Seek and You Will Find Your Vocation

Trinity takes pride in helping shape the vocations of its students. Often those calls take the form of pastoral ministry in a congregation. Students and graduates of Trinity’s other degree programs have found equally meaningful opportunities in a variety of settings. Nick Bates landed a job with a state agency advocating for social justice; Sarah Ehrman-Thompson left her small Ohio town to direct youth and family ministries in urban Baltimore; and Ned Perwo found his dream job in Newark, Delaware. Their stories highlight the opportunities available to graduates in any one of Trinity’s Master of Arts and Master of Theological Studies degree programs.

Law and Theology Inform Vocation

batesWhen Nick Bates completed his bar exam in July, he wasted no time with the next item on his agenda: a job. He spent hours scanning the Internet and other media outlets for potential opportunities. His criteria included the following: Advocacy work for a non-profit organization committed to the welfare of others.

Nick is the first graduate in Trinity’s joint Master of Theological Studies/Juris Doctor degree program with Capital University. He graduated in May and now looks forward to a lifelong vocation that will capitalize on his knowledge of law (literally) and gospel.

“I see myself as an advocate, whether I’m in the lawyer role or the church role,” he said. The goal sounds simple and straightforward, but the road to Nick’s vocation was neither.

When he graduated from Capital in 2006 he had one year remaining in a two-year volunteer program with AmeriCorps VISTA. He would need to complete that term before moving on to graduate school.

With encouragement from Dr. Joy Schroeder, Bergener Professor of Theology and Religion with Capital University, and Dr. Gay Steele, then the director of Multicultural Affairs at Capital and chair of Trinity’s Board of Directors, Nick weighed the benefits of the dual graduate degree program.

“I visited other seminaries and talked with someone who received a degree in public policy and social work at the University of Chicago,” he said. His interest in advocacy work continued to intensify while working with homeless youth as an AmeriCorps volunteer.  

“When you have people suffering from hunger, a typical response is to have a food drive. Sometimes we need to ask how the summer lunch program is working, or how we understand food deserts—areas of the central city where no grocery stores exist. You have churches that want to do a community garden, but don’t understand zoning laws,” he said.

He sees himself as the one who could interpret those zoning laws, complete the necessary paperwork to establish an organization’s non-profit status, or help organizations use their money effectively.

Nick enrolled at Trinity in 2007. He continued his seminary coursework throughout the 2007-08 academic year and then began classes at Capital’s Law School in 2008-09. Beginning in 2009, he enrolled in seminary courses during the day and attended law school at night, continuing this pattern until his graduation last spring.

“There were a lot of similarities in the two degree programs,” he said. “Where they were different is, so much of law school is reading cases and trying to find the governing rule or principle in a case. Seminary had a similar level of reading, but you’re taking material composed in the past and seeing where it will take you in the future.”

Often he would notice a correlation between his classes. In a constitutional law class at Capital he studied the social reforms instituted by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, and in a class on the social gospel at Trinity he learned that churches had advocated for similar reforms long before Roosevelt’s plan.

“Both degree programs required very careful reading—that very, very careful reading that has you ask ‘Why was this word chosen?’ A helpful skill to have when you’re looking at something like zoning issues and regulations,” he said.

The same year that Nick enrolled at Trinity, he took a full-time position with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio as the Youth Advocacy Coordinator for their Youth Empowerment Program. For two years he worked with youth who were homeless and aging out of the system, helping some of them apply for college loans. The position offered further insight into larger, systemic issues persistent in our communities.

“It definitely gave me a perspective of how non-profits, churches, and government interact,” he said.

“When you’re looking at public policy, you don’t necessarily need a law degree, but if you know how to pen a legal memo to present to a city attorney it helps. At the same time, I feel like I can talk to a congregation or non-profit group and say, ‘Here is why you need these particular documents.’ I can interpret the facts and a social situation and give a temple talk on, say, why Lutheran Social Services needs peanut butter.”

