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20 minutes with Teri McDowell Ott

Teri McDowell Ott

On June 1, Teri McDowell Ott started as the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook. A minister member of the Presbytery of Great Rivers in western Illinois, she is the former dean of the chapel at Monmouth College.

We asked her a few questions to help Outlook readers start to get to know her.

Tell us about your call to the role of Presbyterian Outlook editor.

After giving me some hard-to-swallow critique, a workshop teacher at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival told me: “Teri, when poets and writers have a reading, they are thrilled if even 10 people show up. You get at least twice that every Sunday.” This challenge woke me up to the platform we are privileged to have as pastors and the good we can do with our words. The Presbyterian Outlook’s platform offers even more opportunities to build ecclesial networks and societal bridges, amplify voices and stories that deserve to be heard and faithfully speak to the challenges the church faces today.

My sense of call as a “writing pastor” has grown over the past 10 years. I print out lines of poetry and quotes that inspire me and tape them around my workspace. Now I have E.T. Thompson’s original vision for the Presbyterian Outlook printed out and taped to my computer’s monitor: The Presbyterian Outlook is to be “a full, free, frank and fresh discussion of real problems now before the church.”

God is constantly surprising me, imagining more for my life than I ever could for myself. I’m incredibly humbled to be following in the footsteps of editors I have so admired, but excited as well. The Outlook’s mission resonates deeply with my own personal sense of call.

What do you want Outlook readers to know about you?

I love to learn and I am shaped by a Presbyterian liberal arts education. While serving as chaplain of Monmouth College in Illinois, my ministry was blessed by so many different academic and artistic disciplines. The worship services I planned for the college often included visual and performance art, poetry and pop music alongside the Scripture, sermon, hymns and prayers. I recruited faculty friends in political science, psychology, sociology, philosophy and religious studies to enrich my programs. In the pages of the Outlook, I’m sure you’ll see evidence of this interdisciplinary approach to ministry as I contemplate complex social problems from different angles, perspectives, and areas of expertise and invite more people to participate in our mission of resourcing the church.

What gives you hope for the church?

When I first moved from parish ministry to college chaplaincy, I was honestly a little afraid to reach out to students. There I was in the mission field of the “nones” (those who claim “no religious affiliation”) imagining students running away from me screaming, “Here comes the churchy church lady!” I think a lot of Presbyterians fear reaching out to others because we think we might come across as overly evangelistic. But, for the most part, my fears were unwarranted. I discovered young adults, even those who had no religious upbringing, to be welcoming and receptive — especially when my only agenda was to get to know them, their interests and their needs. When I did get to know them, I often discovered that their interests aligned with where I believe Christ is calling us as the church: to address racial injustice, practice radical hospitality and welcome, protect our environment, attend to real world needs and complex social problems. This intersection of interest and energy gives me hope. When we reframe our driving question from “How can we keep the church from dying?” to “With whom can we partner to do God’s work?” opportunities abound for necessary and relevant ministry in today’s world.

What’s the last…. 

… great book you read?

Just Us: An American Conversation” by Claudia Rankine and “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem were both profound recent reads for me. I also keep recommending Carolyn Forché’s “What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance” to anyone who will listen.

… TV series you binged? “Heartland,” with my daughter who loves horses; “Ted Lasso”; “The Queen’s Gambit”; and “Selena.”

… podcast you listened to? I listen to more audiobooks than I do podcasts. When I do tune in, I usually listen to “Unlocking Us” with Brené Brown, “Grammar Girl,” “On Being” or “Ear Hustle,” which is produced by the incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

How did you survive the pandemic?

I wrote my first book during the pandemic. The timing was perfect for me. Having such a big writing project to turn to every day kept me grounded. Making progress on the book felt really good when it seemed like everything else had come to a screeching halt.

Also, there’s no one I’d rather be stuck with in lockdown than my family. Pizza and movie nights are my favorite evenings. We don’t need to go far to have fun with each other. My kids, Isaac (almost 14) and Ella (12), inspire me to embrace the opportunities and challenges of life. My husband, Dan, who is a professor of religious studies with a Ph.D. in philosophical theology, is my constant encourager.

What do you hope to do for fun this summer?

Dan and I love to take our kids camping during the summer. We upgraded from a pop-up camper to a trailer a few years ago for a trip out West where we spent a week in Yellowstone National Park. We’ve camped in Northern Michigan many times because that’s where my parents took me as a kid. This summer we’re looking forward to a trip to a new campground in Wisconsin. I love camping because it’s the place I can really unplug. I need to park myself under some trees for a while before I can rest and relax.

What might Outlook readers be surprised to learn about you?

I used to be painfully shy.

I love nature but hate snakes. I will scream like a 6-year-old when I see one.

I have no willpower when it comes to my dog’s big brown eyes begging for table scraps.

I embarrass myself and my teenagers with my overly loud laughter.

I ran track and cross country through college and still love to exercise.

I volunteer in a men’s prison and am passionate about serving the incarcerated.

For me, what makes a house a home is a tree swing in the backyard.