Ministry of Empathy: New Community Chaplains Recall Their own Seminary Experiences

This fall, CDSP implemented a new system for connecting students with pastoral support, inviting four ministers with connections to the seminary to serve in this new capacity:

  • The Rev. Judith (Jude) Lyons ‘19 is priest and retreat leader in the Diocese of Los Angeles and a graduate of CDSP’s low-residence program. Her chaplain duties will focus on support for low-residence students.
  • The Rev. Cameron Partridge, ThD, is rector of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco and has served as an adjunct instructor in theology. In addition to his new chaplain duties, he will serve as spiritual advisor to the Queer Student Fellowship.
  • The Rev. Mauricio Wilson is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, CA, and last year served as spiritual advisor to the Seminarians of Color Union. He will continue in that role in addition to his new chaplain duties.
  • Jamie Nelson ‘15 is foundation specialist at Lower Columbia College in Longview, WA, but until recently served at CDSP as executive assistant to the president and dean. His role will focus on student spiritual direction.

To introduce these chaplains to the wider CDSP community, we asked them to reflect
on their own experiences of seminary—including ways they may remember having needed support. All photos in this article are courtesy of the respective chaplains.

Lyons: Support in the midst of the low-res juggling act

Rev. Lyons baptizes a baby in her congregation.

The day after being accepted as a postulant in the Diocese of Los Angeles, I called CDSP to inquire about applying to the low-residence master of divinity program. I learned the program began not in the fall but in just six weeks. I filled out the application, wrote the requisite essays, tracked down my transcripts, alerted my references, and submitted it all within twenty-four hours. I was admitted!

Two days later, I received the list of ten books I needed to read for Anglican Moral Theology and the date the ten summaries were due before arriving in Berkeley. Gasp! Then I began printing the hundreds of pages of articles for Foundations in Ministry. Double gasp!

I soon discovered I was not alone in being both thrilled and terrified. As our formation as a low-res cohort began, we shared our stories and heard how we each had been called by God. Then we tentatively tested the waters to discover we shared a lively and sometimes ribald sense of humor.

As we grew in our relationships, we moved easily from tears to laughter and back again.

One evening we crowded into a room for compline. One of us was already a deacon, so he led the service. As we prayed together, the air in the room began to change. We all felt it. When it was over, we were silent. We looked at each other and smiled, deeply aware of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Formation is gradual, and we are not always aware of it in the moment. That night we were.

The difficulty of the low-residence program is that seminary is essentially dropped into the middle of homes already full of schedules, needs, and responsibilities.To make it through, you have to compartmentalize in order to meet the weekly, sometimes daily, schedule of postings. The isolation
that comes from trying to manage the demands of seminary, in addition to the demands of home, relationships, and work, stretches one very thin.

What you long for is something deeper and simpler, the time for extended conversations that grow organically in classes, between classes, at lunch, walking to chapel, or just hanging out somewhere. And that is why the intensives are such a lifeline for low-res students.

My classmates often expressed a wish for a support person, particularly when the isolation and the juggling act threatened to overwhelm, or when the spiritual connection begins to fray. Sometimes you need a listening ear or praying hands.

I am so grateful for my low-residency experience and how it continues to inform my priesthood every day. And I am excited to walk along with the current low-residency students as their chaplain.

Partridge: Fostering a Necessary Sense of Imagination

During my undergrad experience, I stumbled upon a memoir of one of the Philadelphia Eleven, the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. That discovery renewed and deepened a sense of call to the priesthood that I had first wondered about as an early teen.

During my first year of seminary, the heresy trial of Bishop Walter Righter unfolded. I was relieved when Bishop Righter’s ordination of an openly gay man was found not to violate any core doctrine of the Episcopal Church.

I went to seminary right out of college in the mid-1990s. I intended to explore a vocational nexus connecting scholarship and ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. That included the fairly new field of queer theology, an interest that had emerged for me late in my undergrad journey as a religion major with a feminist and gender studies concentration who had come out as queer along the way.

But when I haltingly started to come out to myself as trans a few months later, I had little to no sense of ecclesial context for this facet of my journey. Was it even possible to be a trans priest or theologian? I didn’t assume the answer was no, but it was not easy to imagine how the answer could be yes.

I was discovering that imagination, a sense of spaciousness, and possibility were what I most needed. I wanted to live deeply and collaboratively in what theologian Verna Dozier called the

Dream of God. For me, imagination was and is a deep pastoral necessity, informed by our ultimate hopes for God’s final and full redemption. Imagination is not disconnected from the difficult, oppressive realities afoot in the world. It acknowledges and identifies those patterns, grieves them, pushes back against them, seeks collectively to transform them, and ultimately refuses to frame its horizons by them. Imagination is a habit of openness to God’s dream breaking into the world.

Over several years after my early, fluctuating recognition of being trans, a sense of imaginative possibility began to open for me. The comradeship of seminary friends, both in my MDiv program and my Anglican year, was crucial to fostering this sense. So too were several professors and other mentors in and beyond my diocese, including a wise spiritual director who framed a space of prayerful discernment in which an expansive sense of gender was understood as fundamental to my vocation.

