Christian Gap Year to Grad Degree – Joel Becker – Arrowhead Camp (PA)

Recently, I had an opportunity to grab a conversation with Joel Becker, who is currently serving as the Program Specialist, shepherding The Launch Initiative (TLI) gap year, and Leadership in Disabilities (LID) internship programs at Arrowhead Camp, a frontline ministry partner of Eleven:6.  Joel’s story is a powerful example of how an intentional approach to stewarding God-designed potential and purpose accelerates and amplifies the process.  Through our partnership with Anchor Christian University and partners like Arrowhead Camp, Joel will complete an MA Christian Leadership degree in Spring 2024.

Watch the video, listen to the audio, and/or read the (edited for flow) transcript below.

Personal Background

Ben – So tell us a little bit about yourself, kind of your origin story, and up to the point where you kind of connected with us. 

Joel – Yeah. So origin story was just growing up in Michigan, the Grand Rapids area, good family, four siblings, so tight knit family with pretty close in age, so very much more with peers than it was with little brothers or an older sister.  I have godly parents who did their best and were very diligent to share Scripture and share truth throughout our childhood. Had a nice few years of completely abandoning that during high school. Then jumping out of high school was sort of when I started switching life over to considering God as a part of my decisions and really, I would say, started the process  that led to doing a gap year program, One Life Institute. And over in Morris, Pennsylvania, got me introduced to a place called Three Springs Ministries. 

Hugely transformative year. I mean, my dad joked that it was hugely transformative because there was so much that needed transforming in me. But very impactful, definitely, I would say, was the kick starter for me having interest in ministry and discipleship oriented communities, even in working with the age group that I’m still currently in, but like the formative years of 18 to 25. Jumped in, did some traveling, revival, family-oriented church missions for about a year around the states with a team called Life Action Ministries. And then after a little bit more schooling and some other experiential stuff is probably when, that’s right around when I got connected with you.  It had to be 2019, I think.

Starting With Eleven:6 – “Point A” and Strategy Mapping

Ben – I think you’re right. And remind me how you heard about [Eleven:6] and got connected in the first place. 

Joel – My dad gets excited when we are directionless in our life and starts spending a lot of time on Google. It’s probably a good way of putting it. I was definitely still moving through school, but was definitely showing interest in getting more Bible content in my education.  And there was just a day where he goes, Hey, I talked on the phone with this guy that does this interesting school thing that you seem to be a fit for.  You should call him. Thus we had our first conversation. 

Ben – I remember that first conversation with your dad, and it was interesting to me because I have a lot of conversations with parents after the kid has stepped into, “Hey, I want to do this program. I’m interested in a different way of pursuing my education, etc.” Or maybe a youth pastor, or somebody else we’re connected with, connects them and the parents are kind of leaning back saying, “Okay, what’s going on here? It’s a little bit different, etc.”  I remember during the conversation with your dad thinking, man, he really is thinking not just intentionally, but strategically. And I’m really curious who Joel is and how he navigates, having come out of that background.  It’s a very unique conversation. 

Joel – Yeah, everyone with him is. 

Ben – So, we connected and had an initial conversation. When you think about where you were and the questions you were asking at that point, what were you trying to solve? You had completed a gap year, and done the other internship year (Life Action) and were kind of looking forward. What were the questions that you were asking? What’s the problem you were trying to solve? 

Joel – I’d say it was definitely a deepening interest or a draw towards seeing if the connection between large amounts of investment from mentors and spiritual leaders – everything from guest speakers to passing conversations within the ministry up to that point in those internships – it was wanting to see those grounded in Scripture or to be able to teach and support them myself, and not just with quotations around smart people that I know but with references to Scripture and truth. It really was a definite draw to grounding my own beliefs, understandings, and walk in tangible Scriptural knowledge, and trying to find an avenue to do that in an affordable and efficient way was a big part of it. 

Ben – I remember going through that conversation because – I’m going back to 2019, which is pre-COVID– but I remember walking through and saying, okay, here’s what you have done, asking those questions about the future. And then we did an analysis, broke everything down and said, okay, here’s a map to degree completion.  Then figuring out what experiences and steps were going to be involved in that was part of the dynamic. We talked through that. What was it for you that answered the question, that said, “Yes, this is a path I want to take and the next step is going to be this.”

Joel – I think it probably came in a few layers because I wasn’t considering pursuing a true bachelor’s or a master’s degree path before that first phone call. It wasn’t even, it wasn’t on my radar.  I would probably shuffle through the idea once in a while, just considering what it could be. But I think as we talked, it was realizing that completing a degree path was affordable – debt free affordable – and then the next step of realizing I wouldn’t have to stop being in service-oriented opportunities. I wouldn’t have to pause, move to a campus, where my ministry output would be probably limited to church attendance in some sort of on-campus ministry, which wasn’t something I was particularly eager to do.  

