Our latest version of Lytle Light shines on the man with the greatest beard on Abilene Christian’s campus, Cyrus Eaton. Cyrus is ACU’s Director of Spiritual Formation and recently, the Lytle Center’s Amen Mugisha was able to sit down with Cyrus about his leadership journey.
What has your career journey been?
It’s been a roller coaster. I have an undergraduate degree in Biology and a master’s in sports administration, and I am currently pursuing my master’s in divinity. All that to say, while I was an undergraduate student was when everything got turned upside down. Growing up, I was really active as a soccer player. I played soccer through college sports in general. Still, I was very involved in athletics, played soccer in college, and I thought that I would go to med school or PT school and stay involved in healthcare, or maybe even work with the recovery of injured athletes. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought that the Health Sciences was where I was drawn. But while in school, I kind of realized I had zero desire to pursue a career in medicine or even in physical therapy and then found opportunities to work with college students at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center at my University.
I got to do graduate school in Sports Administration, which, more than anything, is the business side of sports; Sports Marketing as an enterprise. It sets up individuals who want to work within college athletics or athletic departments or maybe within professional athletics on the admin or sales side. As I was doing that, I actually had to work with college students very closely at the Recreation and Wellness Center, where I had a student staff of about 20 students who worked for me at the climbing wall. We organized outdoor trips, and it was during those two years of getting my master’s and working really hands-on getting to do unique things that I really started to open my eyes to the possibility of college ministry. So I had two degrees, and a burning passion for something that those degrees did not quote-unquote qualify me for, and that’s why my journey has been a bit of a roller coaster.
How did you end up at ACU?
So, after finishing my graduate degree in Sports Administration, I would use Athletics, soccer specifically, and climbing as a way of engaging with youth and forms of mentorship and discipleship. I continued to explore the things that God had put on my heart for probably five or six years before an opportunity to step into college ministry became open at Lipscomb University. I was able to take years of missions experience, mentoring and discipleship experience, and Sports Ministry experience and transition back into the heart and passion I had for college students in discipleship. That was the first door that opened, and the second door that opened happened to come here at ACU.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
My boys are my favorite right now; they can also be tiring, but they are so much fun. I love coffee and reading, and I don’t get to play as much soccer as I used to, but I used to do a lot of soccer and climbing. I think more than anything if I had to say what I enjoy most, it’s just sitting down with a friend and a cup of coffee and getting to hear their story, and that’s kind of it; the best formula to what my life can hold right now. I can’t join an adult soccer league; there are not many places to climb here, but I can sit down with students or faculty and staff, share stories, and see God’s faithfulness through their stories. Whether they are professing Christians or not, I can always see where God is at work in the lives of individuals.
Have you had mentors? If so, how have they influenced your life?
The shortest answer to that is that mentors, in many ways, have been tangible servants of the truth of God, like physical representations of God’s grace. You read about God’s forgiveness, but until you’re the person who needs forgiveness from somebody full of grace, you don’t always understand what forgiveness from God can look like when you’re tired and burnt out. You need somebody wiser further down the road to tell you what you’re missing and how you’re missing it; they can do it with love and compassion. They don’t do it so they can say, hey, you’re wrong, and you’re in trouble, but rather I have a concern, and I care about you. So God’s guidance becomes not about doing everything perfectly right, but rather about he cares for me, and he loves me, and he wants the best for me. So he intervenes and says hey, there is a better way.
There’s having mentors that know everything about you. We live in a world where it’s kind of scary to be known, and unless you have people in your life who fully know you, who know everything about you that you will trust them with every mistake you’ve ever made and who will still love you, you’re missing out on an understanding of what it is to be fully known and fully loved. That is what God does; he fully knows us; there is not one thing that we can hide from him, and he fully loves us. I think that we can not fully mature without mentors and close friends to journey with us.
What would a student do if they wanted to get a mentor?
We are always imagining ways to connect students to faculty and staff on a more consistent basis through spiritual formation every year. But ultimately, seeking out mentorship, you can only do if you’re really hungry for it. Even if we had the perfect structure, that doesn’t mean that because you signed up, you’re going to experience mentorship or discipleship, but if you really want it, it’s going to require your pursuit of the vulnerability and courage to ask someone to invest in you. Secondly, I think you have to name early on that seeking out mentorship requires that you understand somebody is sacrificing their time, commitment, and their responsibilities to invest in you. Someone with families, 40 hours of work a week, maybe someone who is taking care of their own parents because of the season of the life they are in. You have to be really committed to honoring the time they are giving you. Whether it is early in the morning, middle of the day, or late in the night and saying I am going to be on time. I know that the time that they’re offering me is valuable, so I’d say it takes courage and commitment and follow through.
