This was supposed to be called “How/Why I Became A Pastor” but “How Seminary Ruined My Life” has a certain ring to it. To be fair, this is really about college at the University of Richmond and seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, KY), because my road to being a pastor took significant steps forward in my sophomore through senior years as a Spider. But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s rewind to freshman year. (You may want to read the previous installment, “Why I Am A Christian,” but it’s not mandatory!)
Freshman year, I did it all. I was a card-carrying member of at least a dozen organizations by Christmas, and going to class was sometimes an afterthought to my co-curriculars. I participated in a few Christian organizations, tried out some churches in the area, and settled on the on-campus chapel service led by the university chaplain. The chaplain was a man of high caliber, who served for twenty-plus years in that capacity, preaching that God longed to have a relationship with everyone, and proving to be one of the finest mentors I’ve ever had.
But in one of the campus organizations, I heard a different form of interpretation. Here, Christianity was about abstaining from everything “the world” was involved in, and I wondered sometimes if I fit in there. The organization made the decision about participation easier for me; when I applied for a leadership position for the following year, I was told I had “too many non-Christian friends” to be a good fit there. (Somehow, they still asked me to lead a Bible study for the first years.) I went home that summer wondering where I fit into the picture of “Church” on campus, but confident that I had some straightening up to do of my life.
Sophomore year, I narrowed the extracurriculars to three or four, and actually went to class. I still loved to be everywhere, but I realized that I had to make some fast determinations about who I was going to be. In the process, I was invited by a friend of mine to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. We met in a little meeting room, just ten of us and two adults who lead the study and worship. Pretty soon, the guy who’d invited me stopped coming and I was left with nine football players… and me. For as homogeneous as the school was, our group was multicultural. And what we had grew under the right situations: prayer, a desire to share what we had, and some encouraging administrators who funded outreach. By the end of the second year, we had grown to a group of over one hundred, still multicultural, but now co-ed as well.
These situations made me recognize that I had experienced two kinds of campus ministers (broadly) in the half-dozen Christian campus ministries on campus: one group who knew the Bible and judged me severely by it, and one group who were less comfortable with the Bible than I was but who were culturally relevant. And while forty years my senior, the Scripturally-savvy and openly welcoming chaplain proved to be the kind of person I wanted to be (the happy medium) when I grew up. Which was about the time that God made it clear that maybe I was supposed to be that kind of minister, not one who was either too far one way or another.
Fast forward a year and a half, and I’m sitting in class at Asbury in the middle of Nowheresville, KY. I had heard that there was a solid, Biblical, academic reputation to the school, even though I didn’t know what a Methodist was yet, and so I went. (I might choose Duke Seminary should I ever get the call for a second degree, but here’s hoping my days in school are done. You know how that goes.) I didn’t know anyone, I’d never visited, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. (Did I mention I didn’t know what a Methodist was yet?)
To be clear: I didn’t “enjoy” seminary. There were mitigating factors though: I soon discovered that there weren’t a lot of people like me at seminary. I was engaged to the woman who has now been my wife of eleven years, and my desire to be with her drove me monthly to see her eight hours away. I had probably overdone school for successive years in a row. I was immature and unsure about what God wanted next for my life (I went believing I was supposed to become a campus minister, that I needed to have theological understandings about God before I tried teaching others about God). I was a mess.
Life outside of the classroom was certainly interesting. Over the two and a half years I was there, I juggled several jobs to pay the bills: admissions work, work study data entry, water and sewer in town, tutoring at-risk boys, construction, serving cappuccinos near the University of Kentucky. I served at a local hospital (the first week, an elderly woman told people she’d been abused by a hospital employee but she’d only talk to the administrators if I was present) and a megachurch (fifteen hundred people came out to seven different services a week). I played basketball five days a week, volleyball twice a week, and Playstation with a few good friends until the wee hours of the morning… every day. In some ways, it was just an extension of college.
But seminary is a funny place. It’s full of the same kind of people who are in the church, and who are in the world. They are broken, selfish, rundown, scared, and lonely people (but they are also amazing, compassionate, selfless, Christ-like people, too). I remember experiencing homophobic behavior in a dorm setting, and being surprised when someone noticed that I spoke out against it. I remember seeing cliques break down friendships, and the desire to date or marry dominate social interactions. I remember being spoken to derisively because I wasn’t “in” as a Methodist by professors, and experienced the small town life where a seminary and a college elbowed each other for space instead of ministering together.
