For today’s student, it is hard to fathom our campus community without such a heavy focus on missions and service. Although short-term mission trips have been present at Lipscomb in some capacity for years, a foundation was laid a decade ago thanks to the visionary leadership of two individuals in particular. What is now a quite expansive program, meticulously organized and orchestrated by not only full-time staff members but also numerous volunteers, was once composed of little more than faith and a makeshift office.
In 1999, Dr. Earl Lavender accepted the official position of Director of Missions on one condition: that he could tear the program apart. He explains his idea, saying, “I didn’t want to compete with anyone else’s programs. I wanted us to go in a completely different direction.” Although official records were not kept in the beginning, it is estimated that the University had about 10 trips and around 150 people going on mission trips annually in 1999.
In spring 2002, just a few years after taking on his new volunteer position, the responsibilities of the blooming program began to become too much as Lavender began to struggle with the balance of managing a primarily student-driven program with his demanding full-time teaching obligation. Lavender knew the tangible benefits to students who participated, but was desperately in need of assistance. He found himself no longer able to manage the incredibly involved program on his own. He actually was preparing to hand it off or shut it down completely when he got an unexpected call.
On the other end of that phone call was former Lipscomb student Jeff Fincher (’97). Fincher simply called to ask how things were going with the program that planted seeds within his heart that made him love mission work during his time as a student. Fincher spent his college years heavily involved in the mission work at Lipscomb. During his junior year in the spring of 1996, he led a group of students to City of Children in Mexico, a trip that grew rapidly after that first effort and today is the longest running spring break mission trip. He continued to lead that trip for three years after graduating, saying, “I just loved missions.” Upon hearing that Lavender was struggling to maintain the University focus on missions due to his full teaching load, Fincher knew that he could not allow the program to end, saying, “I knew that I had to do something.”
Fincher wanted to take on some of the weight as an additional staff member, yet he soon found that there was no money to pay for a position that previously never existed. “I had several meetings with Dr. Lavender then subsequently met with Provost Bledsoe and President Flatt and through those conversations we somehow pieced together a job description for me and they got creative with the funding to provide me a salary.” In August 2002, Fincher came aboard full-time as the Director of Student Missions, the first full-time missions employee of the University. Fincher inherited a program that was now sending around 15 trips and 300 people per year, but it seemed to have reached its ceiling being coordinated by students and volunteer staff.
Fincher explains the humble beginnings of this new job, “That first month, I basically sat in the lobby of the Missions Center until I moved into my make-shift office, which was a closet. My first desk we actually got for free from the warehouse at the Rescue Mission.” Throughout those beginning months, Fincher spent most of his time reorganizing the existing system while a projecting a vision for what it could become.
During his first year on the job, Fincher found himself having conversations with fellow alum and friend, Mark Jent. Having known each other and led trips together to the City of Children for years, the two friends had a dream of what missions at Lipscomb could become, if only they were allowed to pursue what they felt God calling them to. A year later, in August 2003, Jent left his job at the Nashville Rescue Mission to offer aid to the flourishing program. Since no funding was available for his salary, an agreement was made with the University that he would raise his own salary for his first two years. Finally, with a more secure and balanced staff, Lipscomb Missions was on its way to becoming the driving force behind the school.
With nearly 50 trips and 700 servants being mobilized annually across the country and around the world, missions holds a strong presence in the heart of campus today. When asked if he could have dreamt the size of it today, “Yes and no,” Fincher says, “We just really hoped and prayed that every student would see that God calls us to do mission work somewhere in the world, in whatever context it may be.”
In the summer of 2008, after six years of working with Lipscomb Missions, Fincher and his wife Natasha moved to the City of Children in Ensenada, Mexico where they spent two years serving as the American Directors of the home. Shortly after returning to Nashville, he found himself back on campus as a Major Gift Development Officer, now able to share his passion for and perspective of missions with a different audience.
As for the future of Lipscomb Missions, Lavender hopes to further integrate missions within the different graduate programs on campus. He explains his goal for the university to “live out the Kingdom through particular areas of study.” Lavender sums up the goal of missions best, simply saying, “Missions ought to be the essence of who we are.” With an undeniably dedicated team of staff members and volunteers with a passion for others, the essence of Lipscomb is bound to be just that.