A few months ago at work I was helping a customer. I think she was buying an iPhone or something like that (I work for an Apple Store). And we got to talking about life, her kids, Jordan (my daughter), and all sorts of things. She said that her son was in school getting his degree in business and then she asked me what I went to school for.
I always dread that question. I don’t know why. I love what I do, love what I’ve done, and have enjoyed my education more than any normal / sane person probably would or should. For me, there’s very little in life more invigorating than a classroom. I love the presentation of ideas, I love the dialogue, I love the wrestling, the studying, the writing. I just love it.
I guess when this question comes, I always know what’s coming next …
“What will you do with your degree?”
“What do you want to do when you ‘grow up’?”
And my favorite – “oh my, are you going to be a … pastor? That’s so wonderful.”
And so this very nice lady asked me what I went to school for and I told her that I actually just finished up my doctorate and successfully defended my dissertation a couple of weeks ago. First she did a double take because I guess I don’t exactly look like your typical doctor. HA!
A bunch of rubber bracelets.
Green and white Vans.
I usually have a Yankee hat on (backwards), although I don’t get to wear it at work.
Apple Watch with a bright neon green strap.
And so she looked at me like I was partially crazy and then said, “Oh, well, what is your degree in?”
I’m still not sure how to answer that one either. Sometimes when I answer that question my response can be so long that the person I’m talking to has no idea what the heck I’m talking about (and I don’t think I do either) and other times it can be so short and quick that the person still has no idea what I’m talking about (and I’m not so sure I do either) and so I saw this as another opportunity to practice my elevator pitch response.
“Well”, I said. “I went to Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, NY. I got my Master’s from there about 10 years ago in Church Development and then I went back a few years ago to get my Doctorate in Christian Leadership.”
Then came the question I knew was coming – “Oh, so you want to be a pastor someday?”
“Not really”, I said.
I went on to tell her how I had pastored a church for a bunch of years and although I enjoyed parts of it, I hated most of it. I told her I couldn’t stand the politics of the church. I told her about the time when we had a board meeting that went to 1AM because half of the board was ready to lynch me over my desire to have a Christmas tree next to the pulpit during Advent because they thought Christmas trees were Satanic and evil even though they wanted me (their pastor) to go to the town Christmas tree lighting and say the Advent prayer in front of the giant pile of Satanic pine needles.
We talked about the constant need to please people, make people happy, and act like a politician who has everything together on the outside, while being a mess on the inside. I told her that I hated so much of what I had to do that I don’t think I could ever go back and do it again, even if it was the most seemingly perfect fit.
I loved and adored all of the opportunities to preach and teach and dream and meet with people.
But the other stuff?
She shook her head and said, “I get that. Good for you.”
So then she asked what my plans were going forward. “You have your degree now, so what’s next?” And then I told her about THIS. I told her about the What If Project. I’m typically not super open and vulnerable with what I do here, to be honest. If it comes up and I’m able to fit into the conversation, I will. But typically at work I just let co-workers discover it on Facebook and I’ll rarely share it with customers or random people.
This time, though, it just felt like a good place to mention it.
And so I told her about my dissertation and how it was about how the church can more effectively use social media and technology to connect people with each other and connect people with God. And then I told her about the What If Project. I told her that I had this blog and podcast where we explore faith and God and Jesus and spirituality and the church and wonder if there are ways of understanding things that are different than the ways in which tradition has handed us (for me, my conservative, evangelical tradition).
And then things got interesting.
She looked away for a moment and mumbled something that I could barely hear over the noise of the store. It sounded like, “oh. My son just … me …” and I was like, “excuse me?” And then she said it a little louder …
“My son just came out to me as gay.”
All of a sudden it no longer felt like we were standing in the middle of the Apple Store surrounded by a hundred people, but for this brief moment in time it felt as if the universe stood still and it was just me and here sitting over a cup of coffee.
She went on to tell me that she grew up in a very conservative church environment and that she was still pretty conservative and that this news from her son shook her and changed everything and now she’s just not sure what she believes anymore or how to exist in her conservative church, with her conservative church friends, and with all of her conservative traditions and theologies.
We went on to talk about the church, the Bible, human sexuality, and so much more as I finished up the sale and got ready to move on to the next customer. I wished we could have talked all day, but before she left I gave her the What If Project website and showed her a few podcast episodes that focus on LGBTQ as well as a few books that have helped me … since I also grew up in the same kind of conservative, evangelical world.
Then she thanked me for doing what I do and wished me the best, and I thanked her for doing what SHE does and reminded her that there’s nothing wrong with her, and nothing wrong with her son, and that God is smiling on her whole family.
All of that to say, here’s a curveball for you:
That’s why I got my doctorate.
(Didn’t see that coming, did you?)
Let me explain a little more.
A few years ago I was blogging and podcasting at my old blog, MorningEncouragement.com. It’s no longer up, but that was the old What If Project, where I would share my thoughts about God and faith and the Bible. My thoughts were super conservative, rarely rocked the boat, and were presented in a way that was all about encouraging, uplifting, and cheering people on.
I was big on people like …
… And more big name preachers / authors. I would post one blog post / podcast episode A DAY (most of this was pre-parenthood, HA!) and gained quite a big following. I didn’t really know where it was headed, but knew that I loved and enjoyed writing and sharing ideas. Even back when I pastored a church, preaching and leading Bible studies were my favorite things and so it was no surprise that blogging and podcasting and creating content to share with the world was something that sparked interest in my heart.