But then realizing that the problem of finding an affordable way to pursue Bible education, to finish a degree path, to steward what God had already blessed me with – either by intentionality or osmosis up to that point – and realizing that [Eleven:6] had the equipping, the tools and the heart to funnel that into a productive avenue that could give me clear next steps to completing something with a timeline, with numbers attached, with a lot of goals in mind. And it would eventually open doors in the future, even if it’s just one to two doors, and it’s never like, this degree got me this job that lasted me 50 years. It’s like, that’s not really mine to know. Yeah, I think the combination of all those things. And then eventually it was the – as I was searching – basically in the midst of COVID’s initial outbreak and other ministries were cutting to 50% staff, and credits weren’t going to transfer to options I was considering, and affordability was becoming cloudier as far as other options for Bible pursuit.  

And that’s when you actually introduced me to GCBI or Great Commission Bible Institute in Florida. And I think the conversation was really simple. You’re like, well, there is this other thing that does the whole Bible in a year that does the context and it’s a thousand dollars cheaper than everything you’re looking at, but it’s in Florida. And I was like, in Florida. All right. But at that point it was like, all right, this is a very tangible, effective option, and honestly, requires just such a small part – such a small weight of surrender – the location I live in the richest country in the world to get Bible without anyone saying I shouldn’t. I think that that’s a pretty accessible decision that answers a lot of hope and prayer. 

Step 1: Great Commission Bible Institute (FL)

Ben – And that’s a good transitioning because part of what I’d like to do is help people see your journey through the process because really, when we created the initial map of point A to point B and maybe point C, there were a lot of steps in the process, but all of those steps that we created were possibilities, not necessarily plans. We like to do things that way, because number one, as you learn more about yourself, as you learn more about the purpose and path God put in your place, that needs to be somewhat malleable.  But to stay on target for what we are trying to accomplish, not just hitting a finish line, right? And so GCBI, for those that aren’t familiar, Great Commission Bible Institute in Sebring, Florida, is not part of our direct ecosystem. They’re not part of our enrollment, but they are a partner organization that we transfer credits into and out from to map credit to other places.

They do a phenomenal job.  It’s like a hypodermic needle of Bible for a year – immersive. And so I love what they do and it’s a great tool to plug into a sequence like this. So for you in particular, you had a bunch of ministry credits and the experiential background with the GAP program, but solving that Bible piece and doing it in a focused way, not disconnected, but the other part of the GCBI is you get involved in ministry.

I’m curious, like as you reflect on that year, what do you feel like you walked away with or gained during that year with GCBI? 

Joel – Hmm. A lot. It’s a good start, but I definitely had what I would say was a very unexpected year – intentional, focused, and super valuable Bible content and knowledge from the year, and wasn’t disappointed in the least. And then getting involved in a local church and experiencing my first time choosing a church, committing to serving and loving, living, and worshiping alongside that body. And not feeling like I had to be in constant evaluation of the quality of the community that I was in, but truly living in compassion and care, and receiving the same instead of a selective community where it’s like, I’ll take these three from the group of 20 and leave those two and be generous to those five. It definitely switched over to like, nope, each person here got created.  There’s a purpose to the relationships. I’m not gonna put end dates on these. I’m not going to limit the potential of what I take in or give out to these people. I guess it was coming down to the bare bones of seeing everything at eye level through a biblical lens instead of, some people are up, some people are down, very much kind of killing the hierarchy, which way, way philosophical I know on that end of things. But…

For me, that transformed a lot because I started to get influence from people that I didn’t just look at, admire, and then ask. I was getting influenced by weirdos and cool people and smart people and loud and quiet and getting to do the same, whether it was being involved in youth group, in young adults, building a community in and outside of GCBI, caring for younger students and taking investment from the old.  It definitely became a really new rhythm for me of what it looked like to live in community and to live in the giving and taking of love and information and relationship. 

And then I ended up doing a missions trip for the first time following that year looking at international evangelistic-oriented missions, cross-cultural stuff. And I knew I had a lingering interest, probably since [the gap year] when we visited some international opportunities. But that really got soft in my heart and provided a lot of cool storied ways to give that opportunity and challenged me to really consider what I was willing to leave behind in this life to serve him. But also if I was willing to be content with what he had already given and not just needing to move on to what often gets like labeled as “the hero work of the faith” – and let’s applaud and look up to those people – but trying to wrestle with both sides of what God’s plan and purpose for my life could be. And also being grateful that sometimes He’s just given me the choices to honor Him with and honor Him before, during, and after those decisions. 

