My days and years have been peppered with notebooks. In my work as a professor of education, I use notebooks to make notes on things I read, to plan texts I am writing, or note things to remember from meetings. As my work puts me in contact with teachers and kids, there are more notebooks: writer’s notebooks in which both teachers and students gather ideas, collect starts and scraps of someday-to-be-written stories, make messy drafts, reflect on moments and decisions inside and outside of school. For each course I have taught, I’d start a new notebook along with the class. Another notebook came with a new research project. Another I used for Bible study, or for the prayer journaling I always seemed not to get around to. Another notebook held craft ideas, grocery lists, and meal plans.
I stand by this practice of notebook-keeping. It’s well grounded in the research on writing instruction and therapeutic writing. Yet I’m a busy professor and mom, running between local schools, my office, home, church, and the kids’ activities with a laptop in a backpack. Grabbing things as I hurried out one door or another, I never had the notebook I needed when I needed it. And some ideas seemed to belong in more than one notebook, or none of them. This would cause me either to freeze and write nothing, or to start a new notebook for the new project. All of these notebooks (and phone reminders, and Google Docs, and scraps of paper) would then pile up. These notebooks were as scattered and fragmented as my activities, often connected in my mind but never in the artifacts themselves.
Early in 2015, I decided simply to use one notebook. My then-seven-year-old daughter had decorated notebooks, for Christmas presents for her friends. They were composition books covered in fabric decoupage, each one unique and a bit messy. She kept asking me when I would use mine. Pushed by her eagerness to see her gift in use, I did so. (And don’t the givers of gifts like to see the gifts in use?) The rest of my notebooks I left in a pile in my office; this ONE notebook I began to keep in my bag everywhere. It went to church, it went to the pool, it went into classes and meetings, it went to the couch by the fire.
This one notebook changed everything. First of all, I usually have it with me, as I never could with so many. Second, probably because I have it with me, I use it. I jot in it all the time—and not just about whatever I am working on at that moment, but about all those other ideas that come and go—they are jotted in, not lost. Third, my work with teachers and students around notebooks as a tool for daily working and thinking is much more authentic. But most importantly, in my notebook I am all in one place. Christian, professor, mother, writer—I am all of these in the pages of the notebook. There’s no thinking about what project something fits into or what category an idea should match. In the one notebook, ideas from all arenas of my life are in direct contact. Things a teacher says in a professional development workshop are right there next to notes I made in a Sunday school class I teach, and there are frequent points of convergence. A friend recommends a good book over dinner, and a few days later a colleague will mention some topic of the book and I can flip back and name it. Granted, there’s also some risk in this: frequently now I’m in a professional meeting, flipping through my notebook for something from the last meeting, and there I flip right past a list of Bible verses, or some private thoughts. Yet this risk of transparency has its rewards, as when a doctoral student notices my meal plan for the coming week in the notebook, and it opens up a raw, necessary conversation about working as both a professor and a parent. This transparency to others extends to making me more transparent to myself: arranged chronologically instead of divided thematically, the themes braid themselves in ways I can easily discern. I note more readily the points of convergence between explorations in one area and another.
All of this is to say, my one notebook reminds me that I am one complicated, diverse person, and that’s how it should be. So many people live as Parker Palmer describes in A Hidden Wholeness (2009), locking aspects of oneself off from one another. The result is a kind of “divided life” in which we operate more or less competently in our various areas, but move between the areas without continuity or integrity. This leaves us feeling inauthentic much of the time. Meanwhile, Jesus is about restoring people to wholeness. God gives us multiple gifts; it seems to me that we must make God happy when we allow those various gifts to work together. My one notebook reflects the integrity across my various gifts and arenas. I think this is how God wants me to be—extending my ministry to all the places I go, as professor, mom, friend, and perhaps pastor. I’m moving forward with candidacy in that spirit of wholeness.
