Where is your sending parish?

I am thrilled to be writing this morning from my favorite chair in our permanent, three-year apartment at Virginia Theological Seminary. We moved in on September 27th after 7 1/2 weeks in temporary accommodations on campus. It is everything we could have hoped for and more: spacious, well designed, well lit, quiet, beautiful, sanctuary. I am so excited to get everything in order.

As we make our home in apartment 203, Richard and I continue to settle into the rhythms of life at VTS. Richard is setting up a home office in the second bedroom of our apartment, getting to know the local disc golf courses, and riding his bike in the evenings. He also attended his first S.P.I.R.I.T. meeting, Significants Participating in Really Interesting Things. I am beginning to navigate the many expectations of students at VTS a bit more gracefully. I am enjoying my classes, especially New Testament, and I am loving getting to know my classmates on a deeper level.

As I continue to meet members of the VTS community who were not on campus during August, I have found myself in the following conversation over and over again:

Community Member: Nice to meet you!

Me: Nice to meet you too.

Community Member: Where is your sending parish?

Me: Actually, I do not have a sending parish. I have been living in the Diocese of North Carolina, but my home parish is in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

Community Member: Oh, are you an M.A. (Master of Arts) student?

Me: No, I am an MDiv (Master in Divinity) student, but I am not a postulant (a person seeking Holy Orders).

Community Member: Oh. Tell me about that.

While it can feel lonely to be the only MDiv student in my class of thirty-five who is not in the ordination process, my sense of purpose seems to grow with each retelling of my story and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it.

Why I am a non-postulant seeking a Master in Divinity at VTS

I had been working competently as the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for two years before the work really came alive for me. When I arrived we had volunteers in place to lead the children’s formation program, Godly Play, although the class was not thriving. In the fall of 2014 we switched the program to week day afternoons and I had to recruit an entirely new group of leaders. We created a wonderful team, but no one knew the stories so I began to lead weekly. I did not realize at the time how God would use this situation to call me deeper into relationship with God, others, and the Church.

My growth did not happen rapidly, but the sacred space of our Godly Play classroom was fertile ground. The support of parents, church staff, and Godly Play leaders began to rain down and the inquisitive children forced my roots deep into the ground and leaves up towards the sky. “What is a parable?” they asked, and “Why did they kill Jesus?” “Why did Jesus send out the disciples if he knew they were going to die?” “How did Abraham live that long?” As their wonder increased, so did mine.

I began to live for the moment of connection I saw in Godly Play and feel the presence of God as soon as I sat down in the circle. I saw God when one child saved the blue and purple pillow for another child who would only sit on that pillow during the story. I saw God when one child was finally able to wait for another to finish their work before taking it to her own mat. I saw God when I began the story and a child cried, “You forgot to ask me about the best part of my day!” I saw God in the mother who left work early to bring her son to class. I saw God in the prayers the children said before the feast and the stories they told during work time.

Somehow, along the way those classes became the most joyful moments of my week. Although I often left exhausted and there were many moments of excruciating frustration, when I sat down in the circle to begin the story everything else in the world melted away. I think that I was able to come close to the person God created me to be in those classes. When I talked to people about Godly Play my heart actually began to beat faster and I could go on and on. In response to the joy I was experiencing I rooted into the rich soil, spending hours writing notes to each child, emailing parents, and hand-making story sets.

Sometimes calling is a deep sense of internal peace, sometimes calling is a feeling of inadequacy or excitement, sometimes calling is a deep furry, and often it is a combination. The experience of leading Godly Play called me to children’s ministry first through excitement and astonishment as I watched the children grown and then a deep sense of inadequacy. Their theological questions amazed me. I wanted to give more than I was able. I realized that I needed more education in order to nurture children’s spiritual development to the best of my ability.

When I first began hearing the call to seminary, it seemed like a call to personally provide the best children’s formation possible by engaging in theological education. But over the course of a year or so, the call began to expand. I witnessed St. Mary’s Godly Play program grow from five children a week to thirty-four, while other churches programs dwindled. I saw our parents marvel at the Bible stories their children could recount while parents outside our congregation yearned for a way to engage their children in spiritual growth. I watched our clergy teach from a strong Biblical and theological foundation and found lay formation leaders around the diocese often lacked the training needed to give young people a firm foundation for spiritual development.

Noticing these dynamics, a deep frustration grew within my soul. I dreamed of vibrant, deep and transformative Episcopal ministry with children, but heard about failing Sunday School programs. I dreamed of collaboration between parishes that gave young people experiences of serving, but heard about toxic charity. I dreamed of systems of support for children’s ministry in our diocese, but I found nothing. I dreamed of Episcopal scholarships that would enable children’s and youth ministers to receive Masters in Divinity and found few.

At Baptism, the celebrant addresses the congregation saying, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” I have answered, “We will!” with congregations dozens of times. This is a big promise. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires teaching them the stories of our faith in a developmentally appropriate way. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires meeting families where they are and supporting parenting as a spiritual practice. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires answering deep questions about the Bible, the Episcopal Church, history, and theology. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires letting go of traditions and programs that no longer have energy. And so, there is much work to be done.

I am a non-postulant in the Master in Divinity program at VTS first and foremost in response God’s call to be the best provider of Christian formation I can be and secondly, to advocate for increased theological education and support for lay Christian formation leaders.