Overall, my seminary experience has been the most important place where I have questioned, honed, and renewed my sense of self. In seminary, I've learned to be more humble with my opinions, realizing that not everyone is on the same emergent-church-lovin' or reimagining-religion path that I am on. I have encountered many grace-filled and humble Jesus followers with far more conservative theologies than I profess. And I've come to realize that God is using them and their call in profound ways too. I've learned that sometimes my own passion for liberationist or progressive theologies can sound like a hammer for "right-believing" doctrine in the face of others who believe differently but are no less, and often times far more gracious, generous, and humble Christians. Falling on my own progressive sword, in those experiences, has been a profoundly humbling process for me and I thank God for teaching me through those moments.
This has not lessened my hunger for justice and righteousness. I still want to dismantle systems of patriarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, racism, and all forms of oppression. But it has taught me how to lean into love while combating injustice. I've learned that hearts are changed before minds. Effective people are those who can influence others - not just be right about issues. We need to be ambassadors for God's love and to do so, we all must learn to love our enemies as much as we love our neighbors. It is from that deep well that we draw our moral authority.
Ultimately, my theological authority comes from God and my constant desire to know Her/Him. Sometimes I worry that I don't know God well enough or deeply enough to minister. I think to myself that there will be so many more devoted, more spiritual, more loving, more theologically educated congregants than I am - so who am I to preach? to teach? to lead? But in my reflection I have discerned that my ministerial authority comes not from what I know - but rather from my passion. I have an unquenchable passion for the church, for spiritual growth, for learning, and it is this passion that I will bring into a leadership role. It is this passion that I pray will inspire others to walk further on their own paths towards meaning and towards God.
Maintaining healthy boundaries in ministry is something that I have learned a good deal about in my Introduction to Pastoral Care class at Candler. But I believe boundaries are not just important for ministers. They inform all our healthy relationships. Even with our spouses we must have certain subtle boundaries that help us maintain our fullest sense of self. A marriage book I am reading now, Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch (which was recommended in one of our UCC "Dear Theo" columns) talks about these boundaries as a process of individual differentiation. Whatever the term you use, or whatever the context, boundaries are important for truly seeing the fullness and wholeness of one another in our interpersonal or organizational relationships.
In churches, a lack of clarity around boundaries between congregants and the pastor can result in opportunities for abuse or misuse of power. On the other extreme, I have known churches that have been so "schooled" in boundary training without a deeper understanding of what boundaries are, that they hold the pastor at an arms-length, never allowing him or her to be a real part of the community, always viewing them as merely a paid employee. In the best cases, the congregation recognizes that the pastor is a full person whose passion and purpose is ministry, but who has a life beyond that as well. And in turn, the pastor recognizes that the congregation is placing a great deal of trust in him/her, and that there must be safeguards in place to protect that holy trust from our own human weaknesses. Ideally, the boundaries in place would allow the pastor to see the congregation and its people as fellow ministers and unique children of God and the congregation would see the pastor in that same way.
I have many goals for personal and professional growth. Like all humans, my personal growth goals are eternal: to feel more whole, to find deeper peace, to have more meaningful relationships, to love greatly. Most of these personal goals I believe can be found within the wisdom of our Christian tradition. If I did not believe that, I would not be in the place I am. I believe religion gives us meaning, purpose, peace, and happiness when it is practiced with energy, love, and humility.
At times, I have also relied upon secular methods for attaining happiness. I have managed an anxious mind with the help of a psychiatrist. I read self-help books that have given me real-world wisdom about relationships. I listen deeply to friends. I take scientific inquiry and answers seriously. I spend a good deal of time in nature. I have fun and enjoy a good beer and a glass of wine in moderation. I try to laugh - or cry - if I decide it's been too long since I have done either. I pick up new hobbies.
Professionally, one of my highest goals is to have a lot of colleagues. Even if I am a solo pastor - especially if I am a solo pastor - I want to be connected to others in ministry. There is sometimes a parochialism in the church, where pastors and congregations exist in a world unto themselves. I have very little interest in that. I will do best in a congregation that feels a deep connection to its community, to the other churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples that surround it, to the United Church of Christ, to all of Christendom, etc.
Some people may wonder if this desire to be connected to a broader community comes at the expense of the local church. Can you be the kind of pastor who is always marching, or at community meetings, or visiting conferences and still be the kind of pastor who will visit the sick, or help find someone a job? I think you can when it is the community's answer to God's call upon all of us. No one person can do everything or be everyone. But when a community of faith realizes that God's call to all of us is to live both "deep and wide," as we like to say at Kirkwood United Church of Christ, then beautiful life-changing and world-changing ministry can happen. And that "both-and" ministry relies upon our connection to one another.
