Sam Harrelson

On Not Being a That

My friend Stacy with an amazing, and completely self-giving, post…

So I remind myself, I am not a “that.” I am a woman. I am a child of God. I am a friend. I am a sister. I am a caregiver. I am an advocate. I am a daughter. I am a preacher. I am a confidant. I am a dog mom. I am a geek. I am an auntie. I am a teacher. I am an author. I am a disciple. I am a badass. I am a scholar. I am a chaplain. I am an ally. I am a feminist. I am a peacemaker. I am brave, I am resilient, and yes, I am sexy — on my own terms. I am no one’s object. I am so much more. I am me.

via I Am Not a “That” | chaplainjesuslady.

I celebrate the type of religion and Christianity that does not objectify people but instead points them to the wrestling that is found in places such as Romans 7:15-25.

If only we had more clergy willing to make such brave posts and statements.

Thank you, Stacy.

What Does the Future of Church Have in Common with Raising Guinea Pigs?


One of my driving reasons for starting ministrieslab as a “church” is the realization that what church means is changing quickly. In my mind, ministrieslab enables its members as ministers with the resources needed to engage in the world. That differs from church that sees itself as the center of a Christendom like culture in which the Gospel and Great Commission rule the land and all are members of the big church downtown.

Here’s John Backman reflecting on something similar on Lauri Ann Lumby’s blog:

My wife and I raise guinea pigs. That makes us part of an obscure hobby with maybe 1,000 other folks across the U.S. We meet at shows, often in barns, wearing jeans and sweats sprinkled with animal hair.

A hobby this small has its own dynamic, and it’s much like a family. We attract colorful eccentrics and needy people. We gossip, fight, and disagree about silly things. We may be “related,” but we are very different. We also rally around one another in times of crisis.

And in most cases, we have found a place where we can be fully ourselves. That makes our hobby a sort of living laboratory for how to see and embrace people as they are, warts and all.

In other words, without even thinking about it, we are living into Jesus’ vision of community.

This type of community-as-church is my hope for minstrieslab and one of the main reasons we’re using tools like our Reddit subreddit as a place to facilitate community and encourage people to either participate anonymously or join in.

I’m no Paul for sure, but I look to his example of taking Gospel out of Jerusalem and the Galilee and out into the uncharted more Hellenistic audiences of Turkey, Greece, Italy, and the Mediterranean as inspiration as I head back to finish my MDiv. It wasn’t a completely popular decision among the earliest founders of what would become Christianity as evidenced in the New Testament and extra-biblical sources (especially Galatians). In a modern analogue, there’s a vast sea of cultures that are made vibrant by tools like the web that have a great deal of potential to add to the fabric of Christianity (christianities) in our own era. I want ministrieslab to play a role in these communities much as the same way that organizing forces help guinea pig enthusiasts find their own voices.

ministrieslab looks towards a future of church that is very much like Paul’s own Hellenistic Mediterranean.

More from John Backman that describe some of this…

This would be a massive shift. The Church would no longer be a nexus of power, but rather a facilitator of service. It would stand on the sidelines, the way a head coach does. The game happens on the field; the coach simply gives the players the necessary resources and guidance to play well. It is an important role, but not the central role.

With the Church’s facilitation, people could immerse themselves in the world more fully oriented and better equipped to love all, accept the outcast, be vulnerable, and commit to others in a way that does not end with the first falling out. People living like this could do a world of good. The treasures of the Church would be used in service to humanity. Christendom would inform individuals and cultures rather than trying to control them.

via Where Will the Future Church Meet? Not in Church – Guest Blog | Lauri Ann Lumby.

That’s where I am with ministrieslab. I have no idea where it is with me yet. I can’t wait to find out.

In the meantime, join our community if you’d like.

Back to Seminary


I’ll be returning to Gardner-Webb’s School of Divinity this fall to finish my Masters of Divinity. Since Harrelson Agency is doing well, it can afford (demand?) that I take a few days for classes while still having a hand in day-to-day operations. I’ll be working on both seminary and the agency as well as ministrieslab moving ahead (more on that in a second).

