What is your only comfort?

Urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A seminary autobiography

Previously, someone asked about my call to ministry. While hunting through my reflection papers, I found this "seminary autobiography" I wrote during my final semester in school. Perhaps some of you thinking about seminary might find it helpful. Please remember that it was written more than a few years ago.


During my time as a student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary I have preached 53 sermons, drunk approximately 2730 liters of Diet Pepsi, saved several thousand dollars in my employer-sponsored 403(b) account, , dropped out of school once and watched the entire first season of Six Feet Under. There have been moments where I was certain of my calling as a pastor and times of absolute confusion and complete dismay at my foolishness for having ever attempted to enter into the ranks of the ordained. Mostly, though, seminary has been the process of putting one foot in front of the other -- whether walking, running, marching, skipping or perhaps crawling -- through each day.

My arrival into the world of seminary was somewhat of a breach birth. Having spent my childhood on the campuses of three different graduate schools of divine learning, the mysteries of theological education had been somewhat exposed to me. I also had a reasonable understanding of what happens to those deemed acceptable of the title Master of Divinity after they collect their personalized degree on graduation day. Seminary is a one way, do not pass go, do not collect $200 direct road to a lifetime of low paying, high stress work with little to no personal privacy and loads unreasonable, typically unstated expectations. Plus, as a woman (not to mention a full-fledged gay "sinner" in the eyes of most of my fellow Christians) there wasn't much likelihood of my being offered one of those low paying, high stress jobs.

On account of this, I shied away from seminary and the ministry. Instead, I started a career in the exciting yet morally challenged world of Wall Street, bought a little co-op in Park Slope and was well on my way to making it big when I had an honest to goodness real-life interaction with the Higher Power which struck me just silly enough to apply to seminary.

Fortunately, my first class of Biblical Studies cured whatever it was that had sickened me into seminary. The only miracle was that I didn't fail the class. I came close, though. Reading the entire Bible in 13 weeks is a reasonable assignment. Having to take annoying multiple-choice quizzes on the readings didn't mesh well with my "style of learning." Fortunately, the class had one analytical paper involved, which rescued my ridiculously low quiz average. I immediately withdrew following my first class in seminary and declared myself a full-fledged seminary drop-out, unable to make the cut among peers who could recite whole portions of the Bible by memory having sharpened their rote knowledge of the scriptures through countless childhood sword drills.

The hum of the financial markets held my attention for the next few years, until God caught up with me on September 11th. It had only been a few months before that Morgan Stanley had offered me a job on the 76th floor. I turned it down to work for a branch manger without a moral compass, which led to a rather large fight and my quitting on the evening of September 10th. Without a job and struggling to make sense of a world that had seemed so rational only moments earlier, I found myself walking toward my former professor's house on 14th Street in Brooklyn.

He greeted me with a sense of excitement about the potential of my returning to seminary. Since the Tuesday night class had been cancelled the week before, I would not be behind and could start my studies immediately. He'd even drive me to campus for class that night if I would meet him at 4pm. At 3:55pm that Tuesday, I officially reentered the general seminary population.

Two of the obstacles to my immediate embracing of seminary life came in the form of my mother and father. A better set of parents cannot be imagined. But at the age of 26, with a burgeoning sense of independence and a fierce desire to have my own life, I wasn't quite prepared to share a campus with my progenitors. Having your father as the President of the seminary you attend can be a bit of a challenge. Adding your mother to the mix takes it up a notch.

I was a little worried that moving in with them might cramp my social style or might result in an apocalyptic parent-child blowout. But neither occurred. Certainly our shared quarters and close knowledge of each other's lives led to more than one argument, but over the course of three year our relationship has moved from more than just child and parent to one of friendship and more recently to even perhaps one of colleague. I wouldn't have made it through the program as quickly or have been able to take on as much as I have without the faithful support of my parents.

It's a deep personal secret that my mother has done my laundry while I've been in school. Supposedly we have a deal of laundry help in exchange for computer tutorials, but Mom's spent much more time with the washer and dryer than I ever have in front of her computer. And there has been a comfort in having my parents read over sermons, edit papers and offer sage advise on an as needed basis.

More of a challenge has been navigating my friendships at school in light of our shared last name. It began the very first day of class when a new student asked me to repeat my name during our introductions and then in a rather loud voice said, "Is your father the President?" While I want to blend in, it's hard to ignore the fact that I live in the basement of the President's house. With this has come some unstated expectations and some unsaid biases for all of us. It hasn't been easy, but we've managed. And having time with my parents has allowed for an exceptionally rich educational experience. I've learned more by osmosis from them than from classroom lectures. If you asked me when or where I picked certain things up, I wouldn't be able to tell you. But they have served as wonderful models of ministry.

