Reflecting on My First Year in Seminary: Church has Been More Difficult Than School

So this is an edit of a weekly reflection that I turned in for Seminary. I do not normally post these, but I may start doing so. This reading comes from Feminist & Womanist Pastoral Theology edited by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern, and it is chapter three “Always an Outsider? Feminist, Female, Lay, and Roman Catholic” by Roslyn A. Karaban. Chapter four by Miller-McLemore is also used a bit in the post. This book is available on Amazon.com is anyone wishes to read it themselves. Chapter three reached out to me on a very personal level and that is why I choose to post here. Maybe posting things and sharing them will help things along.

I found these chapters, especially chapter three, difficult to analyze “academically” because they really spoke to me personally. From the time I got to the middle of the first page of Karaban’s chapter I was solidly engaged in the chapter because I started to recognize my personal story coming out of the pages. To start in chapter four, the biggest thing that jumped out at me was “At the end of my preface of Also a Mother, I express a prevalent sentiment: ‘I, for one, want to hear other voices, voices different from my own’”1 This quote is very much a summary of my entire process this semester in particular, but really my entire time in school so far. I read items from people who I would have never read without coming to school.

From Karaban, when I read “With this rejection of me as a laywoman, I was able to articulate what I would call an experience of contradiction, or what Leon Festinger called experience of ‘cognitive dissonance’–a feeling of distress that occurs when two beliefs fail to align. I had already experienced this dissonance in my belief that I was called to ordained priesthood in a church that denied even the existence of that call, let alone the fulfillment of that call.”2 Certainly this is something that one would experience in the Roman Catholic church and also in the LDS Church. Indeed, both denominations are currently engaged in conversations on various levels trying to determine how “we” wish to fit female members into our various ministries. Certainly many other denominations have and are functioning quite well and growing with women ordained in ministry and I believe that these are good conversations to have within the church body.

I can also relate to Karaban’s view on the lack of understanding of her call from members around her. Being from a tradition without what I would call “traditional” ordained clergy, a huge portion of the church is not even aware that we have professional military chaplains much less know what they do and how to move forward with the process of becoming one. This goes from lay folk all the way up to local leaders. I’ve had folks ask me in church as I’m attending with my entire family if I am a baptized member because they simply do not know what a chaplain is. I’ve had folks in online communities tell me that I need to sit down with missionaries so that I can find the error in my ways because I must not be a member and that the LDS church does not have paid clergy. I haven’t many nice things to say about these folks on the online communities…

Next, Karaban wrote “A number of church documents appeared when I was beginning my teaching career as a pastoral theologian that restricted the academic freedom of the Catholic theologian in a Catholic university or college and discouraged dissent from hierarchical traditional teachings of the magisterium.”3 While I strongly suspect that this was discouraging to her, it is not uncommon among church bodies. Virtually all church bodies prevent folks, especially those who are ordained, from speaking and writing things that are against “orthodox” thought. This has been seen recently in the United Methodist church where an Elder was defrocked due to presiding over a same-sex marriage. Within the LDS Church, a woman was recently excommunicated due to her pressuring leaders to ordain women to office and encouraging women to stage public demonstrations asking for ordination. So, in some ways, I saw some similarities to Karaban’s entrance into counseling and the difficulties facing academics in that field to my initial entrance into the field of chaplaincy and the ever-present line that I have to walk in what I say publicly and what I write.

However, as I read her work, Karaban really caught me when she wrote “Although I felt connected to the other women in my field, I realized that as a Roman Catholic, my history, my orientation, and my concerns would often differ from my Protestant, feminist colleagues.”4 Certainly this can be a universal among pastors and professors in that perhaps an African American professor of religion might feel isolated in fields that may be predominantly white, but this one spoke to me personally. As a prospective chaplain within the LDS Church where we do not have professional clergy, and most folk are unaware that we even have military chaplains, I internalize her statement because I feel like I fall into a grey area where I have relatively few shared experiences with my lay LDS church-going friends and few shared with my Protestant military chaplain brothers. Certainly this is something I am still working with as I move along with process.

Almost piggy-backing on this statement, then, she writes “As a professor of pastoral theology, I still face issues similar to those I faced as a pastoral minister—twenty years ago. Just as I was part of the first generation of Roman Catholic women preparing for professional lay ministry, I am now part of the first generation of female pastoral theologians. I still struggle to find mentors, or at least colleagues, with similar experiences and interests. I still struggle with finding resources that are written by women—specifically Roman Catholic women—that both speak to and affirm who I am.”5 Same as before, this can apply to many people. To use a specific example from a class, a white student mentioned that he saw a black theological writer on the book list and thought “oh…another black guy.” His words were softer than the words make it seem, but an African American student in class made the comment that he was reading from writers outside his particular context in every single class because the majority of writers are white. The difficulty that I find personally is that there is only a single book listed on various online bookseller websites that speaks directly to the context of a LDS person in military chaplaincy. However, much more relevant to me than written books is the difficulty of finding peers and mentors. My current mentor, our chaplain in New York, is quite possibly the closest person who I will find to myself in that he completed his graduate seminary studies while on active duty in the military and is now serving in the Navy, yet he is conservative and evangelical and I am LDS, so our ministry contexts and traditions are far different. That said, however, he is an awesome mentor and I am thankful that he is willing to take his time to work with me. Among the LDS Chaplains who I know, they are graduates of BYU, all served two-year missions, and have been church members since birth, while I have never attended BYU and I did not serve a mission because I did not join the LDS Church until I was twenty-four years old. So in spite of our shared faith, I have very little in common with them either. So, on a personal level, I can understand the isolation that it seems like she felt as a female Catholic theologian and pastoral care-giver.

I also find a certain degree of isolation within the congregations. I find that often times I have questions about theological or spiritual matters that I would like to discuss openly just for the sake of working them through in my mind but I do not feel as though others are willing to have the discussion. I feel that folks want to attack opinions that even slightly dissent from the standard and then move forward to the stock answer of “pray about it.” Well, I have prayed about it, I would just like to discuss it aloud. But I can not, or so I feel. Part of this is that I don’t think that folks like to engage in conversations that cannot be answered with the “canned answers” that we hear each week in Sunday School and partly because I am not sure if I really want to vocalize my opinion on a topic like theodicy because I am not sure what they would think about me if I did. So, as I said, in a lot of ways, I feel like I am somewhat isolated within the church community.

So, the major difficulty for me in this chapter is that I simply cannot separate academics and personal impact. This chapter speaks to me on a highly personal level. I know what the rejection that she writes about feels like. I am currently going through the struggle of finding mentors and peers with whom I have shared experiences. While she does not write about it, I suspect that she had experiences similar to my own when someone asks about chaplaincy and I respond that it is a professional ministry, the person responds with something like “oh, that’s nice” in the same tone that a teenage boy might use when his three year old niece shows him a picture she has just drawn. This chapter really transcended academics for me. It was somewhat comforting to read about someone else having some of the same experiences that I have had. Yet, at the same time, it is not very comforting at all because it causes me to face the potential reality of a long career where I have effectively no peers or folks who I can be truly honest with. This is not the easiest thing for me to work with but one that I will need to deal with moving forward.

1 Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, “Feminist Theory in Pastoral Theology,” in Feminist and Womanist Pastoral Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 89.

2 Roslyn A. Karaban, “Always an Outsider? Feminist, Female, Lay, and Roman Catholic,” in in Feminist and Womanist Pastoral Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 66-67.

3 Ibid., 67.

4 Ibid., 71-72.

5 Ibid., 75.

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