Thursday, September 13, 2012


This is a poem written by James A. Autry from Life After Mississippi.  One of my theology professors, Martha Moore-Keish read this to our theology class in seminary. Love, love, love.

Brother Jim Thompson came,
The oldest,
With overalls and a white shirt buttoned at the collar.
With a walking cane and a Bible
That had stood fifty years of pounding,
And with that old fire burning through his cataracts.
Didn't need no seminary
Always preached the Bible
and the Lord Jesus Charist
Crucified and buried and
raised from the dead.

Brother Hamer came
And Brother Ewart
And the three Walker boys,
Preachers all.
They came through rain,
Wrestling the wheels of their out-of-country cars,
Sliding in ruts so deep the tail pipes dragged.
They parked under the trees
And along the road,
Picking their way along the high spots
Like children jumping puddles.
Into the church of their fathers,
The place they had all felt the call.
The old home church
Where thousands of hands had pressed
On the bowed heads of new preacher boys,
Of sun-reddened young men called by the Lord,
called from the cotton fields to preach the word.
They had felt the hands,
These old preachers,
Felt like blunt-fingered, work-hardened hands,
Felt them like a blessing,
Like an offering,
Like a burden.
Felt them at wedding and baptizings,
Felt them in the heat of a summer revival sermon,
In the agony of a baby's funeral,
In the desperate prayer against some killer disease,
In the frustrating visit with a mind gone senile.
And now the old preachers came to lay their hands
On the head of a new kind of preacher,
A preacher from the seminary,
A preacher who studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew,
Who knew about religions they never heard of,
Who knew about computers
And memory banks full of sermons
And many other modern things.
A new kind of preacher.
And yet,
A preacher who would still feel on her head
the hands
Like a commandment
From all the preachers and deacons who ever were.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Committees, Laughter, & Pretzel M&M's

I wrote a blog back in March about what it would mean to me if I did not pass my candidacy committee on my road to becoming an ACPE supervisor.  I reminded myself that it is perfectly ok to fail and, in fact, failing can be a strength because it can help me see the places where I most need to grow.  Well, I met my candidacy committee in late March.  It was scary…empowering…anxiety-producing…eye-opening.  I went into the committee wanting to acknowledge my strengths while being open to my growing edges (how’s that for CPE language, folks?)

The committee included five people from the southeastern region of ACPE.  I sent off a notebook of materials to them one month in advance.  One member of the committee is called “the presenter” and wrote a presenter’s report about me that would be the starting point for meeting my committee.  My supervisor was allowed in the room, but he was asked to sit out of my line of sight and he could not talk nor could I look at him...hello, awkward.  The committee gathered and met for 30 minutes, then I met with them for 1 ½ hours, and then they sent me out of the room for 30 minutes to vote on me and write an action report.  I thought I presented myself well, but I did not know what all they were looking for.  I knew that about two thirds of the way through, I got mad at a committee member and the committee invited me to verbalize what I was feeling.  I told him I was angry with him and I thought his comments to me were unfair.  He thanked me for my boldness.  Seriously people, where else do you get thanked and receive validation for expressing your anger at a committee member who is voting on you??  They were grateful that I was able to say what I was feeling and not shy away from it.  Moral of the story: I passed my committee.  It felt wonderful.

The last paragraph of my blog from March said: “[What will I do] if I pass…well, I’ll  have to get back to you. But it will definitely include chocolate.”  Well, it did include chocolate – pretzel M&M's to be exact.  And a card signed by my chaplain colleagues.  And cheesecake.  And a celebratory beer...the fancy one with the blueberries in it.  And a big ole' bear hug from my husband who witnessed my sleepless nights leading up to committee.  And many congratulations from people who knew what passing meant.  And confused looks from friends who thought I got a promotion.  And sympathetic pats on the back from people who found out I still have 3+ years in this certification process.  I was proud of myself.  And it felt really good.