Cynthia Lindner’s Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Pastoral Life (2016) argues that ministry today is best served by pastors living in multiplicity. Through qualitative interviews (the same approach I use in much of my own research), she found that diverse skills, ways of being, areas of giftedness, and passions converge in the person of the pastor in ways that defy constriction. Ultimately Linder concludes:
these multiple-minded clergy were not only creating new forms, practices and ways to be the church: they were also speaking fresh trust about God’s own multiplicity… When pastors acknowledge their own fullness, and when they bring that fullness to the work of loving and tending God’s creation, they are often more able to recognize and to name experiences of God’s abundance, God’s multiplicity, in their lives and ministries…Making a full account of our selves and the faith that is within us—recognizing our own complexity and the fullness of our Creator—has the potential to transform our theological nearsightedness, offering new ways to understand and experience the movement of God in our world. (Lindner, 2016, p. 146)
The metaphor of my “one notebook” speaks to this truth. It is not that that the notebook, or my life, distills neatly into any one role. Far from it: I still engage in different kinds of conversations, do different kinds of thinking, and carry on different kinds of relationships in the diverse areas of my life, ranging from academia to church to music to family. But my calling, I find, is not to stop doing one set of things in order to do another. Instead, my calling is to enrich and extend the ministry in which I am now engaged—doing my current work better, and opening possibilities for God to do new and different things with my gifts. What those things may be remains to be seen.
Currently, I serve as a professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University, where I have worked since 2006. My daily activities include mentoring doctoral students in education, teaching courses for future teachers focused on writing and language arts instruction, and, most centrally, conducting qualitative research focusing on writing education. Writing is a site of struggle and opportunity, a powerful tool that is also difficult to master. My research has pursued clearer understandings of what writing can do for people, how people use writing in their lives and work, what makes writing difficult, and how to help writers work through that difficulty.
The work for which I am best known is my research on the “teacher-writer.” This has included several empirical studies, a number of articles, and a recent book on the professional writing activities in which teachers engage and the connections between that writing and their work with students. Studying teacher-writers has also led me, in turn, to a broader set of studies (and publications) focusing on teacher professional development experiences where writing plays a significant role, particularly those which teachers themselves initiate and/or invest in and which are meaningful to participants. Writing offers an entry point to questions about authority, experience, and identity in the initial and ongoing development of teachers, and my scholarship has helped in some small way to amplify the voices of teachers and help them make better use of writing as a tool for professional and personal growth as well as advocacy. I have also spent time researching how writing works in K-12 and college classrooms, not only as a subject to be taught in itself but as a learning tool for all kinds of aims. For example, I am working now with a pair of elementary school teachers to investigate how we can better teach young children to reflect on what they do as writers and to develop strong identities as writers, something we know is associated with success in literacy through the school years. In connection with my research, I lead a writing group for local teachers, convene large groups of teacher-writers at national conferences, lead staff development workshops for groups of teachers, train teachers to be advocates for the ways of teaching that they know to be right, and visit classrooms to coach teachers at their invitation.
I now consider this work to be a ministry to teachers. It puts me in rooms with groups of teachers struggling to find voice, to enact resistance to policies that hinder their work, or to engage in sustained, meaningful problem-solving for the sake of their students. It put me across tables from adults changing careers, young adults embarking on careers, people struggling to meet the literacy demands of their situations or struggling to discern next steps in professional or personal life. Of course I bring expertise to this work, but I also bring love to it. It feels like ministry, to use my gifts in service of the needs of another, whether a teacher, a student, or a writer outside of school.
And indeed, I have also studied and taught about writing outside of school. Writing is generally thought of as important and powerful, both for economic success as in employment and in personal success as in its therapeutic, spiritual, and reflective capacities. In recent years I have undertaken two research projects with this focus that have proven especially important for my pathway to ministry.
First, on a sabbatical in 2014, I studied the writing practices of Christian pastors, for example in prayer and in preaching (articles now under review at Qualitative Inquiry and Journal of Religious Leadership). The study involved interviews both with an entire conference of ELCA pastors and with about 15 non-ELCA pastors from a wide spectrum of denominations and theological stances. The effect of spending 90 minutes in deep conversation with each of about 40 pastors was (maybe predictably) transformative. The interviews were both fascinating from an intellectual perspective and nourishing from a spiritual one. Even with those pastors most different from myself, I had a lot in common. I found both that I wanted to know what they know and do what they do AND that I perhaps have something to offer them via my research. Pastors are writing, all the time, but they don’t always do it with the support they need or awareness of diverse writing practices that may help them through various ministry situations. Around this same time, I taught an adult Sunday school series on the uses of writing in spiritual practice, mainly Bible study and prayer. This class was as instructive to me as it was to the people who came to learn. It began to seem possible that my research on writing might be a ministry not only to the teachers and students with whom I have worked in the past, but also to pastors, or to the people of the church.
