The beginning of seminary is such a powerful experience – the fact that you’ve been recognized by your community as have a call, the knowledge that you’re following the call of God to serve the church, the intense coursework, the community. Yet in the middle of this seminarians – let alone anyone seeking to serve the Church more fully – often ignore the way that God’s call works distinctly in each student, impeding their growth in faith as opposed to strengthening it. This week’s post by Elyssa Salinas, Ph.D. Candidate at Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary, vulnerably recounts her own journey from divinity studies to Ph.D. work, and the pratfalls she had to overcome in order to understand God’s true call for her, not the call she expected. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
This year I’m starting my second year in a doctoral program, and seeing the new students enter the building has made me think back to when I started my seminary experience. I did not understand that seminary was a different kind of experience, one that shaped and changed me more than anything else. Seminary did not just give me tools for ministry, it also made me see true brokenness.
Nobody tells you on your tours that many people in seminary, future leaders of the church, are the ones that need guidance. I should know; I was one of them. I had this beautiful vision of a life in ministry where I was going to write sermons, make visits, and live a simple life. I had a scholarship that named me a future leader and a call story that I could whip out at parties. All of this made me feel like I was ready for what my classes had to offer, but what I was not ready for was the way that my faith was truly tested.
Throughout my time in seminary, I doubted and questioned my call, but I was too afraid to talk about it. I was afraid that if I spoke too loudly my scholarship would be taken away or that my doubts meant I could not hear God’s call clearly. Instead of voicing my questions, I buried myself in school work, socializing, and never admitting the worry I truly had. I felt that I had a call to ministry, but I only thought that ministry equaled pastor. Whenever I heard about other possibilities, they were shown to me as a stepping stone or second-rate version of being “the Reverend.” I came from an undergrad that housed both supporters and nay-sayers of me being a pastor. My school was a pan-Lutheran institution where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) mingled and met. In this space I was told multiple times, in not so many words (because church people have to be nice), that my call was invalid because I am a woman. This fueled my fire to be the best, but it blinded me to what I truly felt.
I was so afraid of not hearing God correctly that I neglected my own intuition. This was intensified when I stepped into seminary because I did not want to make myself vulnerable to any more doubt. It seemed like everyone heard their call from the womb, only some people took a little longer to respond. What I did not know at that time was that the Holy Spirit dances throughout our lives, and our vocations are numerous. The wind of the Spirit never stops, so we need to keep feeling Her on our bodies, and respond when She blows us in a new direction. God is calling us throughout our lives, and She will make us shift and grow.
Therefore, Lesson #1 I learned from seminary: You need to listen to your own call, and ministry does not have to equal pastor.
While in seminary, I opened myself up to a lot of painful experiences and toxic behaviors, what I saw though is that I was not the only one. There is no need for me to expound on anyone else’s story, simply listen for a reference to a “friend” in your pastor’s weekly sermon. That friend is usually a lot closer than any of us want to admit.
Seminary gave me a wrestling ring to battle my demons, but I did not face them head on. I wiggled away, hiding in shadows, hoping that my committee would never see the real me. I was hurting and unable to fix it. I was in pain and unwilling to share it. I was broken and ashamed to admit it. Wrestling with my demons was too scary, so instead I ran towards toxic behaviors and secrecy. I think I tried to be the model of the wounded healer, but I forgot that I needed to care for my own wounds before trying to help anyone else. I was leaving a trail of blood from my open wounds, and not taking the time to let them scar over. Scarring is a painful process, but a necessary one. They never let you forget, but they allow you to move on.
There is a great deal of brokenness inside seminary walls, more than anyone wants to admit. Wrestling with God, we are all Jacob, and while we admit it during our call stories, we don’t acknowledge the wounds that aren’t healed. Many of us are drawn to seminary because of a great deal of pain: pain that we’ve experienced or pain that we’ve witnessed. There is something within us that hopes for something different, a way to heal, so we cling to our faith. We feel Christ’s fear in Gethsemane and ask to have this cup taken from us. We are broken and afraid to confront it. We cling to the cross, and, like Peter, deny that we even know Christ because how could anyone save us?
I remember crying in chapel more times than I can count when I was in my deepest pain. I kept asking for forgiveness and my brokenness to heal. I kept asking because I never thought it possible. My brokenness felt too far gone, and I could not imagine a God who still loved me. When I finally started admitting this pain, I was able to confide in a therapist and begin to heal. My brokenness is still part of me, but it no longer rules me. It is a scar that is part of my tapestry, part of my story, and it strengthens me. My scars make me remember the pain of the past and the knowledge that I am stronger than I realize.
So Lesson #2 I learned from seminary: I am broken, but I can be healed if I acknowledge and participate.
Bringing the conversation to the present, this past week has made me reflect on whether seminary taught me anything about what do to in the face of evil. When people in power go after the vulnerable among us, what, as leaders in ministry are we to do? What are we as Christians to do?
I will admit to being paralyzed this week beyond hitting the “share” button on social media. Fear crippled me because, as a Latina, the DACA decision was going after my community and my family. DACA is about more than immigration reform, it is about acknowledging someone’s humanity, and chance to thrive. I cried more than once because throughout it all, I felt helpless. It is difficult to have hope in a country that is steeped in stories of blood, and death in the name of God; a history of colonization, assimilation, and decimation for an extra plot of land or a greater slice of the American pie.
But we need to start asking ourselves, what can grow in soil steeped in blood? What can flourish when the only light has been lies? What is there to trust when Lady Liberty herself may have been white all along?
Lesson #3 I learned from seminary: Stop hiding behind fear, it is time to get your hands dirty in the soil of justice.
This is a terrifying time, and one that has easily paralyzed many of us into silence. But people are hurting, and it is not going to stop unless we do something.
We have a call to serve God’s people, and that phone is ringing off the hook right now!
Whatever your God-given gifts are, use them to speak out, organize, and share the amazing truth of the Gospel.
The truth that love is a verb, a call to act and it is present whenever we respond to that call.
Elyssa Salinas believes that her theology must touch her body; therefore, her scholarship encompasses her experience as a Mexican American and as a woman. Utilizing her own body as a crux, her research embraces sex and body-positive theology in order to combat a culture of disgrace. Currently beginning her second year at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Elyssa continues to write for www.boldcafe.org and on her own blog Coffee Talk With E, and performs poetry throughout the city of Chicago.