The One Where I Get In Grad School, Part II
As I announced yesterday, I've been accepted into a Master's study program in Spiritual Formation! Some of you said, probably jokingly, that you'd like to see my entrance essay. Here's the second part, featuring more of my church experience, ministry goals, and eagerness to begin exploring. And I mention you, so keep reading!
I grew up on the big dotted line between mainstream American Evangelical culture and the wild forests of Christian fundamentalism. At first, my family attended various average Evangelical churches. Mostly I remember feeling slightly disconnected, knowing we’d probably be leaving soon anyway. I was unable to attach at a church; my family bounced around congregations because some element that I didn’t quite understand wouldn’t be quite good enough. But then, about the time that I got my first pair of big round glasses at age thirteen, my family started attending a new little church with a group of people my parents admired very much.
I thought I was starting to see more clearly. I made friends and I learned about big theological acronyms like T.U.L.I.P., how I deserved to burn in hell but I could prove myself saved, and how God designed my femaleness to fit a narrow and specific social function: wife and mother.
Though the church was full of kind and generous people, the group functioned in a variety of cult-like behaviors. There was an emphasis on intellectual conformity, relational hierarchy and patriarchal authority structures, separation from the world, and behavior compliance. While the leaders proudly decried “legalism,” people who didn’t get in line quickly or asked questions tended to vanish.
For a long time, I functioned in the darkness and called it good. I wanted to follow God, so I invested in the system I was told God offered me. I lived in fear and called it love. I respect that other people, some of my family included, had a different experience there, but for me, it was a destructive high-control social and religious system.
I’ve spent the last three years processing that abusive church system, destructive theology, and the effects on my personhood and faith. I have read books, listened to stories, prayed, studied with teachers and peers, and rolled around in the mess.
While the recovery I’ve built is unique, I don’t think I’m alone in this progression. David Kinnaman, in the 2011 book You Lost Me, reports the Barna survey results that fifty-nine percent of young Christians “have dropped out of attending church after going regularly.” This number does not surprise me. I have heard too many stories of young people who invested in a church and theology that offered them spiritual power and control, only to have it crash around them.
So we leave.
For a while, I joined that statistic of leavers. During that process, though, I never quite gave up on God. I tried diligently, because it seemed like life would be simpler if I could. But I can’t deny that there’s something compelling about the historical Jesus and the scrappy little mixed up band of people who followed him. I find hope and meaning in Christian belief and practice. I sing of love without fear and justice that looks like mercy for all. Now, my widening understanding of a free God compels me deeper into religious study.
I am an explorer.
A Master's in Spiritual Formation is the next step of exploring and practicing my faith. I want to soak up the spiritual heritage of the forty denominations represented by my classmates, and I want to work out the next steps of my spiritual growth. Evangelical Christianity is my primary language and experience, but I’m drawn to the open spaces in the breadth of Christian history and practice.
Because of my history with spiritual abuse and authoritarian Christian leaders, I’m wary of mission statements. I don’t like stating all of my opinions about everything all at once, because sentences, and often words in general, can’t capture them. Our words about God are so important, but even the best attempts fail to contain the mystery of faith. If I feel spiritual boxed in, I bolt. I need to work with faculty and students who are committed to Christian essentials, but able to wrestle with doctrinal and practical non-essentials. In the simple Mission Statement the Seminary, I see that attention to orthodoxy and mystery.
Since I grew up in a Christian culture where true spirituality and all spiritual leadership was the realm of men, I’m particularly struck by the lack of gender-specific language of the Seminary's Statement of Faith. I appreciate the statement that male and female people are created in God’s image and that together, equally, we make up God’s church. I want to study at a seminary where my femaleness doesn’t make me a limited participant or leader. I want to understand the vast faith traditions and perspectives that make up the Kingdom of God.
I want to encounter my fears of Biblical interpretation and struggle with the darker parts of Christian culture in a safe context. I want to learn how to tell my story in a way that invites people back in, because even if fifty-nine percent of Christian young people leave the practices of faith, some of us will want a way back.
My hope is to study Spiritual Formation in a broad context, but practice Spiritual Direction with people who have experienced Spiritual Abuse or traumatic disconnections with their faith practices.
My current ministry context is geared towards leavers, potential-leavers, and those of us who have returned to Christianity. For the past two years, I’ve been volunteering with a local church’s college ministry. Most Friday nights, a group of thirty or so college aged students from various Portland schools gather for games, conversation and teaching. I love discussing spirituality with college students, because they are all in that odd, open place between childhood and adulthood. They are all in a transitional place, and because of that, they are open to growth. College students ask unique questions about life, faith, humanity and God. As a leader in this fledgling group, I’ve led small group discussions and mentored women. I see graduate studies in Spiritual Formation as a way to increase my knowledge and ability to teach, guide, and listen to these students.
I also work with a broad online community of Christians, former Christians, and people who aren’t quire sure. As a Millennial, much of my spiritual growth and recovery has happened in online spaces. I’ve connected with bloggers and writers, poets, pastors and thinkers, atheists, feminists, and Christians in the margins of society. I have to credit those people for much of my current spiritual and personal health. I now write about faith, relationships, and growing up for Prodigal Magazine, A Deeper Story, and at my own blog, Emily Is Speaking Up. I hope to minister with other Millennials through writing, speaking, and engaging in online discussions.
I never expected that when I started being honest with God and severed my ties with an abusive Christian community, that I’d end up here. I had to let go of my expectations and projected outcomes in order to survive. Now, on the edge of a new adventure, I’m excited to continue my personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey.