Posts tagged ministry
This post continues from Pt. 1.
Tell us a bit about Candler. How did you pick it? Is it what you expected? What has been significant about your experience there, good or bad?
I applied to four seminaries: Candler, Dook (that’s Duke for those not schooled in UNC slang), Boston University, and Princeton Seminary. All of these but Princeton are United Methodist-affiliated schools, which is my denominational background. I also visited all but Princeton—they didn’t contact me with their admission decision and financial aid package until quite late, and I had essentially already made my decision for elsewhere. Princeton did offer the only MDiv-MA in Teaching dual-degree program (which I wonder if I shouldn’t have considered more seriously, now that I am considering the possibility of getting some kind of degree in education after my MDiv).
I visited Duke just for one day—and that visit really turned me off. They are very focused on pastoral ministry—which is great! But I was in a process of discernment (and still am) and wasn’t sure if I wanted to pastor a local church. After saying that in my introductory statement that day, I felt almost shunned. So a definite no-go there. Candler and BU both brought me in for a weekend visit—Candler was first and they really sold me on their program, their faculty, their location, etc., and they were very open with the discernment process. BU was great, too—and they originally offered me a good deal more scholarship money. But Candler counter-offered and once my finances lined up with my top choice, it was easy to say yes!
And I do love it here—of the things that I could have expected, it has been on par. What I didn’t expect, I think, is how challenging seminary would be to my faith. That sounds so strange. I came from a huge public university and was incredibly strengthened in my faith in a tight-knit community. Then I come to this much smaller school where everyone is a Christian, and suddenly I’m encountering much more alcohol, sex, swearing, etc. than I ever did in InterVarsity at UNC! So these types of experiences have been forcing me to reconsider my own boundaries and the boundaries of what I consider Christian community to be—I am re-learning who I am as a person and as a Christian. I think that is ultimately good—but it has been so hard and something I didn’t expect at all.
In either your undergrad or seminary studies, what have you learned that has most challenged your faith? Enhanced it?
One of the major things I’ve learned is that we have to acknowledge the anthropological lens through which all things of faith are considered. Take Scripture, for example. It is, indeed, a holy book, but it has been passed down through human hands for thousands of years; it has been written with human perspectives and agendas and cultural contexts. God speaks through it, but there is as much that we can learn about ourselves in it as we can about God. I think the acknowledgment that we are human gives us great freedom to explore our faith intellectually, but we must do it with an awareness of the challenges it will bring, as well.
It is not always easy to let go of childhood beliefs—there is a huge step one has to take between believing that the stories of the Hebrew Bible happened exactly as they are described and recognizing that they may simply be stories crafted by people who had intimate encounters with a God called YHWH and wanted to convey what they took to be theological truths through stories about their people and their experiences in the world. I think either understanding requires faith, but the one that allows for the reality of human experience has really reoriented my faith perspective—and for the better, I think.
What advice would you give to younger students interested in theology?
I would encourage high schoolers to check out the program at Candler (shameless plug!) called Youth Theological Initiative. It is on hiatus this summer (2011) but should be back in full swing the following year. It is an amazing month-long opportunity for high schoolers to study theology with renowned professors and be in a peer group that will reflect on theology in the classroom and in the world. It is an awesome program to look into.
Other than that, my advice is to always ask questions! Even the ones that people sometimes don’t want to hear. This may sound strange—but don’t let people treat you like you’re a heretic for questioning something or believing something that is outside the box. God can handle your questions! Find people with whom you feel comfortable discussing the issues you most care about—and let loose! Get in arguments, challenge yourself! Find an outlet where you can creatively express your thoughts–writing, visual art, dance, etc. Explore and learn and think as much as you can!
In many ways, this is the church’s perennial question: Just how much like the culture should we be?
Why be like the surrounding culture to begin with? One reason, of course, is to help contextualize the gospel in a way that makes sense to other people. While historically many Western Christian missionaries imposed their culture on others, today many missionary training programs emphasize the importance of “incarnational ministry,” in which the missionaries themselves change many of their cultural practices and live among the people they’re working with as friends rather than outsiders. The idea of incarnational ministry stems from the belief that we, like Jesus, should become more like “the other” and go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us and become like us. When we do ministry incarnationally, there is a value placed on the host culture and an assumption that the Christianity that arises in that place will keep its original cultural flavor.
All of this, of course, assumes that various cultures bring unique beauty and insight into the larger body of Christ. Our cultures reflect God’s image in a special way, highlighting specific aspects of God’s character and particular values of God’s kingdom. But every culture also has its blind spots. As people convert to Christianity from any culture background, they become aware of not only their cultures’ blessings but also their cultures’ incompatibilities with the gospel. A culture might highly value communal life, a value that contributes positively to the church and jives well with Christian theology; however, the same culture might need to rethink its approach to social hierarchies—just one example.
Of course, we aren’t always aware of the pros and cons of our cultures, especially those of us who live most of our lives in a more isolated cultural context, whether as part of a cultural majority or a more insulated cultural minority. Without any comparisons, it can become difficult to see our cultures for what they are—both good and bad. This leads me to the second reason churches might be like the surrounding culture: mere cultural absorption. Churches often take it for granted that the surrounding culture’s way of doing things is the “normal” or best way, usually without even realizing it. For as much as some Christians criticize aspects of our culture (e.g., promiscuity, violent movies, racism, etc.), many can’t even grasp how deeply other aspects of the same culture have hold of them.
