I think it’s fair to admit that I went to seminary because I didn’t know what else to do.
In 2007, my fellow college graduates and I were standing on the precipice of the financial crisis. I felt like my Classics degree had simultaneously prepared me for all jobs and no job at all (the perennial humanities dilemma). So, I went to seminary.
I had taken the first steps toward my future seminary career two years earlier: starting to attend a weekly Taize-style worship and befriending the campus chaplain who facilitated it. Both the chaplain and the worship space played a transformative role in my faith, rebuilding a trust in religious community that had been lost in childhood. I was so inspired by this community and the way it brought out my own creative gifts that I accepted a ministry discernment fellowship for my senior year. That year taught me how much I loved preaching and how much I disliked pretty much every other part of the pastor’s job. I’m sure I knew even then that traditional church ministry wasn’t for me. But what else was I going to do?
On that shaky vocational ground, I entered seminary. The trial by fire of intro classes and church placements made the ground even less stable. I struggled mightily in a summer Clinical Pastoral Education placement in an emergency room. I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet a little obsessively, hoping to find “patience with everything unresolved in [my] heart.” I found slightly firmer ground in a placement at a local non-profit. I liked the practicality of working on tangible needs, only straying into questions of faith when the client invited it. But even that didn’t feel totally right. Plus, it was 2010 and the “post”-crisis job market wasn’t any better than it had been in 2007. So (and I bet you can guess where this is going) I chose more grad school.
I entered my doctoral program thinking that I could eventually teach at a seminary, merging the academic and spiritual sides of myself. Unfortunately, coursework and comprehensive exams beat a lot of that optimism out of me. Then the abrupt shift from a daily schedule to the wasteland of dissertation writing left me at a loss for direction. I loved reading and writing and teaching about the medieval women who inspired me, but hated the thought of losing that joy in the relentless pace of tenure-track checkpoints.
If you’re Presbyterian (like me) you’d call my discovery of a part-time library job providential. I thought it was just a way to make ends meet. But it turned out that library work fulfilled all of my Sarah-specific vocational needs. I get to teach people new skills, get to share my love of history, get to provide a pastoral ear in times of crisis, and even get to think creatively about pedagogy with faculty. My favorite moments come when I can help students connect their passions to their academic work, which is a particular goal of a class I designed (“Research as a Theological Practice”). I get to empower students as they claim their voices, cultivating academic skills in service of being courageous and informed ministry leaders.
Ten years ago, first-year seminarian Sarah thought ministry happened at a pulpit (and maybe at a hospital bed). Now, I know that my own ministry begins at a reference desk! Seminary was a crucial step in getting me here, but it was just one of the experiences that informed my unique ministry. I encourage you to think creatively about what ministry might look like for you, embracing the uncertainty and transformative potential of the post-seminary life.