Paul Harbison considers himself an educator – it’s just that his classroom has no thermostat. It has no walls either. In fact, his classroom is nature itself, loudly proclaiming God’s glory to all who will listen.
As director of Coalition for Christian Outreach’s Experiential Designs (XD) team, Harbison has spent 33 years designing experiences through which college students learn to live more fully. Along the way he has modeled faithfulness and fullness to those around him.
Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) is a Pittsburgh-based college ministry with staff members on 87 campuses throughout six states and Washington, D.C. Partnering with local colleges and churches, CCO staffers disciple students within the greater context of the local church.
As an element of this ministry, Harbison and the 25 XD staff members take groups of students on outdoor recreational trips that range from a day of team-building exercises to weekend camping trips to 21-day expeditions through Peru. While it sounds like all fun and games, the XD team gives serious thought to tailoring these trips to individual groups.
The goal is to reorient students to their four “creational relationships”: relationships with God, others, self and the natural world.
In the spring, the XD team will take CCO groups on spring-break trips all over the world, but no two trips will be identical. Rather, each group will take a unique trip based on the needs of the particular group from the particular campus.
Harbison said the goal is to reorient students to their four “creational relationships”: relationships with God, others, self and the natural world.
“We talk about true recreation,” he said. “We take apart the word and see it is re-creating something. Something has disintegrated or been broken; something needs to be fixed.”
With each XD trip, students leave the academic world and look back on their lives with a fresh perspective. Though these experiences move students outside their normal element, they are not having isolated, mountaintop experiences. Harbison believes our culture has all but lost the ability to reflect and that students need a chance to practice this rare skill.
“We are creating a space for people to investigate their lives. They can bring that skill back with them and … do it in everyday life,” he said.
For Harbison and the XD team, context and connection are keys. “Things have to fit together; that’s just the way God has wired me,” he said.
And much about college life is out of context, according to Harbison. When students craft their lives around 18 hours spent each week in a classroom and focus on preparing for the future without giving much thought to the present, Harbison said, their lives feel disconnected.
“Students are really hungry for engaging something that is holistic in nature. There are pieces of their lives aching to also be developed and nurtured in addition to the mind. The idea of stepping outside the classroom and connecting with the whole of existence is something students are drawn to,” he said.
When one’s job is recreation, where does one go to find refreshment, to re-create? For Harbison, it’s the church. Since 1984 he has attended Westminster PCA in Butler, Pa., and he serves as a ruling elder.
“Being rooted in a community has been a place of renewal and revival in my own life,” he said. “[The church] offers care and support for [my wife] Ginger and the family. We couldn’t have done it without being connected to the body of Christ where we have participated.”
The Rev. Dan Ledford is Westminster’s shepherding pastor and has watched Harbison serve the congregation in a variety of ways, from leading a father-child canoe trip to counseling parishioners. Ledford believes Harbison’s focus on people provides a critical perspective to the church’s Session.
“When elders get together, we can get into the trap of just dealing with administrative stuff and running business meetings,” Ledford said. “[Harbison] helps us from falling into that trap and reminds us we are people of God ministering with and to people of God. Elders are shepherds, and [Harbison] really embodies that genuine care for the people of whom God has given him oversight.”
The support Harbison receives from his church family is more than spiritual and social. For the past 25 years the Harbisons and their five children have lived exclusively on fund-raised income. Most CCO staffers raise half their support and work part time for a church, college, or ministry that will pay the other half, but Harbison and his wife decided in 1986 that they needed to devote their time exclusively to CCO, thereby raising 100 percent of their support.
“Part of it is creating the space in your life to trust God,” Harbison said. “Our life is full of stories of God providing for us. Even our house is the story of 17 families providing that house for us; it is a wonderful heritage.”
And 33 years of outdoor recreation trips inevitably involve a few brushes with disaster, such as encountering an unexpected lightning storm on a mountain or losing the trail in the wilderness at dusk. “We call those ‘more fun than we should be having’ moments,” he said.
But always striving to put life in the proper context, Harbison sees even such frightening moments as God providing in real, dramatic ways. “You can do all the Bible studies you want about living by faith and not by sight; and then there are the moments you encounter it, and it changes you,” he said.
“He embraces the chaos as teachable moments,” Ledford said. “He is able to look at a situation and say, ‘What would the Lord want us to learn from this moment?’ He has a redemptive focus in doing this kind of shepherding work.”
To learn more about Harbison’s work with Coalition for Christian Outreach, visit www.ccojubilee.org/olt.