I was particularly reminded of this through a couple of recent articles from the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today about the bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral, a megachurch in Orange County, California. I haven’t been to the Crystal Cathedral myself, but living in L.A. county, it is just south of me, and I hear about it here and there. Basically, they have an extravagant building and extravagant Christmas pageants and other such things, and they’ve finally run out of money.
There may be multiple reasons for the financial difficulties, but I blame a great part of it on a lack of consideration of the cultural blind spots they’ve inherited. Majority American culture loves to spend, loves everything “bigger and better,” loves flashy entertainment. We also aren’t particularly good at caring for the poor with the money we’d rather be spending on ourselves (individually, as families, or even as churches). I find these aspects of our culture to be harmful and not particularly Christian, but they often just come with being American.
We live in our very commercialized, market-driven culture, which affects how we think we should do church. Perhaps we’re trying to be “hip” by being like the culture, or perhaps we’re completely unaware of the culture at all. Either way, it’s easy to forget to think critically about our cultural baggage and to be discerning about what level of cultural accommodation can mesh well with our Christian faith. I don’t think we all need to be Amish, but maybe using corporate America or suburban values as our guide isn’t the best idea either.
Regardless of your thoughts on the Crystal Cathedral, most of us can probably agree on one thing: Sifting the good from the bad in our cultures is a challenging task. I think the church has always struggled, to some extent, to culturally contextualize itself, but it has struggled at least as much (maybe more) with being properly countercultural. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and it often requires dialogue with someone from outside our culture to help us really see the ways in which that culture holds us back from following Christ—as well how our culture itself can bring glory to God.
Not everybody with an interest in theology goes on to major in religion or attend seminary one day…. but some do! What leads people to seminary? What do people appreciate about the experience? Might seminary be for you? To connect you with current seminarians and seminary graduates, I’m going to be posting some occasional interviews. Though I’m limited by my pool of contacts at various schools, I hope these posts give you a sense of what seminary is like, as well as informing you about some schools you might consider!
Our first interview comes from Whitney, a second-year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Whitney graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 with an A.B. in Religious Studies. We became friends as leaders for UNC’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Tell us a little bit about Whitney. Where do you come from? What’s your religious background? Anything else we should know about you?
I was raised in a United Methodist home. I was baptized as a child and my parents raised us in a local congregation in Charlotte, NC. We were highly active in the church, so I have a lot of memories of Sunday school, children’s choir, VBS [Vacation Bible School], and so on from my childhood. I first read Scripture before the assembly in this church, I was confirmed in this church, and I had my earliest moments of spiritual awakening at this church. I attended a different church in high school after my parents divorced, and this new church was also United Methodist. When I came to college, I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship which had very strong influences on the formation of my faith and my decision to eventually pursue religious leadership at seminary.
Another important thing about my religious background: everyone in my family is in a different spiritual place. Both my parents raised me and my two siblings in the church, but of my immediate family, only my mother and I claim an active faith at this time. My sister calls herself an atheist, my brother is uninterested, and my dad might be called an Easter-Christmas Christian, except that he hasn’t stepped foot in a church in years. My grandmother is my greatest spiritual role model—she has served as the music minister at her Methodist church in Arkansas and is a great encourager for me as I consider ministry as vocation. What’s more, she truly lives a Christian life, and that is an example that is hard to find, even in seminary.
You were a religious studies major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did you first become interested in studying religion as an academic discipline?
I came to UNC as a journalism major, but realized within my first year that it wasn’t something I wanted to study or pursue professionally. As a sophomore, I took a class called the Philosophy of Religion as an elective credit, and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t declare religious studies as my major until my junior year and decided to do so because the program at UNC is so strong—I still wasn’t sure what career I wanted to pursue, but I wanted to make the most of my time as a student. And I absolutely loved my classes in the religion department at UNC, despite its reputation for devouring sweet young Christians such as myself. ;) I found I was able to maintain a healthy dialogue between my personal faith and my academic study of religion. My studies at UNC most definitely encouraged me to continue studying religion and theology at the graduate level.
Because of your religious studies degree, you already knew a lot more about the Bible than the average person on the street. Why seminary?
I decided around my junior year of college that I wanted to make a career out of ministry, so I knew seminary would be in the picture someday. More than that, though, the religious studies program at UNC was essentially a free-for-all: there were very few required courses and you basically got to choose your own track. Which was great! And for the most part I was able to study what interested me, which did include a decent amount of scriptural studies. But seminary is different, at least in most MDiv programs, I think—you have gen eds [general education classes] that assure you cover all your bases. At Candler we have a year of Hebrew Bible and a year of New Testament that are required for everyone. I have learned so, so much. And even if I had come out of UNC thinking I knew everything there is to know about the Bible, there is always another interpretation, or another manner of presentation, or another professor’s opinion. We don’t call the Bible a living book for nothing—I think it would be most difficult to exhaust its capacity to teach.
This series is continued in Pt. 2.