Faces of Ministry...
Upon graduation from Austin Seminary, Matthew Aldas (MDiv’16) looks forward to serving as youth director at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Austin. Matthew says it is an ideal call for him, “I will be responsible for both young children all the way through high school age children. My time at Austin Seminary helped positioned me to offer pastoral care to young people to help them live into their identities as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
During his time at Austin, Matthew found that seminary helped him realize that community comes from diverse backgrounds and different theological positions. “Yet,” Matthew says, “we are all united by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Rigorous, intense, and fulfilling – those are three words Matthew says come to mind to describe his experience at Austin Seminary. And, like most students, he found seminary to be a time for reflection and discernment on personal and spiritual growth. Matthew notes, “Austin Seminary taught me that it's OK to recognize my own limitations and to say no to tasks when it's necessary for me to rest for my own spiritual well-being. I also have learned that I am more effective in ministry when I work in community than when I try to do it alone. For that I am truly thankful.”
Matthew concludes, “Without the financial aid I received, I do not believe that I would've been able to afford my education at Austin Seminary. The generous donations and support that I received made both my education and fulfillment of my call a reality. I'm very grateful.”
Austin Seminary is thankful for all of our 2016 graduates and for everyone who helped make their theological education affordable.
Austin Seminary students repeatedly tell us they could never have pursued their call to ministry if not for the significant financial aid which makes their education possible. For Christine Wagner (MDiv’16), receiving the Crawley Fellowship was an “extraordinary gift.” Christine says the fellowship, “simply made my education possible. As an older person, retired from a career as a community mental health worker, I knew that going into debt was not an option at this stage in life. When I sensed I had to follow up on this deeply experienced call to seminary, I was quite unsure how it could happen. At each stage the way became clearer, and receiving the fellowship confirmed the final decision to come to Austin.”
Like her fellow students, Christine found her seminary experience to be a time of personal and spiritual growth. “There is no doubt that Austin Seminary has helped me grow mentally—intellectually,” she notes. “I truly came to seminary in great part to study, learn, and integrate into my life and future ministry: biblical studies, Reformed theology, church history, preaching, and worshiping traditions. Likewise, chapel services, student groups, mentoring professors, and spiritual direction nurtured my spiritual and emotional life.”
One of many courses that made a big impact on Christine was a Hebrew exegesis (interpretation) class on the Book of Hosea. Christine recalls, “Under Dr. Cuéllar’s gifted tutelage my mind and heart were opened to the radical otherness of scripture and the pervasive influence of one’s social location on its composition, translation, and interpretation. I hope to remain more aware and appreciative of the interpretive voices of other cultures, classes, and nationalities alongside my own—and more alert to the unique perspectives within a congregation.”
Upon graduation, Christine plans to return to rural western Kansas where she hopes to find a call as a teaching elder. However, she adds, “I am open to being surprised, though, and know that God’s ways are not always what I have in mind. Without the burden of debt, I will be free to minister in churches that may not be able to afford a full-time pastor. Salary will not be the deciding factor in a call.”
When asked how she would describe the importance of donating to support theological education, Christine replies, “Giving toward seminary scholarships includes us directly in the Body of Christ that was, and is, and is to come. Many women and men who could not otherwise attend seminary will be able to do so.”
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
Daniel Williams (MDiv'16) has a heart for the Gospel and the desire to help others as they weather the challenges that life may bring. This passion grew throughout his adolescent years and ultimately brought him to Austin Seminary.
“I grew up Presbyterian in a very small town in northeastern New Mexico. I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a teenager, which is when I really started getting involved in church. I was ordained as a ruling elder when I was 15 or 16, and went on a mission trip to the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina - both of which really helped connect me to the idea of church.”
Williams initially had an urge to serve in a civil justice capacity, but a pivotal moment in high school helped him decided that he wanted to change course.
