Crossing from career to calling

Pastor Todd Salmi stands in the sanctuary at United Campus Ministry at Texas State University. While Salmi has only been with United Campus Ministry since July, he has actively served the spiritual needs of the San Marcos community for the past five years. DAILY RECORD PHOTO by DENISE CATHEY

Editor’s note: This is the ninth part in a series profiling San Marcos’ diverse religious leaders and what they bring to the community.

Todd Salmi, in my view, is an unlikely Methodist minister. And, as you read this, he is not exclusively a Methodist minister, which, when you have his background, should surprise no one.

Salmi has been in San Marcos at the First United Methodist Church, where he served as associate pastor for most of five and a half years. Currently, he is pastor of United Campus Ministry of Texas State University – a partnership of United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ churches. As an aside, with his appearance, he could pass for a sophomore on campus.

“So, tell me about Todd Salmi,” I began. “Well, here’s the bumper sticker,” he replied. “I was born in Lubbock, grew up in Dallas, went to school in Austin and married a girl from Houston. I’m a fifth generation Texan and I love Texas.

“My father was in the Air Force, stationed at Reece AFB in Lubbock, when I was born. He went to Michigan Tech, and was commissioned in the Air Force from ROTC. My mom went to Texas Tech. That’s how they met.

“I’m not an Air Force brat. Dallas is my hometown, I consider it the place where I grew up.”

“So where did you go to school?” I asked, expecting SMU.

“I went to the University of Texas,” he said, emphasizing the reference to the school that keeps Austin weird. “I just fell in love with the school and with Austin. I went to college with friends I had known since fourth grade and I became interested in learning as much as possible.”

I asked if he, like so many Texas kids, aspired to be a football hero. “No,” Salmi replied, “Debate. I debated in high school.”

That proved extremely demanding. Friday night practices could stretch into two o’clock Saturday morning workouts. After taking a hiatus during his junior year, Salmi returned to the debate team as a senior.

“I went to state that year.”

“Did you win state?” I asked.

“No,” he responded with a self-deprecatory laugh. “There were kids much more persuasive than I.”

As Salmi explained his debate experience – the excitement of learning, the need to know both sides thoroughly, the challenge of competition and the act of participating – as forces that drove him to become a team member. Those forces were deeply embedded in his character because they could be said to define him today.

“So, you entered the University of Texas, and...”

“I entered the Business School. I was in the Business Honors Program. I was also in the Management Information Systems program — computers,” he said.

As an honors student, he had many classes with the same 30 or so people in the program. So, if the problem required the expertise of an accountant, you knew who to see.

For pleasure, Salmi took some Spanish classes in his spare time. Enthralled with the language, he found that he had enough Spanish for a fine arts in language degree. He graduated 12th in the School of Business.

I expressed surprise that he was that low in his class standing. “Well, it was Spanish that brought me down. Advanced grammar in a foreign language is a bit difficult. I had to accept that it was OK to make a ‘B’ in the course.”

“So, you went to college. What’s next?” I asked.

One of the formative events of my life was when my father lost his job. I had to put myself through college. I had loans, scholarships and I worked in the computer lab until two o’clock in the morning. One of the reasons I did well in school is because I had to. Had to lock in those scholarships, qualify for those loans and hold on to that job.

“I took a job with the Arthur Anderson accounting firm. I was hired to start an emerging technology group out of their Dallas office. I was doing no accounting work. It was as if we were an independent company with their corporate backing.

“We were developing strategies, helping people see what this internet could do. And I did that for two or three years. Worked on the 53rd floor of the Green Building in downtown Dallas. Everyone in Dallas will know what the Green Building is,” Salmi said.

“I don’t like heights,” Salmi confessed. “Airplanes – OK – buildings, not so much. We worked in cubicles. There were no offices, so one day, I could look over and see Fair Park. The next day, I could watch Love Field from my workstation. This was the late 90s and we were producing all these innovations for Fortune 500 companies and I began to realize that they were making a ton of money from my work.”

So, calling upon his entrepreneurial spirit, he thought, why not try this myself. Furthermore, it would take him back to Austin.

“To clarify spring semester, my final semester of school, I met my wife, Mari. We hit it off pretty well, then came spring break. I went to Scotland to visit a friend and she visited friends in Texas.

“When we came back, we found ourselves infatuated with each other. Because of the Spanish course requirements, I would not graduate until December.

“‘Good,’” she said, “‘we can date.’” She wasn’t going to get involved in a long distance situation.

“So, we dated. I graduated went to Dallas with my job. Later, when she graduated, she got a job in Dallas. A year later, we moved back to Austin where she started her PhD program.”

Trying to lend a bit of unity and chronology to Salmi’s narrative, I established that they were married in 2000, that Mari has her doctorate in molecular biology and that she does amazing science things. Right now, she’s studying how plants perceive gravity.

Salmi ended the discussion of Mari with, “Isn’t she much more interesting than I?” No comment from this reporter.

“So, Mari is getting her PhD and we get married in 2000. Our oldest – there are three – is born in 2002. I did what everyone else in Austin was doing in early 2000s. I had a couple of start-ups. I got into background checks with a company that did a lot of courthouse work, etc. and had started using technology. So, I came on board as a cofounder and chief technology architect for the group.

