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Finding Our Compasses

“I thought you were going to, like, be someone in the Church.”
–One of My Bishops

My ten years of priesthood have been spent more outside the Church than within it. As an ACPE Certified Educator (formerly known as CPE Supervisor) I’ve spent my time and energy embedded in institutions disconnected from my denomination. Since leaving the hospital setting and starting up a new CPE Center in a seminary, I’ve spent some of every day pondering what it means to move back into the belly of the beast.

I almost never attended clergy conferences or diocesan conventions and councils, or other training held on weekdays more convenient to parish clergy, because I was working in hospitals that saw those commitments as paid-time-off decisions. When I began my new position last year, I started by attending every single denominational event I could find, in order to promote my work with the seminary.

To really hit home that I’d made this major transition, a few months after starting my new position, I added an additional quarter-time position in my home congregation when they went from three clergy to one. Full-time seminary, quarter-time parish, and all my additional responsibilities with ACPE national, which continue to grow.

I felt like I was starting over in so many ways. Many of us who have been ordained for ten years are leading our own congregations, or trying. I’m over here trying to remember how to train acolytes and figure out how to attend a faculty meeting. I invited a friend to come to town and do liturgical boot camp with me. I called a seminary colleague for some mentoring on navigating this kind of institution.

I felt some identity whiplash. I felt like a fraud. Or a newly ordained person who Rip-Van-Winkled the last ten years away.

In contrast to the hospital slowly grinding me down, my new work is truly life-giving (and other new-age-sounding things). I get to bring CPE to places and people where it was formerly impossible, and offer this powerful educational format with technology and pedagogy that make it more viable to the world as we know it now. I got through the first round of the accreditation process very quickly, was able to start several pastoral care courses for locally-trained clergy and lay persons around the country. I even got to kick off initiatives I’ve never been able to try before – like a spiritual care course for youth ministers and Christian educators, who are often doing pastoral care with children and families with very little training, and an airport chaplaincy training program, and so many others. In my years with hospitals, building on-call schedules, revising curriculum slowly and dreaming of so many other things we could be doing, I’ve been empowered to make those day-dreams realities. So far, things are really working.

So, what’s with the inadequacy? Read more

Your Seminary Course Catalog (A Few Additions)

I believe I received a wonderful theological education at the two Baptist seminaries I attended (Eastern–now Palmer, and Central). I can decline Greek verbs (OK, I could at one time), put Paul in his historical context, explain the prophetic tradition and even address difficult biblical texts. I can do crisis counseling, pre-marital counseling, spiritual counseling, and “I think you need a real counselor” counseling. I can explain the theology behind each part of the worship service. I can write and preach a fine sermon – would you like narrative or expository?

Still, there are times in my ministry when I find myself at a loss – events and circumstances for which I am sadly unprepared. So without disparaging the good work of my many fine seminary professors, I would like to suggest a few additions to the course catalog: Read more

Lawful and Beneficial: An Exploration of Faith and Academic Freedom

As we begin a new semester, and a new school year, after the summer we have had as a country, I am thinking about academic freedom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes twice that “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (6:12 and 10:23). Paul was likely responding to a saying in the community at Corinth with the “all things are lawful” part.

There are, as with many Greek words, different ways to translate the second half: is he saying that not all things are edifying? profitable? expedient? helpful? I choose to translate it “beneficial” because I think that covers pretty much all those other options. All things are allowable, but not all things are beneficial. As a seminary professor and Christian, I think of this as a good way to consider the topic of academic freedom.

The academy (including Christian college, seminary, or secular state institutions), is a place where ideas should flow freely. Mistakes should be made, and even encouraged, so that everyone in the community (professors and students alike) can learn and grow. I often assign readings that I agree with wholeheartedly — readings that have challenged my thinking and broadened my perspective. I also assign readings that I don’t agree with, because they are important to have as part of the conversation in the class.

My students can expect to be challenged in their thinking in my courses. Read more

What Language Shall I Borrow?

I can still feel a bit of burning embarrassment from the conversation that happened nearly 12 years ago. My dad, a pastor and theologian, helped me pack up and move all of my belongings from Massachusetts down to Louisville, where I was about to begin seminary. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, we somehow got on the subject of hot button issues at seminaries, and he mentioned the use of gendered language for God.

Many students came from traditions that held firmly to male images and language for God. Some prayers always began, “Father God…” My seminary, along with others, encouraged a more expansive use of language for God, engaging images that were more traditionally masculine and feminine or gender-neutral. Students would be encouraged to recognize and draw from the rich and expansive store of such language in the Bible. And for some students, that bordered on blasphemous – or even crossed the line.

The sting of embarrassment came for me as I remembered the application essays I had so carefully written and edited. My internal debate wasn’t whether or not I could use “he” to refer to God; it was whether the “h” should be capitalized. I had come from more conservative theological traditions, and most of what I had seen was God as He. At the same time, that capital letter seemed to thrust a masculine God at me in a way that just didn’t seem right. If asked, I would have said in a heartbeat that I didn’t believe that God is male. And yet, there it was, burned in my memory – repeated references to God with male pronouns in my first introduction to my future professors.