“Growing up, I always thought I wanted to be a civil rights attorney,” Williams said. "I loved Annette Bening's character in The American President and Sandra Bullock's in Two Week's Notice. I thought that was the way to make a change in the world. And then, when I was a senior in high school, my pastor got arrested in an act of intentional civil disobedience, protesting a particularly egregious aspect of United States foreign policy. That's when I started to understand that the change the world needed, the change I wanted so desperately to participate in, wasn't about some abstract set of convictions. It springs from the Gospel. It is grounded in God's incarnation on Earth, our elder brother who proclaimed good news for poor people and release to people held captive.”
Williams’ contribution to Austin Seminary’s Advent Devotional focuses on the importance of using his voice to speak up for those whom society turns a deaf ear towards. In his devotional he discusses how, “as individuals and a collective society, we often give our attention, our energy, and our sympathy, not to that which feeds life and love, but to powers of death and destruction.”
As we prepare for the season of Advent and help lift the spirits of those who are marginalized, broken, and holding on during a storm in their lives, Williams offers a token of wisdom, reminding us that patience is one of the greatest gifts we have. All one has to do is be still and know that God is with us.
“We often think of waiting as a passive, quiet activity. And there is certainly so much clamor of consumerism and false sentimentality in the weeks leading up to Christmas that a little bit of quiet would do all of us good,” said Williams. “But we miss the real gift of Advent if we lose the radicalness of that for which we're waiting in the quiet and peace that we find. Our waiting is passive if we lose sight of Christmas, of the gift of the Incarnation, of the Second Coming, of the in-breaking of God's reign. Our waiting becomes holy preparation if we, in Luther's words, 'fight, work, and pray' for the values that will define the commonwealth of heaven.“
Chad's and Emily's Stories
Having journeyed from a non-religious upbringing to a seminary classroom, with a park bench and a fundamentalist university along the way, Chad Lawson (MDiv'15) arrived at Austin Seminary as a self-described “spiritual nomad.”
Chad had found faith as a young man while experiencing homelessness in Austin, eventually enrolling in an Assemblies of God-affiliated university. It was there that his love of theology was kindled and his vocation to ministry was enlivened, but he also left with doubts about Christianity. “I came to seminary really turned off by church, even turned off by religion a little bit,” he says.
Things changed, though, as he immersed himself in the community at Austin Seminary. “I really experienced a radical welcome upon coming here,” Chad remembers. “People were so welcoming. We preach it and teach it here, but what impressed me is that people truly live it. People really think deeply about what it means to be a welcoming community.”
The warmth and vibrancy of the Austin Seminary community helped Chad find the connection between the academic work of theological education and the mission of God in the world. “I realized I needed to be interested in people and not just ideas,” reflects Chad. “So I started to really throw myself headfirst into everything I could. I started doing internships at churches and was a mission and outreach senator at the seminary. There was a shift in my thinking. Instead of focusing solely on ideas and intellectual pursuits, I asked myself, ‘How do I put this stuff into practice and really help people? What’s the point of talking about the Trinity if it doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives?’”
Emily Béghin (MDiv'15) has experienced a similar wedding of theory and practice in her three years at seminary. “Austin Seminary has helped me to open myself to new ways of seeking the sacred,” she says. “I’ve learned so much, from both my professors and my peers, about allowing myself to be open to new practices, new ways to be fully open to God.” One of the ways Emily has found to seek the sacred is by leading music in chapel: “I love playing the trumpet. It really puts me in a holy place.” The experiences of the divine that Emily has found at Austin Seminary through playing trumpet in chapel, leading a regular bible study, and traveling with seminary classmates to Scotland have enriched her academic study. “In the classroom, the professors here have given us practice in articulating new and complex theological ideas, and that helps us to transfer what we learn in the classroom to the world around us.”
