I [usually] work well under a deadline, though, so with the May 7th cutoff looming in order to get a June 7th panel interview (or wait until August), a week or two ago I forced myself to sit down and write a first draft of my application essay. Special thanks to Marissa for giving me feedback. I submitted the final version earlier this week, along with the application itself (7 pages of questions, mostly demographic, the remainder related to personal theology and lifestyle)
I made a mistake of waiting until now to send the $500 application fee. I mis-remembered the checklist and thought I was done after that. Turns out after they receive payment, there's also an online background check I need to approve, and a one-on-one interview with a panel member, before my application is considered complete. The synod office was kind, and sent me that info once I promised the check was in the mail; background check is processing, and my interview is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Whew.
This is a huge accomplishment off my never-ending todo list. One less thing to worry about now. Which is awesome, and exactly what I needed. Again, who knows where the seminary road will lead, but for right now, I'm one more step along the way.
Just for fun, I decided I'm going to publish my application essay. It's long (6 pages), so no one ought feel obligated to read it. But maybe you'll find it interesting. Or maybe you're a future candidacy applicant wondering exactly how you'll answer all the questions the ELCA asks within a 4-6 page paper, and want to see an example of how someone else did it. (a future blog post after June 7th will let everyone know how successful my essay was :)
The entrance essay is an autobiographical reflection which should contain insights and understandings gained during the period of discernment leading to your decision to apply for candidacy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is not expected that your process of discernment is completed. You are asked only to provide an honest assessment of your current self understanding.
The essay is to be four to six pages in length, approximately 2500 words, double-spaced.
- Discuss the events, circumstances and persons in your life that have affected your faith and sense of call. Describe how others have encouraged you to explore theological study and / or the possibility of a church vocation.
- Describe your family of origin and how it has shaped who you are.
- Describe your current life situation. Include your marriage and family situation; physical, spiritual, and emotional health; financial status; and geographical restrictions. Describe your understanding of being open to the needs of the whole church as well as your readiness for ministry preparation.
- Reflect on your personal journey of faith, specifically focusing on your involvement with persons, places, and organizations within the ELCA.
- Reflect on your current understanding of the particular ministry to which you feel called (ordained pastor, commissioned associate in ministry, consecrated deaconess, consecrated diaconal minister). Assess your strengths and weaknesses, gifts, convictions and concerns related to this ministry
Joan of Arcadia changed my life. More specifically, the Catholic priest from this early 2000s television show. In the pilot episode, Joan’s mother corners the Father, grilling him with questions of human suffering, asking him the question with which all humans struggle: “Why do bad things happen?” Caught off guard, he had no answers.
In that moment, I said to myself, “If I ever go to seminary, it will be because of this scene, because I want to have better answers to that question if anyone ever asks me.” In the years since, I’ve learned I don’t, and won’t, have any great answers, either. At the same time, a passion for ministering to those who are suffering has grown in my heart.
I grew up attending Christ Church Lutheran, a traditional ELCA congregation in South Minneapolis. From a young age I was an acolyte, I went to Sunday School every week, and, unlike most of the other children, actually enjoyed the church services.
When I started at North High School in 9th grade, church became even more important; I started taking on my faith as my own, wondering about theology, what I believed, at least a little bit. Because North HS was terrible. In a somewhat literal sense, being in school there drove me toward God and toward church – I needed a refuge from the weekdays. Also in 9th grade, one of my most treasured memories: on the bus ride home, my friend Dorothy commented to me how she was glad “someone cool still goes to church.” Though I’m sure there have been other moments when I realized my faith mattered externally, that’s the one I remember as eye-opening.
The next year I transferred to Minnehaha Academy. I dreaded taking the required religion class each year, but as it turned out that class, and that teacher, ended up being my favorite. I continued my journey of discovering my faith, rather than accepting my status quo.
Senior year of high school I began exploring other churches, as my parents’ church no longer satisfied my worship needs. And I had a crush on a girl who went to another church. Thus began a rather long list of times that God has used a crush to draw me where I needed to be, even though each relationship I tried to pursue, wasn’t going to happen. Visiting other churches, I experienced God in new ways, perhaps most importantly learning that there is more than one style of worship, and growing hope that I’d find a church where I felt at home again.
College brought challenges to my faith, to which I stuck my head in the sand. Eventually I grew less afraid of the questions and, by the end of college, had accepted that I’ll never have all the answers. And that’s okay. At the time I graduated, I knew I believed in God, I believed Jesus was a real man, but I struggled with Easter morning. Even so, I had faith I’d get there eventually, and the questions didn’t stop me from serving on leadership for Selah (Sunday night worship team), FCA, and Thursday Night Bible Study, as well as helping out with Sunday morning services at the college. The questioning also didn’t stop me from helping lead the worship team at a local church for 5 months after graduation.
Along my journey, I spent considerable time chatting about theology one-on-one with Pastor Benson from the college; a small group of close friends at our Wednesday evening “Pub Church”; Dave, another local pastor and college outreach person; and my friend Kathryn, among many others. One of St. Olaf’s unique attributes is the ability of students to turn mundane conversations into something theological. Many a dinner in the Caf became a discussion about God. And this was normal.
I’ve been a believer my whole life, but if I needed to point at one singular moment when everything “clicked”, there was one Sunday the summer of 2008, driving home from worship leading in Northfield, when I found my answer: “I believe in God. I believe God loves me. And Jesus is the epitome of that love, the earthly expression, by which I’m to model my life. I understand how much I can love other humans, and I’m in awe at how much more God must love Creation.” At this point, the questions became meaningless. They didn’t disappear, I just realized that my faith isn’t going to be based on questions and answers, it’s based on feeling, on relationship, on an understanding that I don’t have to understand. And it’s rather hard to put into words. But there it is.