But here’s what else passing committee meant… It meant I got to supervise a group of summer students without another supervisor in the room (although I still have to videotape every session).  It meant I got to create the entire summer program which included coordinating over 20 didactics with topics ranging from grief to family systems to interfaith dialogue with a Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish spiritual leader to pastoral care in the neonatal unit to pediatric psychology to the viewing of surgeries.  It meant working with an amazing supervisor who challenges me and encourages me to challenge him.  It meant I got to find the same excitement in the classroom as I find in patients’ rooms.  It meant I got to smile when my students had light bulb moments and I got to cry when I felt like I was failing them.  It meant drawing parallels between their process and mine.  It meant trusting enough in my knowledge and experience to supervise someone almost 40 years older than me.  It meant sitting with students in their stuck-ness and not rescuing them, but instead creating the space for them to get themselves unstuck.  It meant laughing with them amidst the difficulty of all of our journeys.  It meant reminiscing about my journey through CPE and appreciating just how far I have come.

I often tell people I feel like I never have to work a day in my life.  Now don’t hear me wrong – this training is A LOT of work.  Some days I cry; some days I wrestle with myself and with my supervisors; some days I feel like I have no energy left.  But every day I laugh (it's the only free medicine at the hospital...bad joke, I'm sorry).  I embrace the process and what it has given me.  I see my family, my friends, and even strangers in a different light.  I assess situations differently.  I gain perspective and remember that even in my difficult days, others are suffering beyond what I can imagine.  I see that there is always something more to be learned and recognize that every new experience is a doorway into new meaning.  I see the beauty of life and wake up each morning grateful for another day to grow.  I wake up on Monday mornings excited to take on another week of adventures.  At least once a day, I stop and remember what many patients and families have taught me: don't take life for granted.

I will not be supervising students in the fall – I will be writing theory papers.  YUCK.  It’s a part of the process and it’s probably not going to be fun...but it’s a part of getting to where I feel called to be...and where I feel called to be is a place I never thought possible.  That's what makes this journey so exciting.  But amidst the busyness of this journey, I can at least take time to appreciate the small things in life: like committees, laughter, and pretzel M&M's.

- Gifts from the pastoral care dept after I made candidacy -

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Open Waters: My Response to the Housing Policy at CTS

To President Steve Hayner:

First of all, I want to thank you for your leadership and for the many ways you have graciously listened to the voices of the community at Columbia Theological Seminary.  You lead CTS with humility and are gifted in your ability to be in dialogue with students, faculty, staff, the board of directors and the broader community.   A few days ago, I learned via social networking that the request to change the current housing policy was denied.  This topic was part of the daily dialogue when I was still a student at CTS and I am grateful to hear that students are still fighting for what is fair and just for the entire CTS community.

In the last couple days, I read many letters sent by members of the CTS community far and wide.  I add my voice to the crowd that declares the housing policy as it is currently stated does not allow for the full inclusion of all students in the CTS community.  I recognize that there are many voices involved in this conversation and that you are only one vote among many.  I write to you because I learned in my time at CTS how much you value the need for open dialogue amidst division.

As a hospital chaplain, I work not only with a diversity of patients, but also a diversity of chaplains, some of whom who define themselves as LGBT.  Through discussion with my chaplain colleagues about the open housing policies at their seminaries, I know this is not only a possibility but a reality for many theological institutions.  I am saddened to share with them that while our seminary is open and affirming to admitting LGBT students, our doors are closed to providing a home in the community to those folks who are both a) being faithful to their calling from God and b) in committed, same-gendered relationships.

