My faltering, step-at-a-time seminary path

When I started my Master of Divinity at Africa International University five years ago, I didn’t necessarily expect to graduate from here or with this degree.

Graduation cap (2)

Uncertain when graduation will be held with the COVID crisis, I pulled out an old grad cap and new kente. Why wait to celebrate? PC: Josh Chard

God called me to ministry while in student leadership of my college InterVarsity chapter. Like Gideon, I put out fleece after fleece, only to find the same patient and persistent God he found. Despite my ambivalence, mentors offered to tutor me in Hebrew and church history, enlisted me in pre-seminary and spiritual writing groups, offered me church internships, gave me writing opportunities, and urged me to take an all-expenses-paid visit to Fuller Theological Seminary.

I’d planned to stay in the Twin Cities after graduating, but my gut wouldn’t let me settle. Then God called me through a stranger over Skype to a one-year internship working on the Africa Study Bible, living in my parents’ house back on AIU’s campus. I told my pastor my five-year plan, including going to Fuller after a year, and he laughed at my illusion of control. After all, he’s the one who had shared Isaiah 42:16 with me: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”

After a year, my internship turned into a job offer. Meanwhile, my curiosity about classes at AIU had been piqued, and I was already living on campus. Having spent that year researching whether women could preach and teach for my book, I felt more confident about my call. Formal training seemed like the next obedient step, and having the expected professional degree (MDiv) would fortify my credibility as a woman in ministry. My employer offered me part-time hours and support for part-time studies. Committing to a three-year degree half-time sounded daunting with all the unknowns and possibilities of my twenties ahead, but I figured I could transfer credits if I ended up moving away or getting married (you never know!) before I finished. I selected classes that also fit the shorter MA in Biblical Studies requirements. I switched into that degree at one point, redid my internship requirement, but then switched back in time to log those hours as an independent study.

People often perceive me as a bright, confident, and driven go-getter. So why all the uncertainty and backup plans? Maybe I was still resistant or just growing into this call. Maybe it was unconscious girlhood messaging prioritizing marriage or portraying my ministry role models as supporting their husbands’ callings. Maybe my resolve to follow one step at a time was based on past experiences of God surprising me with a labyrinth twist in my carefully planned path.

The past five years have included plenty of uncertainty and challenges. Administrative changes to credit hours, thesis requirements, and the grading scheme. Navigating how, as a foreign single woman, to get to know my classmates in culturally appropriate ways and fend off a couple creeps. Staying on track despite stress at work, a busy travel schedule, or personal loss. Pushing myself too hard and hitting the wall. Resonating with my Reformed classmates’ love of the Bible, and yet feeling excluded from their circle and churches by their complementarian views. Wrestling with how debates that could be purely intellectual for male classmates had high stakes for me: either risk disobeying “biblical” boundaries or risk defying God’s call. Wondering what my purpose was at seminary when I couldn’t grasp Hebrew conjugations. Constantly cultivating connection given my family’s return to the US and the turnover in my social circle of international, young adult, or student friends. Walking through a dramatic church crisis, from warning signs to the painful aftermath to the church search.

But through his Word and his people, God faithfully gave me courage to keep going and guidance for the next step.

Mentors solidified my callings to preach, teach, and write. My homiletics professor described how he and his wife co-pastored for decades and often told me, “You’re a preacher!” My advisor equipped me with a great book and affirming feedback in an independent study teaching at the Bible school where I grew up in Tanzania. The deans there entrusted me with a full elective course and even sat in on some of the lessons. I learned from the example of two North American missionary kids and single women that people like me can teach theology in Africa and respectfully empower local scholars. Four professors encouraged me to publish papers I had written in their classes or recommended I present at academic conferences.

My parents were a constant sounding board. My employer continued to offer me flexibility and support. My fellow volunteers on the youth ministry team welcomed me, gave me constructive feedback, and helped me identify a teaching gift. The amazing ladies in my Bible study prayed me through each hurdle. The assistant chaplain kept inviting me back to preach. Classmates spurred each other on. Not to mention all the family members, friends, and colleagues who empowered and cheered me on. You know who you are. Thank you.

I now find myself at the end of an MDiv from AIU, much more confident in my calling. The extravagant levels of support I received remind me of the words of Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us… encourage one another.”

Maybe it’s my turn to pass it on. To anyone out there tentatively considering stepping out into God’s call – whatever that is – pay attention to your delight in serving, your love of God’s Word or God’s people, and what your cheerleaders see in you. If you want to talk it through, give me a holler. “The path is made by walking,” as they say. Often, you’ll be surprised where you end up when you just take that next step.

2 responses to “My faltering, step-at-a-time seminary path

  • Roberta Dahlby

    This is encouraging and I appreciate your honesty. I moved to NY from MN last November and it’s been discouraging for the most part. Things haven’t gone as I hoped (finding work I can do – except for Uber). I am crying out to God for the right way to go. He is kind and I hold onto the hope for better days. May God continue to guide you and use you in all your gifts.

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