an organizing of our community in a way that deemphasized age and hierarchy. I did not suddenly get younger or stop being a pastor, but for a few minutes of Fishbowl, I was recognized as something beyond the role I play. I was not just a leader, but a fellow traveler. One of the sheep, in other words, and content to let Jesus be the shepherd.
I’ve had plenty of colleagues warn me of the dangers of mingling in such a way, but to me the dangers of standing outside the flock seem even greater. The disciples recognized and respected (mostly) Jesus’ authority and function among them. But they also included him in their daily lives, their waking and walking and eating and laughing. If Jesus thought being among his sheep was the best way to lead, why would I not want to be in the Fishbowl too?