Chad and Emily both graduate this spring, and both are looking forward to putting the education they received at Austin Seminary in service to God’s mission in the world. Chad will return to Seton Hospital, where he completed a Clinical Pastoral Education residency, as a hospital chaplain. His call to chaplaincy is only part of his larger vocation, which he sees as serving as a kind of “bridge.” He says, “Austin Seminary has given me the tools to speak to people who see faith and religion through all different kinds of lenses in a way that’s not condemning, but generous.”
Emily will be re-locating to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she will serve as a Pastoral Resident at First Presbyterian Church. She and two other residents will learn experientially about every aspect of ministry in the congregation and, after six months, will choose an area of the church’s ministry on which to focus. “This program is perfect for me,” Emily says. “Austin Seminary has given me the tools for my future, and now it’s time for more experience using them beyond my learning here.”
By anyone’s estimation, David Watson’s (MDiv'15) journey to Austin Seminary was a particularly striking one. His car was hit by lightning on the trip from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Austin, Texas.
“Making the trip to move down here was certainly an interesting one, although I absolutely did not expect to be hit by lightning in my car driving down the highway,” said Watson. “Now, whether or not that was the hand of God is still up for debate, but I think there’s got to be a good sermon illustration somewhere in there. And if you want to hear the full tale, just ask President Ted Wardlaw. He loves telling that story.”
Watson’s time at Austin Seminary stands as equally remarkable to his initial trip to the institution. He has embraced an active role as a leader at Austin Seminary and has already translated the skills he learned in the classroom into the community at large.
“Austin Seminary has prepared me in multiple ways for offering pastoral care to individuals in the future,” said Watson. “I have been able to take a pastoral care class on bereavement, and I will be taking the class on advanced pastoral counseling in the fall. In the classroom I learned the impact of attentive listening, which allows for the opportunity for the care receiver to delve into their emotions and feelings without the care provider dictating to them the contents of what is being explored.
“I am now taking what I learned in the classroom to my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at Scott and White Hospital in Temple, Texas. This program has afforded me the opportunity to interact with people in real-world situations. I have experienced and been exposed to many of the facets of life that are often overlooked or not understood. In addition to CPE I have also been exposed to the everyday realities of pastoral care in a congregational setting as the student associate pastor at Sunrise Beach Federated Church this past year.”
Austin Seminary prides itself on developing a community that extends beyond the time one spends on campus. For Watson, the sentiment rings especially true, as his mother, Joan Watson (MDiv’03) attended Austin Seminary before him.
“My mother was a student here from 2001 to 2003. We’ve also had numerous family friends who have been active contributors to the seminary community, whether as students, faculty, or board members,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that those ties were my sole reason for choosing Austin Seminary, but I will say that the familiarity did create a certain level of appeal. When I came back for my official Discovery Weekend visit I remember telling my parents it felt like home here.
As Watson prepares for his senior year and the time beyond as a leader in pastoral care, he has already taken the wisdom imparted to him from the Austin Seminary community to heart. One thing in particular stands out.
“The lesson that I have learned most through being at seminary, is to be in constant presence and relationship with those I preach to and worship with,” said Watson. “The most effective leadership and pastoral presence that I have experienced while being at the Seminary comes from those faculty and staff members who relate in real ways to those whom they are speaking to. Sincerity is key in all aspects of pastoral relationships. Austin Seminary has exemplified this through the kinds of relationships that the faculty, staff, and students have. I remember during my first visit to Austin Seminary as a prospective student, Professor Cynthia Rigby said, “We as professors view you students as colleagues.” This was something unique that I only found here at Austin Seminary, and this is the kind of approach that I want to take with me into my ministry.”
Kristi Click (MDiv/Dual Degree'16) carries a family lineage that extends across a century at Austin Seminary. (Her great-grandfather, Reverend Dr. John Milligan [Jack] Lewis, attended the institution 100 years ago). However, she found her calling as a seminarian while traveling well beyond the Austin Seminary campus.