Second, to better understand the difficulty that so many people have with writing, I have been studying the emotion of shame and the related concept of shame resilience. Writing triggers shame for many people, and better understanding how shame about writing might be overcome has application for writers both inside and outside of school. Shame, as defined in the work of current researchers (Brown, 2006; Browne, 2013; Dearing & Tangney, 2011; Tangney, Boone, & Dearing, 2005; Tangney & Dearing, 2002), is a deep sense of unworthiness, that due to one’s shortcomings or wrong actions one has not only done bad but simply is bad. In the domain of writing, we see this when a writer is afraid to show anyone a draft because criticism of the work will be taken as criticism of the writer. People freeze up as writers, fearing exposure as inadequate if their writing is responded to negatively. Research shows that shame can be reduced both through compassionate responses from others and, probably most importantly, through self-compassion. In my professional activities, I make use of this knowledge by working to create a self-compassion curriculum for use in writing instruction: when we can help people move through shame to a basic sense of worthiness in spite of failures, then they become more willing to take chances with writing in the classroom and can make better use of feedback on their writing. They don’t have to defend themselves against it as a threat to their basic sense of self. I’m excited about the potential this has to transform writing instruction. But this line of research has also affected me more deeply, and I find the explanations available in the research literature fall short of my own sense of what makes a person worthy and what might become of our failures. They talk about self-compassion, but I talk about the grace of God and how that in turn changes how we see ourselves.
To me, the question of the identity and worth of a human being, and of how a human being shall go on after failure or wrongdoing, points immediately to my heart of faith in Jesus Christ, who through grace restores us to whole connection with God even while we sin. We sin. We fall short in just about every way, just about every time. We do this whether we try to avoid it or whether we just give up and stop trying. We hurt the people we love. We fail to use our gifts to their potential. We repeat bad patterns. We sin. Yet God sees us with eyes of love. God can separate the sin in us from the basic identity that we have in God as a beloved child. God can separate what we are doing from what we are created to be, viewing us with love and fullest acceptance even while viewing the sin as unacceptable. And through Jesus’ work on the cross, we are restored again and again to that potential. God’s acceptance of us even with our sin is as fundamental as God’s rejection of the sin itself. In other words, God’s compassion for us is total. It is as total as one who has experienced fully what we experience, as God has done in the incarnated person of Jesus. God sees us with graceful eyes.
Perhaps my life is especially full of achievement-oriented strivers, but on a daily basis, in scenario after scenario, it has become obvious to me that too many people around me have no basis for their identities other than the views of others. So for example, in a single week I recently heard a fellow scholar say, after a refreshing and successful time at a conference, “it reminded me of my worth.” I heard TWO untenured professors say “I don’t know if I’m good enough,” speaking in reference to their records of published work but in a way that also extended to themselves as people. The next day, I heard another colleague say “I don’t know who I am without this,” in reference to a threatened research project. I’ve had these same feelings so many times in my own life, this sense that when I do well, I am good—and thus when I do bad, I am bad. In fact, right now, I am going up for a promotion to the rank of “full professor,” in which an intimidating panel of peers evaluate all my writing and research and reputation up to this point and make a high-stakes decision about it. It’s the kind of thing that used to provoke all the same feelings in me as the colleagues I described above are feeling.
As a Christian, however, I have an identity that has nothing to do with any of that. Work, not work, be good at things, be awful at them— none of that determines whether I am loved or lovable. I want to do good work, of course, and I strive. And boy, do I sin. But my value as a living creature is not at stake. God made me, so I matter to God at least. Jesus died for me as for all, and in that act Jesus quite literally restores me to wholeness, again and again and all the time. My identity as a whole is not at stake in any thing I ever do. I am a loved child of God, with or without my research, or teaching, or success, or other people, or failure, or shortcoming.
This is not how I was raised. Thus it has taken me a long time to open to this radical love of Jesus. But I have been blessed to hear the news preached: in our baptism we are claimed with an identity as a loved child of God. That identity both overrides and informs anything else we might do or be. I have heard this more and more clearly in the past ten years as a member of my current congregation, where both of our pastors not only bear witness to it in their daily ministry, they come right out and say it, Sunday after Sunday, plainly and directly. With eye contact. They use the specific words “identity” and “claimed.” And in those words, I finally have heard the freeing gospel of it. Stirred by the Holy Spirit, the words “Jesus loves you” have grown in meaning in my life, from a vague platitude I liked in an abstract kind of way to a tangible core identity that I can build on. This took “Jesus died for you” out of the afterlife and into right now.
So many times now, as I encounter these people who are in so much pain from self-evaluation, from constant comparison, from wondering who they are and constantly trying to prove themselves, I just feel grateful. That used to be me, and I’m so grateful to be free of it, at least on good days. I don’t have to keep trying to be somebody. I’m already God’s somebody.
