Jeff McMillon, Dean of Spiritual Life, is an Oklahoma Christian University graduate whom many students look up to and admire. A mentor to many and a true lover of people, Jeff does not avoid helping students regardless of how troublesome or small their problems may appear.
This interview has been edited for length.
What originally brought you to Oklahoma Christian as a student?
I didn’t really want to go to OC at first, because my dad worked out here and I kind of wanted to be my own guy and leave town. We lived in Edmond, so in my mind it didn’t feel like going to college. I worked a deal with my parents that I would try OC for one semester, and then I could transfer, and they said they would pay for me to go somewhere else. I really wanted to go to Abilene Christian or to Baylor and they said, ‘You can go to any one of those.’
I came to OC trying to not like it. I don’t know how long that lasted, but it probably lasted less than a week. I remember thinking, ‘This place is awesome,’ even before school started with summer orientation. Honestly within the first two or three weeks here, I didn’t even think about transferring ever again. I came because [my parents] wanted me to and thought it would be a good place for me, and I stayed because they were right.
What was your major?
I was an accounting major for two years, which is hilarious for me personally. Then I went on a summer mission to Australia, and I just felt like my eyes opened for what possibilities were and started to see where my gifts lay. I started to realize I had a heart for people, and faith was really important to me, so I switched my major to psychology from accounting.
That’s a big change.
Yeah, I was proud of myself because I hustled a lot and got out in four years with a psych degree. Then I went to graduate school at Oklahoma State University and got a master’s in marriage and family therapy.
Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to help people?
I think when I started to realize that friends started to come to me to talk wasn’t necessarily something everyone else experienced. In my mind, it was something I thought happened to everybody. That plus the Australia trip made me realize I could pick something that I was good at for a career. I didn’t have to pick something based on how lucrative it was.
How do you deal with the pressure of other people’s problems and that burden you carry?
I don’t think I dealt well with it when I was new. I finished graduate school, and about a month and a half after that I got married. It was all so close together, so that meant I had a new job and new marital status. My job was inpatient psych and day treatment, which is where we have people who are between inpatient and outpatient, and we had them for six hours a day. They were teenagers and their families. It was really hard; their problems were gigantic. Not like, ‘I can’t seem to get my homework done,’ or ‘I can’t sleep at night.’ It was like, ‘I was sexually molested by my dad for eight years,’ and ‘I’ve been kicked out of my last eight schools. I’ve been arrested 15 times, and I’m drunk more days than I’m not.’ And they’re 16 years old. That’s too many problems for anybody, let alone a kid. The weight of those problems were oppressive. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe.
One day, my dad, mom and Sydney had like an intervention with me about six months into that career and they just said, ‘You’re gone. The Jeff that we know that laughs all the time isn’t there anymore. We think it’s related to your work.’ They helped me come up with a strategy to care all I could care for these patients while I was there, and then set it aside when I came home. That was years in the making, and it was hard. But that shows that very seldom do we know what is going on with people. I really feel now that helped me become truly open to all kinds of people because of all those hard cases I had.
How did you get back to Oklahoma Christian?
The university contacted me in my late 20s after grad school, and back then there was a little more discipline for things that now there is a little more grace for. So, if you got caught doing certain things back in my day, they would just dismiss you. But when I was in my late 20s they modified that by saying, ‘We’ll try to help those people, if that doesn’t work then we will dismiss them.’ They called me and would ask me to see people who violated the substance abuse policy, so basically — I can’t believe I agreed to this — I was the punishment. It was like, ‘Oh, you got caught drinking, you need to go see Jeff six times.’ So I started to think, how can I make them realize that even though they don’t want to meet with me, how can I make it seem like it was a good thing that they were meeting with me?
Kind of like “Good Will Hunting”?
Yes, it was actually a lot like that. Then some years later they asked me to teach a class as an adjunct in about 1996 or so. At that point, I worked for Memorial Road Church of Christ as a minister. I did that for about 18 years, and about five years ago I came on full time.
Obviously, Oklahoma Christian has their set of beliefs. Is it ever hard when a student comes to you that doesn’t believe the same thing you do?
I don’t hold every doctrine, belief or rule with the same intensity. Some things I hold more loosely than others. There are things that I will hold tight all the way to the end, like that Jesus lived on this earth and that he lived and died and rose from the grave. I hold those tightly. I believe that Jesus showed me better than anything else how to live my life; I hold that tight. And the Word of God, I hold that tight. But people, rules and doctrines, like specific this and that, I don’t hold those things as tightly. So, I’m usually looking for common ground with people rather than areas of difference. I think that shows, people know I won’t judge them, because who am I? Who am I to judge them? There are personal beliefs I have that may vary from the school’s, but I don’t feel like it gets in my way. People above policy; that’s my goal.
What has been your favorite thing about working at Oklahoma Christian?
The students. That would be my first place, second place and third place. It’s y’all.