In January of 2006 I packed a bedroom suit, a loveseat, and a desk along with too many clothes and way too many books into a U-Haul and headed West.
I was off to seminary.
For several years I had simply assumed I would attend the Methodist School of Theology in Ohio (MTSO… or in United Methodist jargon, Methesco). It was in Columbus, only about three hours from home. I could reasonably be home every weekend. Maybe I could even serve a part-time church in West Viginia while in seminary, which would help with my finances.
But then, just as I was about to finish my college degree and was considering my next academic move, Dr. Richards, a professor and a mentor pulled me aside and asked why my first choice was Methesco. When I couldn’t give him any reason for choosing it other than it was close and convenient, he encouraged me to really look at seminaries.
“Choose one that will stretch you,” he encouraged me. “Choose one that will stretch you until you have to grow.”
This intrigued me because just a couple weeks before a former minister mentioned a school I had never heard of in Denver, Colorado. Although it was one of the United Methodist affiliated schools, it was so far away that no one from the West Virginia Conference of the UMC attends it. When I inquired about area graduates, there was only one that anyone knew about in West Virginia, and he had graduated some thirty years before.
The Iliff School of Theology was not only geographically far away from me… it was about as far from the red state conservative theological world in which I had grown up as I could imagine. If there was any place that was going to stretch me, it was going to be the liberal Iliff School of Theology.
Plus, it was in Denver. I could spend the next three years of my life playing in the Rockies.
But I was terrified. I had never lived away from St. Albans, West Virginia before. I had never been more than a couple hours away from my family and my support network. I worried about getting homesick. I worried about not being able to make it on on my own. I worried about failing.
“So let’s say you can’t find a job and you can’t pay rent and you get evicted from your apartment,” Dr. Richards said one day as I worried out loud about what a cross-country move would mean, “Who would you call?”
“My parents,” I said without hesitation.
“And would they help you?” He asked.
“Sure… however they could,” I said, “Even if it simply meant getting me on a flight and brought back home.”
“See?” He said, “You’ll still land on your feet. You may not land exactly where you want to land… but you’ll land on your feet.”
He was right. I was blessed with a supportive family. And with supportive friends. And a supportive church. So even if I failed, which was my greatest fear, there would still be an avenue home. I just needed to trust.
When I received my acceptance letter to Iliff, I tore up my application to Methesco–and in January 2006 I crossed the country in a U-Haul to a city I had never visited, to a school I had only seen online. For the first time in my life, I crossed the Mississippi River and headed into the sunset to begin a new chapter in my life.
Coming from a very conservative background and attending a very liberal school certainly did stretch me. I had to question and search and agonize over beliefs I had taken for granted. I had to look deeper into my certainties. I had to think and re-think my stances on one issue after another. And I grew. Not only did I gain a deeper academic knowledge, but I drew closer to God through it all and gained a deeper understanding of the divine.
More than that, I had to learn a lot about myself as well. I knew I would always be ultimately okay because my family, for as far away as they felt, was only a phone call away… but I was still on my own in a strange city. I didn’t know a soul. I was starting from scratch and I had the chance to grow into my own person, fully independent and self-aware.
Those three years of seminary were pivotal in my life, not only because of the school, but because of the experiences. However, I lived each experience knowing it was only temporary because at the end of it all, I’d be coming home to Appalachia, to my West Virginia hills. Even with the temporariness of it all, it was a period in my life which taught me to trust God’s guidance in my life. I learned to let God lead me into the unknown–something I would need to do over and over again in the ministry. Each new chapter was a brand new unknown. Each new experience as a minister was a journey to the mountaintop or into the valley, but I had to trust that God would be with me through it.
Now, I find myself preparing for a new chapter yet again… but this time it doesn’t have the same temporary feel. It feels like a long-term, perhaps even permanent, path which is taking me even further from home.
After a couple years of prayer and searching, a year of discernment in which I spoke to my Bishop and colleagues about the direction I felt God drawing me in the ministry, it became clear that I was being led into the unknown once again. I’ve recently accepted an appointment in the Oregon-Idaho Conference, the first step in this new chapter… the next stop on a very long faith journey.
I won’t lie–I’m a little scared.
I don’t like the idea of being so far from my family. I understand that this will draw me even further from my childhood and lifelong friends. It’s always intimidating to walk into a new place, wondering what the culture shock will feel like for me… for the people I’ll be joining in ministry.
But I still hear Dr. Richards’ voice asking me who I will call if I find myself in trouble…
I will call upon the same blessings God had given me several years ago when I walked into the unknown then. A family who loves me. Friends who will prop me up. A church that will help catch me if I fall.
Most Sundays I remind my congregations that God sometimes calls us out of our comfort zones. For a while we can do the ministry God has asked us to do in places and with people who are familiar and whom we understand; and then, all of a sudden, God is dragging us to a place we don’t know, to a people we don’t understand, and asking us to do his work there. But if we’ve fully relied on God in the familiar places we will find that those blessings we might have taken for granted will be the very strength we need to go into the unfamiliar.
Today I count my blessings as I pack my boxes because I know that the past several years in the familiarity of my Appalachian Mountains has prepared me for the journey into the unknown on which I am about to embark.