Anyways, about 3 years into that the dean of Alliance Theological Seminary (where I had gotten my Masters) reached out to me about coming into their Doctoral program.
Me? A Doctor? I think I said something like, “shouldn’t I have my life figured out before I venture into something like that? I honestly have no idea what I’m doing.”
He said that he thought that what I was doing with my blog and podcast would be a great dissertation topic and he thought that the program itself would help me continue to develop both personally and professionally and maybe help refine what God was doing with my love for creativity, sharing ideas, etc.
Hm. That intrigued me.
And so I applied and 3 years later, here I am. I successfully defended my dissertation a couple of weeks ago, I’ll be graduating THIS WEEK, and spend time every week sitting in a Starbucks in the middle of North Carolina writing and researching ideas for the What If Project where we explore thoughts about God and faith that although I was privately and quietly mulling through deep in the recesses of my heart 3 years ago, I never would have dreamed of publicly sharing.
I was too afraid of rejection.
I was too afraid of rocking the boat.
I was too afraid of upsetting people.
I was too afraid of being shamed.
And as I look back on all of that I’m beginning to realize that it’s because of conversations like the one I had with the theologically conservative customer at work whose son just came out to her as gay that the Spirit led me to and through this program and to what I’m doing now.
You see, I got my doctorate because I value education. I said that earlier. To me, there’s nothing more invigorating than a classroom. And so I knew that a higher education classroom like that would be a place where I would hear from God and get a clearer picture of where my life was headed.
And before I started my first class, this is important too - I promised God that in the doctoral program I would explore whatever doors opened, regardless of how crazy they might seem.
Go back and pastor a church? Sure.
Dismantle my entire theology? Sure.
Get ordained? Sure.
Become a social media consultant? Sure.
I literally told God that whatever door opened in those 3 years, I would explore them. And YES, I did explore all of those things over the last 3 years.
I explored going on staff with Elevation Church (here, in North Carolina), but it didn’t feel right.
I explored getting ordained in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, but it didn’t feel right.
I did some social media consulting, but it didn’t feel right.
Then in year 3 of the program when I took a class that pushed my theological boundaries to the extreme and gave me permission to publicly explore the things I had been secretly mulling over for years, I jumped at it. Over the course of that year I brought Morning Encouragement to a close and started brainstorming the What If Project, which kicked off just 8 months ago.
8 months in and the podcast has 5,000 downloads and I’ve had conversations about God and faith with people on the other side of the world. People have reached out to me to say thank you, to ask questions, to share their own secret thoughts and ask for advice. Friendships have been built, encouragement has been given, perspectives have been challenged.
So much is happening and I’m loving every moment of it.
Even though I didn’t realize it would happen 3 years ago when I said “yes” to the Dean’s offer, the program helped awaken me to a deeper sense of who I am and who God has created me to be, has awakened me to a much different understanding of God and faith and spirituality, and has given me the courage to expand my own theology and, therefore, have conversations like the one I had with the woman at work whose son just came out to her as gay.
Hindsight is 20/20.
And although I started the doctoral program so that I could get a better grasp on where my life was headed and what God might have me do with my love for creativity and the digital world, I look back over the last 3 years and realize that the Divine Spirit, the Creator, lured me to the program because it was the next step in my own evolution of faith and that because I said yes to that evolution and walked into all the open doors like I told God I would, I am now able to have conversations with people who are hurting and scared and full of questions … people that my friends who are pastors and professors and church people might never, ever talk to.
The woman at work the other day was scared to talk to her church. Scared to talk to her church friends. Scared to talk to her family. But she found a safe place in this doctor … in this podcasting guy with ripped jeans, vans shoes, and rubber bracelets who shares stuff every week at the What If Project. In a matter of 10 minutes she left feeling loved, understood, encouraged, and with a note in her Notes App full of resources that will help her courageously enter into this next season of her family’s life.
In short, the doctoral program gave me the courage to have that conversation.
It gave me the courage to publicly explore and process some of the ideas that I had been secretly exploring for years. It helped me realize that my love for writing and sharing ideas and preaching and speaking has a place and that other people around the world are secretly exploring and wondering about the very same things that I used to secretly explore, but now publicly share.
I didn’t get my doctorate so that I could get more money in a job.
I didn’t get my doctorate so that I could have the title of doctor (although you can call me doctor whenever you want, HA!).
I didn’t get my doctorate so that I could “be a pastor” someday.
I didn’t get my doctorate because I had nothing better to do.
I got my doctorate because I needed to explore more, I needed to hear from God, and I needed some clarity on who I am, what I was born to do, and (although I didn’t realize it 3 years ago, I realize it now):
I needed a boost of courage to open the closet door of my own theological heresies and questions and doubts so that I could explore them in the open without fear and without remorse, inviting others to join me on this great adventure that we call a spiritual journey.
And so if I had to leave you with one encouraging thought today, it would be this: if you have a longing or stirring deep down inside, follow it. If people think you’re crazy for wanting to get your doctorate, get it and announce to the world that you’re getting it. If they think you’re insane for quitting your job to do something else, quit it. If they think there’s something wrong with you for not doing what they think you should do with your life, be yourself and do what you feel the stirring inside telling you to do.
A friend of mine recently told me that the small, voice deep inside of my heart is quiet, but it’s a good voice and it’s worth listening to.
That voice is God, and I hope that this quick version of my story gives you the courage to listen to that voice just like I’m learning to do too.