Surviving Seminary | An Interview with Anne Harrington

Six years ago we met Anne Harrington through going on a short term outreach together. It was a formative experience for us, as the place we took our outreach to is the place we stayed, lived and worked in now for the past 6 years. Anne returned to where she was from in the US and we stayed in touch. Anne had always displayed a desire to be reflective around the type of ministry and life of faith she was engaged in, and that has led her to Seminary. Often, when people about about my theological eduation they wonder how someone would survive it with meaningful faith in tact. Rather than resurrect my own, now somewhat distant experiences, I thought I’d interview someone who is journeying through her theology education and seeking to engage a life of faith within it.

You can read more of Anne’s writing at her blog here.

LIAM: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what experiences / circumstances led you into studying theology?

ANNE: I am in my third year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary studying for two Masters degrees, one in Religion and one in Counseling. I have always been interested in theology and the Bible beyond what I read for personal devotions and heard in sermons, but in 2013 there was a series of tragedies among my church family and close friends, and I was forced to wrestle with God’s goodness and the problem of evil in a more personal way than I ever had before. In my wrestling, I sought wisdom and answers from mature believers that I respected and trusted, and much to my dismay they responded with a fatalistic, facile, unthinking version of Calvinism. They encouraged me to just accept that God’s sovereign will includes him causing people to murder, to commit suicide, to abuse, etc., and as I accepted that reality the Holy Spirit would help me surrender to his will.

That all seemed pretty simplistic and absurd to me, and I couldn’t stomach it. I wanted to understand the original languages of the Bible so I could engage with these theological questions on a deeper, more nuanced level rather than simply resorting to proof-texting as I felt that my friends had done. Ultimately, this desire led me to Gordon-Conwell, where I initially enrolled in the Master of Divinity program and eventually discovered my natural bent toward the integration of counseling and theology.

LIAM: Theology and academics in general has historically been a male dominated sport, have you had tangible experiences of this during your studies so far?

ANNE: I have yet to experience any overt “macro-aggressions” because of my gender, and although a few of my friends have, I think it’s rare at GCTS. That said, we have a lot of room for growth: only a tiny fraction of our faculty are women, and seldom do female theologians ever make the lists of required reading for classes. Personally, most of my experiences of sexism have been minor, like having men interrupt me or talk over me in class and in small groups, or having men speak to me in patronizing ways. But I suspect that would be the case even if I wasn’t in seminary.

For the most part, I have been richly blessed by my seminary brothers. I’m serving as the student government Vice President this year, and I am so thankful for the support and encouragement I’ve received from these men. So many of them have built me up and helped me grow into a leadership role that I was a little leery of taking on, and they have respected me and cheered me me on every step of the way. Overall, my relationships with men at seminary have improved my view of Christian men rather than making me more cynical.

LIAM: Swimming in religious material all day can seem to inoculate from the power of its content, how have you cultivated a sustaining faith in the midst of study? What are the primary challenges to this as you see it?

Without a doubt, this is the most challenging aspect of seminary, and I have by no means reached a satisfactory balance. That being said, there are several things that have helped. First, I try to set aside a couple of chunks of time each week to go to the beach or go for a walk so I can think and pray and enjoy creation. It seems kind of trite, but I’ve found that beauty is very restorative for me, and the ocean is a constant reminder of my finitude compared to the vastness of God’s glory, power, and love. The ocean helps me step back and see the bigger picture, the metanarrative of redemption, rather than fixating on one small piece of the story.

It would be easy for me to hide from the world and its problems—not to mention my problems—in my studies, and suspect lots of students do. I’ve found that I need regular confession (soul-baring, honest conversation) and prayer with trusted friends to keep me from turning into a pseudospiritual hermit. I’m not sure where I picked this up, but there’s a phrase that has been reverberating through my mind for the past couple of years: God doesn’t call us into isolation; he calls us into family. Living out “family” with my brothers and sisters here is one of the most painful, liberating, challenging, and healing things I’m learning in seminary, and a big part of living out family is vulnerability and encouraging one another habitually.

