Ten Tips for the Mom in Seminary

After my first semester as an online distance learner at Earlham School of Religion, I wrote a post called, “Eleven Lessons for the Distance Learner.” With my first year of in-person seminary under my belt and my second year about to begin, I read my post again. I discovered that most of the lessons still apply–oh how I wish I had read it last August! I’ve adapted it here for all those courageous women who bravely choose to be a mom in seminary.

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Ten Tips for the Mom in Seminary

It’s your turn to go back to school. You slogged through the late night trenches of parenting three young children. You steered the family ship through the choppy waters of your spouse’s educational and professional advancement. You kept your passion in check, biding your time. An opening occurred.

You walk across the seminary lawn, hiding a smile, in awe that you are finally here. The moms and dads at school drop-off don’t know your mind is on the weekly reading assignment instead of the weekly grocery run. The deadlines and appointments of a busy household still need your attention.  But a glimmer is in your eye. You are a mom in seminary.

Your brain percolates with new ideas. Paper-writing flexes unused muscles. You hope you can make this seminary-learning-thing work. Here are some tips to guide your way:

Tip #1: Buy school supplies. Go! Go to Target, Walmart, or your favorite five and dime. Inhale the starchy goodness of new notebooks. Run your fingers over the svelte lines of wooden pencils. Hear the satisfying thwack of a 3-ring binder closing. Ogle your favorite folder colors. Buy them. Haul out your favorite backpack from undergrad, or buy something new. Lug those books proudly during the daily carpool.

Tip #2: Binge now. Netflix and Hulu fans, you watch more TV than you think. You can’t keep it up. Have that Empire or Game of Thrones marathon now because you won’t for months. If you just can’t peel yourself away, exercise while you watch, because you won’t get much of that either.

Tip #3: Believe it–you CAN’T do it all. You made adjustments to your schedule. You prepped your family for the increased work load. You believe this is enough to carry on your old life and integrate it with coursework. You squeeze in a blog post, you attend a monthly social outing, you give your volunteer commitment your all. But quality slips, attention lags, focus blurs. The adjustments and prep you made are not enough to sustain the family/work/school balance. It’s okay to let something go.

Tip #4: Be intentional.   Talk to fellow students’ between classes, attend chapel when you can. Read the weekly seminary email blasts. You will see others skip class and squander time. You don’t have to. You may not be involved or on campus as much as your younger peers, but you can still be fully present and engaged when you are.

Tip # 5: Learn the vocabulary of self-preservation. “No. I don’t think so.” “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Work within the hours of your job, even when you could do more, even when you would be good at that extra thing. You have given, given, given for the benefit of others. It is okay now to turn inward and draw a line around you. Guard this line like a warrior.

Tip #6: Value every minute. Yes, all three kids are in school and it’s so much easier to run that errand now, even though you have reading and papers to write. It seems you need the support coffee with a friend provides. Beware. Sleep deprivation and stress hormones lurk. Protect each minute like a three year old protecting her favorite toy.

Tip #7: Change your priorities. At Costco you try to nonchalantly slip the thousand-pack of Ziplocs into your cart so no one sees you no longer use reusable containers in kids’ lunches. It’s only a matter of time before that $2 hot lunch at your kids’ school becomes your idol, worshipped every morning for the twenty+ minutes of time it saves you, because as you’ve learned, every minute is valuable.

Tip #8: Lower your standards. In your past life you were that top student who read every book and devoted your all to studying. Life has changed you. Parenthood has changed you. Now you, too, will experience the thrill of writing a paper without having read the whole book, or maybe even having read it at all. And you’ll do it all with kids running amok around you. Make a donation to the PBS gods now. They charge less than babysitters.

Tip #9: Be patient. You feel like you have something to prove. For so long, you defined yourself through others. But as you make your way towards your own identity, let the flames you feel you walk through do their work. Don’t rush. Yes, seminary challenges you. It changes you. It surprises you in ways you don’t see coming. Your own identity awaits, but it is different than you think. Be patient with yourself, and with God.

Tip #10: Accept grace. This is your journey. You have wanted it for so long. You want to show you can do it on your own, with perfection. You envy those younger students unfettered by children and life. There will be moments it seems the only one struggling is you. But every seminarian struggles, because we are all burdened by divine call warped by human pressures. Seminary doesn’t have to be the warping tool. There is wisdom around you in your peers and professors. Lean into it. Accept the grace that comes, one imperfect moment at a time.

At the end of the semester you are exhausted. You collapse into your family’s embrace. Caffeine and adrenaline blur your eyes, but a glimmer remains. You are a mom in seminary.

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Journey Revisited–The Still: Fall 2016 Edition

(formerly published on one of my retired blogs)

The small moments, great reads, and experiences on the journey…. 


DCF 1.0
ITINERARY

Semester 1 2016:

  • Intro to Practical Theology
  • Intro to Old Testament I
  • Introductory Biblical Hebrew
  • Imagination and Resilience for God’s Changing World
  • Scripture Reading Practicum

January Term 2017:

  • Postmodernism and Why It Matters to Preaching

GETTING READY

I drew the line between the before and after, an inky delineation down the middle of my narrative. Still-tender shoots of writer-self on one side, seeds of pastor-self on the other.  I laid down my pen.

