Ellen Hoffman was a leader in her church youth group by age 12. When she matriculated at the University of Washington (UW) and discovered she would have to wait a year before she could lead an InterVarsity small group, she decided to join another campus ministry instead. But her roommate invited her to Fall Conference, and she has been with InterVarsity ever since.
“I was ready to lead others but did not recognize how much there was for me to learn and understand about God’s grace, God’s mercy, and how much I did not understand about a relationship with God,” Ellen said. “Fall Conference was where I recognized that I had some spiritual poverty and that InterVarsity was the place where God was going to challenge me to grow.”
Avoiding a Spiritual Trap
Ellen discovered that working for God instead of working with God is a trap that Christian workers can easily fall into. Later, after five years on InterVarsity staff, she took a leave of absence when she realized that she needed some time off to work on her relationship with God again.
“God reminded me that it’s not about what I have to offer him or how hard I work or about what I have to offer the kingdom,” she said. “It’s about what he initiates in me and what he initiates in the kingdom and how I get to be a part of that.”
For the past 12 years Ellen has met once a month with a spiritual director in order to give herself a consistent reminder to listen to what God is saying and look for what God is doing in her life. Now, as an Associate Regional Director, and before that as an Area Director, Ellen wants to help the staff that she supervises avoid the same trap that she fell into.
“This experience has given me a keen eye for watching what motivates staff, and keeping an eye on how they are engaging personally with Jesus in the midst of their ministry,” she said. “Being able to keep their discipleship holistic in terms of their ministry and personal life is something that I have focused on when I supervise my staff.”
Moving into Campus Ministry
By her third year at UW Ellen was eager to move into full-time ministry. She had been on a Global Project to Asia and intended to return to the region as a missionary. Running Start classes in high school had helped Ellen take care of some of her prerequisites and she discovered that switching her major to zoology would allow her to graduate by the end of the school year.
The mission agency she was working with suggested she intern with InterVarsity. “There’s nothing better out there in terms of training and resources and character development in leadership that you should have before you come to Asia,” they told her. Ellen soon discovered she was hooked on campus ministry and serving students, and has been on InterVarsity staff ever since, although she has returned to Asia several times as a Global Project team leader.
The Challenge of Evangelism
One of the biggest challenges for campus ministry in the Northwest region has been evangelism, since people in that part of the country are known for being among the least churched in the U.S. But that has been one of the areas where Ellen has seen God act most powerfully during the last few years.
“I felt such a clear sense of ‘God this has to be you or it’s just not going to happen; if you don’t come through this won’t work,’” she recalled. “Slowly, as we took risks on campus, we found more and more people come to Christ.”
Through a concerted effort, evangelism is now part of the DNA of the region, which is a significant change from five years ago. The plan for the next five years is to double the number of campuses with InterVarsity chapters, and double the number of students involved in InterVarsity.
Making Time for Students and Family
With her time now taken up more and more with administrative activities, Ellen relishes the time spent directly working with students. This summer she is leading a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount, as part of the Summit Urban Project in Tacoma.
She remembers going through the same passage of Scripture as a freshman, almost 20 years ago, and being confronted with the possibility that what God wanted for her – the narrow path – might be different from the “wide path” that her parents or her friends wanted her to take.
“I remember being intrigued by that, by the possibility that what Jesus could offer could actually be better,” she said. “I didn’t know what would be on the narrow path. Yet there are promises of being satisfied, and receiving mercy and comfort, and being blessed.”
Looking back, she can see how the narrow path was the best past. Even in her busiest time as a campus minister, trying to balance the demands of a family with two young children, God was with her each day.
“Every year I wondered, could I do it one more year? Is it worth it? Am I getting enough time with my children? Am I being a faithful staff worker? And it has been so worth it,” Ellen said. “Raising a family has made my staff work much more fruitful and caused me to depend on God in ways I never would have before had I not done it in motherhood.”
Now that her youngest child has reached kindergarten age, Ellen knows her ministry will change again. But she also knows that God’s grace and mercy will continue to be at the center of her ministry.