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A call deferred

Tiny twigs, pine needles and ash clung to Michael Tenneson’s long, scraggly hair. His hands and bearded face were covered in soot from the forest fire he had been fighting. Normally not self-conscious, he found himself analyzing everything he wore. The love beads that dangled from his neck seemed inappropriate. His pants were ripped and tattered, and his shirt was stained with perspiration and mud. For a second, he contemplated turning back, but his nagging curiosity wouldn’t let him.

He made his way across the parking lot toward the hilltop church that sat on the edge of John Day, a tiny town in eastern Oregon. He moved swiftly into the sanctuary looking for his wife, Cheryl, who had begun attending the church a few months earlier.

But the first person to make eye contact with him was the pianist. With their eyes meeting she stopped playing and for a moment he regretted stepping foot in the place.

“You must be Mike,” she said leaving her bench. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

The greeting took him by surprise and disarmed any skepticism or doubt he had carried with him. Though the pastor was a tough-as-nails cowboy — as were many of the worshippers — and Tenneson was a free-spirited hippie, he felt unusually at peace in the foreign environs of a church.

“My heart broke,” admits Tenneson, 46, now a biology professor at Evangel University, as we sit in his office. “They offered open fellowship and genuine caring love. Through their actions they showed me what an abundant life it is to follow the Lord.”

Tenneson’s face is unusually tan for early spring. The tan is a mark of hard work and a souvenir of sorts from a medical-missions trip he and nine of his students recently took to Belize with a team of medical professionals.

During the trip the team set up clinics in Assemblies of God churches in the villages of Altavista, Dangriga and Belmopan. They spent long days shadowing doctors as they battled patients’ diabetes, high blood pressure, aching backs, poor eyesight, parasitic infections, respiratory problems and malnourishment. The team examined and treated more than 1,100 people in a week.

“Lots of people talk about wanting to be a physician or a nurse, but until they get hands-on experience they don’t know if they’re cut out for it,” he says.

Tenneson’s passion is to prepare students for medical school or wherever else their lives lead. To accomplish that he offers rigorous studies and pushes students to seek God’s will for their lives — Tenneson knows the value of both.

While serving in the Peace Corps in the early 1980s, Mike and Cheryl felt called to full-time missions ministry. To that end, they moved to Springfield, Mo., where he enrolled at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and took a teaching position at Evangel to pay the bills. The move would prove to be a deferment of their calling to the mission field.

“Through a long series of arguments with God,” says Tenneson, “He convinced me that it was His will that I stay at Evangel rather than become a missionary.

“I obeyed and now I am the happiest man on earth because of it,” he adds.

Excellence in his teaching and mentoring are extensions of that happiness. One visit to his office bears this out.

The door is open at all times so students feel free to pop in. There is a box of tissues ready for the homesick, confused or stressed-out student who needs to vent. Tenneson, a burly man with a thick beard, is no “softie” though.

He rides motorcycles with his teenage sons, spends days camping in the wilderness, and has a nose for adventure.

He’s also extremely demanding academically of his students. If he doesn’t push them so that they are prepared for the next stage of life he hasn’t done his job. Though a taskmaster academically he also finds ways to make learning fun.

Every other year Tenneson takes his biology students to the Florida Keys to study ecosystems. For two weeks the students will camp out with Tenneson and his family on the beach, collect data — which is shared with Florida’s Department of Natural Resources — and minister in local churches.

On his office wall hang diplomas from UCLA, the University of North Dakota, the University of Missouri at Columbia, and AGTS.

There is also a framed letter from Robert Spence, president of Evangel, thanking Tenneson for tirelessly preparing Evangel premed students for medical school. Each year at least six premed students are admitted to medical schools from Evangel.

A wood carving on the wall is Tenneson’s motto:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).

Sixteen years into Tenneson’s tenure, his deferred call to missions has taken him to Central America several times but more importantly into the hearts and minds of every student who has sat under his tutelage.

Indeed, his is a call fulfilled.

By Kirk Noonan

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