What do you wish you knew as a student?
I wish I knew during my undergraduate that I didn’t have to know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I only needed to know what I was going to do next. Changing that perspective of trying to figure out your career path at such a young age for some can be really challenging, and reducing it to “hey, it’s okay that I don’t know what I want to do career-wise.” I’m going to turn my attention towards what I want to do next while also knowing that God is always working for my good and for him to be known. I can look back through my life and see that every time things have not gone according to plan, it is a grace that God has saved me from my plans. Not like my plans were wrong or bad, but if I held on to them so tightly I didn’t allow for the interruption, I would get far less than what God wanted for me. I think maybe that the simple thing is it’s okay that you don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life.
What is your philosophy of leadership?
I think in your servant leadership that the example of Jesus says that the things that you do that are most important as a leader are the things that people will never see. Matthew 6, when he’s talking about giving, praying, and fasting, he says to do it in secret. Humility and the servant leadership that Paul writes about in Philippians 2 is that our position or power and a sense of our privileges not for our own pleasure or comfort but for understanding our purpose. So when Jesus talks about his position, his power as God, and coming to us as a man, we can humble ourselves for the elevation of other people who cannot elevate themselves. That’s what Jesus demonstrates when he comes to us as he humbles himself so he can lift the lowly. I think your secret life is one of the most important things you need to know as a leader. Who you are when no one is watching is just important as when everyone is watching. Humility is humbling ourselves for the elevation of others.
Lastly, when God presses things on you heart, he invites you into redemption and reconciliation. I think we need to be very aware that not everyone is going to love what we’re doing; you know when God is inviting you to change systems and culture it is going to come with a lot of adversity. We can’t hold on to the lie that people are going to love what we’re doing every time we do it instead of preparing our hearts for criticism. Maybe not direct opposition, but learning how to trust God through human disappointment is a really important part of leadership.
What leadership skills do you think have been beneficial to you?
Oh, the really short and unfair Sunday school answer is Jesus, and that is what discipleship is. I’ll say that all leadership is not discipleship; all discipleship is leadership; not all leadership or even leadership development is discipleship. We can seek to grow as a leader without Jesus, and sometimes that’s just leadership development. Still, all of discipleship is leadership development, but it does not lose sight of the invitation of Jesus. One of my favorite definitions of that comes from John Mark Comer. He says that discipleship is seeking to be with Jesus to become like Jesus so that we can do the things that Jesus did or to continue the work that Jesus did. If you’re confused about leadership, the only encouragement is to try and seek to understand this God in human form who humbles himself to be with us and among us to teach us our way back to God relationally. I also know that it’s not to ask what would Jesus do, but how might Jesus address this if he was me. It is similar, but I think it expands our minds to say how I might do this if I was in business as an engineer or a computer programmer. What would Jesus do if he was me is a really important leadership question because it’s discipleship.
What recommendations would you give to students that want to grow as leaders?
I would encourage one for every two or three books that you read that you were passionate about that you agree with, be sure to read something you don’t agree with. Add to your arsenal of understanding just what other people are saying and what they believe, even if you disagree with it. That could be about politics; it could be about racial reconciliation; it could be about business. I’d also recommend authors such as: Dallas Willard, John Mark Comer, and C.S. Lewis. These are maybe the three most influential authors in my life.
There’s a really small book called “A Creative Minority” by a Manhattan Pastor John Tyson and Heather Grizzle. It talks about discipleship, and small groups of committed people have always been the foundation of movements of God through history. Suppose we were to look at every major movement within the church in history. In that case, it can all be traced back to just a small group of committed disciples of Jesus committed to the ways of Jesus in prayer and fasting that produced change that was generational as well as systemic and cultural. It’s a small book you can read in an hour. It doesn’t give you a “how-to”; it gives you big-picture principles to maybe think about what it looks like to be a faithful follower of Jesus in committed relationships for the glory of God in the world.
What is a fun fact about you?
Oh! Well, fun fact. I always feel like I have to come up with something exciting. I’ve got some fun facts about crochet. I used to crochet ski hats in high school. It started as an art project and turned into a side hustle.