Cyrus Eaton never thought he’d pursue a career in college ministry, especially as a biology major. When he was in college at Belmont University in Nashville, he got his masters degree in sports administration and continued to play soccer.
“I basically majored in soccer in minored in figuring out life,” Eaton said. “Soccer, in that season in my life, became an avenue for discipleship.”
While playing soccer, he worked closely with 12- to 18-year-old students and had intentional conversations about life outside of soccer. He said regularly, they remind each other that their identities are not wrapped up in performance.
“I used that as a means of saying, ‘Hey, you’re more than you could ever perform on the field, and I care about who you’re becoming as young man.’ There’s so much more to life than soccer and I still have relationships with some of those players that are now playing in college.”
His first job working with college students was through a campus recreation job as a graduate assistant for Outdoor Pursuits at Belmont. While he was getting his master’s degree, he worked with 20 employees at a climbing wall, and was able to take them backpacking, climbing and rafting.
“It was in that season of life I realized these are the students that have often been given to us for deconstruction, but are not always given tools for reconstruction,” Eaton said. “They are so hopeful and passionate and unrealistic.”
Since God entered his life, Eaton said He’s created opportunities for him to walk closely with college students.
“I realize that this is the demographic that I am most passionate about,” Eaton said.
Eaton made the move from Nashville to Abilene last semester to begin his role as university chaplain. Following Scott McDowell, the vice president of student life, Eaton made Abilene home and quickly jumped into the culture of ACU to make spiritual formation more intentional than just credits.
The journey to Abilene
“Fast forward through dozens of jobs, cross-cultural ministry and missions opportunities, God opened the door for me to work with discipleship in campus ministry,” Eaton said. “That was a place where God really grew and shaped me.”
For three years, Eaton worked under McDowell at Lipscomb University. He said it was a place where he cultivated his vision and heart for walking and working with college students, especially at an institution that had “mandatory” expression of religion.
“I’ve kind of come to terms with this fact that I see the values in which mandatory compulsory Chapel can add to an institution.”
McDowell, who began with the university at the beginning of August, said 90 percent of a student’s time is spent outside the classroom. Because most successful interactions are spent in extracurricular activities, finding a chaplain was one of his top priorities.
“It’s the No. 1 differentiator for us, so it’s important to me to have incredibly gifted, talented people who have a heart for the Lord,” McDowell said.
Though he encouraged some people to apply, McDowell said he did not want to directly interfere with the process.
In January of 2018, the university hired Harmony and Travis Weber as the new chaplains, but three days later the offer was rescinded. The university pressed pause on the chaplain search to replace then-vice president of student life, Chris Riley. Once McDowell was hired, the search for a chaplain resumed.
McDowell met Eaton through Dave Clayton, the first campus minister he hired. He said he was impressed by his heart for the Lord and knew his family was in a transition with a new baby.
Though he encouraged Eaton to apply, McDowell said he didn’t want to come in and hire his own people.
“Thankfully, I was able to participate in that somewhat, but it was also very important for me to respect that there had been so much investment already by the institution,” McDowell said. “I knew them well enough to know that I wanted them here pouring into this campus.”
Eaton said every time he’s stretched in measures of spiritual responsibility, it reminds him of how insufficient he is without Christ.
“This whole transition and season has been a reminder of that,” Eaton said. “I can work 24 hours a day and still never have enough energy and creativity to do what God wants me to do if I didn’t spend an hour or two in prayer. The heavy lifting is done through spiritual disciplines, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s not about how hard we work.”
Fixing the Chapel problem
“It’s my heart and hope that even our biggest Chapel venues are a reflection of discipleship.”
Eaton said he doesn’t want to pretend or claim that we are doing spiritual formation right if there is not active engagement in discipleship.
Five to eight students will assist with Moody and Cullen Chapels this semester and commit time to figuring out who the student body is as a community.
“We really wanted to demonstrate that Chapel can serve a function, and it’s students leading students. But the most important thing they do is not how they serve in Chapel, it’s who we are becoming behind closed doors.”
Though most people won’t see the subtle changes, Eaton said he hopes the work they do permeates to the culture of Moody and Cullen.
“We live in a results-driven society with the mentality that if you can’t see it is really happening, it’s not. I think that’s something I, among many other ministers and chaplains, wrestle with. There’s a temptation to perform as a professional Christian when the reality is, we’re not performing, we’re inviting people to grow with us.”
At Lipscomb, Eaton was in charge of the Joshua Project, inspired by the story of Joshua and Moses being better together under God. McDowell said he recognizes that the two universities are the same in how much mentoring is going on.
“I got to see him do everything from organizational skills to functioning in a role dealing with Chapel,” McDowell said. “I had a great deal of confidence because I had seen him do it before.”
McDowell worked closely with Eaton at Lipscomb on a strategic planning process for each area of student life.
“We had already critically thought through what this should look like on a university campus,” McDowell said.
Crowds and cloisters became the way the duo analyzed Chapels. Though the most spiritual formation does not happen in bigger crowds, McDowell said there is always possibility for change. There is also focus on making breakout sessions more intentional, as McDowell said there is depth that comes in exchange of vulnerability.
He compared the model to how Jesus taught – he preached events with large crowds, but he always spent most of his time in smaller cloisters and one-on-one conversations that transformed people.
Thus far, McDowell said he appreciates ACUTV video recording Chapels so students can see the facial expressions of the speaker, making the experience more genuine.
“That’s a very small nuance, but it’s the little things that capitalize to make bigger spaces seem smaller,” McDowell said.
Moving forward, Eaton said their commitment is to making disciples and cultivating a deeper understanding of who God is. Though he might not know what that looks like yet, he said he is excited for students to enjoy Chapels.
McDowell said he was proud of Eaton after hearing the interactions he had with the spiritual formation process.
“Eaton does discipleship in his sleep,” McDowell said. “You can be around him and recognize the authenticity of him as a disciple himself. He has an uncanny ability to connect with students and this generation. He is tailor-made for this university setting.”