The further down the road through seminary and towards ordination I have gone, the more I have come to expect that life as a minister will always be one where the personal is professional. People already view me differently. I have been asked over brunch, "How do I live more compassionately?" Or after an evening at a bar, "...but do you believe in evolution?" In Mississippi I've gotten the patriarchal jaw-drop, "But you're planning to just do pastoral care, right? Or children's ministry?" And in New York I have more frequently gotten blank stares and a swift change in conversation.
No matter what an individual's reaction to a minister - or a seminary student hoping to become a minister - is, I have quickly learned that my answers to their questions and the way I conduct myself will say something to them about how I understand God and religion. For those who encounter religion rarely, these encounters will mean even more. The stakes are high. But as Matthew reminds us, Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light. In other words - if you're trying too hard, you're probably doing it wrong!
Here is what I try to remember:
Am I always a perfectly calm and loving pastoral presence? Of course not. Sometimes people are more interested in what progressive Christianity is all about - and I get to share my passion with them! Sometimes people are extremely skeptical - even rude - and I work hard to keep my cool without getting too defensive. But in the end, I try to remember that most people are just as lost, confused, and broken as I am. You never know where people are in their own journeys of faith. So I try my best to be, at the very least, a friendly stop along the way.
Learning to be a more culturally attuned person around issues of diversity is something that I have grown better at over the course of my time living in the South. Like most progressively raised but socioeconomically advantaged white people, I can say that I have never been "a racist." But I also had to learn as I grew up that there is a lot more to understand about issues of privilege than merely not espousing hate speech.
The biggest obstacle to my growth in this area was growing up in a homogeneous community on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Everyone I knew growing up (with very few exceptions) was white and middle class. Not only that, but they were almost all Irish Catholic, which added an additional layer of homogeneity. While my mother had been bused down to Mississippi in the '60s to register black voters with her church youth group, most of my friends' parents had hopped the bus out of their Irish neighborhoods in Boston to avoid sending their kids to school with African American students during the Boston busing crisis. This cultural background to my community was something I became aware of later, when I learned more about Massachusetts' less-than-progressive history of racial tensions.
Going to college on the South Side of Chicago was a big step forward for my awareness of diversity. I volunteered regularly in struggling elementary schools on the South Side that were almost entirely black. But my peers in those settings were the other teachers, and they were frequently other white women. Even on campus, I learned that there were more African ex-pats studying at the University of Chicago than there were African Americans. Furthermore, at college I was actually one of the poorer students on campus, which made getting a more realistic view of socioeconomic diversity nearly impossible.
Because of this background, the six years I worked and studied in Atlanta were extremely important for my growth in diversity awareness. Working for Michelle Nunn's nonprofit, Points of Light Institute, I was immediately confronted with a startling realization of my own white privilege bias. The office was around 30-40% African American, and I had never - until that moment - really noticed how few African Americans I had ever worked or studied with as peers. My incredibly whitewashed upbringing was never more apparent to me than when I realized not only that huge omission, but moreover my complete lack of awareness of it. I can't say that anything particularly enlightening happened in the 2-3 years I worked there, but it was absolutely good for me to get out of my Northeastern homogeneous bubble.
Attending Candler School of Theology has been the most important place so far for me to learn from and about diversity. While Points of Light provided a diverse collegial environment, Candler - because of the curriculum - requires its diverse student body to probe and to question issues of diversity together. I've learned a lot, often times the hard way, about where my privilege begins and ends. One of the interesting consequences of this training is that it has made me more aware of injustice in my own life. I have found myself to be a more astute feminist because of my readings and discussions around not only male privilege but all systems of privilege and oppression.
Still, because of my deeply homogeneous upbringing, I feel that diversity training and awareness is something that I should continue to seek out in professional development opportunities. I believe in justice, fairness, and equality for all people. And I want to always make sure that I am spiritually and emotionally equipped to best combat the evils of oppression within myself, within others, and within systems of injustice in the world.
As a woman with a natural penchant for taking leadership initiative, I've had to navigate the uncertain waters between learning to practice greater humility and servant leadership patterns, and not relinquishing all my natural tendencies towards leadership in order to appease a patriarchal cultural bias. The latter issue is gaining some attention in media these days, with Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" admonition to "ban bossy" and encourage leadership in young girls who are often unfairly labeled as "bossy" in our culture. At the same time, Christianity calls us to higher ideals than better business practices. While women should be encouraged in leadership, all Christians - men and women alike - are called to walk the leadership path that Jesus walked, which was first and foremost as a servant.
This subtlety places a heavy burden on Christian leaders who are women. We must be capable of discerning the difference between God's path towards liberative humility, and patriarchy's path towards disempowerment. That discernment is ongoing in a female pastor's life and career. Prayer, pastoral fellowship and accountability groups, and spiritual direction or even therapy can all be healthy ways for female clergy to find a healthy sense of self and Christian authority.
Ultimately, I hope to be able to utilize my natural gifts and inclinations towards leadership and effective communication within a pastoral setting, while having good checks and balances in place to ensure that the entire congregation is part of the process to discern the will of the Spirit in important decisions.