I recently posted a silly picture on Instagram about how I was applying for a graduate program in religion while affixing a Wonder Woman stamp to the envelope. Turns out, my social media community got a kick out of that and offered a lot of support for that pursuit. As always, that encouragement and acknowledgement gave me a sense of solidarity and being known, which is the ultimate version of love in my world.
As part of the application process, I had to submit a 500-1000 word essay on my purpose in applying for the program. Unsurprisingly, I got it to exactly 1000 words. Y'all know I can talk! As part of the wandering process I've been in for months, I considered many possible paths for me. And I plan to keep many plates spinning as that is the life of an ambitious self-employed woman and because that is how I am happiest. But I'm hopeful one of my new plates will be this graduate program.
You guys, I am going to study again with the churches of Christ. There are many reasons I decided to do that. I looked into getting ordained through the UCC and going to a progressive school. But that would require at minimum an MDiv, which is really close to a doctorate. It's a huge commitment of time and resources. It could include needing to relocate the family. And it would lead to a full-time ministry position at a local church. I don't think I'm ready for that. And I don't think my family is ready for that. I need to be around. And I don't want to get saddled with a bunch of debt, forcing me to take full-time work regardless of what the family or I need. That may not ever be my path. Who knows? I just know I love to preach. But the politics of working at a church may never be for me again. I want to contribute and I recognize the value of accountability but sometimes that level of it can feel like bondage to me, like I'm not really free to piss people off as needed because they might fire me. Or a lesser more frightening manipulation: they could try to rein me in with their disapproval. We all know that part of a faithful life includes pissing people off (in the vernacular of dismantling privileged systems and standing on highways during protests). Disruption is part of the job. But it's not usually part of working at a church. There's a lot of status quo maintenance in that world and I've had enough of that for a lifetime.
My readers know how much I love theology. As I was pursuing my academic recommendations (which is hella intimidating when you graduated 15 years ago!) I decided to reach out to the professor who taught my favorite class in all 4 years of college, Christian Faith. It was a theology class. It was super hard and I LOVED it. Turns out, he remembered me even though I wasn't even a religion major and made a point of saying my final exam tied for the top score with another student out of the 26 of us in the class. That pat on the back bolstered me to carry on. Perhaps this isn't a totally wacky idea?
I expected to have to take a gap year if I pursued graduate school because I am going to need scholarships and I waited too long to apply for this fall. I just hadn't gotten my head wrapped around this next season in time. Plus, I figured I'd have to take the GRE (boo). Amazingly, this teeny tiny program (14 people in the cohort) still had spots and money left. And no GRE! Uh...it started to seem too good to be true.
I have hopes that the money stuff will come through. As the financial person in the family, it's important to me to not take on a bunch of debt, especially because this program is going to be more about personal development that I expect will lead to career development versus being something that puts my butt in the seat of a high-paying job immediately afterwards. All the jobs I've ever done have been low paying. (Thankfully, being self-employed has relieved my need to have a boss and exchange time for limited amounts of money). I'm in talks with a friend to start a non-profit, creating resources for churches of Christ and other conservative communities on how to listen and adapt to the changes of the world. So much harm has been caused to women, the LGBTQ+ community and people of color by churches and I want to see it end. Now. These communities will need to shift their mindset or they will die out. I'd love to help them change! I have insider knowledge from growing up in that mindset and progressive knowledge now to balance it. It would be so cool to see that dream pan out.
In writing my statement of purpose, I found myself telling my story, which I often do in little snapshots here on my blog. After the overwhelming response to my silly photo, I thought it might be cool to post the statement here. It gives a brief look from a wider angle at the process my faith and personal development has taken over the years as well as laying the groundwork for what I hope will be a bright future.
Statement of Purpose – Kristy Sibley
I always knew I would pursue graduate education. I assumed it would be in psychology, as that was what I studied in undergrad. But ministry and kingdom work were always my passion. As a woman who was raised in the churches of Christ, I didn’t feel comfortable majoring in religion at the time (I got a minor) because it didn’t seem practical. I didn’t think I could support myself financially in ministry or find opportunities to work. So even though it was my job all through school, I pursued another interest: psychology. Then I moved overseas and did missions!
