Apr 15 2011

The Seminary Experience

With two weeks to go, my time as a first-year seminarian is almost complete. Like every other academic year, the exams and papers have whirled by and the summer welcomes my return. But this year has been different, and it deserves some reflection.

When I applied to seminary, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but hoped that my role as a minister and person of faith would be clarified simply by applying – as though seminary would be some kind of all-knowing crystal ball. What a funny thought.

At the time, I was living in France, teaching English to French students and traveling to new locales every other week. The two years prior had been spent in coastal Mississippi, teaching 9th-12th graders History, Government/Economics, and Geography and coaching Track and Cross Country. On top of teaching, I had spent two summers in South Bend, IN participating in an intensive summer-long graduate program. By the end of May 2009, I was exhausted and in need of sleep and self-care. France had become not just an opportunity for adventure, but also a respite from the exhaustion that comes with teaching in the United States.

After four months of relaxation, I became restless. Sure the 12-hour work week was nice, and I loved each of the bakeries lining our small community’s streets, but I needed a challenge. So I applied to seminary.

When August rolled around, I couldn’t contain myself. Eager to meet my classmates, and even more excited to dive into my studies, I began Contextual Education at Metro State Prison as an intern prison chaplain four hours a week, I enrolled in classes, and  immediately connected with people in my advising group. Life was perfect.

It wasn’t until October that I started panicking. In the middle of writing a paper for Old Testament, my knees started to buckle. “What am I doing here? I don’t even like this stuff!” “Ugh, I hate writing this paper. I mean, I’m not even going to be ordained!” When my boyfriend looked at me and said, “You don’t really seem to be enjoying what you’re learning,” I thought “Oh, crap. I think you might be right.”

After that, I started to look for an exit plan. I made a pros and cons list. I talked to my sister, my mom, and my cousin. I cried to my boyfriend. I prayed, sort of.

Gritting my teeth, I entered January term with uncertainty. Not only was I uncomfortable, but I felt strange. I’d always been the person to say, “Grow where you’re planted,” and here I was trying my hardest to avoid my commitment to seminary. I was scared about what others might think, worried about what it would mean if I left, and mad that I had made a poor decision. Most of my questions ended with the question all of us ask as some point or another, “Do you even know who you are?”

My existential crisis did not end with one decisive event. Instead, it morphed into a process of discovery in which I started to examine more closely the elements of seminary that had made me most uncomfortable. What I realized is that I had been sitting in an Old Testament classroom discussing the significance of the three worlds of biblical interpretation, redaction theory, and exegesis, but I didn’t have the faintest clue what any of those things meant. I had spent every Friday working in the lock-down ward of a women’s prison, speaking to women through a rectangular flap in the door and feeling exhausted by and disenchanted with our justice system. I had absorbed myself in research about the American sex industry and the ways in which pastors can help care for all persons involved in such forms of entertainment. I missed teaching so badly, that I blamed seminary for robbing me of my gifts and talents. And lastly, I struggled to establish for myself a place in which I could foster my artistic side and produce creative projects. It seemed that I had become so overwhelmed that I couldn’t see the proverbial forest through the trees.

When I awoke to this realization, I was able to see seminary for what it is: a place in which human beings come to learn, grow, and be challenged in the name of God. It’s not about earning a formal degree or a collar so that you can become a minister in a church someday. If it is, you’ll probably burn out pretty quickly. It’s not about having all your ducks in the row. If it is, you’re in for a messy surprise (see: Job). It’s not about loving every single service experience, every single lecture, or even every book of the Bible. If it is, you are a better person than me. It’s not about being holier than thou or about power. If it is, we’ve lost Christ in the midst of it all. And, it’s not about always being comfortable, always knowing what it means to be a minister, or always liking what you’re doing. If it is, no one would last. Instead, it’s about journeying alongside other creatures of God who seek to discover new ways of conceiving of the Divine, communing with the cosmos, and living into the fullness of Life. We seminarians do this not because we think we have the answers or because talking to others about God is easy or even always natural, but because we know that our lives are sustained and enriched by union with the Most Gracious.

If you’re contemplating seminary, I’d encourage you to pursue the journey. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. If you’re a current student, I appreciate your presence, thank you for your endurance, and admire you for your voice. If you’re a graduate of seminary, I pray that the three years you spent at Candler continue to challenge you and inspire you for the rest of your ministry on this earth.

I have no doubt Candler was the right choice for me, even if there are days I wish it were otherwise. Not only has it shaken me, but it has also grounded me and changed me for the better. And, when all is said and done, there is not much more I could ask for in a seminary.

Amen.

- Jacqueline Jeffcoat

Jacqueline is a 1st year MDiv student from Fort Worth, Texas and a Student Ambassador.


Oct 15 2010

Transformative Listening

Listening is not as easy as you think. It requires more of you than you might realize. Consider those times in class, at work, or evenings with your family when you are told a story. Do you daze off, thinking about what you want for dinner? Do you focus less on the content of the conversation and more on the mole on his cheek? Do you act like a Bobble-head figurine, nodding without hearing the words of your friend? Even I, a self-proclaimed “good listener,” have the tendency to do such things. So when Dr. Bounds mentioned we would be learning how to listen in class, I knew it meant a change of character.

Grouped together according to our site placements, Tuesday afternoon’s Church and Community Ministries course was in desperate need of a change of character. I say this not as an affront against the class; rather, I say this knowing that our course, our site placements, and our Contextual Education experiences demand it.

Located at the Gateway Center for the homeless and Metro State Prison for Women, twenty-two of us moonlight as chaplain interns every week. Entering spaces charged with stories of poverty, violence, and social exclusion, we are asked to put our lives on hold and listen to our fellow brothers and sisters. Listening in this environment requires us to be authentic, acknowledging our biases, trigger points, and the social power we wield as educated seminarians. If we don’t do this – if we place authenticity on the backburner – we risk failing to establish genuine relationships, the sort that have the potential for actual transformation.

For this reason, along with many others, Dr. Bounds knew that lessons on listening would change our approach to Contextual Education. And, I might argue, our entire approach to seminary. Her emphasis to become engaged listeners was much more than just a practice in mental cognition. It was a call to empathetically enter into someone else’s life. This meant actively listening to a female inmate or client who had recently lost a loved one, been victimized by another, or just needed an open ear. It meant holding back our comments, opinions, and advice until a relationship had been established. And it meant recognizing that our role was to befriend and serve, not control.

When class ended, I remember feeling stronger. I recall thinking how important it is to be present in all of my relationships, to interact with intention, and to give each individual the empathetic ear they deserve.

Whether we are at Metro, at Gateway, or in the middle of Old Testament, our relationships can be transformed by the way we listen. By evaluating our intentions and tendencies we are less likely to monopolize conversations, forget important details, or give disingenuous advice. We also free the individual to explore her heart in a non-restrictive way, which may then lead her to open up and let someone in. This letting in not only transforms the individual but leads to the deeply authentic and rich relationships our world needs today.

So take the time to listen. Evaluate your tendencies. Be engaged. And empathetically enter into the life of another with heartfelt compassion.

- Jacqueline Jeffcoat

Jacqueline is a 1st year MDiv student from Fort Worth, Texas and a Student Ambassador.