And yet, I am the man, the pastor, the husband, and the friend who I am today in part because of seminary.
In seminary, my RA took me under his wing, watched Duke-UNC games, and challenged me to explore my world theologically. (He’d later send some checks for groceries to a friend of ours, so that I’d have more to eat than peanut butter crackers and bottles of IGA water for lunch.) When I snapped my leg in half playing soccer one Saturday morning, and my Greek prof kicked me out of class for missing a session while I was getting casted, a group of women let me sleep on their couch, cooked me food, drove me to the doctors, and reminded me that I wasn’t alone. When I stood to be one class short of graduating a semester early because of missing Greek, my advisor created an independent study just for me. When I flipped my car on the way to work one morning, and found myself stranded in Wilmore, three different people lent me their cars so that I could get to Virginia so I could see my fiancee. When I was nearly forced to leave because I didn’t have the funds to pay for a summer class, an anonymous donor left four hundred dollars on my chair during a break so my bill got paid.
I’m a pastor today because in the midst of my wilderness, God showed up. He showed up in the midst of my car wreck, as the emergency staff told me that the call they’d received meant they expected someone dead on the scene. But I didn’t experience (until looking back much later!) the presence of God in the midst of a thunderstorm (like Martin Luther) or a warming of the heart (like John Wesley), but in the people who rose up to be my community, even in the midst of my isolation. I had to get somewhere that my normal crutches, like extracurriculars, my dating relationship, and “going out,” couldn’t exist, and Wilmore, KY, was that place. I certainly learned from Drs. Whiteman, Dongell, Green, Witherington, and Thobaben, as well as some others, but I learned even more from my peers, by the angels I encountered, unaware.
At a time when I needed God to “show up and show off” (still my favorite quote from Hometown Legend…maybe my only one), these people showed me what it meant to be real, to be Christian, and to believe that God’s calling rises above whatever life (and other people) throw at you. I believe it, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. How about you?
Next week: Why I’m a Methodist (Pastor) or “How Grace Is Gonna Get You”
One of the most powerful posts ever.
Thanks, Mrs. Lee!
Jacob, I always love reading your posts, but this one really touched me. So glad you were an influence on Hannah as she was becoming a young Christian woman,
Thank you, Susan! Hannah’s parents did the hard work!!– I am glad I got to be there, too.
Great insightful words! I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. It was the best learning/growing experience of my life. I had great friends and great professors from EVERY denomination. What I learned during the week, I put into practice on Sunday. Even my congregation could see the intellectual and spiritual growth in my as I got real life ministry skills and a sold foundation in biblical theology – both from the GCTS experience! I would imagine that not everyone who went to GCTS had the same experience as i did, but for me it was positively formative in every way.
Your former pastor, Harold Carl
Thanks for sharing, Reverend Carl. I have some friends who went to GCTS and thought it was very solid as well. I’m thankful for what I learned at ATS inside the classroom and out!
I’ve said I may not continue to pastor, but seminary would make me a better layperson. I’m certainly dangerous from the faith stretching education and experience I’ve had. By removing the “connect the dots” and “formulaic” approach to faith, I find I have to rely on real faith in the God of mystery and revelation.
Tom, if you didn’t continue, it would be a loss to the big “C” church. You’re a good man. I know things don’t always go the way we want them to (or know they should) but you are a faithful servant, my friend.
When I saw this come up yesterday morning, I couldn’t bring myself to read it while in yet another “moment” of the stress. Last night, in a short text from a person I don’t often speak to, God “showed up” and gave me a little of that grace in knowing God’s IN the moment. This morning, you continue to give me Grace in keeping perspective. Thank you once again! 🙂
Thank you for sharing. It was by far the hardest one I had to write. Glad I could help 🙂 Keep your chin up!
Thank you for honestly sharing your experience. I love this line:I’m a pastor today because in the midst of my wilderness, God showed up.
-Tasha, The Bridge Chicago
Thank you for reading and posting, Tasha! It’s so true!