This Saturday afternoon I am feeling especially blessed. My boyfriend, Jason, and I hiked 1000 Steps yesterday evening, which is a popular hike right outside Huntingdon. Technically climbing over 1000 stone steps to the first landing, and even more to the top, this is an adventure rewarded with some amazing views of Central Pennsylvania’s mountains. It’s a workout to the top, but always worth it. This morning we checked out a yard sale at Stone Church that benefited the youth group (snagged a few bargains for my new apartment in Boston!) and baked some chocolate chip cookies. Tonight I’m looking forward to celebrating with Huntingdon friends as we say “See you later” to another young professional moving away after she worked for a year at Juniata. Ah, the blessings of making memories and creating stories in this small town life.
I mentioned in my previous post that I would give more details about why I decided on Andover Newton and attending seminary in general. I am true to my word! Two years ago, when I first started looking into graduate and/or theological school, my college chaplain, mentor, and current boss (for another month), Dave, helped me look a few schools that could be a fit for my interests and calling. I considered Bethany Theological School in Indiana (the Church of the Brethren’s seminary), Princeton Theological School, Hartford Seminary (in Connecticut), Claremont School of Theology (in California), and Andover Newton Theological School.
Bethany Theological Seminary would have been the best choice for me if I felt called specifically to pastoral leadership in a Church of the Brethren congregation. I love the Church of the Brethren, and will be licensed to ministry in less than a month. But I knew that I needed a seminary that could offer in depth studies rooted in interfaith understanding. So I decided to still take several Bethany classes, both intensives and online, over the past year. It was a wonderful experience to get my feet wet in theological education and to start building a foundation of Brethren coursework and theology. I met many inspiring people at Bethany and it will continue to be dear to my heart. However most of the other programs and schools mentioned above focus in one way or another on interfaith relationships and/or Christian leadership in a religiously pluralistic world. This is a direction that many seminaries and theological schools should be heading in the future, and many of the aforementioned schools are leaders in this area already.
One of the things that stuck out most to me during this decision-making process was a letter that I received from the president at Andover Newton, Nick Carter. Now I know that many of these letters go out to prospective students, but hear me out on this one. In describing the culture and atmosphere of the school, this line stayed with me, “A word of caution: if you are looking for a school where everyone looks the same, thinks the same and worships the same, don’t come to Andover Newton. I’m serious. But if you are interested in a diverse community that will make you think, challenge you to be clear about what you believe, and prepare you for a new kind of servant leadership in a complex and pluralistic world, then look no further.” I was intrigued.
I scheduled a visit in April of 2011, right around Easter. The first thing I noticed about the school was how similar it looked and felt to Juniata College, from where I was about to graduate. The school is small, located on a hill in Newton Centre, with several welcoming brick buildings lining a road that creates an oval-shaped loop through the campus. Everyone I met was approachable and friendly, from current students and faculty to the Dean of Students. Another unique aspect of ANTS that I appreciated was the fact that it shares a campus with Hebrew College & Rabbinical School, collaborating on many curricular and co-curricular opportunities. The culture of interfaith dialogue was physical one, as well as one that was interwoven with classes, service days, and ministry opportunities.
Seminary is in some ways very similar to graduate school, and in other ways it’s a whole other animal. Yes, seminary students are working diligently towards masters degrees or doctoral degrees, through fieldwork and/or intense research. Yes, we are placed into cohorts (in my case a Community Covent Group, or CCG), work with academic advisors, and move through career and vocational discernment. But Dave once described seminary versus graduate school to me like this: If I were to attend a graduate school for an MA in Religion or Biblical Studies, for example, I would take many of the same classes that a seminary offers: learning about religious texts, sacred rituals, and belief systems. I would receive a great education, no doubt. But seminary offers all of the academic and intellectual challenges of graduate school PLUS an additional spiritual formation piece that is the trademark of education for religious leaders. In other words, how does what you are studying impact your sense of call, or your place as a Christian leader, or your understanding of God and humankind? Seminary education provides and encourages spiritual support as well as academic achievement.
In preparation for this new chapter of my life, I am currently reading a book that was lent to me entitled, “The Close: A Young Woman’s First Year at Seminary”, by Chloe Breyer. While she is chronicling her journey to Episcopal priesthood at New York City’s General Theological Seminary, and I am embarking on my own journey at a different seminary and as part of a completely different Christian denomination, I am still connecting to her experience and inspired by her words. It is a beautifully written book that I am finding both excites and prepares me for the challenges and blessings of the next three years. In the first chapter, she attempts to describe her call to ministry and seminary, which is a task that every pastor, chaplain, and seminarian naturally must undertake. After relaying her personal story about when she experienced her call, and sharing a few stories from her classmates, she concludes in a way that I feel both summarizes her own sense of call and most likely mirrors the stories of every seminarian, past, present, and future:
“My reasons for attending seminary are uniquely my own. But what distinguishes everyone in my class from graduate students in secular fields is that each of us has a story woven into the Story that begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation. Our stories have distinctly personal settings…But they are also part of something archetypal. In our minds, they are Paul’s story or Mary Magdalene’s story, or Deborah’s or King David’s story. Our personal stories are linked to the Christian story about a God who would limit himself in time and space and whose life, death, and resurrection offer us grace—the fruit of which is service to one another” (xvii).
Thank you, once again, for your support and your prayers as my future classmates and I continue to discern how our stories weave within and throughout the Story of God’s divine love.