While I was a student at CTS, I remember voicing to administration a time of deep hurt I experienced on an Alternative Context trip my middler year.  I use this example not to move away from the topic of housing, but to provide you with an example of when voices spoke out against an injustice they experienced and felt their voices were heard by the administration at CTS.  Laura Mendenhall, who was president at that time, taught the women involved an important lesson through that experience.  She shared with us that it takes a lot of work to move a ship…especially a ship that has been sailing in the same direction for years.  But Laura proudly proclaimed to us that all who speak out against injustices serve as tugboats for the institution.  In that conversation, she empowered me to speak out when I feel there is an injustice present.  This is one of those moments.  I ask this of you and the CTS administration: listen to the tugboats.  I realize it takes time to move a ship, but my hope is that the seminary will be open to the movement of the Spirit through the work of individuals who cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

In closing, I share with you a quote I heard at the 2008 General Assembly in San Jose, CA.  Gradye Parsons offered his breakdown of the Mark 6:45-51 when he said, “Get into the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die.”  I recognize there is both simplicity and difficulty in these words.  Steve, I ask that CTS would get into the boat with a confident heart knowing that, while there may be a storm, we will not die.  My prayer for you and for those who graciously serve our seminary as staff, administration, and board members is that you listen to the tugboats.  My continued hope is that our journey will be guided not by fear, but by faith and hope in the Living God.  May we get into the boat and journey in a new direction with full confidence that the One powerful enough to calm the seas will lead us to more open waters.

My prayers stay with you and with the CTS community,
Rev. Jenny Sumner Carswell
MDiv, 2010

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It's OK to Fail

As my date of candidacy committee is quickly approaching (March 26), I have been invited by one of my supervisors to wrestle with the possibility of failing this committee.  He does not mean it as a pessimistic “glass is half empty” kind way, but I think as a means of blessing.  He is offering me a gift I struggle to offer myself.  He knows me well and knows how much I want to pass committee.  But I know if I go into committee with that attitude, the committee will see right through that.  Instead, I need to be present with them, show them what I know, and acknowledge what I don’t know.  This one vote does not determine the course of the rest of my life (although it sure does feel like that at the moment!).

In my early life, failing meant I did not do enough to get the gold star.  It meant my teachers, my parents, my gymnastics coaches, my band directors – essentially all of my authority figures – expected more out of me.  This has been a pattern in my life as long as I can remember.  It peaked in high school when I tried so hard to be perfect after feeling like I deeply failed in middle school.  In high school, I joined every extracurricular activity I could fit into my schedule and took honors/AP classes whenever possible.  B’s were not an option for me and I remember crying when I found out my senior year that I was getting a B in AP Biology.  I thought it might be better self-care in college to let myself off the hook every now and then.  B’s became ok and after having a semester with 16 credits, 2 part-time jobs, marching band, and commitments to several organizations, I realized I really could not do it all.  While I got better at this practice in seminary, I still struggle with my definition of failing.  My time with patients is helping them see the holiness in their brokenness, and yet I continue wrestling with that myself.

Should I not pass my candidacy committee, it will not mean I failed my candidacy committee.  It will mean I have more things to work on and grow into before I am ready for candidacy.  I know I am my own worst critic and that my continued growing edge is to not be so hard on myself.  But old habits die hard.  I was never punished or guilted when I failed…but often times I was overly praised by authority figures when I succeeded.  What this means now is that when I fail, I feel the need to apologize to those around me as though I let them down.  I took away others’ ability to be proud of me and, in turn, I cannot be proud of myself.  Pride can sting as much as shame does, and I am learning that pride is indeed a form of shame.  If I fail, I did not succeed, and therefore my authority figures cannot be proud of me.

I had a revelation in Orlando last Friday that if I do not make candidacy, I will feel as though I let the department down and that I have to apologize to them.  My supervisor told me point blank that not making committee will not affect the department and its functioning.  At first, I thought hearing him say that was his “quick fix” answer and was a way to move away from my fear.  But instead, he was inviting me into my fear.  What I fear is not external: it is within myself.  He was telling me that if I fail, it does not mean I am a bad chaplain or a bad supervisory education student.  It will not rob anyone from the opportunity to be proud of me.  More importantly: I should still be proud of myself.  It will not mean the department is in shambles.  I won’t get fired.  Quite the contrary: failing in this process can be a strength.  Once I realize that failing is a possibility, it loses its power over me.  Because it is perfectly ok to fail.

