You don’t need to feel called to belong in seminary

Sometimes, you won’t belong, writes recent seminary student Ashley Brown. And that’s ok.

In 2011, I was led to Princeton Seminary’s prospective student weekend. I was 20 years old and a junior in college. Part of the weekend included sharing why you were interested in seminary and your discernment around your call — the language Christians largely use to reference God-given purpose, particularly when it comes to ordained ministry. The group went around and one by one shared their big “ah-ha” moments.

Some people shared they had had earth-shattering dreams of prophecy; others had wanted to be ministers from birth. By the time it was my turn, I deflected with a joke and said, “I guess God lost my number, I never got a call.”

No one laughed and the awkward silence lingered as I struggled to connect. It was a precious moment in my discernment of whether I wanted to be a Presbyterian minister. During that awkward silence, I decided I did not want to be a minister.

I arrived back home in South Carolina. My dad was proudly waiting at the airport waiting to pick up the future seminarian. I promptly announced, “Absolutely not,” along with a string of profanity as I threw my suitcase into the trunk and refused to talk ever about it again.

It took me two more tries before I applied to seminary nine years later.

Why? I didn’t think I belonged in the pulpit. I didn’t think I belonged working in a church.

I knew I didn’t belong at a seminary for three years. Can you imagine the impact that would have on my dating life?

I now know something that I didn’t know then: Going into ministry isn’t simply about a call. It’s largely about choosing a career that interests you.

Time and time again, I have conversations with folks interested in going to seminary. They share similar experiences of lacking a grandiose “wake-up” call. They feel they are not worthy because they don’t have a profound, pinpoint moment in which God shakes them awake in the middle of the night and hands them a heavenly scroll dictating their necessary need to immediately apply for Master of Divinity programs.

Sometimes we don’t belong because we aren’t meant to.

Sometimes we don’t belong because we aren’t meant to. If belonging is a badge of honor everyone else wears, then why are the badge-less mavericks, trailblazers, and free spirits the ones that our eyes and hearts gravitate towards?

Deep down, there are moments when we might desire to be like those students I met at Princeton all those years ago. We want to share our stories with like-minded peers and receive positive reinforcement. When I think back on it now, I realize we were really, subconsciously asking one another: “Do you like my narrative? Is it special?”

Belonging as Presbyterians shouldn’t stem from the foundation of being chosen by God or being some beloved receiver of a divine purpose and call to serve God.

When we choose to engage the gifts and talents we have been given, that is when we begin to really shape our paradigm of belonging in this world and in the Presbyterian Church. We have agency.

Nine years later, I returned to Princeton Seminary for an admissions interview. It took every piece of me to fly back and try again. During the interview, I shared my favorite theologian, Theodor Seuss Geisel — or as many know him, Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss, a lifelong Lutheran, used his art skills and faith and enormously unique brain to produce children’s books after being inspired by a report on rising illiteracy rates among children in the United States. As a theologian, when I review Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, I see the underlying Christian messages hidden within the rhymes and cadence and I witness Geisel’s choice to show up and do good for the world. Geisel built his own call and paved his own creative path of servitude.

I sat in that Admissions office and poured my heart out about Dr. Suess and how my own experiences in spiritual warfare had changed my life. I walked out unsure how the interview had gone. Between that and a 2.9 GPA in undergraduate, it was a real hit or miss.

Turns out, it was a miss.

In January 2020, when I received the email letting me know I was unfortunately not accepted to Princeton Theological Seminary, I was crushed. Then came the rejections from Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School. I had a choice to make to either give up or apply to other seminaries.

I applied and was admitted to 3 other Presbyterian seminaries and ultimately attended Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. There hasn’t been a single day in seminary in which I’ve felt I “belonged.” I have had to learn to stop being so afraid of my individualism.

Square peg, round hole. It ain’t gonna fit so why waste energy trying? I learned I had to stop waiting for a call and to stop waiting to feel like I belong in the pulpit or by the hospital bed or in the migrant’s living room. The holiest moments in seminary emerged from entering spaces where I did not belong. That was where God’s grace shined the brightest.

It’s time to write your own call to ministry.

Decide not if, but how you belong in this world. Embrace the strange spaces you find yourself in as you search for purpose and meaning.

Decide not if, but how you belong in this world.

As Dr. Seuss says in Oh, The Places You’ll Go, “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

Choose your own call.