“In the process, I learned a lot about what information is available about individuals, how it is supposed to be used and whether it is used appropriately. I got very deep into this business on a national level.”

Salmi was performing work that affected the entire background check industry at the federal level. The road to success was not exactly paved with gold nor was it obstacle free.

“At one time, we owed big bucks to the IRS. However, we were living the American Dream. From an 80 hour work week to 20 hours; own your own successful business. Time on my hands to do what I wanted to do. Our situation is ideal. Mari has her PhD, a great job at UT; a very nice home in the Hyde Park area of Austin and Mari says, ‘Let’s go on an adventure.’”

Mari had applied and been accepted at several places to do postdoctoral work. Salmi, with all he had created, saw his life flash in front of him. One of Mari’s positive responses was from Cuernavaca, Mexico. During Thanksgiving holiday, they spent several days there and the climate, the food, the language and the people were irresistible magnets. A few months later, Todd, Mari – seven months pregnant – and their four-year-old Martin, two weiner dogs and possessions were on the way to Cuernavaca in an aging Subaru.

At this point, I informed him that we had more than enough for the personal profile of Todd Salmi, but faith, religion, spirituality and ministry were yet to be mentioned.

With his uncanny ability to laugh at almost any situation which tends to reduce any problem to a joke, he began: “I grew up in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in a devout family of believers and loyal church goers.”

While in the process of confirmation, he asked one of the ministers if he believed in the space shuttle. The answer was “no.” The certainty of that answer and the biblical proof quoted to support the answer caused Salmi major consternation.

“I was a Christian, but I did not participate while in college, nor later while working in Dallas. But, the first time I took Holy Communion, at age 14, I had an experience. It was that God was living and real and poring over me as I took my first communion. It was a significant Spiritual experience.

“For me, this was confounding and confusing. When we decided to get married, We attended Hyde Park Methodist. I loved it. Friendly, open, a great atmosphere.

“As I reflected on Jesus, I began to get kinda’ curious about this dude. He’s complex. How can he be the Christ King and hang out with the poor, the known sinners, women of the night? And then, the intersection of the events of the real world and the assurance that we have a loving, caring God. What is God’s role in a tsunami that kills thousands of people?”

Salmi goes on to say that God is an active presence in this world. And that God is alive in the world. God is alive in our lives. And, he, Salmi is privileged to observe this phenomenon and just do fun things. Further, at this time in his life, he is participating in church activities, doing Bible studies, very active in Hyde Park Methodist Church. All this, in spite of the fact that he is also a high-functioning alcoholic.

My drinking was not helped much when I became successful in business, flush with money and entertaining clients. Alcohol becomes a part of your life. It helps control stress; it is an avenue to relationships; it is a social ice-breaker; it is normal and necessary.

“You tell yourself you have it all together and you are OK with it,” Salmi Said. “That’s a lie and you are living a lie. It’s terrible. My experience with AA was walking into a meeting and afterward, saying to myself, ‘I’m not that bad.’”

So, things are going well, they go to Mexico. The Salmis began attending the Episcopal Anglican church in Cuernavaca. And, following their usual pattern, Mari set up committees for all sorts of activities and Salmi became involved in the children’s Sunday Schools.

Time marches on and Hyde Park Methodist closes the doors. Mari is about finished with her postdoc work. Salmi is walking home from the supermarket when at the street intersection, he gets the message — very clearly — “if you are ready to answer the call I’ll prepare the path.”

“I said ‘Yes.’ And I immediately knew I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe God didn’t hear that. Two days later my business partner calls and tells me they are buying me out of the company. It is not an option. When I tell Mari this, she’s a little frightened, but she’s accepting.

“I get this call and two days later it is all happening. Where to go? I’m not eager for Perkins, so I find that Emory University has Candler Theological seminary in Atlanta. Ideal. I got a scholarship and we moved to Atlanta. Mari was eight months pregnant and our second child was born on the second day of seminary. All this occurred in about 14 months.

“My second day of seminary, I’m going to an Old Testament Class in the morning and that afternoon, I’m walking into the Georgia State Prison for Women. It was coldshower exposure to the real world. So, I am assigned to do the pregnant women’s Sunday School. Very interesting and lots of learning.

“I gave up on being a high-functioning alcoholic and so, I just quit. Just quit drinking.

“About four years after, I had the experience at the street crossing, I saw that scene and recalled that the streets were Babylon and Nineveh. So, I had this culminating ‘call experience in exile.’”

At the end of seminary, Salmi wanted to come back to Texas. But, there were many uncertainties associated with his assignment, when as fate would have it, Mari, got a call from UT requesting she come back and resume her research.

Convinced that God has a place in Mari’s life, as well as his own, Salmi saw the UT offer as a sign to him as well. So, Mari’s job offer, and Salmi’s willingness to accept an associate pastor position, the family moves to San Marcos, where Salmi is assigned to First United Methodist.

“I have a title, pastor, which reminds me who I am, but more important, whose I am. And I try to see what their needs are versus what their wants are.”

Todd Salmi is young in his pastorate, as pastors go, but he has brought his business experience to the ministry as an organizer, motivator, innovator and leader. His belief, his faith and spirituality have been discussed less than one would expect. However, Salmi’s presence speaks for all those characteristics. He has them in abundance.

San Marcos Daily Record

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