It seems almost compulsory to say something about my own personal devotions, but that has been the hardest area for me. I have gone through seasons of faithfully reading my Bible and meditating on Scripture every day, but my current pattern is several times per week. If I’m being honest, my education has made me so aware of everything I don’t know that there are times when I question my ability to understand Scripture at all, at least beyond the basics. Consequently, I often resort to avoidance. It’s difficult for me to open my Bible, encounter something I don’t understand, and not plunge headlong down an exegetical rabbit trail that will engage my brain but won’t lead anywhere near my heart. This is where I most yearn for balance.

LIAM: Before you entered the student life you spent some time in overseas mission (where we met), how has this shaped the content and trajectory of your studies?

ANNE: What a great question! There are so many ways I could respond—I could talk about how hungry it has made me to hear non-Western perspectives, or how I ache to see seemingly slumbering churches awakened to the incredible things God is doing throughout the world and in their own backyards. But I think the most significant impact has been from a woman named Cynthia. Cynthia is a middle-aged Xhosa woman that I got to know well while in South Africa. She had experienced so much of the tragedy and heartache that is a painfully common story for women living in poverty, and she desperately needed to know that God loved her and her family, that he was for them, and that was capable of restoring them. God performed a miracle in her life, but the pain in her story stays with me as much as the miracle. I find myself asking almost incessantly “Does this matter to Cynthia?” I picture myself sitting in her shack, trying to console her, and I ask myself what theologies matters in that moment, what “head knowledge” that I’m learning has a direct path to a broken heart.

In a way, this question has become the litmus test for how important different subcategories of theology are to me. Does it matter to Cynthia if true baptism is pedo or credo? Probably not, so I’m not going to spend much time or energy on that topic. Does it matter to Cynthia if predestination is single or double, or if the Bible truly is the word of God, or who the audience of Luke’s gospel was? All of those things have clear implications for her life, so I need spend some serious time thinking, reading, praying, and discussing those things with people who are smarter than me. All this to say, I think that my experiences in South Africa have made me engage with theology more pastorally than strictly academically. If it matters to hurting people, then I want to talk about it. If it doesn’t, (and this is my own personal guideline, not a universal rule) my time is probably better spent elsewhere.

LIAM: What’s the simplest definition of discipleship you can formulate?

ANNE: Learning to live like Jesus as our hearts and minds are renewed and transformed through purposeful relationships with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with the family of God.

LIAM: Who has been the most influential theological thinker you’ve been exposed to that the laity should engage with?

ANNE: Because of the structure and pace of seminary, I don’t generally read multiple books by the same author, but here’s a list of books that have shaped me spiritually and intellectually in the last 2.5 years:

Prayer, Richard Foster
The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis
Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard
Evil and the Justice of God, NT Wright
Women and the Genesis of Christianity, Ben Witherington III

I’m currently reading Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf, and it’s shaping up to be one of my favorites. I’ve never encountered an author who writes so academically and poetically at the same time, and the content is challenging and makes me marvel at the Gospel.

Finally, one of my favorite professors, John Jefferson Davis, just published a book called Practicing Ministry in the Presence of God, and although I haven’t gotten to it yet, I’ve heard great things from friends who have read it. He also wrote a book called Worship and the Reality of God that I really enjoyed. Dr. Davis’s systematic theology class changed my walk with God more than any other class I’ve taken, and I always left his lectures feeling compelled from to worship from the depths of my heart.

LIAM: What’s next for you after studies? Where / what do you hope to be doing in 5 years?

ANNE: It will take me about 2 years to become a licensed counselor after I finish my degrees, and my goal is to work as a counselor with incarcerated people, people in prerelease, and possibly refugees. Although there are ethical standards that prevent me from explicitly sharing the Gospel as a clinical counselor, I see counseling as a mission field where the dual ministry of grace and truth testifies to Jesus and shows a way to healing. I think that is where my future lies. My dream is to return to South Africa one day and work there as a counselor, but I’m trying to hold that dream lightly for the time being since it’s at least a 3-4 years off.

LIAM: Thanks so much Anne! We hope this all brings you back to South Africa one day.

Feel free to ask further questions in the comments and we might coax Anne into responding!

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