Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

What an alum to do when their alma mater is wrong?: Thoughts on Columbia Theological Seminary’s housing policy

What’s an alum to do when the alma mater they love does the wrong thing?

I’ve been asking myself that for the last few days, because I wholeheartedly believe that my seminary, a school I love and treasure, has sided against justice and God’s love, and for fear and inequality.

I am a two-time alum of Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ten seminaries which is located just outside of Atlanta. When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago the Presbyterian Church was still debating the role of gay and lesbian ministers. It hasn’t been until the last year that the door has been opened in some places (though not all) to openly gay and lesbian, non-celibate, clergy. The church is still debating the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, even as partnered clergy are now serving openly. The inclusion of LGBT people is far from full or perfect, but the Presbyterian Church has come a long way in the past decade.

As a student I remember our LGBT group being denied the use of the chapel for a National Coming Out Day Service. We were told that people just weren’t ready for it, and that there were fears that donations would be withheld. I was incredibly saddened by the administration’s decision. But when the service did take place, at a professor’s house instead, the room was packed with supportive students and faculty. (Eventually the annual service was allowed in the chapel.) That night, and with each passing year, we sensed that things were changing, and that justice would not be denied.

Which is why I was surprised to find that my seminary has just reaffirmed its denial of equal housing for same-sex couples. In a letter dated April 20th, Columbia’s president wrote that at the present time committed same-sex couples will not be allowed to live in “married housing” on campus.

The timing left me particularly dumbstruck. Earlier in the day I had received my latest issue of Columbia Seminary’s alumni magazine. I was pleasantly surprised to find an announcement of my engagement to my fiancee, Heidi. I then came home to this letter, posted by a classmate. I was struck by the irony of the fact that my engagement was recognized by alma mater, but that my marriage would not be deemed suitable enough to warrant my partner and I on-campus housing were I still a student.

It’s a bit of a mixed message, especially coming from a school whose faculty always taught me to err on the side of justice, compassion, and love. My professors at Columbia spoke out on behalf of their LGBT students, often at risk to themselves professionally. They taught that God’s love trumped human fear. They exhorted us to learn to read the Scripture with every tool available to us, and to understand the contexts of passages written two thousand years ago. They challenged us to stand up for what was right in the face of the easier wrong. They were, and they remain, among my strongest role models for ministry.

But the administration of Columbia has acted in a way that belies all I was taught by my professors. They have literally cast LGBT families off campus, and forced seminarians to make a choice between living with their classmates or their families. They have created an unequal community. They have reiterated, even in the face of a changing denomination, a policy that is reactionary and anything but visionary.

A little over ten years ago now I knelt on the floor of the chapel at Columbia. My friends and classmates put their hands on my head and blessed me as I was ordained as a minister. I chose that chapel for a reason. I wanted to carry what I had learned at Columbia with me all the days of my ministry. I wanted to remember what it was to live in a community that might not always agree, but that at least tried to make space for the other. And I wanted to remember what is was to live in a community that didn’t shy away from the hard discussions, and that admitted when it was wrong.

I’d like to think that place still exists. I think it does. But I know that right now I and my family could not live there. I think that there are a lot of other families like mine out there. And I think that Columbia is the less for excluding us. But more than that, I think we are the less for losing a place like Columbia. I hope this separation doesn’t last much longer, because God’s got real work for us to do and we need each other.