Gardner-Webb Divinity and I go way back and have more history than I can remember over this past decade. I first started the MDiv program there in 2006 while building the marketing agency as well as teaching undergrad Old Testament as an adjunct there for a little while. In 2009, after the death of my mentor and great teacher Dan Goodman, I received a great opportunity to go back into the classroom at Spartanburg Day School and I knew I had to follow that path.

I’m glad I did. I found my amazing wife at Spartanburg Day and watched her struggle and wrestle with her own call to ministry. She blazed through Gardner-Webb Divinity and impressed me beyond words with her devotion to her call an her passion for authentic ministry. Merianna graduated this year with her MDiv and is now pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship. I’m so proud of her for too many reasons to list, proud of her congregation, and proud of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of SC for responding to her voice and ministry.

I’m not deciding to do this lightly or with the goal of following a traditional form of ministry. Instead, my ministerial focus will be on a startup church I’m hoping to build in the next few months/years/decades called ministrieslab. We’ll be using Reddit, bitcoin, Twitter, meetups, mobile, our app, and in person fellowship to help enable every member to be a minister and focus on causes like my own Hunger Initiative while still participating in CBF life.

Think authentic missions in the post church-as-cultural-hegemony world that focuses on community. See /r/dogecoin if you need a non-religious example of what transformative community can look like despite the absurdity (almost as absurd as religion). Imagine if Christianity were actually a lifestyle. It’s going to be fun, challenging, nightmarish, and uplifting. I’m sure I’ll be writing more here as I get ministrieslab off the ground.

I view ministrieslab as the culmination of my work in marketing, religion, tech, entrepreneurism, etc and a catalyst for the kind of change I think God wants me to enact in the world. I’ve got enough experience with startups to know what’s ahead and I don’t take it lightly.

I have to thank my amazing wife for pushing me to listen to the still small voice of my call that has been persistent in my life since I was 13. I also have to thank Thomas for being there, always challenging and supporting me. Also, Kheresa Harmon at Gardner Webb Divinity is an amazing counselor along with Jay Kieve and Debbie Haag at CBFofSC.

More on ministrieslab soon. In the meantime, here’s my Pilgrimage Statement that I wrote as part of my (re?) application to Gardner-Webb Divinity explaining the opera in my head



Constructs such as fate and purpose do not appeal to me. Instead, because of my education and life experiences, I choose to view the world with a more critical lens. However, incessant gentle prodding from a hand unseen drives me towards an extended realization that to be fully actualized I must throw myself into the fiery and mysterious darkness of Sinai where God’s voice still hovers and beckons humanity to listen.

This pilgrimage has not been easy by any sense of the word and the decision to answer this call does not bring comfort and peace to me. This Damascan Road has been long and arduous and only now are the blisters healing on my eyes. I’ve consistently sought out other paths and avenues for my service, but none have proven satisfactory to the unending whisper that never leaves. Despite the difficulty of the path so far, this is a decision that I have to make because of the persistence of the call.

As I approached college age, I spoke with our Pastor frequently about the ministry and the steps which needed to be taken.  I led our church’s youth group and gained experience in the pulpit both in our church and in surrounding churches in our association.  However, as I entered college, I decided to major in Chemistry and Computer Science and take Religion classes as electives because of my own doubts about my ability to live up to the standards I set for myself and I felt were expected of me. Nonetheless, I quickly discovered the continuing hush whispers summoning me to a life in the ministry would not cease.

It was during an Old Testament summer school class my freshman year that something sneaked up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and made me realize everything I had missed on the road of life up to that point.  This was exciting, this was real.  That day, I became a Religion major, eventually joined the pre-ministerial society and became an assistant to the Chaplain.

However, my self-doubts were in constant competition with my path. Ultimately, this struggle between doubt and calling came to a critical point during my time at Yale Divinity School and led me to pursue a Masters in Religion and the Arts rather than the MDiv. After teaching for a couple of years, I decided to complete the MDiv at Gardner-Webb in 2007. That process was challenging, enlightening, and completely affirmed my calling. With the death of Prof Goodman in 2009, my own personal theology was challenged to the point where I decided to go back to the classroom as a teacher rather than try to finish the MDiv at that time.

Part of me knew I would eventually return to Gardner-Webb to finish the degree and get my ministry off the ground in a meaningful way for both myself and the Kingdom. It has been a period of soul searching, deep prayer, and conversation with loved ones. However, that still small voice of calling that has been in my life since my childhood is still pushing me down the road to enter pastoral ministry.

I realize now that this crux in my life has provided me with the valuable experience of eight years in the classroom as well as time in the business world creating my own successful marketing agency from scratch. Being a middle school teacher has brought me closer to the various roles of a minister in a way that I would have never been exposed to otherwise. Bootstrapping my own company and having it become profitable has equipped me with tools and skills relating to business that I will bring to my ministry. Those experiences have helped to forge my identity and my theology significantly, and will allow my pastoral ministry to be more enhanced.

To successfully cultivate a theology of ministry in the context of church leadership, it is incredibly important for me that people who have professed faith in Jesus and carry the name Christian understand the depth and ramifications of bearing that self-imposed burden.  In my own personal theology, this is not a simple or easy.  This is beyond difficult and requires both a sense of a developing biblical worldview as well as the ability to always be a lifelong learner.  Professing a faith in Jesus is a deadly serious affair that radically transforms a person and binds them to both the cross and the historical imperative of acting to bring about the Kingdom of God.  In other words, as I grow in my own theology and faith, I am learning and realizing more that calling oneself a Christian is not something to be taken lightly.  Coming to understand the power associated with that self-identification is a gift which church leaders can bestow upon congregants.

Along those lines, understanding that a person has a deep sense of call to a ministry as a vocation and then acting upon that call is an incredibly intensive, personal (yet community-minded) and radical experience.  As I grow in my own faith and come to understand and reconcile my own sense of calling more through the years (a process which I hope never ceases), I am continually realizing that a calling to the ministry is not something that is to be taken lightly or without proper understanding of one’s own limitations, abilities and potential. The backing of my wife, family, and church community at Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship has been so edifying. However, this radical experience has also been challenging and my ministry will seek to honor their support and sacrifices as well as welcoming the kingdom of God into our creation.

The road ahead for my life in the ministry is more challenging than I can ever expect. Comfort and ease are not the objectives of my life as a minister. However, the mysterious darkness which covers the path ahead like a thick fog gestures to me to follow and I cannot ignore that quiet voice which is like a nocturnal lullaby of hope and love. The vocational objectives of my ministry will be shaped by my unending belief that God is calling us all to partake in the richness of the Universe and that we must have eyes to see and ears to hear these soft invitations in a world corrupt with violence and greed. In order to partake in this cosmic communion, we must change as individuals and as a global society. We must consider the lilies of the fields in all that we do.

My objectives as a minister will find their bedrock in the sharing of this opportunity to make real the words of the Sermon on the Mount. As I continue my journey into the metamorphosis of becoming a pastoral minister, I feel my lips being touched with the hot coals and the Seraphim offering the chance for me to have audience with God as I continue down that mysterious path. This choice was not effortless or convenient; however it is the choice that I make so that I may serve my God and my fellow humanity.

Pride of a Husband

As someone who has spent considerable time inside of seminary walls, I know personally how challenging and gut-wrenching the process of discernment to ordination can be for anyone.

I can’t express how proud I am of Merianna in all that she’s accomplished in her time at seminary and in her time as a pastor.

If you need any proof of why “I’m amazed” (to paraphrase McCartney), go listen to her Easter Sermon from today at Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship.

It’s been an amazing experience to be able to share part of those experiences with her and I look forward to where her ministry takes her and our family in the coming years.

People like Merianna and the current crop of strong yet humble leaders coming up in the ranks of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship make me excited about our future as a group and the impacts that will be made on our communities as God’s Dream continues to be made real.

Great meeting with the CBF of SC office staff again this afternoon. I’m excited to be working on their new website and hope it contributes to our fellowship’s growth in the coming years!

Meant to Struggle


I love the Bible.

I’m a Christian and a person of faith, so that’s (supposedly) a given. However, I really do love what I consider to be this set of inspired texts that has influenced and shaped the development of our species to such an extreme level that it’s simply unimaginable to think what our current world would look like without what we’ve come to think of as the Christian Bible in our presence.

Perhaps if Paul hadn’t come along and literally opened up Christianity to those outside of 1st century Jewish faith while battling those who realized that Jesus and his immediate followers were not looking to establish a new religion outside of what was then considered Judaism, we’d still be worshipping the Roman gods. In some alternate universe perhaps that’s the case.