This conviction, and its increasing direct connections to my life as a researcher and teacher—what I have been calling “my ministry to teachers and writers”—is what moves me to now to pursue candidacy. Having finally heard the gospel message in a way my broken heart could hear, I find I want to share that with others. I am not sure what God will do with me as a candidate, but it seems clear that I am to at least respond to what I have been shown.
I’m either the most likely or least likely candidate for ministry ever. I’ve heard both external and internal calls to God’s ministry since I was a child. I was raised with no religion until I accompanied a friend to camp at the age of ten. While the friend’s family was Methodist and not terribly devout, the camp was Lutheran (Camp Lone Star in LaGrange, Texas). My experience at camp was transformative, both in the message I heard there and in the opportunities that surrounded that message. First the Gospel message: I was loved. I could and would be made new through Jesus’s love, was being made new, toward what God wanted me and made me to be. The world, too, was loved, was being and would be restored through Jesus to what God wanted it to be. This struck my heart like a gong, considering my own experiences of a family that felt rather loveless and a wider world that seemed to me a place of blistering injustice. Then the opportunities surrounding that gospel message: Opportunities to think and talk with others about what life was really about. Opportunities to take a turn collaboratively planning and leading evening worship, Bible Study, or devotions for other groups of campers. Opportunities to form friendships based not on popularity or status within the world of school, but based on more important things, like mutual respect and regard. Opportunities to belong—and belong to a community that better resembled God’s family than any other one I had ever been a part of. The people of that camp welcomed me back again and again each year until I was a senior in high school. They welcomed me warmly; each summer they seemed to know me and remember me even after a year had passed. And they welcomed me gracefully: they welcomed me when, as an older teen, I broke rules, was caught smoking, carried on with boys. It was a world in which Jesus first became visible to me in a community, and I wanted to live in a world like that forever.
After camp, I went home and asked to be taken to church. Since it was Lutheran camp, I went to the Houston phone book and found the nearest Lutheran church (Kinsmen Lutheran of Houston, TX), and that’s where I asked to go without any understanding of the differences between denominations. This made me the only teen convert that congregation’s confirmation class had seen, I think, in a church full of lifelong Lutherans with German and Norwegian last names. I jumped in where the other kids were, halfway through confirmation, and no one seemed to mind that I wasn’t baptized, or went up for communion without instruction. I mentioned I might want to be a pastor and was rewarded with encouragement without pressure. Pastors Paul Blom and Jon Andersen steered me right into all kinds of service and even leadership: cantor, lector, soloist, singer in adult choirs, helper with VBS, dishwasher, car washer, and representative at the synod youth gathering and other regional youth conferences. I thrived. My parents did agree to have my sister and me baptized, and I was confirmed when the time came, but other than that they stuck with dropping me off and picking me up from the parking lot. I, on the other hand, was hooked.
I knew the ELCA had women pastors, but I had never met one. In the world I was inhabiting in suburban Houston, in which Southern Baptists were the most visible Christians I knew and people like James Dobson and Marlin Maddoux were on the radio, it seemed impossible. Meanwhile, as my teen years progressed, every decision I made and problem I had (depression, drinking, drugs, sex) seemed to carry me further from the church and certainly from the possibility of ministry. Clearly I was no public Christian, seeing how I hated most everything I heard Christians saying in public and how much they would surely hate everything I was doing in private. I was too depressed, too divergent, too critical, or too impatient to be a pastor, I thought. By college I had let the idea go, and through my late teens and early twenties I was a rather vague believer in God and a fan of Jesus in theory, but unsure about Jesus’ divinity and even more unsure about Christians.
Later, as a young adult, I wandered back. By the time I finished college and became a high school teacher, I found a church anywhere I moved. In each parish, I was encouraged by the pastor to consider ministry, most strongly by Pr. Larry Spielman, then of Grace Lutheran Church of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Fr. Norm Freeman, then of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Parish in Goleta, California, from writing a Sunday school curriculum to packing at a food pantry to singing. My faith throughout those years alternated between a kind of metaphorical commitment to the idea of belief when I couldn’t seem to actually do it, to a sense that I simply felt better when I went to church, choosing to remain vague about the troubling details like a God who would flood the earth and kill its inhabitants, or a baby God planting himself in a human uterus, or a corpse rising from the dead. Through it all, I simply chose to show up at church, and when I showed up, pastors like Father Norm and Pastor Larry found things for me to do. So I did them, and my life was better for it.
