what to do about seminary?

bush on fire with fall

About a week and a half ago, I spent the day talking about leadership with my colleagues. We sat in a circle, nibbling on chocolate mints and letting the unseasonably warm wind blow off the water and into the house.

At one point, several of us weighed in on this question: Have you ever been thrust into leadership without sufficient preparation and perhaps to the detriment of those you were leading?

My mind immediately flew back to my seminary internships, when I was responsible for leading Bible studies or for preaching or for calling on home-bound people. For so much of that time, I was not certain that I was called to be a pastor or to lead. Like many of my seminary peers, I had enrolled in seminary with the intent of figuring out my calling while I finished my degree. This was especially true for those of us who went straight from college to seminary. We had heard that people used graduate school as a place to stall, a place to put off deciding how they would spend their lives—but surely we weren’t among them.

So we went to seminary.

And we led Bible studies without being confident that we should be leading them. And we preached—not with the congregation in mind, but with our own calling in mind. I for one spent a whole lot more time introspecting and fretting and crying about myself and my uncertain vocation than I did about the lives of the people I was charged to care for.

Instead of absorbing the history of Israel or the Hebrew language, I turned my homework into another chance to ruminate on whether I had leadership chops. I rarely completed an assignment without turning it back toward myself, no matter where it started—Greek grammar, organizational leadership, the book of Esther, an ecumenical council. My fifth-grade teachers would have been ashamed: my papers never bothered to avoid first-person pronouns.

Apparently, this is increasingly common. More and more students are using seminary as a space for discernment, rather than a space for preparation. Once upon a time, people felt a call to ministry and attended seminary in order to be adequately equipped to serve as ministers. But now, in an era when jobs are hard to come by and adolescence is extended well into the twenties, people need more time to figure out their vocations.

And, from what I heard from my colleagues that day we talked about leadership, the seminary is having to figure out its own vocation. If students are using seminary not to learn the skills to be pastors but to discern whether or not they should be pastors at all, the curriculum needs to look a lot different than it has. Maybe we need to separate out the discerning and the equipping, because it’s pretty hard to acquire the skills for leadership when you cry over your homework every night, deep in an identity crisis.

I’m not sure what all this means, and I’m certainly not going to sort out the role seminaries play all by myself. But it has been on my mind. There’s no going back on the cultural shifts—the majority of new college graduates may never again be sure of their vocational path immediately out of school—so we’ll have to figure something else out.

Should we advise college students to take some time to work and to do their discerning before seminary, while they are earning, rather than spending, money? Should seminaries revamp their curricula? Should we stretch the length of seminary programs so that students have a chance to grow as leaders once they’re actually fairly confident they should be leading? I’m not sure.

But I just don’t feel good about sending seminarians into churches to try to care for a congregation while their gazes are pointed straight in.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)


i painted like this

watercolor bears

Another afternoon of watercolor with my sister, in preparation for the babe. I was not on my watercolor game. Those bears aren’t the worst of it. I said to Hope, “I painted like this so our girl knows that nobody’s perfect, not even her mom.”

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)

friends, i love you.

baby shower bunting

How many times must I remind myself?

Again and again I forget. I fall into the pit of self-pity, thinking no one loves us, no one has time for us. I despise Shauna Niequist and her home team: I can’t think of a single soul I’d dare to bother in the middle of the night when I’m up, anxious and in tears. When I try to remember the last time a friend helped herself to a glass of water at our house, I suddenly feel all formal and discouraged that I can’t come up with anything.

We live on a wide, busy street next to a Walgreens; this isn’t any sort of neighborhood, really. Cups of sugar are not waiting to be lent. When I mentally run through our friends, I get stuck on this dang block, thinking, no one, no one, no one. They’re all so far away: Holland, Detroit, Chicago, East Coast, West Coast, way down south. Even the nearest ones drop out of my mind; I can’t overcome the ten minutes it takes to drive to their houses.

But THEN. (There’s always one of those. Why can’t I seem to remember?)

Twelve women show up at my sister’s house to circle up around me and celebrate the lively little babe who’s only two months away from entering this world. Some of the women drive for hours. Some linger for hours. I am overcome.

So. much. love.

As we talk, I realize that we’re all as lonely as the rest. We’re all suffering in our scattered cities, for a whole host of reasons. Heartache abounds. Exhaustion is rampant. And it’s only exacerbated by isolation.

