By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (June 28, 2014) — In no way did Doreen Olson want the job of directing what was then the Department of Christian Education when someone suggested she put together her resume for the position.
Today Olson was honored at the 129th Annual Meeting for her 16 years of leadership that saw the department change its name and lead the way among other denominations in focusing on Christian formation, as well as the growth of CHIC, the triennial gathering of high school students from around the world.
In an earlier interview Olson said, “When this person suggested I get my resume updated I told them I wasn’t going to do it because I didn’t want the job.”
She was happy working as the Midwest Conference associate superintendent, the first woman to hold that position anywhere in the Covenant. She had started her work with the denomination as a Christian education consultant with that conference.
She can still recall the day she began to change her mind. “I was sitting in my office at our home in Colorado and realized that God wanted me to submit to the process. I burst into tears. I didn’t want the job. I didn’t want to leave the job I had.”
Olson also didn’t want her husband, Mark, to leave Faith Covenant Church in Colorado Springs where he was pastor. “But he’s the one who told me, ‘Doreen you need to submit to this process.’ ”
Olson subsequently met with the search committee. “It was a fun interview to do because I didn’t want the job. I could be as free as I wanted to be,” she said.
She was certain that there was no way the committee would offer her the position. But just before she and Mark were getting ready to board a plane to fly to Magadan, Russia, for a short-term teaching stint, she received a call from the chair of the search committee. They were offering her the job.
Olson said she was getting ready to leave and would have to wait until she got back to give her decision.
During a coffee break between teaching sessions, one of the Magadan students said to her, “Is there a change coming in your life?” She said, “What?” and he asked her, “Is there a change in your job coming?”
After ascertaining that no one had mentioned her situation to the students, Olson believed the question was a sign from God. Within a year, she had a strong sense of call that God would equip her for what he wanted her to do.
That equipping involved building a team that included Steve and Marti Burger, Debbie Blue, and Wilson Herrera. Together they transformed the department so that its goals included integrating learning among adults and youth.
Marti Burger, who served for 14 years as leader of youth and family ministries until recently being named director of Covenant Events, recalled the importance of Olson’s guidance. “One of her favorite sayings is, ‘You can’t lead where you won’t go, and you can’t teach what you don’t know.’ Doreen has modeled what it means to be a spiritual leader. She has cared for her staff, encouraged and challenged us to grow in who we are as Christ followers and as spiritual leaders.”
Olson’s personal equipping also came during her time working at the conference level. It guided her vision for how to work with churches. “We exist to resource the local church, and the best way to do that is through the conferences,” she said. “They know what the churches in their area need.”
One of the most significant changes during Olson’s tenure was the department’s change in name and focus. The name was officially changed to Department of Christian Formation to reflect a more holistic approach to developing Christians.
The process was at times more than uncomfortable for Olson. She had talked with Dallas Willard at a Midwinter Conference, and she asked if he knew of any other denominations that were making the same switch.
“He thought for a moment and said he believed we were the first,” Olson said. There might be some individual churches but no denominations.
“There was a deeper sense of God’s calling in this, a stronger sense of responsibility, and even a sort of loneliness,” Olson said. “How do I lead this without any colleagues in other denominations to talk to about it?” she wondered.
At the time, the term “Christian Formation” had negative connotations for some people in the denomination who were concerned that such a switch might include New Age teaching. Willard said, “Don’t worry about those churches that aren’t ready. Just work with the ones that are ready.”
“Doreen’s own deep personal spirituality has been a model and inspiration to everyone around her,” president Gary Walter said. “It has been that deep relationship with Christ that has enabled her to provide such courageous and creative leadership for the Covenant. She is an example of how one person’s faith can impact the lives of so many.”
Olson admits that at least one time, she was far off the mark on another change she proposed.
“There was concern that the name of CHIC was antiquated, that it was something that made males uncomfortable or hard to share,” Olson said. So she and others came up with other possibilities to present to students at the next event.
The musical group Lost and Found was playing in the morning and told students, “You can change history.” Later that night, the teenagers could vote on two names, Quest or Trek.
“All day, there were signs popping up saying things like ‘Siblings don’t let siblings go to Quest,’” Olson recalled, still amazed at what unfolded. “That night, before the vote slowly this chant started. ‘CHIC! CHIC! CHIC!’ It built all across the arena—and it was loud! We had to say, ‘We hear you.’”
Olson said, “I wish I had known the culture better, but that’s when I realized the CHIC brand was important.”
Olson grew up in Bellingham, Washington. As a teenager, she said, “I had no idea what happened ‘back east.’ ” It was at CHIC that she first began to experience the broader Covenant. That view expanded further when she attended North Park University.
She recognizes that there still are many Covenanters who view the Covenant Offices as being unconnected with local work. “I wish churches knew that fundamentally we are here to serve,” Olson said. “We are not Covenant Headquarters. That makes us sound like command and control and we’re so not. I’d rather we were called Covenant Service Station, but then that sounds like a gas station,” she adds laughing.
Olson says she is comfortable not knowing what she will do after stepping down.
“People ask me what’s next. I tell them what’s next is discerning about doing what’s next. Not knowing is OK with me now.”
She adds, “Retirement is such an arcane word.”