This is a followup to my last post Life changes – seminary, law practice and activism. The nutshell version of that post is that I’ve decided to (1) end my time in seminary earlier than expected (graduating with a graduate-level certificate in May ’16 instead of an MDiv in ’20), (2) end most of my legal practice (finishing old cases and then after that only doing one CO case at a time) and (3)pare back my activism, so that I can focus more energy on my home and personal life.
The last couple of weeks have been a strange time for me. I’m still emotionally working through my feelings about the changes I am making in the trajectory of my life, while at the same time working through some of the “unfinished business” of the chapter of my life that is ending.
Grief and relief are my primary emotions, but I’m also feeling anxiety, fear, and excitement (for the possibilities of the next chapter).
Most of the grief part of the equation is about my change in seminary plans. I had been enrolled 1/2 time in seminary over the last couple of years, moving rapidly towards completing an MDiv. I was taking a mix of online classes as well as hybrid classes (in which I would spend one week on campus to supplement online work). The classes were for the most part fascinating and engaging, and I loved my time on campus at AMBS (normally 2-3 times per year I would take the train to Elkhart, Indiana). The times were sometimes hard (especially towards the end of the week), but also savored the alone time and the bit of a break from my joyful (but sometimes challenging) life as a fairly new father.
But of course not all was rosy.
The pace of the classes was insanely challenging. Often the required readings were as much or more than I had in law school, but the difference being that I was reading about stuff that really mattered. It’s not to say that law “didn’t matter,” but in some ways it doesn’t in the same way that theology matters. And let’s be frank, the law is often not terribly inspiring.
In law school I could just do a quick and dirty skim of the readings to prepare for class discussion (or more accurately BS’ing) but this wasn’t possible for me in seminary. Seminary readings were different and took a lot more out of me emotionally. And so I continually struggled to keep up. It was simply impossible to do the quality of study that I wanted to do, while taking care of the other parts of my life.
And I’ve also realized that my studies in the MDiv program weren’t ideal for my situation. The program is mostly geared towards a very general approach to ministry, sort of an all-purpose degree which would provide some degree of education that would be relevant to almost any ministry setting. While I was able to pick a major (most recently it was peace studies), this still required a lot of coursework that wasn’t terribly pertinent to my current ministry setting. Seminary worked better for me in the classes in which I could double-up, finding ways to immediately apply my coursework into my ministry or activism, but it was impossible for me to do that in some of my other classes. (which is no fault to the instructor or the class, but rather is a matter of my life situation).
And yet, my time at AMBS has been hands-down the best educational experience of my life. I have had good classes before as an undergrad and in law school, but never did have the chance to be part of an educational community like AMBS, which was truly a community – a graduate school where the professors weren’t “Doctor Somebody” or “Professor Importantperson” but rather folks like Loren, Rachel, Andy, Allan, etc. And the students were an awesome group of people – both the full-timers but also the working ministers who took classes like I did. I feel really bad about not seeing these folks as much in the future.
It is really hard to give this up. I was looking forward to another 4 years or so of half-time study and a bunch of weeks on campus (2-3 weeks per year during my remaining studies). I even bought a bicycle to keep on campus in Elkhart, so I would be able to have a bike during my times on campus.
This is definitely something worth grieving.
But I also know that the choice I’m making is a good one. Being able to focus more on my family is a wonderful thing, and being able to finish my time at AMBS well (I plan to take the summer and fall off and then take Social Theory for Christian Peacemakers in the Spring of 2016 and then graduate with a certificate rather than the MDiv) will be a very good thing.
And it will be wonderful to be able to continue my education informally, at my own pace. Ideally I’m hoping to blend self-directed learning with community, by finding a way to have a real educational community at Joy. There are so many possibilities here and I’m excited about it.
I also know that part of my grief isn’t about the present moment, but rather about my choice 13 years ago… I remember well my feelings after completing my first semester of law school. I HATED law school. It was a miserable experience and I wanted out, but I didn’t want to disappoint family and friends and I didn’t want to waste the money I had already paid (and the debt I had incurred through the process).
I truly believed that I had no choice but to keep plodding on. I did find ways to make the experience more bearable – mostly by following the advice of the NLG’s Disorientation Handbook to “subvert the experience” of law school, but it would have much better if I had actually listened to the yearnings of my heart and went to seminary instead. I could have easily gone to seminary full-time in those days and it would have been the perfect time of my life to do it, ideally living on campus and getting the full experience. But I didn’t have the courage or self-confidence to go down that path, so I instead stayed with law school. I know good stuff came from that decision (mostly in the lives of some of my former clients) but it was a much harder and more miserable path than I could have been on.
At the same time, regret of the past isn’t a good driving force for future action. It would be a bad decision to decide to stay with the MDiv out of a desire to undo the past, when the circumstances of my life have changed.
And so in light of all of this, I’m feeling a mix of emotions. Relief that I won’t be quite as overwhelmed with responsibilities this summer and fall, and relief that I will still get a degree of sorts (technically a certificate isn’t a degree, but it is still something). And relief that the part of my life that is most important to me – my family, will benefit from this decision.
The other big changes in my life to come are less weighty. I had already been working on scaling back my law practice, so this just means that I will hold to the decision I’ve already made to take no new cases (except for one CO case at a time) and to wrap up all of my old cases. There is some degree of guilt about this decision but less grief. I feel guilty about future clients that I won’t be able to help and for the GI Rights/active duty war resistance movement that I would love to contribute to in a bigger way. But I also know that my heart moved away from legal work a long time ago. Having an activist focus fueled me for a long time, but there comes a point that too much of even a good thing, is still just too much. I will still do a little legal work (and a fair bit of activist work), but it will no longer be the defining force of my life.
So those are my thoughts for tonight. Now… back to work on one of the old cases that I want to finish well. I think this is a big part of making this transition, to doing this cases well and finding satisfaction in doing this.