Some of it, I see now, is self imposed. Why would I burden anyone with my own trials? They don’t care, I tell myself. They can’t do anything about it. They don’t want to.

But they do! They tell me so! They offer kindnesses I can’t believe, that practically knock the wind out of me. These women are generous.

And as I hear their hearts, I care. I want to do something about it, even if that just means listening and crying along with them. I kick myself for not asking sooner, for knowing and not checking in. I am embarrassed by my self-pity and self-absorption. How did I completely forget my home team? How did I neglect these friends, aching in their own ways, while I whined about how hurt and alone I was?

Oh, dear friends, forgive me. How deeply I love you. How precious you are to me. All of you, far-flung as you are, whether I saw you yesterday or not.

Please let’s draw near to each other, like chairs to a fireplace in winter. Let’s ask each other how we are doing, even when the question feels awkward. Let’s make a point to call or at least email. Text even. Let’s not lose touch. Let’s hold each other. Let’s go to each other’s houses when we’re about to snap and support the weight so nothing breaks. Let’s keep reminding each other that we’re not isolated, that this beautiful body—the body of Christ—is holding us up.

I love you.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)

some days are like that

pom pom plants

Thank you for families. Thank you for those people who, just as I’m on the verge of falling apart, swoop into town with strong arms for shifting furniture and ingredients for both lunch and dinner and the kind of hugs I’m glad I haven’t outgrown. Thank you for sending them the day after I had to read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day as bedtime consolation and still believed that moving to Australia was probably the solution.

farmland in november

Thank you for bright November mornings and for the peace that comes with eating a scone slathered in butter. Thank you for mild November afternoons. Thank you that bare branches mean more sunlight through the gaps. Thank you for dark November evenings of spaghetti squash and a card game and the cocoon of those people, those swooping-in people, who redeemed the day.

Thank you.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)


baby books

That time you felt forlorn and forgotten, and then everyone showed up with their favorite books of all time.

(She’s going to be one well-read baby.)

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)

lemon ricotta cake

slice of lemon cake

In the darkness yesterday evening, we made our way to our friends’ house to read Scripture and to pray.

Honestly, we weren’t sure what the night would look like. Feeling soul-parched, we figured gathering with others to fill ourselves with living water could probably quench that thirst. But we didn’t quite trust that it would. So we drove over, nervous and unprepared, a simple lemon cake in tow. We hoped that if nothing else worked, at least we’d have cake.

Silly us. So worried.

Of course the Spirit was already there. Of course the room was full and warm. Of course our prayers were held and heard.

Our hearts burst with gratitude.

Lemon Ricotta Cake

from Deb Perelman‘s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

I love Deb’s concept of the everyday cake. Something simple, verging on savory, light, as appropriate for breakfast as for teatime or dessert. Something to take to a friend’s house on a Tuesday night. (Also, full disclosure: Dan made the cake, not me. It was the most tender, moist cake I can remember eating. He’s awesome.)

Lemon cake

1 cup ricotta
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups cake flour (or all purpose, if you don’t have cake flour)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
rounded 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

Lemon glaze

1 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice (freshly juiced if you have lemons around)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the parchment.

With your fingers, rub the lemon zest into the granulated sugar in a large bowl to infuse the sugar with the oil from the lemon peel. Into that, whisk the ricotta and olive oil. Add the eggs one at a time. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt directly over the wet ingredients, and mix with a spoon until just combined.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30 minutes, until the cake is golden, and a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then unlatch the sides of the pan and move the cake to a plate.

While the cake is baking, whisk together the powdered sugar and lemon juice. When the cake is completely cool, drizzle the glaze over the whole thing. If you prefer not to have puddles of glaze all over your serving platter, wait to drizzle the glaze until you’ve sliced and served individual pieces.

Eat with friends and tea and prayer.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here!)

nope, i’m good.

farmhouse on a sunny day

Today, I took a walk at lunch. The thermometer said 71°F. My clothes were sticking to me when I came back in. (That could also be the personal space heater I’m carrying around with me these days. Thanks, baby.)

Here’s hoping this balmy November day is an indication of things to come. Maybe this winter won’t beat me down the way the past few have. Maybe we can swaddle ourselves with the birth of this girl, wrap up our family with amazement, find warmth in her existence, and actually delight in the winter.