Step 2: RA for Vanguard Gap Year

Ben – So you, you’re at GCBI, you finished up and I know there was a thought process of do I stay into a second year to be an RA, did the missions trip, I believe that Summer, right, after GCBI. And then as you were finishing that up, you and I had several conversations – I remember at least a few – about what next, talking about a range of opportunities. You looked at several different opportunities and programs. You landed as an RA, I believe, at Vanguard, which is a gap year program at Wheaton.

Joel – Northern Wisconsin, at their outdoor adventure. Leadership campus called Honey Rock. Very much like a camp and retreat campus, but it’s expanding. 

Ben – Talk a little bit about the role, what you were doing, what that looked like. Was that 9 or 12 months?

Joel – Nine months, yes.  Yeah, so the role was working within a team of RAs, Resident Aids, Resident Leaders, they called them Fellows, which made it feel like a British boarding school. But yeah, it was working with a team of, I think it was six other fellows to serve the 20 to 25 gap year students who had chosen to spend their nine months, first year out of high school with Vanguard and Wheaton. For me, it was honestly a very challenging and humbling experience. I definitely knew that was the type of work I wanted to be doing that year. I wanted to kind of step into the shoes of those who had influenced me so much and really pour out into others. It was an environment where I was just on theologically unfamiliar ground.

Nothing that was closed-handed, like are these people believers, but it was just a whole new realm of theological basis, discipleship styles, spiritual focuses, formation strategies, all of it. So I was in my own, wrestling for a lot of the year, which again was just a very humbling experience.  But it definitely affirmed that it was a type of work I love to do, the walking alongside, the in-the-trenches with others, especially as they grow and have their understanding of the world, of God, of others expanded through classes, through work, through conversations. But yeah, a lot of it looked like working within the team to plan and program and then eventually facilitate everything from events to some classes to book studies and Bible studies to one-on-one discipleship and then working together as a team to resolve community strife and issues or even to bolster better health within the community when it was doing well. 

Ben – And I just want to remind everybody, you are effectively at this point a junior in college from a credit standpoint and from a journey standpoint.  You left GCBI having finished the equivalent of sophomore plus a little bit, but in your year with Vanguard, you were effectively a junior in college. Not just an RA in the traditional sense, serving in a gap year program connected with Wheaton and Honey Rock, but also doing programming, doing discipleship, doing immersive stuff.

That’s not the normal “college experience” at all. But one of the things about your journey that I’ve seen is you always press yourself to that next level. And it’s interesting because I feel like you’ve had some people around you, voices in your life, including dad, that have allowed you to step into those spaces and not the goal, are you sure you can stretch?

I’m sure those conversations, there’s a ceiling at some point where it’s like, okay, maybe you’ll moderate a little bit, but you’ve been pretty aggressive in that, not in the sense of reckless, I wouldn’t say that. But in the sense of really pushing your skillset, your capacities, but not just to grow your goal, but to actually reproduce and pour out. And that’s one of the things that I think tracks through all of this. So while just kind of pivoting a little bit, because again, you’re a junior in college at this point.

You did several Anchor Christian University courses during the course of that year. Obviously, it wasn’t directly blended into that program because it’s not one of the partner programs. What did that look like for you? How did that work? Just raw, real. 

Joel – Honestly, it was more of a personal revealer than a fantastic accomplishment during that year. I joked with a friend saying, I was never the best at self-directed learning, time management, and basically pushing myself into productivity for stuff. And I had hoped that had changed for no apparent reason. I didn’t have any evidence that it would have changed, but I just kind of like loosely hoped and learned very quickly, a little bit to my chagrin, but very grateful for the lesson of it that it’s like, nope.  That changes through intentionality and focus, diligence, and maybe even some accountability and investment. And so if I was going to evaluate that year from an academic perspective, I should have, if only for that reason – maybe not for the value that came out of it outside of that – chosen something that had that accountability, that had that infrastructure, that would push me to meet goals in a timely, measurable manner, less so in a grace demanding from those providing it manner. I think at the end of that year, I only completed two courses in nine months, maybe three, but none of them within the timeline that they were set out at. I did not go back and look, so I can’t verify that.

Yeah, I was like, I think they were all vastly delayed. And that was largely due to me not taking an objective or even just input from others to look at what my weaknesses were as a student or even as just like a self-disciplined person and choosing a vocational choice that I would have preferred.  But not really evaluating since it was under the umbrella of an educational choice, if it met those two goals well. If I was trying to find the point of weakness and wisdom, I definitely under-evaluated the weakness and thought wise was just way up here when it’s like, no, it should have actually collided back down here, which may not have given the dream job dream selection, but probably would have at least on the academic side benefited me with where I was at the time. 

