Just four months ago, my friend, the Rev. Beth Tjoflat, was preaching at my ordination to the priesthood, and she said something about my being a scholar priest, someone called to be a theologian, but also someone who had a heart for Jesus and for serving people in the Church. And I thought, “Yes yes yes.” True dat. I had been straddling two tracks, that of a preacher/pastor in training and a scholar in training, for all three years at Yale Divinity School, and Beth knew this well.
There is a traditional path for preparing to be a publicly acknowledged theologian, and that is to obtain a Ph.D. in theology, to publish academic articles, reviews, and books, etc. And so I jumped into that work in my systematic theology Ph.D. program at Fordham University: passing the language exams, taking the required courses (and even more than the required courses), writing the required papers.
In the meantime, I was serving as a priest associate in a limited fashion (Sundays only) at Christ Church in Bronxville, NY. It seemed I was going to keep straddling these two tracks. However, it became clear early on that, as much as I enjoyed the people in my program, it wasn’t feeding me and preparing me in the way I had expected. I love theology, but sitting in the classroom wasn’t doing it for me.
On the other hand, I felt an incredible pull to work in the church (as I always have, in fact). I would leave Christ Church Bronxville every Sunday thinking, “I want to come back on Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday.” It’s not that I hated academia and loved church. It’s that I found the outlet for my theological reading and writing more powerful in the church than in academia. Unbeknownst to the people of Christ Church Bronxville, I was folding the thinking of Kierkegaard and Levinas and Kathryn Tanner into my sermons at church.
And, as my fellow graduate students know, I frequently drew church issues and pastoral care examples into classroom conversations to illustrate a theological point.
But I had a growing impression that I needed to be OUT THERE, in the world, in the church, doing theology on the ground, rather than remaining in a lengthy program of preparation for an official affirmation of vocation that I did not really feel that I needed.
And so, only a month or so after my friend preached about my being a scholar priest, I started applying for positions at Episcopal churches–especially positions emphasizing congregational development or emergent church. These are ways of describing the work of reaching out to the unchurched, the dechurched, and those who keep trying to make church work for them. They don’t know how to make it in the door or find what they need when they get there, and some churches want to help them encounter God, Christ, and their best selves.
To my utter delight, the churches that expressed an interest in meeting me were the very ones who had that same sense of mission, and they wanted someone with a passion for and experience in starting new things from scratch or renewing things.
Last week, after weeks or months of discussion with various churches around the country, I accepted a call to work on congregational development for All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. One of the largest Episcopal churches in the country, All Saints Pasadena also has a reputation for working tirelessly on peace and justice issues, for being vocal in the political arena, and for having strong programs for children and adults.
It wasn’t their reputation that attracted me, actually. In fact, I was embarrassed to admit that I was apparently the only Episcopalian in the country who was completely unaware of their reputation. I was drawn by the job description, and then when I had a Skype interview with a large hiring committee, I was even more intrigued by additional things I heard about the job. When they asked me to respond to essay questions, I realized that I liked the questions they were asking. And then I had four days of visits, meals, interviews, and worship with the people of All Saints Pasadena. And in my mind, even as I was having wonderful conversations with wonderful people at other churches and keeping myself open to ongoing discernment, I kept thinking, “Yes yes yes” to Pasadena.
Unbeknownst to the people of All Saints, I was practically quoting Slavoj Zizek, the “wild man of critical theory,” in a couple of my interview responses. And I was laughing inside about the reversal of situations: rather than bringing up pastoral issues in theology and philosophy classes, I was once again bringing theology and philosophy to pastoral discussions.
In that sense, perhaps I still am a scholar priest, and my friend Beth will not have to eat her words. I don’t feel that my year at Fordham was a mistake; nor do I feel that I am abandoning scholarship and the work of theology when I leave the official classroom. The work of theology on the ground is vital as well, and it is the work to which I feel called. I have felt just as intellectually and spiritually engaged at churches like Christ Church Bronxville and All Saints Pasadena as I have in school.
I have very much noted the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this, and that’s a good thing to point out the day after Pentecost. Though it may seem that the Spirit blows us one way for a while, and then blows us in another, I have actually felt carried along in the Spirit’s running stream, full of delight and curiosity at my wild ride, but running into a couple of rocks now and then. Sometimes what seems like a detour is actually a very important leg in the journey.
It’s a good thing to remain open to the Spirit’s guidance, to simply lie back and let Her waters take us where She wills, when She wills. (I’ve had about four spiritual directors in a row tell me this, and they are probably rejoicing that I finally get this.) In the words of the, uh, prolific Molly Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Yes I said Yes I will Yes.”
I hope you, too, surrender to the Spirit and find your Yes. It’s amazing.