Bradley Bull

Ph.D., M.Div., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

I call myself a Tennessee native who was born in Texas. My maternal grandfather’s complexion and family oral tradition make it fairly clear that my ancestry includes some Cherokee. I’m a direct descendant of one of the earliest European settlers in Tennessee—who founded Bulls Gap. My parents just happened to be in graduate school in Texas when I was born. I don’t remember not knowing that I was born while my parents were in seminary. When I was in second grade, when everyone else was telling Ms. Bouler that they wanted to be a fire fighter or a police officer, I said I wanted to live on a ranch in Texas and teach theology at a seminary. Ms. Bouler smiled and said, “I hope your dreams come true, Brad.”

My dreams changed over the years. At age 15 I told my church I wanted to become a pastor. Two weeks later, at the insistence of my young pastor, I started preaching. About the same time, after having been cut from tennis, basketball, and football in middle school, I started playing soccer, wound up being team captain, and started finding my place. This was capped off by a summer exchange program in France. One night in Paris, I saw the movie Gandhi, and it turned me from peeking through a slit in the blinds to seeing the world in IMAX.

I attended a small, private college where my parents and maternal grandmother had graduated. I started out a religion major but was doing so well in biology I almost changed my major to pre-med. But my roommate wound up in the emergency room, and let’s just say, while watching his finger nail being removed, I learned that medicine was not my passion. After the doctor sent me to the waiting room, I noticed worried people who seemed to need care of their own while their loved one was being treated. So, I decided to become a chaplain. Planning to attend seminary where I’d “get the religion stuff,” I changed my major to psychology. I also minored in creative writing and was a member of the speech team where I eventually won the state championship in after dinner speaking. After my sophomore year, I served as a summer missionary, living in a slum in Manila. If Gandhi expanded my worldview, the Philippines deepened my passion, compassion, and desire to be a change agent. At the end of my junior year, I was elected student government president. That got me interested in politics.

But then….

In a counseling practicum, Dr. M.B. Fletcher said, “Counseling is like taking a stick and stirring up dried manure and making it stink again. You have no right to stir in other people’s manure unless you are willing to have yours stirred.”

I shared my story on day two. Two minutes into it, Ellen, my classmate since first grade, handed me tissues. When I was done, I was staring at the floor in utter shame—imagining the eyes of 11 elite students shaking their heads in disbelief. Dr. Fletcher said, “Have any of you ever had thoughts and feelings like Brad?” I looked up fully expecting to see my peers staring at me in disbelief and disgust. Instead, I saw 11 faces filled with compassion, understanding, and even admiration as their heads solemnly nodded. I immediately experienced one of the greatest benefits of counseling: universality, the realization that I was not alone; that my issues were and are quite common. I felt unshackled.

I walked outside on the quad, looked up at the sky and said, “God? That was grace. Why did I have to come to college to experience grace. I could never have shared that at church. I promise that wherever I go and whatever I do, I want to help people experience that kind of acceptance.”

I got married two weeks after college to the only person I dated. We went to seminary where I was senior class president, started counseling for the first time, and where my professors furthered my awe with the mysteries, joys, and challenges of faith.

After a one-year hospital chaplaincy internship, I started job hunting and dodged two disasters by asking tough questions in the interviews. After delivering a “trial sermon” in the hospital chapel, the chair of the first search committee opened the interview with “I have one question for you: When do you want to start [as our pastor]? We are a small, and aging congregation. But we are an affluent congregation who can pay you well. What questions do you have for us?” By the time I was done asking them questions, they were staring in shock, and I got no second interview. It paid off though, since I avoided a huge mess. I later found out their last pastor retired early after a nervous breakdown. The one before him committed suicide. The next week I interviewed for a youth ministry position at a large church. It went about the same when I asked why there were no youth on the youth-minister search committee, and the chair got red-in-the-face mad. (They hired someone desperate for a job, and it was a train wreck.) Two weeks later I interviewed with what, at the time, was a wonderfully healthy church where I would serve for eight years—an unusually long tenure for a youth minister to be at a first church.

During this time, I became a licensed marriage and family therapist and began my PhD work with two possible goals. The first was to become an overseas counselor to children of missionaries. This was a cohort I had encountered in the Philippines and Haiti, and I saw a deep need. Another goal was to become a pastor for five years (the magic number that punched your ticket) and then teach seminary. Along the way though—due to many factors, such as the fragmentation of my denomination, my aspirations turned toward teaching college because of

the impact my teachers had made on me. Also during this time, the top two best days of my life happened: the births of my daughter and my son.

After finishing my doctoral work in child and family studies with a cognate in counseling, I couldn’t find a job. Churches said I looked like a professor. Universities said I looked like a pastor. I spent the time writing most of my first book Restacking out Caps and Loving the Monkeys Who Took Them. To afford Christmas presents, I got a job as a seasonal driver helper with UPS. Upon hearing this, the secretary of my daughter’s school blushed and said, “My husband used to work for UPS. They have a not so nice name for driver helpers.” I asked what. She said, “Bitch.” I said, “If anyone calls me that, I’ll say, ‘Hey, buddy. That’s DOCTOR Bitch to you.’”

Back in college, the summer after being elected student government president, I had gotten a job at a factory. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., I used three-foot tongs to pull eight-foot sheets of glowing steel out of a 1500-degree furnace and dragged them down rollers to the shaping press. It was a new world for me since, let’s just say, the welders with whom I worked were not usual Sunday school crowd. On the last day, the alpha male said, “Preacher, I’ve done everything in my power to piss you off. I wanted you to break down and cuss me out, but you haven’t let me. You’ve earned my respect. Now. I want you to go back to that school of yours and get the best education you can get, because I don’t want you to wind up in a $h**hole like this.” I thanked him and said, “Jesus was a carpenter but did a lot of cool stuff in his spare time. I’ve been in countries without sewage treatment. You all are building parts for sewage treatment plants. This is important work.”

I went on and got that education. Yet, my first job after a PhD was delivering packages. After day two, I went straight to a Christmas party. I sat down next to my wife who asked if I were OK and if she could get me something. I said, “Get a saw and cut my legs off. They are on fire.”

I share all that here because I pride myself in being both educated and down to earth. My maternal grandparents were farmers. I’ve loaded hay bales, poled tobacco, shucked corn, strung beans, and roofed houses on scorching summer days. I’ve also addressed the entire faculty at Penn State University regarding how to teach controversial subjects.

I’ve been through the excruciating pain of job loss, loss of home, divorce, and a stroke arising from an undiagnosed arrhythmia and waiting three agonizing months for treatment during covid lockdown. In college, I once made it as far as lifting my dorm room window and thinking of jumping. I’m fortunate to have emerged from all the pain to a healthy and productive place. It brings further joy to help others find theirs.

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