Ben – But at the end of the day, all of the courses moved ahead academically and did it in a way that was outside of timelines and all that stuff, but the safety net was there because everybody involved was focused on how is Joel growing, and what’s the trajectory in progress, not so much.  Are we checking boxes, right? Because we’re not really box-checking organizations, right? So that was a good, interesting learning space. So if you were to sum up your Vanguard year and say, okay, top two or three takeaways that walk forward with you into the next season, what would those be? 

Joel – The importance of taking initiative. I was definitely challenged at the end of that year by my boss that said that I had a… I would say a core belief that whoever is best at something in the room should be the person doing it. And so if a task came in front of me that I thought another person would do more effectively and burden others less with the result, I wouldn’t initiate taking on that task. And I did that for probably the full nine months. But it was very much the idea of having grace for the growth and the pace and progress of others and myself.

That would probably be like the second point that builds off the first is just being willing to engage in failure and processes and improvement without needing, I guess, the highest practical reaping of productivity from every single task that comes across everyone’s desk. So that would be as a leader, that would be as a follower, that would be as a team member. And then thirdly, I think it would be definitely considering the medium of ministry that others are doing, not as superior or inferior or aligned or unaligned, but considering differences as something to be curious, explore, and admire, not something to evaluate, to judge, and then to take in or discard. Which is what I struggled with for a lot of the year was just like, this is different. So it either has to be bad or good, worse or better, not an example of the gifts and the creation and creativity of God and his believers. So yeah, that was definitely a very impactful lesson coming out of that here. 

Step 3: Program Specialist at Arrowhead Bible Camp (PA) + Master’s Degree Completion

Ben – Awesome. And really I think about those three things in particular, and if I were to say, hey, for my son or my daughter or for myself walking into an experience, you know, there’s the curriculum, there’s the platform, there’s the process that you set up in a learning experience intentionally. But those outcomes, and they don’t just complete a curriculum, but walk forward with you in meaningful ways and actually leverage over and over again and grow layers moving forward.  You cannot put a price on that. You can’t put… you can write a textbook that has those things. You could say, okay, Joel’s textbook for life and leadership, X, Y, Z. And 19-year-old Joel can come read those things, but he’s not going to come to the same conclusion. They’re not going to hit in the same way. So you get done with Vanguard, and we have another set of conversations. Because you’re trying to figure out what’s next.  We have a list of objectives, and priorities and goals.  Talk about how you decided to come to Arrowhead Bible Camp.  What did that process look like?  How did you make that decision?  What was it that sealed that for you?

Initial Conversation, Hiring Process

Joel – I think it definitely comes back to that pyramid idea of like, where does weakness and wisdom collide at this point. And I would say I was getting to the point with God, and with the process of being impatient, wanting to move towards a long term decision of, this is somewhere where I’ll build community, where I’ll plant roots, where I’ll redefine home for the next 10 years. So my pray going to God was like, God, I want…  The initial decision of just efficiency, affordability, debt-free, and a growing experience, something that pushes me outside of my comfort zone. And so I was evaluating a few of the partnerships that you have, looking through my own avenues and stuff, and trying my best to ignore calls from my director, my current director at that time, because I had turned him down for a position a year earlier.

And I didn’t want to work in this place, just on feelings. And so eventually though, the call went through, we had the conversation, I had that conversation with Ben Myers, my director, and he called without a job offer. Halfway through, he realized he wanted to offer a job and produced an option, but he called without a job offer, which was hugely disarming for me.

And important, honestly, in that process where I didn’t feel like I was being drawn in or fished for. And then the adaptability, the heart that he showed, and then the practical answer to prayer… it was going to be the most affordable, the most practical, the longest term opportunity, and I could complete a degree with a director that cared for the educational process, not just the vocational process. And one visit that Summer and a few months. And here I was last August now, one year ago, jumping into the whole new thing. 

Current Role with The Launch Initiative Gap Year + Leadership in Disabilities Internship Programs

Ben – Explain your role, what you’ve been doing for the last year, what you’re doing now moving forward. So again, we can track your trajectory of experiences, roles, et cetera through this process. 