A friend once told me about a friend of his who had just become a father. At a party they were both at, the new father was lying on the ground, taking in his new daughter, while the party went on in another room. When my friend came in to check on them, he asked if the dad wanted to come back to the party.

“Nope,” the dad said. “I’m good.”

I want to be that content. I want to gaze at our daughter. I want to be so absorbed in the miracle that is life that I can loll for hours on the carpet with this tiny new being.

I want to say, “Nope. I’m good.”

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here!)

pins to come back to

milkweed bursting

For all the reasons that I ever commit to write, I’m writing again this November as part of NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. At this time two years ago, I was in the airport, on my way to California for my grandma’s birthday, determined to get back in the writing saddle. I’m forever falling out.

Now I’m in one of the strangest seasons of my life—one so unfamiliar I hardly know how to articulate it to myself. And I’m hoping, as always, that writing will ground me. That I’ll be able to put into words some of these nameless impressions. That I’ll be able to pin to my butterfly board a record of the swoops and sways of this little girl in my belly, so when she asks, three decades from now, perhaps carrying her own child, what it was like, I will have set it down in words and in my memory and can tell her how odd and alien and sweet and improbable it all is.

Be back tomorrow.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here!)

late-summer jewels

goldenrod pollen

Fall comes, and the goldenrod pollen settles on our table.

We try to find a routine: walking in the damp, cool mornings. Assembling lunch lickety-split before I dash back to work. Bumping shoulders in the kitchen as we make dinner together again after a long long hiatus. Playing games—old favorites like cribbage and Carcassonne—and trying to outwit each other.


Watching the tomatoes, those late-summer jewels, dwindle to one, then none.

Lying in bed and breathing deeply, practicing for labor—he coaxing my muscles to ease, me learning how to let my shoulders soften and sink into our wonderful bed. Pulling his hand to my belly, cupping it over the spot she’s most active, feeling her tumble and prod and learn her own little limbs and limits. Chuckling at her antics. Trying to sear these wordless minutes into my memory.

half a flat of tomatoes

Asking the Lord for answers to our questions. Our one question, really, the one I wake to every morning, the one I circle back to in prayer. Why?

Why why why? Over and over demanding to know. Resorting to all caps in my journal to make sure God pays attention. Ending in tears more often than not.

just one green zebra tomato

Then stumbling upon grace like a mote of dust and changing the question entirely. Starting to ask for the simple gift of contentment in the not-knowing. Instead of demanding, receiving. Attending. Cherishing. Reacquainting myself with gratitude.

on water and walking

mosquito falls

I realized, while hiking to Mosquito Falls (blessedly a misnomer—the mosquito part, that is), that Dan and I tend to take a lot of pretty ordinary walks. Rarely do our walks take us anywhere breathtaking or magnificent, in the grand, panoramic sort of way. We walk around the block. We hike the perimeter of the lake his parents live on, watching the pair of sand cranes pick their way through the reeds.

moss on a fallen tree in the river

Even when traveling, we tend to choose fairly pedestrian hikes. Last week, while camping in the UP near Pictured Rocks (not a misnomer—quite picturesque, those rocks), we decided on a moderate hike to Mosquito Falls. It was listed among worthwhile waterfalls to visit, but it wasn’t the biggest or the most voluminous or the highest. The hike didn’t include any sweeping vistas. We were mostly bounded by trees, cool and mossy, with loam and stones underfoot.

mosquito beach

As we walked (hike is even too grand a word for what we did), I pondered the soul-discipline that is the ordinary walk. Maybe, in the same way that summer camp spiritual highs aren’t all that useful in the end, hikes that culminate in spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime views don’t shape our souls the way daily walks do. For the better part of the past year, Dan and I took our walks on cracked sidewalks under trees with limbs hacked in half to make room for the power lines that ran past houses whose inhabitants didn’t bother to garden or even, on occasion, mow. And yet it was on that sidewalk that we held hands (we were supposed to be training for a run) and laughed in amazement at the tiny little line we’d seen that morning that meant we’d be parents.

muskallonge lake

I also realized, once we arrived at the falls, that waterfalls are places worth seeing because of the disturbances there. The boulders beneath the surface, the trees that have fallen—these disrupt the flow and create beauty. Who would’ve thought! Perfectly still water is boring. But water that is agitated, rippled by wind and troubled by stones—that water draws us.

pebbles under the surface

There’s a metaphor sitting right on the surface, waiting for me to pick it up and take it to heart.