May 31 2013

Learning to Rely on God

“They don’t teach you that in seminary”, or “You do not learn this in seminary” is one of the common catch phrases I have heard being thrown around by pastors and laity alike. It is sometimes said with a snide undertone that conveys the idea that seminary education, when put to the real life test of pastoral leadership, is found wanting. And it always brings to mind my Candler education and learning experience.

My three years at Candler were among the most fruitful of any preparatory experience I could ever have to become a pastor. The academic rigor, the contextual programs, and the shared wisdom of my professors and fellow peers have indelibly shaped who I am and how I serve as a pastor.

My first appointment after seminary as pastor-in-charge of a small church in the heart of Atlanta became the litmus test for my seminary education. Though the church was small, the worshipers who came were very diverse. They ranged from the very elderly members, to the transient national and international Ph.D. students from Georgia Tech, along with the visitors who came because they were invited or were in need of a place to worship. They were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Seekers. I had to serve all in their different life journeys, attending to their needs, while guiding them to the constant awareness of their souls’ worth. We had numerous conversations about Scripture and the interpretation, the Kingdom and reign of God, and death. One can imagine what those conversations were like with such a variety.  In one Bible study session about sin, one of my aerospace engineering graduate students drew a diagram that showed the Holy Spirit as a “sin-dampener function” to explain her understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work.  How more relevant could church be?

This small church was certainly not your everyday cut to fit church. Notwithstanding, it was certainly the best church I could have been appointed to because of the experience I gained. And I could not have been effective or make the impact I did without my seminary education. As the only pastor, with no staff support, I relied fully on God and put into practice what I had learned at Candler. I remember there were times I went back to my notes and textbooks from my “Leadership in Small Membership Church” class with Dr. Rogers to draw upon the insights I had gained. During the sermon preparation for my first funeral, I pulled the notes from my “Preaching about Death” class with Drs. Long and Kraftchick and crafted my sermon accordingly.

Now in my second appointment as the associate pastor at one of the biggest churches in the North Georgia Conference, I still draw on my seminary education from Candler. And I know this education will still be of great benefit to me in the many years to come. When writing sermons, or having conversations about Scripture, or making decisions about ordering the life of the church, or anything to do with ministry in general, I still find myself saying “Thank you, Dr. Rogers,” or “Thank you, Dr. Long,” or “Thank you, Dr Fry Brown,” or “Thank you, Dr. Carolyn StephensErskine.”

Thus the phrase “They don’t teach you that in seminary” should never be used as a broad spectrum brush to paint a picture of what is lacking in seminary education, for though I know that no one can ever learn everything in seminary, I know that what I have learned at Candler is taking me farther than where I would have been without it.

- Carolyn Stephens

Carolyn is a 2011 graduate from Candler and Associate Pastor at Cannon Church in Snellville, GA.


May 24 2013

You Won’t Learn That Here

“School did not prepare me for this.”

Despite the excellent academic education that I received at Candler – the rigorous instruction in Christian history, the intensity of my Greek classes, the thought-provoking learning of the “symbolic worlds” of the New Testament – those are the words that came to mind when I first began my journey in hospital chaplaincy.

Because, really, what can prepare you to make a hand print of a recently-deceased infant? Or explain to a five-year-old that his brother won’t be coming home with him? Or sit with a scared and exhausted mother while her child is undergoing surgery?

As a Chaplain Resident in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, I face all of these situations and more on a weekly basis. When I first felt the call towards chaplaincy, I eagerly piled my academic schedule with many pastoral care classes. I loved all of them, and have had opportunities to reference the materials I learned there. At the end of the day, though, I discovered that no amount of reading, lectures, or memorization prepared me to do the actual day-to-day work I engage in as a Chaplain in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

What it did prepare me for – critically – is how to think theologically in every situation.

During my orientation week at Candler, I remember then-professor of New Testament studies Dr. Michael Joseph Brown relating a discussion he had with a recent graduate and new pastor. She was telling him a story about how the pipes in her church’s bathroom burst, and jokingly complained about how “she didn’t learn how to repair church plumbing at Candler.” He relayed this story to us, and plainly stated, “I’m going to tell you right now, you’re not going to learn anything about church plumbing here.” He went on to tell us, however, that there is a significant difference between pastors who simply perform tasks – be they repairing plumbing or preaching – and pastors who know how to integrate everything in their world – from the stories of the saints of the faith, to an understanding of how Greek philosophy influenced the New Testament – into a way of being that can respond pastorally, theologically, and prophetically to any situation, including burst pipes in the church basement.

