LOUISVILLE — Some students know practically from the beginning that the ministry’s for them. Others hear God’s call faintly at first, then growing stronger, insistent, until they can’t ignore it any more.
Becky Schwandt, 23, of Springfield, Mo., is a brand-new student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary — one of a growing number going to seminary pretty much straight from college. She graduated last spring from Drury University, majored in religion, and took biblical Greek in college to get ready. This is what she’s always wanted.
And she was influenced in part by her pastor in high school, a woman who helped fill the void after Schwandt’s mother died of breast cancer. She showed Schwandt how rewarding a life in ministry could be — teaching her by example that pastors can have fun and don’t have to be perfect. “I’m here,” Schwandt said with a grin, “and I’m not perfect.”
Amy Robinson, from Washington state, used to lead “church” services from the trunk of her family’s car when she was four years old. From the sixth grade on, “there were people from my congregation who were telling me to go to seminary and become a minister.”
She moved closer and closer, “but I never thought I’d actually accept it.” After college she interned for a church, became a young adult volunteer for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and worked for a year. “Even though I was exhausted and depressed at times” — Robinson saw some of the flaws of the church up close — “I never felt silenced.” She took that continuing verification of her call — took a deep breath, and at 25 is starting at Louisville seminary.
Chris Deacon, 29, of Knoxville, Tenn., took another route. He felt a tug to ministry in high school, then went off to college, “basically abandoned my faith, ran away from my call as hard as I could.”
He became an atheist, and only came back to faith after a hard breakup with a girlfriend. His mother, seeing him discouraged, encouraged him to audition for a community play. Many in the cast turned out to be from his childhood church. At their invitation, he attended worship one Sunday “and felt myself enwrapped.”
He went back to school, met his wife, found a church and more and more considered seminary. He called his mother, who told him: “Chris, you’ve always been called. You haven’t always listened.”
But not all of today’s seminary students are in their 20s — they’re not what Angela Cowser, 45, calls the “young bunnies.”
Cowser, from Tennessee, grew up Episcopalian, “in love with the gospels,” but not the church. “Growing up in the church and having a relationship with Jesus are not always coherent or together. So I struggled, left the church when I was 18, as many people do in college. And really lived a largely secular life for 10 years.”
But in 1989, “I had sort of a classically Protestant conversion experience that brought me back in,” Cowser said. The Spirit spoke to her in part through music, as she sang sacred music in an a cappella choir.
She was 28 then, and people began asking: “What are you doing with your life?”
Cowser said she knew God was calling, but she wasn’t ready. She felt she needed to work to pay off debt, she needed to study the Bible seriously, “I needed to grow up.” She worked for a parachurch group and did community organizing.
When the fourth pastor said to her, “Have you thought about seminary?” Cowser decided to enroll.
When it’s God speaking, “the call’s always there,” she said. “It’s always there. At some point, you have to answer it or you die.”