In 2007 I applied to several schools to enter a PhD program in New Testament. These were all really competitive programs like Duke University and Emory University but I felt really good about applying at that point in my life. I was a young pastor who had done extremely well academically in my Master’s degree, I had three years of ministry experience (required in my denomination), I had been given an opportunity to teach with a seminary professor a joint presentation on ways of reading Paul and I felt like this was supposed to be my calling. When I received the notifications from each program that I had not been accepted I took it pretty well. I knew the congregation I served had just undergone a massive upheaval and probably needed the stability I was providing and I figured it was just not the right time. A couple years late it was time to apply again, this time to a new set of schools-perhaps less elite but still really good schools and I figured I met the entry criteria for their doctoral programs. It was a time where I was looking for a way out of my current, highly stressful calling (same congregation as earlier, but after a lot of dealing with conflict) and I just felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing. When the letters came again saying that I had not been accepted it hit me to my core. Somehow, in my mind, I no longer measured up. I was constantly comparing myself to those who had been selected, those who had the academic opportunities or credentials. I wanted to be what I was not.
I had to rediscover who I was, I had to become much more of a scrapper. On the one hand, as a pastor I have always been well respected but for many people that was the only arena they saw me in and I wanted to engage that academic side. Life circumstances changed which made this even harder and I had to make some challenging choices in the years that came afterwards. It wasn’t until 2012 that I really began to experiment with writing again and over the past several years I have discovered the joy I get out of it and the gifts I have for it. Yet, there is always that self-critical part of me that compares what I have done with others.
Brené Brown talks about the box seats where the ones who set the rules for the arena sit. For me this was occupied by the academics, particularly those I had respect for. I felt like my own ability to write and contribute had been denied because I didn’t have the correct pedigree or degrees. I know this was as much a limitation I placed upon myself by my comparison of myself with the image I had of them. I’ve gotten a lot better but I still place myself continually in comparison with the best attributes in others and often forget about my own gifts. I still at times feel like I am having to ask for permission to have a place in the arena, but I’m getting better at moving past the comparisons, as unrealistic as they may be, and enter that place. There are times my own internal voices take me back to that time when I heard those who occupied the seats that I felt could allow me entry into the academic arena told me, “my voice was not needed in that place.” Well at least that was the message I received.
When I look at what I write, I am proud of it. I am proud of both the volume and the quality of what I have written. I have also enjoyed the freedom to engage a number of projects that are very different. There may come a time when I need to focus on my work being seen in a larger way, but for now I am writing and learning and that has made a world of difference. It may be a smaller arena, but it is mine, and for now I can be proud of the work I have done and show myself a little grace and compassion without needing to measure up to someone else’s standards.