In my current church home of Grace Lutheran Church in State College, PA, I have received the same warm welcome and witness that I first found at Camp Lone Star in the sixth grade. There I have also received the same kinds of opportunities to serve as I first found at Kinsmen in middle and high school. Currently at Grace, I co-teach a discussion-based adult Sunday School class, blending Bible study and Christian daily practice. I’ve served as a lay worship leader, especially over the past year when our large parish has been down to one or two pastors from the usual three. I served on a call committee for a pastor and serve now mutual ministry. I work on college student ministry and co-led a women’s retreat. I cantor and sing. I preach the children’s sermon and have taught preschool Sunday school. These are nice examples of leadership, but to me they leave out some of the most important things I do in the parish: I come and eat dinner. I go Christmas caroling on a big, noisy bus. I attend Bible Study. I bring my kids to choir and help my daughter reach in the closet for the shortest acolyte robe. I giggle as my husband and kids tell jokes into a crackly microphone on Shrove Tuesday. I let members of this congregation teach my daughter how to sew and my son how to get extra cookies at coffee hour. I serve this congregation where I can, but truth be told one of the hardest things I’ve done here is to let the people of this congregation love on my kids and on me. Allowing a community of believers to surround and support me in the image of Jesus’ embracing love has transformed my life and my sense of how I might live it.
My pastor, Steve Lynn, tells us at least every week or so in good Lutheran fashion, that salvation comes from Jesus Christ by grace through faith, and thus our desire for good works is simply our response to receiving such a gift of love. This is how I’m feeling about the gifts for ministry that God seems to have given to me: in gratitude for God’s grace, and in gratitude for the specific gifts and abilities that I’ve been given, I find myself responding with openness to use them. As Pastor Lynn rightly put it, I’m simply allowing my gift package to be open for God to use. I think God wants this, just like my daughter Emily wanted to see me using the gift she had given me. Like the notebooks Emily decoupaged, I’m unique and a bit messy, but I think God also wants me fully using what I have been given. I’m first “opening the gift package” by making this application to enter candidacy and enrolling at Gettysburg (soon to be United) Seminary on a very part-time basis, beginning with a single class starting in February 2017. I’m also intentionally allowing my academic research to touch the church more and more, extending my previous study of the writing lives of pastors as well as writing about other aspects of literacy experiences in connection to the church. I will remain in my current role as professor as long as that continues to feel right, while pursuing seminary part-time. I do become eligible for a paid sabbatical from Penn State again in 2020, so that might provide a natural decision point and/or an opportunity to do an extended field experience, though it’s obviously too soon to tell. Meanwhile, I continue to be an active lay leader at Grace in State College, mindfully taking up opportunities to learn in that context. Over time, I trust that God will light the path to future steps as need be.
Thus, it is with both extreme willingness and humble uncertainty that I open the door to candidacy for ministry in the ELCA. My willingness comes from my love for God and God’s people and my desire to be of service to both in the fullest and most appropriate ways possible given my gifts and the church’s needs. My uncertainty is not doubt, not reservations, but true not-knowing what the outcome will be in practical terms. In the near term, I will go on in my current professional role as professor of education at Penn State, sometimes bringing my scholarly interests in writing and education (which I have pursued over the past 15 years) to bear on questions of Christian life and practice, such as how writing works as a tool in spiritual life. Further on, will I serve as a scholar for the church in some way, either as a researcher studying pastoral ministry (as I have begun to do in recent years) or as a scholar in education, maybe staying at Penn State but maybe also serving either the churchwide organization or filling some academic role in a seminary? Or will I ultimately serve in a parish, or in some other pastoral role yet unforeseen? My discernment process to this point has helped me to feel very good about not knowing while simultaneously confirming my sense of call to ministry of Word and Sacrament—in whatever form God chooses to direct me over time.
Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87, 43–52.
Browne, M. (2013). Developing Shame Resilience through Pastoral Supervision. Reflective Practice: Formation and Supervision in Ministry, 33, 62–65.
Dearing, R. L., & Tangney, J. P. (2011). Shame in the therapy hour. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lindner, C. G. (2016). Varieties of gifts: Multiplicity and the well-lived pastoral life. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Palmer, P. J. (2009). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. John Wiley & Sons.
Tangney, J. P., Boone, A., & Dearing, R. L. (2005). Forgiving the self: Conceptual issues and empirical findings. In E. L. Worthington (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 143–158). New York: Routledge.
Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and Guilt (Vol. 1). New York: Guilford Press.