Dr. Brown’s words have been prophetic in my own life and work. Many of the tasks that I perform in my current role I have just had to learn by doing. The difference between the pastor I am now and the person I was when I entered seminary, however, is that I can seamlessly reflect on every experience I have, and can place it within the broader context of Christian history.

When I had to pray with and give care to a man who shook his baby to death, I thought of the discussions I had in Dr. Andrea White’s Systematic Theology class about the doctrine of sin. The learning I did there gave me the framework to even begin to make sense of such a complicated tragedy. In my reflections on this event and others like it, I would be completely undone if I didn’t have a firm grasp on what this doctrine means to me, and how people of faith throughout time have used theology in order to understand their own tragedies.

The counsel of Dr. Barbara Day Miller in my Liturgical Writing class to expand our usage of adjectives in our prayers, confronts me every time I am tempted to lazily open with “Gracious God,” at the bedside of a child in the ICU.

The pipes will burst. The copier will stop working right as the bulletins need to get printed off. The call will come for you to get to the hospital as soon as possible. The corpse of a little one will need to be washed and dressed and placed in her mother’s arms. Candler won’t give you the book you need to know how to do all this. But it will give you the tools to make sense of it all, and respond pastorally.

- Whitney E. Walton

Whitney graduated from Candler in May 2012 with an M.Div. degree. She is training to be a board-certified hospital chaplain at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.


May 17 2013

More than a Shepherd

God is LovePrior to graduating in 2010, I had the opportunity to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland and serve at East Belfast Mission. After a year I returned to Atlanta and received my Master of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology.  Two months later I would start in my first appointment back in the Dakotas at a United Methodist Church and Community Center in Pierre, SD.

In many ways, my experiences at Candler, and those that would follow in Belfast, prepared me extremely well for my first appointment. Within Candler and the Atlanta community, I pursued an emphasis in church and community ministries. Ever since my spiritual awakening in college, (when I realized that Jesus’s command to love our neighbor was something we were actually supposed to do) I had been keenly interested in the intersection between faith and action, worship and justice.

Classes in evangelism, non-violence, public life, and non-profits were opportunities to gain knowledge, and they became springboards for broader conversations about the need for personal faith to be connected with community transformation, and how community transformation is best done when it is grounded in personal faith.

Despite my apprehensions of local church ministry, due to my strong social justice interests and reservations about just being a shepherd, I soon discovered two very important things: 1) our theology and beliefs have a profound influence on our practice 2) what better opportunity to connect faith and action than having leadership within a local congregation.

In the ministry which I been a part of for the last three years in Pierre, I have been grateful and excited to help shape the common theology within my congregation about what it means to know God’s love and God’s heart, and what it means to be people of grace living into the kingdom. When we pray for our enemies and when we participate with other people of faith in vigils, our witness is shaped by our theology.

Likewise, our witness in the community is also shaped by our personal faith. I seek to help people be grounded in spiritual disciplines so that theirs hearts are prepared to love, and their cups of grace are ready to overflow. Playing a role in helping people connect their love of God with their love of neighbor can be challenging, but it is extremely rewarding.

As God prepares my own heart and mind for the next chapter of ministry in another appointment, I look forward to being the pastor of a new flock—a flock within the congregation, and the wider flock of the people in the community.

- Karl Kroger

Karl is Director at Southeast Community Center and Pastor at Southeast United Methodist Church in Pierre, South Dakota.


May 10 2013

Mother’s Day!

Stacey HarwellSo I am preaching this Mother’s Day, and I find myself deeply relying on my Candler education as I prepare for this sermon.  By the time you read this, I hopefully will have crafted a sermon that has toed the line between celebrating all the wonderful mothers in the world and yet recognizes that this can be a painful day for some. One of the best things my Candler education offered was awareness of two things: 1) those on the margin with whom Jesus spent a lot of time, and 2) critical re-readings of the Bible.