“I have done a lot of traveling since entering seminary—including going to Trinidad and Tobago with Whit Bodman, Turkey with Lewie Donelson, and taking Bill Greenway’s class 'An Adventure in Wilderness and Spirituality,' which involved a lot of travel to undisclosed locations,” said Click. “But perhaps the most influential travel experience I had during seminary was when I took a break right smack dab in the middle of my studies and served as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Guatemala from August 2011 to August 2012."
Before Click’s trips abroad, she experienced a number of hardships early in her time at the Seminary that forced her to spend moments examining the depths of her heart.
“While my first two years of seminary were great, they did not come without challenges,” said Click. ”I struggled personally because of several deaths in the family, changes in relationships, and family cancer diagnoses, amongst other things. I found myself very disheartened and my self-esteem plummeted. I was frustrated because I had felt called to this place … and now I was so emotionally unstable that I couldn’t focus on my studies—or anything else. I was struggling.”
Ultimately, Click would gain validation in her choice to lead a life of pastoral care while spending time as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Central America.
While in Guatemala, God validated my call to ministry. During my YAV year, I had two volunteer positions: a teacher at a school with children who were victims of child labor, and a pastoral assistant to an Episcopal priest—who also happened to be a physician,” said Click. “I also facilitated presbytery partnership trips when churches would bring their youth and/or other groups down on short-term visitations or mission trips. It would take a very long time to walk you through that year but some of the most influential experiences I had included helping eighteen-year-old students learn to read and write (in Spanish), and empowering them to go for their dreams. I visited these children in their homes and spoke with their parents about their potential. I became an ally for them when they needed to talk about an all-too-often abusive situation at home. I loved them and learned from them that God does not forsake us.
At the Episcopal church, I was a lunch program coordinator. St. Mark’s has a high population of friends and members who are elderly and find themselves down-and-out. Some reasons for this include family abandonment, mental and psychological struggles resulting from the country’s devastating 36-year civil war, poverty, and loneliness. My job was to help cook, serve, and clean up the food, provide group activities, and simply befriend and provide a social space for the program’s participants. On Sundays, I often assisted with worship—preaching in both English and Spanish, on occasion.
Since the church’s priest was also a physician, I often accompanied him on medical mission trips to very rural areas of the country. My job was to primarily be a translator for the English speakers. There are twenty-three Mayan indigenous languages, and some patients didn’t even speak English. My brain has not been so tired since taking Hebrew!
As I mentioned, I am still discerning my exact call, but, partially because of my Guatemalan experience, I know that it involves working with people in a pastoral care and/or missional setting. I progressively feel called to the margins—to be with the suffering and downhearted.”
Click’s perserverance points to John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It also serves as a reminder of how personal challenges can build resolve and ultimately shape us as we work to care for others. Through her journeys, both abroad and at home, she now stands ready to enter a larger community where she can use lessons from her experiences to help the brokenhearted. For even in times of darkness, we can always be pointed in the direction of the light.
John Harrison (MDiv'15), Austin Seminary President Ted Wardlaw (formerly pastor of John’s church, Central Presbyterian, Atlanta) and John’s mother, Camille, were two of many “big role models” for him growing up. For 13 years, John has watched his mother direct Villa International, a residential community that offers Christian hospitality to health care professionals who come from all faiths and all parts of the world to research at the CDC in Atlanta.
At Central (Atlanta), John completed the confirmation process and was elected to the session before going to college at Harvard. Before leaving Central to become president of Austin Seminary, Ted Wardlaw had asked John to consider seminary, an invitation that proved both powerful and enduring.
Like many young people, college years brought John a time of disillusionment with the church. Nonetheless, he sought out Harvard professor, Peter Gomes, to ask advice on how best to spend his Harvard years with ministry in mind. To his amazement Professor Gomes answered him, “Young man, if you are called, you cannot escape it. Therefore do anything else you can think of, and God will find you when you are ready.”