Regardless, history happened.

Which brings up the notion of history versus the past. I love history. I also love the past. Those are two different statements about two different experiences.

I have no idea what my grandfather had for lunch on April 9, 1964. However, I’m 90% sure that Grandpa Frank had lunch fifty years ago. I believe he had lunch. Did he have lunch? We’ve no idea. There’s no remaining receipts, my grandmother has no evidence, and there’s no way to prove that Grandpa Frank went to Central Drugs for a burger. But I’m pretty sure he did. The facts have not been lost to history, but they have been lost to the past.

History includes documentations. We can point to a certain date and event and show that something happened with certainty. The past are the things that came before us but that doesn’t necessitate them being a part of “history.” No one will really know that I had Bojangles this morning once my Bank of America receipt goes away (hopefully) and my own debit card’s record fades into digital abyss. I had Bojangles but that will be lost to the past in 2064 when my grandson wonders what I had for lunch on this day of April 9.

In the same way, my faith is true. As Kierkegaard pointed out, all faith is irrational and absent of historical veracity. If faith can be rationalized, it’s not faith but historically verifiable. Faith is weird. It’s absent of human constructs. It tugs at hearstrings and wrestles with us until dawn over the river Jabbok. Ultimately, faith renames us and changes us into something we weren’t before. It’s undefinable. That makes it scary and that makes it challenging for the types of preachers, ministers, churches and ideologies that seek to have concrete answers for everything that is questionable. Uncle Walt was right.

Perhaps that’s why I also enjoy reading Bart Ehrman’s writings and listening to his lectures on the Great Courses series via Audible. It’s also why I don’t understand why so many people feel threatened by his writings such as his latest book on the personhood of Jesus (as a character in the New Testament).

Here’s the foil…

I’m politically conservative. I should say, I have always vacillated between the pragmatism of Bill Clinton and the ideology of Ross Perot. I was going into high school during the fascinating election of 1992 and read everything I could including the two books that Perot “wrote” as well as books about Clinton and his famous campaign. In the aftermath of the Clinton administration and the subsequent Bush years, I’ve become more and more convinced that both political parties in our country serve the same master (money for the players of the game) and have little regard for citizens.

As a former member of AmeriCorps who is a self described libertarian who can’t stand the religious right of politics but is anti-abortion yet anti-death penalty while being a small government pragmatist but wants to provide for all children who need healthcare and 3 meals a day… I don’t know where to go.

I’m not blue or red or progressive or … labels fade away. As they should.

I find solace in the person of Jesus. In my mind, that person wasn’t some sort of gnostic demi-god that didn’t struggle on the cross. My Jesus was a person that asked for the cup to be passed, that sweated blood, that cried real tears, that cursed, swore, got angry, spit, and felt abandoned when he looked down from the cross while realizing everything he had worked for was lost. My Jesus is the Jesus that ends with the original version of Mark where there is no nice and clean commissioning and we are challenged to spread the message and participate in the paranoia of the women who found the empty tomb.

Ultimately, my Jesus is the Jesus who was not raised because there was a historically verifiable empty tomb (something no Gospel claims) but claims a risen Jesus based on the experiences that followers have on roads and beaches days, months, and years after his death.

I will not read the Bible as literature like a piece from Shakespeare, nor will I submit to the yoke of biblical reader response (despite my Masters Degree from Yale being in “Religion and Literature). Similarly, I will not read the Bible as a piece of historical documentation of any part of the past as it is something entirely different. Our culture is too monochromatic and doesn’t allow for the multivalency of the Bible, let alone the creation accounts or the stories about the flood (go read your Bible… there are more than one of each).

So let’s actually read our Bibles and not just listen to preachers. Let’s “hear the words that Jesus said” (Johnny Cash) and let’s be troubled by them. We as humans, however great we are, were meant to struggle.

Fantastic ThinkingReligion show with @thomaswhitle…

Fantastic ThinkingReligion show with @thomaswhitley tonight about the role of American Civil Spirituality:

“Can I Handle the Seasons of My Life?”

Last night, I had a crisis.