And if I pass…well, I guess I’ll have to get back to you.  But it will definitely include chocolate.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Digging Through Life's Garbage

On Fat Tuesday, two chaplains brought in king cake for the pastoral care department.  Yes, we love food.  For those who don’t know, king cake is a Louisiana-style cake that tastes like a cinnamon roll with sugary sprinkles on top.  Somewhere inside the cake is a teeny tiny plastic baby.  Apparently if you get the piece with the baby in it, it’s good luck.  One of the chaplains got the piece with the baby in it.  We knew he got the piece with the baby…but he didn’t know.  He ate his piece and reported nothing back to us about his findings.  Rumors spread around the department that he accidentally ate the baby, but he was adamant that he didn’t.  I asked if he threw any of the cake away and he said, “Yes, just a little piece of plastic that was part of the decoration.”

He began digging in the trash to prove he didn’t throw away the baby.  I then put on gloves and dug through the trash, too.  Sure enough we found a shiny, purple, plastic baby in the trash can.  One of the other chaplains took pictures of us digging in the trash.  When he emailed the photos to me, I was hesitant to show the photos.  What would others think if they saw me digging through the trash?  We take our jobs seriously and work hard and here we were captured in a brief moment of craziness.

But the more I thought about, the more I thought that these pictures provide a metaphor for what we as chaplains do.  We listen as patients, family, and staff share their garbage with us.  We also share our garbage with one another.  The physical, emotional, spiritual garbage that is all a part of everyday life.  Fear of dying…broken family systems…denial about one's own issues...unfinished business…guilt about decisions being made…psychiatric illnesses…anger at God…inability to forgive oneself.  As a chaplain, I not only sit in the midst of patient’s garbage, but I also validate their garbage.  I help them see that their garbage is real and invite them not to move away from it, but to explore it more in-depth.  I, too, carry my own garbage into every visit – some conscious, some unconscious – but nonetheless, I carry garbage around.  Part of the process of being a chaplain is having a peer group and supervisor that help us look through our own garbage.  (For one unit of clinical pastoral education training, a chaplain spends 300 hours on the floors with patients and 100 hours in group time).  It certainly is not easy, but the more we can look at our own garbage, the more we can invite patients into their garbage, too.

We fool ourselves if we think that our life is perfect and without flaw.  Eveyone has garbage.  During this season of Lent, we journey through 40 days of prayer, repentance, sacrifice, and simplicity as we refocus our hearts and minds toward God.  Hopefully in this time, we will all become a little more aware of the garbage in our own lives.  I invite us all to embrace that garbage because it is a part of who we are…baggage and all, we are truly beautiful people created in the image of God.

So here I am doing what we do best…digging through life’s garbage.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Little Life Lesson from Hemi

I wish I could tell you that I caught Hemi in a brief unguarded moment, but indeed this is daily behavior.  Check it out:

One of Hemi's favorite activities is rolling around on his back: in dirt, in grass, in puddles, in sand.  You name it, he'll roll in it.  He enjoys getting messy.  I watched him today as I was sweeping the front sidewalks (you can't let the sidewalks get too dirty, you know).  I quickly dropped the broom and picked up my phone to shoot this video of him.

Today, Hemi taught me a simple life reminder: it's ok to roll in the dirt.  It can be FUN to roll in the dirt!  Thank you, Hemi, for the wonderful reminder that life is messy, so we might as well enjoy it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I am a Flight Attendant

Ok, so I'm not really a flight attendant.  But sometimes I want to pretend I am....or something that our culture deems more "gender-appropriate."  As one who often corrects people at the hospital when they exclusively refer to nurses as ‘she’ and doctors as ‘he,’ you should know that I don't believe there are gender-specific jobs.  But some days, when I just don’t have the energy to explain my life story, I think that saying I’m a flight attendant or a teacher or a nurse would be easier than explaining that I am a pastor. Let me give you two examples.