Take, for example, my first sermon. A number of friends had warned me of their intense anxiety at the moment they were called upon to preach a real sermon in a real church in front of real people. No doubt, I shared what can only be a universal sense of excitement, dread, nervousness and terror as I prepared for the first time I entered a pulpit. I had been asked by the Flatlands Reformed Church to fill in for their retiring minister as they searched for an interim over the course of the summer. With only slightly more than a semester's worth of classes and having yet to take a course in preaching, I readily agreed to this supervised ministry assignment.

Having watched my father prepare and deliver countless sermons throughout my childhood, I understood the drill: Read. Prepare. Think. Type. Procrastinate. Type. Think. Talk. Type. Print. Show Mom. Make corrections. Sleep. Wake. Shower. Dress. Eat. Leave two hours early. Take directions, robe, Bible, sermon. Show up. Greet. Pee. Put on robe and pray for the best. In my case, there were a few small glitches. Preparations took a little longer. A visit from my cousin made for extra procrastination. Her getting violently ill made for additional interruptions. Finally able to get some sleep at 1am, I was awakened at 3 by the sound of the fire alarm coming from the library. With everyone who lived on campus away on vacation, I knew I needed to go greet the firefighters and make sure that no flames had engulfed the building that housed my internet connection.

But an odd calm came over me, because I knew the motions of preaching. I managed to fake it thanks to having grown up as a preacher's kid. No one seemed to notice that it was my first sermon. Even I hardly paid attention to that. I didn't have time to worry about getting nervous. Between working 20 hours a week for the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, taking a summer class in Pastoral Administration and attempting to have a social life, there just wasn't enough time to agonize over the fact that I was masquerading as a pastor.

In enjoyed the safety of denial until one Sunday when I was visiting a homebound parishioner following church. As we sat in her bedroom the telephone rang. She excused herself and answered it. I could here her greet her friend, then announce in a rather think Brooklyn accent "I can't tawk with you right now. I'm having a visit from my past-a."
I looked around excited at the possibility that a minister would be joining us only make a horrifying discovery: this poor unknowing woman thought that I was her pastor.

Over the course of that summer I continued to act as if I was this congregation's seminarian pastor. The first few weeks were more difficult than then next. Leading worship was exciting and terrifying at the same time. I leading the prayer of confession, and freaked out inside each time I said the assurance of pardon afterwards. The task of proclaiming an entire congregation's forgiveness seemed a little too large for a little mortal like myself. Inside I felt as though I barely had my act together. But fortunately, I was not the one actually doing the forgiving. Once I realized that I had nothing to do with the entire interaction between the individual in the pew and God, it made announcing our forgiveness much easier. I only stated a fact, but God made it all possible. I would have no trouble announcing to a large group of people something as plainly true as the score of the previous night's Yankees game. What was the difference between declaring that truth and proclaiming the truth that God forgives our sins?

The only thing more challenging than the assurance of pardon was saying the benediction. As a child, I remember my Aunt Sue asking my little brother what it takes to be a minister. He immediately responded that being a minister was simple, all you had to do was raise both your arms with two fingers and your thumb stretched out and saying "Go now in peace." In his young eyes, the act of offering a benediction signified the mark of being a minister. And he is right. Ministers are the ones who provide encouragement, comfort, challenge and faith through the act of blessing others. I still tremble inside every time I offer a benediction.

The poor congregation at Flatlands suffered for months with the need of a solid benediction. My fear of being a minister led me to shutter under the task. The end of the service meant a weak, soft-spoken, hesitant blessing from a young seminarian afraid of her task. Sure I said the words, but words alone do not make up the entire task. Finally, a friend of mine visited our service. As we drove back home, she provided me with a critique of my leading worship. While the preaching moved her, she said that the benediction was wholly disappointing. I explained to her that ministers give benedictions and that I was merely a seminarian. Thoroughly unimpressed, she delivered her own sermon. "Listen Ann, you may not think that you're a minister. You may not even like the idea. But like it or not, you are the only one who will give those people a benediction this week. Those people deserve a good blessing, and you're the one who's got to do it. So even if you don't think you're a minister, you're going to have to buck up and benedict. God is depending on it, and so are they!"

That settled the matter. If the congregation needed me to act as if I were their minister, then I would have to do a better job at it. And they needed someone to be their minister. It was just taking them longer than they thought to find someone qualified for the job. By the end of the summer, their pastor search committee decided to forego hiring an interim pastor. They hadn't found anyone available in the area, and rumor had it things were going reasonably well with their seminarian. And so I ended up staying with them for the next year.

The year that I spent with the Flatlands Reformed Church taught me more about ministry than I ever would have learned in a lifetime of classes. Ten thousand books cannot make a pastor, but a congregation of twenty-five certainly went a long way to forming me into a minister. I learned about faith and hope and patience. I learned a lot about patience. Church time runs much more slowly than capitalist time, and it became clear to me that big transformations in the life of a congregation occur slowly, as the result of extremely small, almost invisible changes. The church had developed over the course of 349 years and I could neither kill it nor keep it alive. My job was to serve God by loving the congregation, encouraging them, and allowing them to be themselves.

Loving the people of Flatlands was the easiest assignment I have been given in seminary. They were hungry for love. And I was excited that they allowed me to be their student pastor.

