A preacher man: One congressional staffer leaves politics behind to find his way in church

Philip Van Steenburgh came to Washington with his eye on the bully pulpit. He has since dropped the bully part but is still heading for the pulpit.

Van Steenburgh left his job as a senior legislative assistant to Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) last week to become a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and has hopes to one day lead a congregation of his own.

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The 26-year-old South Carolinian had long dreamed of becoming a famous and successful politician and initially saw his work in Congress as a way to get there. But with a lousy first 10 months in the city, guidance from another congressional staffer-turned-pastor and encouragement from the congressman he worked for, Van Steenburgh saw that dream morph into something entirely different.

In high school and college, Van Steenburgh imagined he would become a national political figure one day, make lots of money and have a beautiful family. In short, his life would be perfect.

But it wasn’t long before he moved to Washington
that he found, for him, politics had become entirely
self-serving.

“When I realized that, my attachment to [politics] and everything in my life started to change, and I didn’t want to be so selfish,” Van Steenburgh said during an interview in a room off the sanctuary
of Capitol Hill Baptist. “My personal attachment to politics or a legal career or monetary success
… started disappearing as well. It was no lon-
ger a dream.”

Before Van Steenburgh’s epiphany, his path to political fame got off to a promising start. He met Inglis at a church lunch in South Carolina in 2005, eight months after he graduated from the College of Charleston. He was waiting tables at the time.

“We started talking, and he found that my interests were right in line with what a political staffer’s interests would be,” he said.

Van Steenburgh said Inglis’s chief of staff called him the following week and asked him in for an interview.

By January 2006, Van Steenburgh had started working in Inglis’s Washington office.

“The political job dropped into my lap without really looking for it,” he said, remembering he then thought it obvious that he was bound for a bright career in government.

For nearly the next year, though, he became less sure of the career path he had chosen.

“In the 10 months after I got here, I was miserable in politics,” he said, explaining that, from a selfish perspective, he felt at the time that his talents were going unrecognized. He said he had also traded in his nearly lifelong churchgoing habit for the city’s “party lifestyle.”

He had heard about Capitol Hill Baptist from friends in South Carolina, and in October 2006, he decided to give it a try. He soon met Andy Johnson, an associate pastor who had previously worked on the Democratic staff of the House Agriculture Committee for 10 years and the Republican staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee for one year.

Upon Van Steenburgh’s request, the two started meeting for weekly Bible study.

“I said, ‘Andy, I don’t know how to study the Bible on my own, and I want to learn,’ ” he said.

The result, Van Steenburgh said, was Johnson saying he saw in him “an ability to process God’s word and bring it back to [him] clearly.”

Johnson said in a phone interview that he saw “all kinds of just general good qualities” in Van Steenburgh, but, more importantly, recognized in him a passion for “encouraging Christians and telling others abut the Gospel.”

“More than any other skill sets, those sorts of passions and abilities are generally what we’re looking for,” Johnson said.

Van Steenburgh began taking on bigger roles at the church, including running a Bible study for Capitol Hill interns.

Still, the thought of going into ministry seemed unbelievable, he said. He felt inadequate, and he had never previously considered it. His father had been a Baptist pastor for six years when Van Steenburgh was a child, but his father left the ministry on account of what his son referred to only as “a bad situation.”

He mulled this change in his career trajectory all while continuing to work in Inglis’s office — and things began to look up there, too.

Van Steenburgh said he started getting feedback from legislative director Garth Van Meter — also a member of Capitol Hill Baptist — that he was becoming a more pleasant colleague.

“I wasn’t abrasive about a lot of things,” Van Steenburgh said. “I wasn’t getting noticeably upset when my advice and recommendations weren’t taken or when my work wasn’t being noticed … I became a lot more amicable and content and easy to work with.”

That didn’t make the pull to the church any less strong, and in May 2008, Van Steenburgh found out he had been accepted into a six-month internship the church gives to men interested in going into ministry or mission work.

He moved into an old bed-and-breakfast across the street from the church and said goodbye to his congressional colleagues.

“I got a lot of, ‘Wow,’ ” he said of his colleagues’ reactions. “It’s just not very often that they see people with promising political careers ahead of them kind of walk away from it.”

As the internship ended in December, church officials asked Van Steenburgh to become a full-time pastoral assistant, with a start date this month. He returned to Inglis’s office in the interim, but now the congressman knows Van Steenburgh has likely left the Capitol for good.

“He has a pastor’s heart and is going to do great in ministry,” Inglis said. Still, the congressman said he will miss Van Steenburgh’s work.

“He’s got quite a reputation as someone who works to bring people together,” he said. “We could really use a lot more of that around here.

Van Steenburgh hopes to go to seminary after his one- or two-year post as a pastoral assistant is up, but he has learned to embrace whatever the future may hold.

“You can have the best of intentions or best of dreams, and you get 10 years down the road, and you’re like, ‘None of it happened,’ ” he says. “I’m happy to be wherever God takes me.”

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