In my job as Minister of Community Building at Centenary United Methodist Church, I minister with many folks who may have difficulty with Mother’s Day. Many of them come from one parent (most often mom) homes, and their mothers have done the best they can, but between working multiple jobs – to make ends meet while trying to pay the stack of bills that never will seem to go down – these mothers are stressed to the max. Some of the folks I’m in ministry with in my community have been abused by their mothers. Others are mothers who have abused their own children. Within the context of my 11 o’clock congregation, we’ve recently had one woman lose a child shortly after childbirth, another who had a miscarriage, and still others who have tried fertility treatments for years with no luck.  Some folks have children who have run away, others have children who are addicted to substances, and others will have children who will spend this Mother’s day behind bars. And then still further, we have couples who have decided not to have children for many good reasons.   These persons or some representation of all of these types and more, will come to service this Sunday.  When I rise to preach, all of them will be in my mind.  I was well-taught to think about the whole congregation, not just the ones part of whatever “normal” might look like.

When I go to my text on the creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26-31) I will remember this lesson. Fraught with misinterpretation, I will have to use all of my Candler tools to help save this text from where we most often find it at churches.  Instead of deciding whether it’s history or myth, and making a judgment call on my Christianity either way, we will approach it as a proclamation narrative of a creator who created us on purpose, whose work in creation we continue whether we are mothers or not.  Instead of focusing on the sin and fall, we will look at the “very good” imago dei and explore for a minute together in our community of faith what that might look like and what it might call us to do.

Because I want this to come out right, in a way that allows people to really hear what God has revealed in the text of this ancient sacred story in our lives today, I will rely on the many things I learned about preaching and worship planning, weaving the sung salute to God with the prayed petition of God’s people and the spoken sermon. I work closely with a worship team at Centenary to make sure the songs, prayers, and litanies reflect the context and content of the sermon. This idea of nurture from the imago dei is important. We need to get this right.

Then on Monday, I will go back to the Monday-Thursday job I have of figuring out how to find echoes of God’s Eden in our world – to be part of the restoration of the world to God’s shalom for mothers, fathers, and children the world over.  Part of that work will be pastoral care for those who have had difficulties with their mothers. Part of the work will be the joy of visiting a newborn baby in the hospital or the anticipation of life at a congregant’s baby shower.

We could just say Happy Mother’s Day on Sunday. But because of God’s work in my life, I will have to say so much more.

-Stacey Harwell

Stacey is Minister of Community Building at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, GA and a 2010 MDiv graduate of Candler School of Theology.  You can read more about Stacey’s work at Centenary in the most recent Candler Connection.


May 3 2013

At Table

My first Easter at Candler opened my eyes to what Easter worship could be. The singing was beautiful, the preaching was simply fantastic. But what impressed me the most were the yards and yards of sheer fabric soaring through the vaults of Canon Chapel proclaiming, in a visual way, the Risen Christ.

That seed, planted at Candler, became the Westfield Center for Liturgical Creativity which allows neighboring churches to borrow our worship visuals (whole installations or just pieces of them) to use in their services.  Our goal is to help other churches find new ways to use old spaces.

The truth is, however, you don’t have to borrow items from us.  Chances are you’ve got most of what you need right in your own church.

The first time I toured Westfield Church, I found, on the third floor landing, a 19th century farm table. It’s beautiful table.  Chunks of wood are missing here, scrapes and scratches there. There are spots of paint dotting its surface and support reinforcing it’s old legs.

This past Lent, during my Holy Week planning, my mind wandered back to that table. Stored in that third floor corner for who knows how long, I wondered who had gathered around that table over the years. How many confirmation classes had be taught around it? How many crafts had been made on its old planks? How many meals had been shared over it?

I decided that this Holy Week, this Maundy Thursday, we would share communion around that table. How fitting to gather on the night we particularly remember the last supper around a table that generations of our faithful found themselves sitting around.

That night, as we sat in groups of twelve in a mishmash of wooden chairs, we shared communion in the company of that great cloud of witness who had gone before. That meal shared around that table nourished our spirits not just in the meal but in who we were sharing it with that night.

Jon ChapmanAnd in that sharing we knew that we weren’t alone, that we were, indeed, in it all together. That the church through time and around the world was in it with us.   We claimed our history–our stories, our table. And we looked to future–to the good we can accomplish having been nourished by such a meal and reminded of all those whose shoulders we stand on.

Pretty amazing what some fabric, an old table, and God can do.

- Jon Chapman

Jon is  a 2010 graduate of Candler School of Theology and is the pastor of Westfield Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Danielson, CT.  You can find him online (along with visual worship photos and how-tos) at revjonchapman.com.