I have been snowed in all week, which was good for sermon prep, packing up books, and noodling around on Facebook, HuffPost, MissCellania, and the friends' blogs I regularly peruse, but it only just occurred to me that I could spend this Friday afternoon (as the rain washes away all the snow) writing the blog post I've been thinking about.
This particular entry in the "Life of Work" series concerns my experience at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, between 1995 and 1999. It took me four fulltime years to complete my Master of Divinity degree because of the various credentialing requirements of the UUA. Iliff is a United Methodist seminary, very liberal, and one of the best in the nation for a good grounding in religious academics.
I was like a kid in a candy shop most of the time, though I was thoroughly tired of the Apostle Paul a few times during these four years and longed for the broader curricula of Starr King or Meadville. But Denver was home at the time and it made the best sense to stay in my own house during this major undertaking. It was an easy commute, I was in familiar territory, I didn't have to leave my home congregation, and I knew people all up and down the Mountain Desert District. Getting preaching gigs and weddings and an internship would not be difficult under the circumstances.
I enrolled in the fall of 1995, one of a class of about 70 students, most much younger than I. I wasn't the oldest, at 53, but I was up toward the top of the heap, at least among those students who were preparing for fulltime ministry.
My advisor was Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum, a Jew whose area of expertise was the middle ground between the Hebrew scriptures (aka Old Testament) and the Christian scriptures (aka New Testament). She was young and smart and we worked well together. She encouraged me in some of the coursework choices I might have avoided otherwise and I benefited greatly from her wisdom.
I won't go into every course in detail, but the required curriculum at most Christian seminaries includes Bible study, including the various ways of interpreting original texts, History of Christianity, Pastoral Care, Preaching, Worship/Liturgy, Ethics, Social Justice, and ways to explore each of these areas more deeply. The UUA required that each candidate for parish ministry must take one course in Clinical Pastoral Education, i.e., chaplaincy work in a hospital or other setting, and a year of parish internship.
My favorite classes were Bible and especially exegesis of the Bible--aka interpretation via probing of the culture, the language, the symbolism, etc.--, Pastoral Care, Worship/Liturgy, Christian History, Women in Religion, and UU History and Polity. I struggled with Theology classes, even though I am a Christian at heart, because I have what is called a "low Christology", meaning that I do not believe that Jesus is/was God. My CPE experience was a high point as well.
During this time, I had some work study experiences, one time as an assistant for a faculty member and another as a Field Experience facilitator for first year students. These put me in a position to get to know professors and other faculty members in a different way, as well as incoming students who were struggling with their discernment around ministry issues.
As my first two years of classes came to an end, I found a fulltime internship at the Boulder Unitarian Fellowship, just up the highway from where I lived in Golden. My supervisor was the Rev. Catharine Harris, still my friend and mentor. This experience was transformative as Catharine helped me get my feet on the ground, helped me sort out what internship meant (not associate minister!), and helped me learn another meaning of the word humility. I was pretty sure I was the best thing since sliced bread and had to learn that I was not.
It was late in my internship year when I went before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for an oral exam, one of the many hoops to jump through before official Fellowship status is granted. My sermon was timed perfectly, I answered most of the questions well, and when I left the room I thought I'd probably wowed them. It took a long time for them to call me back in for a verdict and when they did, I was shocked. They didn't think I'd done as well as I did and gave me not the ultimate grade of a "One" but the penultimate: a "Two" plus a requirement.
"You're too intense," they said to me (at which I of course bristled intensely). "We want you to have a year of Spiritual Direction before we consider you ready for Fellowship. You're good but you're too intense." I was crushed and embarrassed to tell anyone what my score was; I moped around Chicago with a couple of friends who had, of course, gotten "Ones". But the important thing was that I had passed, just not as brilliantly as I'd expected.
A year of Spiritual Direction turned out to be a huge blessing, however, and I was eventually grateful for the requirement, as it made my final year of seminary much more valuable. I had a new view of myself as a minister, a spiritual companion to help me sort things out as I went, and I finished the year graduating with honors on May 30, 1999, with ordination at my home church in Golden the next day.
These four years, even though I wasn't earning much money at it, were some of the hardest work-years of my life. My brain was stretching, I was learning exciting stuff, meeting new friends, and preparing for the work that felt like the logical next career: ministry.