At Play in the Streams of the Lord

By Steve Smith

seger article 02Cassock. Check.
Stole. Check.
Waders. Check.

Nikki Seger’s first parish might be a trout stream.

Nikki grew up fly fishing on Rapid Creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Her grandparents built a cabin there and she was allowed to fish, swim, and hike all day in the summers. Every morning she woke to a granite bluff and a trout stream. “I had a gifted childhood,” she says.

Though her father was an Episcopal priest and the family moved often, Nikki returned each summer to the little cabin in South Dakota. Lakota Sioux considered the Black Hills sacred, and Nikki also feels a reverence for the land. To her, the connection between faith and fly fishing is strong.

Fly Fishing and Spirituality

This spring, Nikki, a Bexley Seabury senior, constructed an independent study on “Fly Fishing and Spirituality.” In April and May, visitors to campus could see students swinging parabolas of line as they learned the mechanics of casting. Later, Nikki brought a gaggle of students and staff to a small pond in western Ohio to fish. Before they dropped lines in water they recited psalms and pondered the life cycle of aquatic insects.

The seed for Nikki’s current independent study was sown almost 10 years ago when she taught her partner, Jennifer, to fly fish. Jennifer turned to her and said, “The way you explain this seems so spiritual. You should teach other people, too.”

In 2012, Nikki hosted a retreat to teach fly fishing to the seminary community. But it wasn’t until she took Professor Lisa Dahill’s “Ecological Spirituality” class during January Term 2013 that she felt inspired to better articulate the relationship between fishing and faith. With her professor’s help, Nikki designed “Fly Fishing and Spirituality” in the spring of 2014. The study had two intentions:
  1. Develop theological footholds to describe the process of fly fishing and systematize this in order to better teach others.
  2. Develop a course on fly fishing and spirituality to teach in the future as a parish priest or bi-vocational minister.
For Nikki, there are four primary connections between fly fishing and spirituality: mystical, relational, sacramental, and transformational.
Nikki connects with God through movement and creating space to think and ask the big questions like “Who am I and who am I in connection with God’s creation?” Repetitive movement with skill allows her to shift into the luminous, numinous spaces where she can encounter God and find her place in life. “It is the difference between chronos time, which is linear and clock-oriented, versus kairos time which is about the fullness of time where we can experience God,” she says. Both fly tying and fly fishing afford this open space.

seger article 01Fly tying feels aesthetic and kinesthetic to Nikki. This creates a mystical sense of “flow” where her mind is free to worship, ask questions, and commune with God. The act of creation, the movement of hands, the subtle pressure variation required to properly tie flies, all feels very satisfying to her.

Fly fishing also involves worshipful sensations: casting with the rod, feeling the line extend behind you, the cool water against your waders, the wind against your cheek, seeing the rush of water, the play of light and shadow, and the fly drifting toward you. Entering this habitat frees Nikki to experience God.
Community enhances fishing. Nikki’s favorite fishing partners are her mom and sister. She recalls fishing with them as her sister carried her 3-month-old daughter strapped to her chest: three generations of Segers fishing together.

“I’ll always continue to fly fish,” she says. “It’s a way that I connect with family and friends. Plus, it’s just another way to connect people with God.” In particular, Nikki sees fly fishing as a non-threatening way to connect “nones” – those who profess no formal religious affiliation – with God. “It could be a new way to do church which provides a safe space for people to explore the big questions about life and God.”
Sacramental means the outward, visible sign of an inner, invisible reality. In fly fishing there is the symbolism of baptism, the life-and-death cycle of trout and salmon, and even the image of Jesus preparing a meal of caught fish for his disciples on the beach. Fishing, of all outdoor activities, is perhaps the one most rooted in scripture and filled with spiritual metaphor and symbolism.
Transformation happens, Nikki believes, whenever we encounter and connect with God. In fly fishing this is through an earthy, tactile, wet way. Whenever we go into kairos time, says Nikki, we feel better and see better. Our senses are enhanced. This allows us to commune with God in open, childlike ways. We can talk and we can listen. There are few distractions.

Discerning Her Call

seger article 03Nikki underwent her own transformation through fly fishing. She worked for a number of years managing a cardiac research lab at Northwestern in Chicago. After a while she realized it was time for a career change. “What do I love to do?” she asked. The answer was obvious. So she got a part-time job tying flies at a local fly fishing store. The job turned into a full-time position that lasted 12 years.

That role helped transform Nikki into a more relational and confident person. “I used to be so shy,” she says. “At the research lab when I had to order supplies I would script out exactly what I was going to say.” But when she taught fly tying and fly fishing classes the words just flowed. Nikki continues to teach an all-women fly fishing course in Wisconsin, and a breast cancer survivor’s group in Florida called “Casting for Recovery.” She beat breast cancer in 2011.

Nikki’s transformation into a teacher helped her discern her call to ministry. She came to seminary as a woman called to teach and to help connect others with God.

Stewardship and Legacy

Nikki fits perfectly into Trinity’s focus on Green Faith and Eco Justice. Like many fly fishers she is a responsible steward of creation, collecting trash along waterways and releasing fish that she catches.

Legacy is important to Nikki. She already knows what she wants on her gravestone: “She Loved to Play.” As children, says Nikki, we engage in wholehearted play. Why do we give that up as adults? Doing things we love helps connect us with God and gives us a sense of wholeness, joy, and shalom. Nikki finds joy in the streams of the Lord. “Our passions connect us with God,” she says.

What could be more spiritual than that?