Five years later, God found John, a film major looking for work and inching along an L.A. freeway. “It just hit me that I needed to be a pastor.”
John changed direction and came to Austin Seminary to prepare. “The humility and the hospitality here impressed me. Since then, it’s only gotten brighter.” In the city of Austin, John saw pressing needs and a place for the political activism that had energized him all his life, as well as a scholarly and faithful community. As he examines the death penalty and other key social justice issues, he says, “The frontier for all the issues I care about is here. They’re not going to change in America until they can change in Texas.”
John seeks a ministry “close to the street. I want to be a bridge to bring the church out into the street.”
Such a calling is possible, in part, because of the financial aid Austin Seminary provides students. “Here, we don’t have to recruit people into the material demands of student debt. I’m delighted that I can serve Jesus and not the bank.”
This financial support leaves students more time to start their own ministries. “A former student, Kim Rogers (now associate pastor at Central Presbyterian in Austin,) started a Thursday morning breakfast for the homeless. Other students do their own forms of outreach, from pickup basketball games to hospital visits. The Seminary’s support lets students start their ministries right now.”
Austin Seminary welcomes new ideas, he said. “I’m doing my Supervised Practice of Ministry this year in Travis County Jail. I understand this is the first time an Austin Seminary student has done supervised coursework in a jail setting, but Austin Seminary set it up. They are very good at saying ‘yes’ to good ideas.”
Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic harm to her hometown of New Orleans showed Kathy Lee (MDiv'16) the faces of ministry and her call to seminary.
Although she grew up in a Presbyterian church, Kathy never considered going to seminary. “I loved going to church, and I was inspired by those experiences.” Having attended public schools all of her life, she chose Pepperdine, a Christian university in California with “a big focus on faith and service.” There she became more involved with discernment, service, and community.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast during Kathy’s last year of college, and her father—a restaurant owner—was forced to close his business. Between working with her dad to reopen the restaurant, teaching English in China, and re-connecting with extended family, Kathy found her first two years after college to be an existential crisis of sorts.
Enter: Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Program. PDA’s five-year grant invited and engaged young adults to be part of Katrina recovery efforts in the Presbytery of South Louisiana. Kathy’s pastor asked her to apply for the position as the YAV Program’s site coordinator.
During the interview with the YAV Advisory Board, she realized they expected to give the job to a seminary graduate. “As we talked, I understood that all the elements—service, reflection, discernment, and community—had already been a huge part of my life, and I wanted that job.”
And she got it. For the next four years, she learned a lot more about the Presbyterian Church and its engagement in world missions. “It was an amazing opportunity to understand the role of the church and to be affirmed in my work—in my hometown. I was able process a lot of emotions and grief through this experience.”
At the same time, many of her colleagues and supervisors had seminary training. “I saw what seminary could equip them with. They were able to talk to people about God, even in those hard times.”
Other YAVs also experienced hardships at the time. “Many YAVs experienced the death and loss of loved ones, conflict in their communities and places of service, and struggles with their identity and role as Christians in our world today.”
“This seminary experience equips us to participate and walk with people through these challenges. There were limitations I experienced not having been to seminary, but still loved what I was able to do with the program and YAVs. At one point, a mentor of mine asked me if I planned to go to seminary, and I said then, 'I don't know.' He said to me, 'Don't you think there's something in being professionally trained? Would you see someone for medical attention if that person did not attend medical school?' It finally clicked that what I needed was to go to seminary."
Kathy embraced preparation unreservedly. “I plan to apply to the joint social work program with University of Texas for the MDiv/MSSW degree. I don’t know where in the realm of the PC(USA) I’ll serve, but I want to be engaged with a congregation and a community using what I’ve learned here. I see a lot of different possibilities of being able to participate in different ways the church is involved in people’s lives.
“Ten years ago, I would never have seen myself here,” she continues. “My prayer is that I will stay faithful in who I am and what I am doing.”
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