Joel – Yeah, so I jumped in specifically to, probably to use like, accessible lingo to take on assistantship and assistant directing of the GAP year program that was already being run here called The Launch Initiative. That meant diving through a lot of the curriculum so that I could facilitate it later on, taking on a recruiting portion in my role to continue to bring in students and interns for the Leadership in Disabilities (LID) onsite staff program, continuing to work through grad school and find a way of practically applying what I was learning and what I was doing into a mold that actually benefited where I was at and where I was growing to. 

Ben – And to clarify, TLI is the gap year program, and the Leadership and Disabilities program (LID) is an internship program that can be attached to undergrad credit and or grad credit (via Eleven:6 university partners) depending on where students at in their process. You’re helping to lead and facilitate both of those programs as part of your role responsibilities, and your (master’s degree) course credit is woven through that process. 

Joel – Absolutely, yep. And then I work at camp, so everything that entails. 

Ben – Which is something that every camp staff person says, ”I do this and this and this, and also ALL these things…other duties.” When I worked in finance at a credit union, we used to call that the part of the job description, “other duties as assigned,” which is generally 80% of the job description. So, with that, then, talk a little bit about the 30,000 foot level day-to-day, week-to-week basis. What are some of the things that are part of your rhythm?

Joel – So a little bit of cold call recruiting, a little bit of relational building with recruiting avenues, building funnels of connection to possible future students, possible future interns with ministries, camps, colleges, churches, hosting retreats over weekends, being a part of the face of Arrowhead for that, facilitating our guest service groups along with our guest groups and just providing an experience for them. And then teaching courses, facilitating everything from actually GCBI content that we do for some of our Bible survey courses, all the way to financial courses. And then day-to-day, a lot of one-on-one discipleship check-ins concerning myself with the health and growth of the community and the spiritual formation. Along with, honestly, just with that awareness, developing rhythms of rest, reflection, and probably worship within the community that can stay whether or not I’m here and be a part of the healthy community rhythms with a spiritual focus. 

Team Dynamics + Culture at Arrowhead Bible Camp

Ben – Awesome. So with that, in a couple of sentences, how would you explain the culture and team dynamic at Arrowhead? Because you talked about Ben (Myers) and your initial conversation… that was a draw. You’re obviously very much involved in the discipleship side of that. Explain that for people who have never been to Arrowhead, because I think it’s pretty spectacular. 

Joel – Yeah, yeah. I’ll slip in the cheesy word family and then move on from that word very quickly. But it is very much like, I would call it relational first or staff care that leads to camp care.  The relationships built within the team to care for one another’s personal needs, to concern with the spiritual and personal health and wellbeing of one another, not out of obligation, but out of a true care is very palpable, absolutely tangible within the community here. And it’s even been cool since I’ve arrived and we’ve gone through some hills and valleys of experiences and obstacles, to watch Ben – I wouldn’t say transform, but adjust – and be flexible as a leader to concern and put more focus into some of the what it becomes very obvious needs within the team and serve those needs first, not just find ways of supplementing that for us. And that’s been huge for me to love being here. 

Ben – You know, it’s interesting because it’s interesting to hear your words on that because for the last 15 years or so that I’ve known Ben (Myers), and been familiar with Arrowhead, connected with TLI, and then they had been moving forward from even a distance. I’ve seen that over and over and over again. So hearing you articulate that affirms a lot of what I’ve seen and I’ve shared with other people, but it’s really hard to put words on. So that’s awesome. Well, we’ve got like two minutes left. And so just kind of wrapping up this conversation.

Big Takeaways: Advice for Aspiring Young Leaders

If you had a chance to grab your 19 year old self and say, okay, you don’t know the road ahead… But let’s say you’re having coffee, what advice would you give and what’s one – as it relates to the journey ahead – what’s one thing you would really highlight? 

Joel – Honestly, my advice would probably feel a lot less idealistic and future oriented. But it would be, your inputs are driving your outputs. What you choose to draw in every day or choose to abstain from, choose to seek after, they drive the outcome of the people around you, the environments you’re in, and your relationship with God. You have to consider those probably first and foremost every day because I’ve reaped the benefits and the difficulties, the failures of that being true, since my 19 year old self left One Life and wouldn’t change a thing, but would love to change a lot of things at the same time. So that would probably be my biggest push is, you’re becoming who you are with every decision, not every life choice. 

Ben – Well, I have watched you on this journey with curiosity, been a cheerleader, I hope, and just seeing you grow through this process, I appreciate your willingness to let me into that journey and to come alongside and then also just to share this with us today.  And I hope that young people and even others that you’re going to engage with will have an opportunity to listen to this, gain some insights, some encouragement, and some courage for the process. So thanks for taking some time with us and we’ll talk to you soon. 

Joel – Sounds good. Have a good one, Ben. All right, you too. Thanks.