Example #1: Today, I was at Publix (Thursday is the start of the new shopping week for coupons – I saved $60! I digress…).  I was in the checkout line when the bagger started to wheel my cart like he was bringing my groceries out to my car.  I truly believe that shopping at Publix is a pleasure and I love their customer service; however, sometimes I wish they would lighten up on the whole ‘Which way to your car, ma’am?’ talk.  I actually enjoying bringing my groceries to my car and loading them myself.  There, I said it.  But the guy today was insistent, stating that he had to go outside to get the carts anyway.  And thus began the awkward small talk…

Him: “Are you on your way home from work?”
Me: “Yes.”
Him: “Cool.  What kind of work do you do?”
Me: “I’m a hospital chaplain.”
Him: “What does that mean?”
Me: “We’re like pastors for the hospital.”
Him: “Oh wow…so what kinds of stuff do you do?”  (ugh, where to begin?)
Me: “Ummm, we provide support and prayer for people, help families at the time of death, held identify people in traumas....”
Him: “Well, a job’s a job in this economy, right?” (he awkwardly laughs almost out of pity)
Me: “No, I actually love my job.  It gives me life.”
Him: “Oh…ok. Have a good day, ma’am.”

Why, whyyyyy didn’t I just tell him I was a flight attendant??

Example #2: I remember how much I hated getting my hair cut in college because I never went to the same person twice.  Who needs a personal stylist when all you do is cut your hair in a straight line?  So every time I went to get a haircut, the conversation led to something like this:

“What are you studying at UF?”
“I’m studying music education.”
“Are you going to be a music teacher?”
“No, I’m actually going to seminary after college.”
“Seminary, is that where you go to become a chef?”
“No, that’s culinary school.  Seminary is where you go to become a pastor.”
“You’re going to be a pastor??” (HOLD THE PHONE.  SHE’S YOUNG.  AND SHE’S A….SHE.)

Why, whyyyy didn’t I say ‘Yes, I’m going to be a music teacher and wear denim dresses and own lots of cats.’ End of story.

During one of my haircuts in college, I had a man debate me on the meaning of baptism and was insistent that in order to enter the gates of heaven, one must be baptized twice, once in water and then in the Holy Spirit so one can speak in tongues.  I am certainly respectful of other opinions and practices of religion, but WHY are we debating this during MY haircut?  The manager came over and asked him to stop questioning me.  I should’ve given my tip to the manager instead.

There are definitely times in life when I want to be in discussion about my work as a pastor.  I even find it fun if people bring it up to me on a first encounter.  I am in no way ashamed of what I do – I LOVE what I do and truly believe I am living into God’s calling in my life.  But sometimes, you just want to get your hair cut in peace.  Your nails done in peace (yes, pastors get pedicures).  Your grocery shopping done in peace.  Sometimes, you want to fly in an airplane without the person sitting next to you questioning your ability to be a female pastor (yes, in seminary I was seated on a plane next to a Southern Baptist minister who pulled out his engraved, red letter edition Bible and talked scripture with me while I frantically tried to study for a Hebrew quiz I had the next day).

I guess it’s ironic that I am in a field where every day I meet new people.  I still get the occasional “I ain’t never met a lady preacher before!” and “Wow honey, did you hear that? This nice little girl came to pray with us.”  But in almost all my visits, patients/families are grateful for support, for an empathic listener, and for someone who can lift up their deepest needs to God through spoken words of prayer.  We must remember Jesus was dead by 33 – so by Jesus’ standard, I’m in my prime years!

I guess I will continue engaging random people about my work as a chaplain.  It really can spark some interesting conversation.  But in case I’m not in the mood, I can at least locate the nearest emergency exit.