Meanwhile, I actually managed to find the time date someone.
We met during my one-week off for vacation in the summer. She immediately intrigued me because she didn't believe in God, but she enjoyed going to her hippie Anglican church where they drank coffee throughout the service and allowed worshippers to attend with their dogs. I had always wanted to meet a nice Christian woman with whom I could share my faith and my connection to ecclesiastical life. While she might not believe in the words of the Apostle's Creed, at least she liked church, albeit a church with dogs and coffee inside (which, I'll admit was a real challenge to my old school additudes).

Life seemed to make sense during this time. The familiar rhythms of school and work and church on Sunday felt perfect to me. Then it changed. The dating relationship went south, and
within a few weeks, I learned that Flatlands planned to call a full-time ordained pastor to be their minister. While I knew that I still had another year of seminary to go, in the back of my mind I had hoped that perhaps they would keep me on as their minister. Foolish, but reasonable. Heartbreak. Times two.

I did my best to keep things together for the next few months. My best buddy April, the seriously observant Jew, took me out for lunch, invited me for shabbos dinner, answered my instant messages, talked on the phone and basically listened to my ramblings ad nausium. She assured me that there would be another church and another girl. When April needed a break from pastoral care duties, I'd hang out with Chris. I started to run, which felt horrible at first, but provided a great outlet for any excess stress, sadness and anger.

While I may have believed that life would never get better, and proceeded to stomp my feet and act out accordingly, I'm most proud that I don't think my childish mood came out in church. Sunday after Sunday I managed to lead worship and love the congregation with integrity, and with a continued sense of love for the people of Flatlands. April was right, there would be another church and another girl, and I needed to be patient. I also needed to remember that I had a job to do, and a calling to live out and no amount of heartbreak should keep me from doing that.

A few months past, and just as quickly as things had seemed to fall apart, they suddenly changed for the better. April was right. It just took me by surprise. A Sunday school teacher who attended the same church as I did before starting to work at Flatlands left a message for me at work asking if we could meet over coffee and talk about seminary life. Jennifer was interested in attending New Brunswick, but wanted to know more about it. After several scheduling mishaps, we met outside her office in Rockefeller Center on a beautiful day and walked around midtown talking about God, church, seminary and the rest of our lives.

We met again the following week for another midtown walk. The night after she came to visit campus I found an email in my inbox asking if I would like to accompany her to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. "I hear the cherry blossoms are in bloom," she wrote. Immediately I sent an instant message to April and asked her to exegete the email for its deeper meaning. April discerned that a trip to the Botanical Garden most definitely constituted a date.

Meanwhile, several well-meaning members of the Brooklyn Classis began to play their own game of matchmaker. They told me that the small congregation in Greenpoint might need a seminarian. They didn't have much money, but their parsonage was legendary as the most beautiful place in New York. That's at least what they told me. I don't know what they said to the congregation in Greenpoint about me, but I'm sure it wasn't about my legendary beauty.

A few weeks after I spent a Sunday afternoon among the cherry blossoms, I found myself preaching to a small group of faithful folks in North Brooklyn. Supposedly they had a congregational meeting afterwards and agreed to ask me to come and be their seminarian pastor. With only ten folks present, I imagine the meeting was closer to a conversation over coffee and doughnuts. I began on the third Sunday of August. Three people attended church that morning -- including the organist.

Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and suddenly the end of seminary is in sight. Small changes have led to large transformations. I started my second attempt at seminary still wrestling with the trauma of September 11th. It may have been a form of escape from the Wall Street lifestyle, but looking back I can see how the little things have grown. I am completely surprised at the shocking things that God has done with me and for me during this time. Each one of those 53 sermons is one more than I ever imagined preaching, or being allowed to preach. My kidneys have not given out under the strain of all that Diet Pepsi used to fuel late night studying. I haven't gone broke. Instead, I've seen again and again that God is indeed faithful.


At 12:45 PM, Blogger Kathryn said...

This is lovely to read, Anne.Thank you for posting...things are so very different on your side of the Atlantic and the experience of pastoring a church single handed while at seminary just wouldn't happen here,but was clearly of huge value to you - and to the church too.

At 8:49 AM, Anonymous Suzanne said...

Dear Anne,
Thanks for sharing this. Your honesty and perspective and testimony to God's provision and grace were just what I needed to read this morning! Can I do my de-lurking while I'm in this post? Can't remember how I found your blog but I bookmarked it because I live in Queens, am in the discernment process with the Episcopal church, and am gay. I am at the end of the discernment process (it's been 3 yrs!) and a decision should be made sometime in March, which will mean seminary (or not). Am feeling quite daunted at the moment. The closer I get, the more I see what it requires, and the more I go "Lord is this really where we're going?" Then I remember that the only time I feel like a whole version of me is when I'm listening and loving and ministering to someone...
Anyway, sorry to ramble on! Glad you're writing-your journey encourages me! Blessings to you!


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