I recently spent a week visiting two very dear friends from my master’s program and their daughter (my goddaughter). Between work schedules, travels along the coast, and the daily chaos of life with a toddler, the three of us managed to work in some fairly serious conversations that touched on the relationships between our various vocations. Both of my friends are full-time lay ministers (Rachel is a campus minister for adult faith formation; Sean is a hospital chaplain), while I, of course, am in doctoral studies and hoping to continue on in the academy. (The last time I visited Rachel and Sean, we took a trip to Canada. The border official asked us how we all knew each other and what our occupations were… and then skeptically summarized the situation: “So, you all went to graduate school together. Since then, you two married, became ministers, and had a baby — but you’re still in grad school?” Back off, border control lady.)

While each of us is at peace with the side of the academic theology / direct ministry divide we’ve landed on (for now, at least), we share a certain envy of particular facets of our counterparts’ lives: I look at Rachel and Sean and see the ways in which theological training can actually matter to people in a visible way; Rachel and Sean have both said that they miss the specific sort of meaty intellectual engagement that happens in the academic study of theology. And this isn’t just about my particular friendship with these two people — in a recent conversation, another of my dearest friends (also a hospital chaplain) let me know how much it means to him when I tell him about bits and pieces of my reading that remind me of conversations that we’ve had that hit on spiritual topics.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationships between theology and ministry, on the one hand, and on people in theology and people in ministry, on the other: WIT and WIM, and MIT and MIM.

In particular, I keep coming back to a conversation with my friends about the division between campus ministry and theology departments, and the unspoken assumptions that keep staff and faculty operating in separate universes–assumptions which are shot through with various hierarchies and manifestations of kyriarchy.

Lots of women academics have had experiences of being assumed to be staff rather than faculty (or assumed to perform staff functions even when it is known they are faculty); lots of women academics have had experiences of students expecting them to be more pastoral (or, worse, “motherly” — pastoral isn’t a dirty word in my book: theology instructors should have a certain pastoral sense… but when I am grading your papers, I ain’t your mama) than they expect their male professors or TAs to be. As such, discussion of breaking down problematically kyriarchical divisions between theologians and ministers that involve women in theology are going to touch up against some sensitive issues of gendered expectations, but that doesn’t excuse those of us who see theology as a vocation of service rather than a purely intellectual mindgame from giving serious thought to how we relate to those in ministry. Even if our own skills and preferences lead us to interact in exclusively “academic” manners, we need to be sure that choice doesn’t communicate a lack of respect for those in pastoral ministry.

I know, I know — blah blah blah 1 Corinthians 12 obvious point blah. But these divisions still exist, right? And it’s still a temptation, at least for me, to cling really fiercely to my privilege as a PhD-getting person, because I am conscious of how entirely frustrating it is to be dismissed as a woman in the church, and / or to have the real work that goes into graduate work summarily discounted when a student says, “Well, that’s not what my priest said in last week’s homily,” or a friend says, “Well, that’s not what I was taught 20 years ago in Catholic school.”

But there’s a reason that Sarah Coakley is suspicious of Daphne Hampson‘s claim that kenosis is a valuable model for men but not for women — a reason that people of color and poor people and generally anyone who has been on the receiving end of someone else’s attempt to cling to the power and privilege they do have are well aware of.

We all have our own self-inflating hierarchies. Race and gender and class are big parts of that… and so are supposed-meritocracies (whose full analysis must include race and gender and class). I’m certainly defensive of my role as an academic theologian being something that makes a real and valuable contribution to the church in its widest sense–but I’m also wondering how I can really commit to having my actions reflect the deep respect I hold for pastoral ministers. And I certainly hope that I’ll land a tenure-track gig–but I’m also conscious that’s not a guarantee. There are massive problems involved in the treatment of adjuncts, involving all the -isms one can imagine, and I’m wondering how to participate in resisting that whichever end of the tenure / adjunct divide I end up on. And I’m wondering how I can express the deep truth that deciding for something other than spending your life on the tenure-track chase is also an expression of fidelity to one’s vocation.

I’d love to have a serious conversation around such issues — one that moves beyond a Pelagianism (“but I am working very hard and will therefore be rewarded!”) or blitheness (“just be respectful of everyone; done.“) or denigration of the academic track, and involves real investment on the part of all the women and men in theology and ministry involved in the conversation…

6 thoughts

  1. Yippeee I made the blog! But I would love to converse about this….I think that there is a lot of tension around lay ministers/theologians for many reasons one of which is that lay ministers used to be (and sometimes still are) were poorly educated in theology when in fact that is much less of a problem now.

  2. Bridget, you are touching on a subject near and dear to my heart. The dynamic between ministry and theology is what first set off so many spiritual/intellectual “ah ha” moments in my undergraduate career that I switched majors. In my masters program, too, I found that having one foot in the classroom and one in campus ministry caused me to ask different questions. I’m blessed to be a position now that allows me to think about theology in relation to ministry–both what it means to minister and how ministers can have better access to theology. I think you’re dead on that both vocations require kenosis understood as true humility rather than as self- annihilation. Thanks for giving me great food for thought!

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