Connecting with other queer and trans people, including (but not limited to) people of faith, has been crucial. In community (including TransEpiscopal, which formed around 2005 just as I was beginning my ordained ministry), I learned that trans people have been part of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion for years—more years than we likely know. This wide complex of people has helped me situate and claim a sense of agency in my formation.

None of this has been seamless. I’ve had searing experiences along the way. I’m also clear that formation is very much ongoing, and the invitation, the challenge, to claim deep agency in that process continues.

I seek to share the kind of pastoral support I have received at key points along the way. How might the pastoral necessity of imagination, formed collectively in Christian community, help us open space for the divine dream to break through, so that we might collaborate with God?

Wilson: Establishing a Habit of Connection and Collaboration

Rev. Wilson with confirmands from his parish.

In August of 1997, I arrived in New York City with a wife, two suitcases, and $100 to begin a three-year journey to earn a master of divinity degree. Two words summarize how I felt at the moment: culture shock.

Before going to seminary, I served as a priest at the oldest and second-largest congregation in my sponsoring diocese, the Diocese of Costa Rica.

I was well known from my years of youth ministry, as well as guest preaching at many congregations. Youth work had also taken me to several countries in Central America and a couple of states in the U.S.

Needless to say, I felt I had accumulated a strong group of supporters in ministry and my village. And though their prayers and encouragement traveled with me to this new place, their physical presence did not.

I needed a new village, and the reality of that need came quite quickly. Within a few days of starting seminary life, I had a paper to write. I went to the library under the assumption the computers were available for student use. Surprise, surprise, they were not!

I came from a country where personal computers were things for the rich and people with fancy jobs. I was unprepared for the fact that I would need my own computer and that the institution was not going to provide one.

Thankfully, the day before I had met a student sponsor from our companion diocese. Upon hearing my dilemma during lunch, she offered to let me use her laptop to write my paper.

The experience sparked something within me to continue making connections, especially beyond the seminary walls. In this way as in so many others, my seminary years were essential in laying the groundwork for my future ministry.

What I believe was true then continues to be true for anyone going through the process. Discernment is better done through relationships and conversations. We must do our best to have them with as wide a range of people as possible, representing as much of the whole church as possible.

There are two reasons why I am currently serving as part of the pastoral support team at CDSP. First, I met Dean Richardson during those formative years, when he arrived at General Theological Seminary to be the theology professor. Over the last couple of decades, we have developed a deep respect for each other and how we approach our service to God’s people.

Second, I have a deep need and sense of obligation to pay forward what a myriad of people did for me. Many people and moments during my seminary years impacted my life and ministry, making me the priest I am today.

I have fond memories of my time in seminary, but it was by no means a walk in the park. It was a spiritually and emotionally draining experience. Still, the grace and love of God was reflected for me in the presence of many saints—my network of support, my balm in Gilead.

It’s payback time.

Nelson: Spiritual Direction with a Focus on Everyday Experiences

I came to CDSP in 2013 to earn a two-year master of theological studies degree. I remember fielding frequent questions as I prepared to move my life to Berkeley, questions of why I, as a layperson, wanted to get a seminary education.

I usually gave an answer about my desire to become an academic librarian and how a subject-area degree would strengthen my qualifications. Certainly, that was true. But underneath that external career goal was a sincere internal desire to dedicate two years of my life to reflecting and forming a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Christian in this time and place. Despite thirty years of faithful weekly church attendance, I felt my understanding of my faith was only at a grade-school level of development. That didn’t suit my hungry intellect and spirit.

Upon beginning my first semester, I soon realized my expectation that a single Old Testament course would allow me to cite scripture verses at will was unrealistic, nor was it in alignment with Professor Steed Davidson’s intended learning outcomes.

Alongside that realization, I remember learning in Professor Susanna Singer’s Christian education course about Paulo Freire’s critique of the banking model of traditional education. Freire believed students should not be treated as passive containers into which educators deposit a body of knowledge. I realized that my two years at CDSP would be a brief preparation time to develop habits
and construct new understandings to integrate with the knowledge and skills I already held.

I also took a history course in my first semester from Professor Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski. I became fascinated with the experience of lived religion for everyday people at the times contemporary to the primary texts we were studying. What did their daily practice of their faith look like outside of Sunday services and holy days?

It’s no wonder that my seminary journey led me to become a spiritual director, for that question continues to fascinate me. How do people live out their faith on a daily basis? Where and how do they connect with the Divine? As a spiritual director, I invite people to explore those questions amid their daily concerns, joys, and sorrows.

As my advisor, Professor Susanna Singer brought a trained spiritual director’s sensibilities to our conversations about course selections and revisions to my thesis. I continue to be grateful for her wisdom and companionship on my seminary journey. But advising has its own aims and goals that are separate from spiritual direction. So I’m excited that master of theological studies students at CDSP will now have a separate opportunity for the kind of reflection and conversation that is wholly dedicated to the exploration of deep spiritual questions.