TRAVEL PLANS

What I thought would happen:

  • My call would only become clearer
  • I’d question my beliefs
  • My marriage would be tested
  • I would not like Scripture Reading Practicum (the practice of interpreting Scripture orally)

TRAVEL PLANS REVISED

What actually happened:

  • I questioned my call altogether
  • My beliefs were affirmed and expanded
  • My hubby and I are in a groove!
  • Scripture Reading Practicum was the reason I didn’t quit seminary

PIT STOP:

Where: Write-In at The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA, October 2016 (an integrative exercise of writing and activism, the first in Columbia Seminary’s Cultivating Courageous Communicators series)

Take-Aways: The power of the written word to affect change spoke loudly in a silent exhibit of letters and other correspondence written between Dr. King and other peacemakers “behind-the-scenes” during the civil rights movement. Change did not toll from one cacophonous bell of collective protest, but from the persistent chimes of individuals wielding small but mighty mallets of justice. Little things=big things.

BEST READS ON THE JOURNEY:

Forever changed how I look at death, resurrection, and atonement

  • “Prayer for the Impossible,” in  What Would Jesus De-Construct? by James K.A. Smith

Now I get why I pray in Jesus’ name

  • Christian Prayer for Today, by Martha Moore-Keish

A beautiful call to action and work of hope and possibility:

  • “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On women’s writing and subversion of male dominated systems. Gorgeous poetic language. An anecdote for the Trump era. A gift that keeps on giving.

  • “The Laugh of the Medusa”, essay by Hélène Cixous

ROAD BUMPS

On the hard stuff: Before my depression was diagnosed and managed, parenting sucked. I wrote a piece about it. People who read it in its original form either loved it (they could identify) or hated it (they couldn’t identify). Both reactions were strong. My feelings didn’t scare me, but it scared me that my writing could make people uncomfortable. I polished the raw out of it. A member of my writer’s group recommended I revisit it at some point. The time for that has come.

On optimism: In my PCUSA tradition people pursuing a call to ministry undergo a battery of psychological testing to identify areas of potential strength and weakness well before you move on through the process to ordination. I did this during this past summer. Not surprisingly, I’m an optimist! As with anything, taken to an extreme, optimism can be negative. Since my results came back, several people made some assumptions that don’t ring true with how I feel, process, and share the hard stuff. This experience forced me to examine my optimism critically. Interestingly, others sometimes are rattled by things relatively low on my “hard feelings” meter and skate over others I’d rate as more critical in the “hard things” rink. A Letter to a Pessimist from an Optimist is in the works.

On failure: Never have I earned a B-, let alone been overjoyed about it. Oh, Hebrew. Oh, first semester. Everyone told me how good it is for me to experience failure. I have some things to say about that, about when failure slides the slippery slope from an earned measure of aptitude to an arbitrary construct where an idealized rite of passage reigns supreme. I have some things to say about making failure a goal, and its potential implications for one who will pastor people for whom passing or failing a class is a cake walk compared to the hard stuff they face every day.

SCENIC DIVERSIONS:

Binge-watched the first season of Designated Survivor with my mom and I finished Parenthood. My husband and I finished The Good Wife (what a disappointing series finale!). Movies Stork and Trolls good wholesome fun with kids. Lion the best kind of thinker movie I love.

DETOUR

Destination: 2016 Writer’s Colloquium at Earlham School of Religion, Richmond, IN

Highlight: Writer Marlena Graves spilled water on my manuscript. That inky line down the middle bled all directions, blurring the “before” and “after”, the “was” and “to be”, the “done” and “to do”, the “writer” and the “pastor”. The burgeoning mark of the now, the is, the doing, the preacher in all its vibrant multiplicity stares back, ready for me to pick up my pen and turn the page.

A NEW YEAR’S LAYOVER

Celebration: The “First” of my first year in seminary is over. The “First” chiseled my intentions and attention into pointed focus. The “First” whittled away layers of stagnation and preoccupation.  The “First” revealed potential.

Found in my dirty laundry: Excess. Too much eating out, too much diet pop, too little quality interactions with family.  Hoping 2nd Semester has a laundromat.

Best thing I DIDN’T do to pass the time: Installing Facebook on my new phone.

Best Luggage Tag Logo:  STEWARDSHIP. This is so going to be my word of the year. Stewardship of mind, body, and resources or bust, baby!

SIGHT-SEEING NOW!

Post-modernism philosophy. Absolutely breathtaking and life-giving for tumultuous times. So many allusions to the Christian narrative. It is rocking my world. Hélène Cixous is my travel companion from now on.

SOUVENIRS:

Written on my faith statement paper in the class Imagination and Resilience:

“You”ll probably have to make some substantial changes (and, sadly, be less creative) to get through the ordination process.”

A favorite quote from the book What Would Jesus De-Construct? by James K.A. Smith:

“When is faith really faith? Not when it is looking more and more like we are right, but when the situation is beginning to look impossible, in the darkest night of the soul. The more credible things are, the less faith is needed, but the more incredible things seem, the more faith is required, the faith that is said to move mountains.”

A conversation:

OTHERS (WITH COMPASSION) “It’s okay to admit you’re struggling. We’ll support you, that’s what we’re here for.”

AMANDA: Shares struggles.

OTHERS (WITH PANIC): You do know that will happen as a pastor. How do you plan to handle that!

A conversation about my background and maybe returning to camp someday:

LISTENER: So how does one with a heart for Quakers and who considers a Unitarian Universalist camp for her kids end up Presbyterian? Isn’t there something in between?

ME: That is the million dollar question.

From my new travel companion, Hélène:

“I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst-burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! What’s the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts? Where is the ebullient infinite woman who…hasn’t been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a …divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn’t thought that she was sick? Well, her shameful sickness is that she resists death, that she makes trouble.”  Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

A hopeful reminder:

 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.   –NRSV 1 Cor 13:12