Post-college, I experienced a miracle of healing. The story is too long to include in this essay, but ask me about it.1
In 2008 I joined a touring mime drama ministry based in Des Moines, IA, called AWAKEN.2 In an hour-long performance, we retell the Gospel story with no words. I’ve served with the ministry for three years, and it has become a very, very important part of my life. Ask me about that, too.
In fall of 2010 I joined a small group from Jacob’s Well, and it happened to be populated almost entirely by Luther seminarians. “Destiny,” I like to call this. Seminary was first planted in my head by retired Pastor Kretzmann at my church growing up. I was never opposed to the idea. Especially as a passion for ministry grew from college orgs, then AWAKEN, spending time hanging out with Luther students cemented the desire. (this, on top of the abnormally large number of friends I have who are pastors3).
I myself, however, have no desire to be a parish minister. At least not right now. (God might have different plans, in which case, we’ll [me and God] talk about it and figure things out.) What I truly desire is chaplaincy: the chance to minister where people are hurting. I don’t have all the answers, and that’s what makes me a good listener: I don’t use trite quips like, “I know what you’re going through”, or, “It’s all going to be okay”, or “God’s got a plan.”4 When I’ve mourned friends’ deaths, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, those were the worst kind of “help” anyone could give me. Instead, I learned from Job’s friends – for all the things they do wrong in the rest of the book, in chapter 2 Job’s friends did one thing right: they sat in silence with Job for seven days and wept with him. That’s where I try to draw my inspiration. And the reality is, I know I can minister to anyone, anywhere: on a movie set, in a car, to a stranger in the hospital where I’m a patient myself, to the public safety officer who’s having an awful day.5 That is my calling: to embody Jesus’ love in the world as it is.
My parents are supportive of my decision to pursue seminary. They have always supported me in everything I do. In my teenage years I appreciated that less; now, I’m humbled by how proud they are of me. I know that their love for me is unconditional, and they will do anything in their power to help me succeed. When they were younger, their parents helped them get their feet on the ground; in adulthood, Mom and Dad have been blessed to be able to help me substantially, as well. Most importantly, they have modeled for me a loving and caring home, leading me to become the person I am. Today I live only a mile away from them, so we see each other and talk often. My father’s brother and his family also live in the area, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them now as an adult. My other aunts, uncles, and cousins live out of state; while we don’t get to see each other often, I would consider us a close family when we are together.
My current life situation is stress-filled and overcrowded. I run a casting/extras casting company for TV/Film/Commercials.6 I write and produce my own short movies. I just started a new job at Cray Inc (the supercomputer company) in April. I sometimes mix sound or play guitar at church. I was in AWAKEN again this year (the season ended in April). I spend a significant amount of time with friends. And I decided it’s finally time to pursue a seminarian education; where that road leads, is in God’s hands.
Physically I’m usually well and don’t get sick often. I have a chronic disease called Crohn’s, but it’s treated and, for the most part, doesn’t affect my life. Spiritually I need to step up my game: I haven’t devoted the time to prayer that I should.7 Emotionally I’m healthy. I know myself well. Financially I’m doing well. I have a monthly house payment, but my student loans are paid, as are my credit cards, and I have something stashed in savings. I treat myself to nice toys, but I live within my means.
I want to serve God in non-traditional ways; rarely do I do anything “normally,” so why start now? Earlier I mentioned not seeing myself in parish ministry. I believe I could do it, but that isn’t my passion; there are so many others pursuing those roles, I’d rather leave the spots open for them. Whether I find myself as a hospital, prison, or school chaplain, as a worship leader, or even “just” a Christian working on secular film sets, I know God will use me and I’m excited to see where my Calling leads. Geographically, my life is here in Minneapolis; I’m open to relocating to Ames/Des Moines or Los Angeles areas, but Minnesota will always be home. And again, who knows what God has in store. If you’d asked me three months ago what my life would look like today, my prediction would have landed far away from reality. I’m not scared of the future.
You’ve asked me to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, my gifts and convictions, and any concerns I have related to my ministry: My strengths are that I’m a good listener, I don’t give pat answers, I know when and how to play devil’s advocate, and when to keep silent, and, despite a lot of life change, my life overall is stable and I have a very strong support network. My weaknesses are that I can be arrogant, I can be too empathetic and become too emotionally invested, I tend to overcommit (this is my main focus area for improvement right now), and I’m concerned that I have too much going on in my life already to add “one more thing”. My gifts are that I’m a quick learner, I love worship and music ministry, and I’m not an in-your-face religious person. More than a few secular friends have told me, to my face, how they appreciate my non-Bible-banging approach to God and theology. My convictions are to be true to myself, be true to who I know God to be, be God’s love as best as I can, not become a Pharisee, and at the end of the day, remember that I’m human: I have and will continue to make mistakes, and that’s when I have to trust in God’s Grace.
1 Or cf my blog posts: jeremygustafson.blogspot.com/2009/04/my-miracle.html and jeremygustafson.blogspot.com/2009/04/physical-and-spiritual-health-update.html
3 A list of most of them is mentioned here: jeremygustafson.blogspot.com/2012/02/pursuing-seminary-step-1.html
4 I’ve more than once been thanked or complimented for the fact that I don’t give these kind of “answers”.
5 Every one of these has happened.
7 “Should” not as in an obligation, but “should” as in I truly desire to spend more time in that relationship.