Back in the States, I did what many ministry-minded women do in the churches of Christ. I married a minister and became an unpaid partner to him. We did youth ministry together in the Pacific Northwest for over six years. We had a lot of success and working with teens gave us a sense of purpose and joy. Unfortunately, that work ended abruptly with a sudden, random firing. As is often the case, we were traumatized. Our whole world turned upside down. I began sifting through my theology. I had already made the faith given to me by my parents my own and I felt it deeply and personally. However, the place that had seemed like home (church) became a source of rejection and pain for me. I didn’t know who I was outside of that environment.
This sifting process allowed me space to feel anger at the lack of care for ministerial staff. I became frustrated with the church’s attempts to placate us out of self-preservation and their total disinterest in our welfare after we left though we remained local. I started speaking truth publicly. I started trying to be a better listener, an available neighbor, a generous friend. I stopped thinking of myself as better or even different from others. I stopped pursuing love based on my ability to perform or be good. I sat in my pain and I reconsidered a lot of what I thought was true about God, life, faith, myself and the church. I became less concerned with being right and more interested in how my beliefs helped me navigate the world. Even with “correct” beliefs, some people are mean, intolerant and awful. I began to care about how theology looked on the ground, not just on paper. Were there beliefs I could release in order to be more open, kind and willing to learn from people who are different from me? I found there were many. I got off the merry-go-round of trying to evaluate every human behavior and categorize it as “sin” or “not sin.” I believe that practice is a huge distraction from all the good we’re meant to do in the world. It builds walls we’re meant to be tearing down, not erecting to justify and protect ourselves.
I went to therapy. My husband went through a mental health crisis that led our family into a full rebuilding season. I began writing my blog, using that platform to process my pain. I created a community of women in my home and found solace and solidarity there. I thought I could practice my faith outside of church and I did. For years, I felt unsettled by conservative views on the LGBTQ+ community. I squirmed when exclusionary language was used in church. I didn’t understand why Christians turned a blind eye to so much injustice in this country. Miraculously, I found progressive theology and recognized myself immediately. In finding a more progressive movement (the United Churches of Christ), I didn’t just find a lack of resistance to my process. I found comrades in arms. It was bolstering, inspiring and reassuring. I began to cry at almost every Sunday service, just embracing the openness, healing and love offered to me. The wanderer had found a home.
Somehow in all this breaking down and rebuilding, I found the flame of ministry still flickering in my soul. It’s laughable, really! How is that desire still underneath all the rubble of my soul? The flame flickers on. My writing audience included a local preacher at a church of Christ (Aaron Metcalf from Westside) who invited me to preach on church wounds and the gift of a faith that survives trauma. Spiritual gifts inventories as a youth informed me that I had the gift of preaching, but it wasn’t until age thirty-six that I was given the opportunity to use it. The experience was thrilling, formative, healing. In talks with Aaron afterwards about my desire to use my gifts and wanting to go to school but not wanting to be put on an obvious path, he mentioned this program at Rochester. This program has already been on my radar for a while. My dear now deceased friend, Ryan Woods, did the program years ago. Jon Bristow, who helped Tim and I pick up the pieces of our hearts after leaving ministry just completed it. My childhood friend, Dan Henegar invited me to shadow him for a day of the Portland intensive back in January 2016. The timing hadn’t been right then. I wasn’t sure about ministry still.
My youngest child starts kindergarten this fall. I’ve said for the last ten years of being a primary caregiver, “when my youngest starts school, it’ll be my turn to reinvest in myself and my vocation.” Here we are. This program keeps coming back to me. I want to write and preach and work in non-profits, which I did before we had kids. I want to make a contribution. I want to advocate for those marginalized by conservative church beliefs and modes of operation. I don’t want to be under the headship of the churches of Christ but I do want to see the movement renewed. I’d love to be part of that. I want to be a resource. But I need more tools. I’m ready to learn. I think this is the place to do that.