The conversation on language for God was not a new one, just one to which I had not yet been exposed. Beyond seminary, many students who learned to exercise care in their language went right back to the familiar and comfortable pronouns upon graduation. Others of us were serving in church contexts where throwing in feminine pronouns might have gotten us run out of the pulpit, so we at least avoided using masculine language. Given my own commitments, and recognizing the constraints of my context, that was my practice, though I occasionally and intentionally used female imagery with some gentle education. Read more

My Colleague, My Mom

The author and her mother at the author’s graduation from seminary.

The author and her mother at the author’s graduation from seminary.

“You’re going to seminary? Are you sure?” This wasn’t the reaction I was expecting from my mother when I called to tell her I’d applied for admission to seminary. After all, I was finishing up my year serving in Northern Ireland as a Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA), so seminary shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I thought my mom would be excited to hear the news–and she was–but her questions betrayed her excitement. She seemed worried. At the time, I was perplexed (and even spent a few therapy sessions processing her concern). But now, four years into professional ministry as a solo pastor, I realize that her protective instinct was valid.

You see, my mother is also a pastor. She knows the underbelly of the church world intimately. Just as I was beginning to envision my move to New Jersey and my studies in pastoral care, theology, and the Bible, my mother was imagining disgruntled parishioners giving me not-so-constructive feedback, the headaches of financial crises that plague mainline congregations, and the relentless onslaught of committee meetings and church functions–all things she somewhat jokingly refers to as “Working for Jesus.” Read more

The Power of Plastic

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That Little Piece of Plastic

I remember the moment vividly. I sat across from my Koine Greek professor, the woman with wild red hair and a penchant for saying, “Okie dokie, Smokie!” Her dark-rimmed glasses slipped down on her nose as she leaned in toward me. “You’re a petite, young-looking woman. How will you claim pastoral authority?”

Now, perhaps I should be clear that this question didn’t come to me in the midst of parsing participles. I was halfway through my seminary education, going through what my seminary termed a “Midterm Assessment,” geared at seeing whether we pastors-to-be were on the right track in our spiritual and academic formation for that role. I don’t know if other seminaries do this, but for me, it felt a bit like going before a theological firing squad of beloved, but intimidating as hell, professors. In the face of that bespectacled, steely gaze and blunt question, I responded as best I could.

Read more

I am Mary and Martha

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I worry about stuff. I wonder if I’m forgetting something. I get tiny palpitations when the phone rings (“Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?”). I sometimes get stressed as early as 3 sips into my morning coffee about whether or not I’ll be able to “get everything done” in a given day.

This morning, about 3 sips into my morning coffee, I read in Luke 10 about Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha. It’s a great and short story, and I recommend reading it really quickly.  I have read this little story a number of times but this morning, for some reason, it was real to me. Jesus comes to their house, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching while Martha is stuck with all the work, Martha asks Jesus to make Mary get back in the kitchen and help, and Jesus in a nutshell says no.

It was real to me this morning because I felt like I was in the story. First, when Jesus responds to Martha. True to form, Jesus answers the question beneath the question. He speaks to her anxious heart, hiding behind concerns about Mary helping with housework. In other words, she comes to Him about Mary and he responds to her about Martha. And instead of chiding her for tattling and not minding her own business, He comforts her. He says her name twice, which my husband just told me was an especially affectionate and tender way of addressing someone in their culture. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better share, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus comforts her, calls out her sin, and instructs her all in one sentence. This morning, I felt like Martha in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from your expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me take care of the details. That is all that’s really necessary.”

Jesus doesn’t dialogue with Mary in this story, which might be why there haven’t been as many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” reflections on her. But this morning, I felt like Mary in the story, as well. See, I’ve written a lot on my blog about my anxiety concerning budgets, grocery lists, and to-do lists, but I haven’t written a lot about my anxiety as a seminary student. A female seminary student.

I didn’t start school expecting to feel this way, but in the last few years I’ve begun to notice that in many ways, I am in a man’s world. Often I am the only woman in the room or seated at the table. Being fairly loud and obnoxious, most of the time I can be brave about it. But every now and then, I find myself thinking, “Jesus, am I just elbowing my way to Your table, inviting myself to sit in and listen in on something that’s not really “for” me? Do you just tolerate my presence like I’m the kid sister in the corner, listening in?” Every now and then, I feel like the third (or twenty-third) wheel in the world of Christian ministry and theology.

But then I read this story and realize Mary probably had it even worse. I read recently that the most shocking part of this whole scenario is not Martha being left to work alone, but Mary having the audacity to enter the “man’s domain” of her culture and sit at the Rabbi’s (teacher’s) feet with the men. Imagine the eyes burning a hole in her back. Imagine the courage she must have had to sit there anyway, and the desperation she must have had to hear more of Jesus’ words, no matter the cost. That is how I feel about being in seminary. It may be awkward at times, and I may feel uncomfortable or even feel eyes burning a hole in my back at times, but I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I must. Even if it means being the twenty-third wheel, it’s worth it to me if it means I can get closer to Jesus.

But then I see how Jesus handled Mary’s situation, “It will not be taken away from her.”  I see that Jesus – Jesus — defended Mary’s spot at his feet next to all his male disciples, and I realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The Rabbi says I have a right to be here. I realize that He has called me to Himself, He invites me to sit at His feet, and He declares it won’t be taken away from me. I realize, “He doesn’t see me as a third-wheel. I’m not an outsider to Him.”

This morning, I felt like Mary in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from others’ expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me defend your right to do so. That is all that’s really necessary.”