On the way to celebrate Christmas with my wife’s family in Spartanburg, SC I realized that I had made a major mistake. I pounded the steering wheel and had an adrenaline-spurred moment of animal rage followed by the inevitable realization that the deed had been done and the only thing left to do was figure out how to fix the situation.

My daughters had been with us over the weekend and gone ahead with Merianna to the family party while I stayed back in Columbia and worked for a couple of hours. I had too much to do, left the house in a hurried panic to make the Christmas party, and completely forgot their elf. It was my duty to bring along “Leroy.”

Leroy is a four year old elf that has become part of the family in many ways and has transcended the elf-on-the-shelf cliche-ness into something akin to a family member that flies in for a couple of weeks. I suspect my six year old sees through the “Leroy is a real elf that does mischievous things for a couple of days then flies back home to the North Pole” and keeps the myth going for my three and a half year old. Regardless, Leroy isn’t as much as a creepy judging watcher as someone who has a past, present, and future with her experience of Christmas. It’s like advent on training wheels as Leroy and our family look forward to the twelve days of Christmas time that start tomorrow when we celebrate the presence of God in this world and the “at-handness” of the Kingdom of God.

As a dad, it’s insanely important for me to make sure that my girls cherish this time of the year and realize that Advent and expectation are just as important for our faith and family as the actual Christmas event.

So, I knew what I had to do. I had to drive. Drive a good deal.

I left the Christmas party, we dropped the girls off with their mother and they headed back to Asheville. I left Spartanburg and headed back to Columbia. I arrived in Columbia at 9pm, ran into the house, picked up Leroy from his last mischievousness (making smores with a candle) then headed back to Asheville. I got to their mom’s house at midnight and dropped Leroy off in a passed-out pose on the wood pile outside of her house. He and I felt the same at that point. Then I left to drive back to Columbia and finally crawled into bed at 3am.

During my ten hours on the road, I had a lot of time to think and listen. I’m completely fine with long drives. I loved driving from South Carolina to Connecticut when I was in graduate school and I always loved my late night drives in college. It’s been a few years, but I remembered my old tricks to get me through. A few hours on a current Audible audiobook, then a few minutes of silence, then a few songs that I sing/scream along with while on cruise control.

It was sometime around 2am near Clinton, SC that I realized I was listening to much of the same music that got me through late night drives to Wofford College then to Columbia and back to my hometown of Mullins fifteen years ago. There was Willie and Waylon, Johnny Cash and the Beatles, Beastie Boys and George Strait. Finally, I turned to Fleetwood Mac and John Lennon (the two that got me through late night drives in my old Jeep with headphones attached to my cassette player because there was no stereo and that I had recorded myself on a mixtape).

I thought of late night drives to see girlfriends in the past, or to see my best friend and college roommate. Then I thought even further back to my high school mentor who loved Stevie Nicks in an unhealthy but inspiring manner and how much he both changed my life and inspired me to be a teacher (and how many of his tricks I stole when I was a middle school teacher). I thought of what I thought I would be when I was 15 or 20 and how things have turned out.

And then Landslide came on.

“But time makes you bolder
Children get older I’m getting older too
Yes I’m getting older too, so”

I don’t know how or why my subconscious mind knew that I needed those ten hours away from a computer and work and building a company in complete and forced solitude. I was cut off from Twitter or Google Adwords or a CSS file that I’ve been struggling with and forced to focus on a single and seemingly absurd task of delivering a cloth elf.

It was beautiful and it was a great way to end an incredible year of my life. The best present I could have given myself despite my state of sleep deprivation today.

Thank you, Leroy.

O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

Parker’s Back is still one of my favorite stories, and I’ll definitely be picking this up:

She sensed that the act of creation in both was not her own. “My dear God,” she wrote, “how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us.” Like the Psalmist who asked God for words to pray, O’Connor believed that words themselves are a gift from God. She wrote, “There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it. Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted.”

via Inheritance and Invention: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal : The New Yorker.

The Danger of a Single Story

Great analysis…

What happens when the Christian faith is reduced to a single story? In the mid-19th century you get slavish support for the institution of slavery. In the early 21st century, you get an all-white, all-male institution preparing pastors for leadership in all-white, male-led congregations.

via Don’t blame Al Mohler, it was God’s idea.