Purposefully broad: Reflections on ministry outside the parish

"I had always felt firmly rooted in my Presbyterian identity yet drawn to ecumenical and interfaith spaces."

Photo by Christian Mackie on Unsplash

When I began seminary in the summer of 2016, I’d been out of college for exactly two months. Raised in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an incredibly nurturing congregation, I majored in religion in college, fascinated by the study of theology in an academic setting. I took every available class on different world religions, soaking in a wide array of ideas about ritual, afterlife and worship. I joined a program centered on vocational discernment; I spent time working for the Family Promise network and later for a small congregation who cared for me and allowed me to learn (and fail) by doing. I joined the campus interfaith club and remained active in UKirk Collegiate Ministries. I learned to think critically, to dialogue across lines of difference and to articulate connections between faith and public life.

I entered seminary with confidence, viewing my conglomeration of experiences and internships as tools that I could use as I gained more education and refined my sense of call. When an early activity asked me what I considered to be my biggest gift in ministry, I wrote “adaptability.”

Until that point, the idea that my passions and interests did not fit neatly into traditional pastoral buckets had never occurred to me. I had moved through college with no desire or need to specialize in any area of ministry. When I got to seminary, though, I needed to figure out a specific pastoral niche. I developed a practice of picturing areas of concentration in imaginary plastic buckets. As I collected more classes, extracurriculars and job experience, I mentally wrote these things on imaginary slips of paper and dropped them in their rightful tub.

During classes on worship or preaching, for example, I slipped imaginary papers into the “parish ministry” bucket. As I interned with a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., I dropped a paper into the “nonprofit” bucket. When I completed a contextual education placement in assisted living, I imagined two slips of paper: one labeled “pastoral care” and another “grief and bereavement.” Into the buckets they went.

At the end of seminary, I emerged with four years of theological education on the backend of a robust undergraduate experience. I had maxed out contextual education placements and independent studies. I had worked in two congregations, one hospital, a changing campus ministry program, a nonprofit and an assisted living facility. I had excellent professors and mentors.

And my bucket system failed me. Or so I thought.

Here I was with too many imaginary buckets to count and a seemingly random assortment of experiences in each. I wanted to be someone with clarity and focus. Instead I felt like a Swiss army knife: versatile but not specialized.

As I prayerfully discerned next steps, I began to recognize my reality as a gift. The truth was that all my imaginary paper slips had prepared me for a call to ministry in the wider world. I had always felt firmly rooted in my Presbyterian identity yet drawn to ecumenical and interfaith spaces. I loved working with people from different ages and stages of life. Cultural and theological differences fascinated me. I felt like I was called to ministry to be sent out. My scope was wide, and that was my strength, not my limitation.

In my current work as a university chaplain, I call on the training I gathered from each slip of paper in every pastoral bucket. I work with students from a wide variety of religious traditions, racial/ethnic groups and life circumstances. My decision to answer a call in a setting outside the denomination has never caused my commitment to my Presbyterian identity to waiver. The PC(USA) did not “lose” me to a secular setting; rather, the denomination grounds my faith and nurtures my spirit, so that I might be sent out to answer God’s call in my life in this season: a call that is delightfully and intentionally broad.