Okay - not quite yet. Or not for like three more years. That is, if I can keep up and finish the program.
It all started back in August. I received an email from Tom Laney, who is a friend, a pastor, and an administrator at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He led the fellowship program that funded my final year as a seminarian as a Turner Scholar. So, I see that I have an email from Tom, and immediately open it, expecting a friendly shout-out.
But I was confused. As I read down the list of other recipients on this email, I saw about thirty names. These were the names of very high-profile United Methodist pastors in my area. District Superintendents, successful church planters, leaders of some of the largest churches in middle Tennessee. One of these things is not like the other played in the back of my head.
And the message was also perplexing. It said something along the lines of: We are so excited to meet with you in Jackson this month, to discuss the opportunity put forward in our previous communication. Previous communication? What? I had seen no previous communication.
So I emailed Tom back right away. Thank you so much for the inclusion on this illustrious list, but . . . uh . . . I think you have the wrong person? I'm not even sure what you're talking about?
Tom replied. He said there was no mistake, except I was somehow left off the original email. This was an opportunity I wouldn't want to miss, he said. I needed to make plans to be at this two-day meeting in Jackson at the end of the month.
So I did.
I packed up the kids and my grandmother-in-law and headed to Jackson. They stopped off at her lake house for the overnight and I went on to Jackson. (And Todd proceeded to get a horrendous stomach bug that he eventually passed through our entire family. . . cue mega parental guilt.) When I got there, I gathered in a church classroom with this lovely group of influential people from the Nashville Episcopal Area. I saw Dr. Meeks, a presence who guides my ministry almost every day. I saw Tom. I saw the Bishop. And I heard about an opportunity that I couldn't possibly deny.
See, the Bishop said, we all know that we are in some kind of trouble. We will be facing a large-scale retirement as our Baby Boomer pastors age, and we are staring into a leadership vacuum. Many of you in this room will be forced to take positions for which you are not ready. That should make you nervous. This is a chance for you to be better prepared, and to form a cohort of friends that can last throughout your careers.
(Or something like that - don't quote me. It's not like I was recording!)
The details ran something like this: 4 two-week sessions over the next two years (January 2015 in Nashville, May 2015 in Memphis, January 2016 in DC, May 2016 in Pulaski); another year to write the final project; graduation May 2017 at the National Cathedral, with the degree of Doctor of Ministry. The program is through Wesley Theological Seminary. The focus is on Wesleyan Theology, Mission & Evangelism. Coursework and reading would be done ahead of the sessions so we could intensively devote each day of the sessions to conversation and teaching from 9 am - 5 pm. There would be opportunities for worship, fellowship, recreation, and learning in the evenings. And it would be paid for.
Paid for. Tuition, lodging, food, travel. Everything but books. Paid for. By the generosity and dedication of people who support our church and its leaders.
Paid for. This kind of program regularly costs people in the tens of thousands of dollars. It is not something I ever thought I would be able to achieve.
As I looked around the room, letting this information sink in, I saw similarly amazed pastors. Pastors of all stripes - men and women, black and white, conservative and as liberal as they come. The only thing we have in common is that we all love our church and look forward to what God will do with us in the future.
We were instructed to go home and pray about it. Talk it over with our families. See if our churches would support us in taking this much time for continuing education. See if we could make it work.
I knew my church would support me in this because they are amazing like that. Plus, I have the great benefit of not being the solo pastor here, which means I don't have to find someone to preach and cover all my duties for the times I'm gone. But I was worried about my kids. Two weeks is a long time to leave a toddler. I felt lucky in that our first session is here in Nashville, so I wouldn't face being apart from Todd until May of this year. I talked it over with my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law. Would they be able to help me take care of the kids so I could pursue this? Once again, I'm so lucky to get this kind of unequivocal support for them. They understand that they are not just helping me, they are helping the church they love when they help me.
So, with some fear and trembling, I pressed "submit" on the application. I started the reading. And now our first session is right around the corner! I am getting more and more thrilled (and more and more bogged down in the reading) as the time nears for us to gather on Monday at Scarritt Bennett. I have always felt a yearning for further study, but I didn't ever see how it could be possible, what with my kids and my work. Now, it just seems as if the dream is coming true! If you are into prayer, would you pray for me? It's all just a bit stressful, even as exciting as it is. I could use the good vibes.