This is the sixth article in our new series called “Every Heart has a Story to Tell.” As we head towards our first Thrive Conference in October, our desire is share how Every Story Matters. Please check back each week to see how God is moving in women’s lives and let us know how he’s moving in yours.
I’ve often looked at leaders and wondered: How did they get there? What was the path they took? Did they plot it, did they dream of it, or were they destined?
When I’ve met Christian leaders, I’ve wondered the same questions, but I’ve also thought: How did they come to believe in Christ? How has their faith shaped their career? What were the struggles? What advice can they share?
Recently, I had the honor of sitting with Carolyn Tennant and hearing her story and the wisdom she shared, recounting her journey as a leader.
Carolyn grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, with her mother and father and younger brother. As a family, they attended a non-evangelical church that didn’t preach salvation. Carolyn participated in the youth group and its activities, and it was on one of these events that her life was impacted and she began her true search for God. They took a bus trip to Chicago to attend a Billy Graham crusade. Graham spoke and Carolyn listened. His words gripped her thoughts, and she felt a yearning in her heart to know more about God. But before the altar call, her church leaders scurried the students back to the buses and Carolyn found herself riding back home, unable to speak, filled with emotion and questions.
Following her junior year in high school, Carolyn was selected to participate in the Medill School of Journalism’s five week summer program at Northwestern University in Chicago. A girl and a boy from each of the fifty states were selected and introduced to journalism through attending field trips, talking to famous personalities, and other such activities. She saw world renowned Stravinsky conduct his last orchestra on one such field trip.
While away from home, Carolyn began to read her Bible. One night, while the other students attended a dance, Carolyn chose to go to a campus chapel. There, alone, she prayed to God, “You have to exist; you have to. Since you do, you must want something from me. I give you my whole life and you can do whatever you want with me.” It was a decisive moment for her, and she continued to read and study the Bible.
After high school she continued her education at the University of Colorado. Her freshman year, she started to attend a church of the same denomination that her family had attended in Janesville, but she began to hear the discrepancies between what she read in the Bible and what the pastor was teaching. She switched churches and started a Bible study for the girls in her dorm. Thinking back on this, Carolyn said, “What did I know? It’s kind of laughable, but I loved to teach; it’s in me.” The Bible study grew, she recalled. “My room would get packed, absolutely jammed to the gills. You couldn’t find a spot to sit.”
It was about this time that Carolyn started dating her husband-to-be, Ray, who was also attending C.U.. Carolyn got her B.S. in Education and taught Junior High English for six years, continuing on in her own education, receiving her Master’s Degree in Education and then her Ph.D.
Ray and she got married, and he attended Denver Seminary, where he studied to become a Pastor. She worked six more years in school administration and then moved on to open her own consulting firm, serving school districts around the country and introducing programs she’d developed for thinking skills, gifted and talented, advanced teacher training, and teaching graduate classes at the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado.
In the working in that position she received her own call into ministry, and Ray and she took pastoral positions at a church in Ohio where she was licensed and later ordained in the Assemblies of God. They were there in 1983 when she got the phone call, asking her to apply for the Vice President of Student Life (Dean of Students) position at North Central University (NCU) in Minneapolis. “It seemed like a match. I was hired.”
Carolyn later served as Vice President of Academic Affairs. She retired from NCU in 2012, but in her last few years before retiring, Carolyn stepped out of administration and back into the classroom to her first love, teaching.
When I was a student at NCU, I tried to get into her classes, but they were so sought after, I couldn’t. I have heard her speak and teach and she is a natural, making learning interesting through stories and historical details.
Carolyn is a trailblazer example for women. But her love for God and passion for His Holy Spirit speaks to the true commitment she made so long along in that chapel on the Northwestern University campus. She’s an educator, but she’s first and foremost a follower of Jesus.
I asked Carolyn if she could go back and give herself advice what would she say? “I was brought up to be rather perfectionistic, and it took a long time to get it out of me. I think I would have relaxed a little more. I don’t know how I could have redone it though because I always saw so much that needed to be done for God.” Later in our time together she told me that one of the healthiest things she did was to always take vacations with her husband.
When I asked Carolyn about Ray and balancing marriage with career, there was a visible twinkle in her eye when she spoke of him, and it was obvious that they are a true team. She said, “He has always been my best supporter. When I was really busy, it could have affected my marriage, but it never did, because of Ray. He understood what was going on and where I was. But we also worked hard to find time together.”
She went on to say, “Sometimes he would warn me that I was taking on too much. I listened to him.” Then she said this heartfelt statement about Ray. “He loved me well enough so I could be all that God wanted me to be. He is a phenomenal man.”
Carolyn continues to travel and teach/preach all over the world. As of this year, she’s traveled to 80 countries. Her favorite topic is Revival and the history of it. She recently taught on Revivals in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary at Evangel University, where she regularly teaches other classes as an adjunct professor. She is in the process of working with her editor at Influence Publishers on a book which will come out next year on five-fold ministry and how the church can allow the currents of evangelism, discipleship, pastoring, apostolic, and prophetic to set their church on the move.
Everyone has a story, and Carolyn’s story is one of a woman who yearned to know the meaning of life. She sought God, and God was there. She studies God’s Word, and she uses her talents to glorify Christ.
We all have God-given talents, natural abilities, and interests. What will you do with yours?