Amid the papers, tests, and transitions between seminary and law school, Nick and his spouse, Katie, had a son in the spring of 2010. The back-and-forth from seminary to law school never stymied Nick. It seemed a natural progression and helped reaffirm his faith.

“Seminary challenged me in a way that helped me understand what I believe,” he said.

“In law school we are asked the question, ‘Why do we punish, what is the purpose?’ The question doesn’t show up on a bar exam, but everyone should be asked: To rehabilitate? To protect society? To restore the community?” he said.

Such questions seeped into Nick’s conversations with law school colleagues who were working in the Public Defender’s office.

“My friends were struggling and it was helpful to offer a deeper, theological answer,” he said. “Yes, sometimes we need to lock someone up, but they are still deserving of our love. How do we love them and how does that impact public policy? How do we balance the community’s needs, the victim’s needs, and the criminal’s needs?”

The intensive job pursuit eventually paid off, and in September Nick landed a position as outreach director with One Ohio Now, a statewide advocacy coalition. His role is to encourage non-profits, churches, community groups and others to come together and advocate for social justice in the state budget this spring.

This spring he also expects to be approved as a diaconal minister with the ELCA.

“Ideally, where I see myself on this path is helping the church engage in the world,” he said. “When one in five babies is born into poverty, how are we going to engage the world? When there are shootings based on people’s beliefs, how are we going to respond? What is the church going to do?”

More than Youth and Families

youth gatheringSarah Ehrman-Thompson interviewed with 30 congregations in 18 states from New York to Alaska, before accepting a call to serve as director of Youth, Family and Outreach Ministry at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

“In youth ministry there is a need to be flexible and move,” she said, noting that many congregations are just beginning to see the need for a full-time, theologically trained director of youth and family programs.

Sarah graduated in 2011 in one of Trinity’s newer degree programs, the Master of Arts in Youth and Family Ministry, and was well aware of the sometimes lean vocational opportunities. Yet her passion prevailed.

“I was really glad I was a newspaper reporter in a small town before this. I wasn’t getting rich doing that, but I learned to be passionate about something,” she said.

Sarah’s conversation is filled with passion for the people of St. Luke and for her role in the community surrounding the congregation. In addition to her work with youth and families in the church, she serves as “spiritual liaison” for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Baltimore, and assists the Delaware-Maryland Synod in the promotion and planning of middle school and high school programs.

“Now that I’m in Baltimore, something happens every day that affirms my presence here,” she said.

Her position as director of Youth, Family and Outreach is new to the people of St. Luke, so the members and Sarah continue to grow into that role and its possibilities for her and the church.

“The way people understand my position is different based on who you talk to,” she said. “The pastor sees my position as providing outreach to youth and families in the community, to help connect them to our congregation. I see it as building bridges.”

This summer, Sarah engaged junior high youth in a “service camp” where the youth offered their time and talents and earned community service hours. She also accompanied several high school youth to the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans in August.

A couple of the youth who attended the gathering had not been attentive to their faith or church activities, but they returned home to become active participants in their newly formed youth group.

“That is not my success. I am just blessed to be a part of the growth and walk that journey with them and have the conversation,” she said.

Sarah is the first to admit that much of the last year has been a learning experience. She moved from the homogenous, predominantly white city of Springfield, Ohio, to the more diverse, urban Baltimore. She has worked with Christians and Jews and Rastafarians; those who are comfortable in church and those who are not.

St. Luke established a three-year plan for this new position Sarah was called to fill. “The plan was to bring in someone who could help generate more participation and activity among the congregation’s young families. At the end of three years, they will decide if they will continue the position,” she said.

 “I have this three-year time period to come in and help build things. If God says it is time to move on then, I want things to be together in such a way that they don’t fall apart. I want to see them stay interested in youth ministry,” she said.

Sarah initially formed a group for middle school youth and one for high school youth. This year, she added a group for elementary school age children, who along with their parents will meet four times during the school year to get a taste for what awaits.

“Part of the job is educating people in the congregation as to why it is important to work with youth,” she said. And she doesn’t have to look far for examples.

During her first year in professional ministry, Sarah encountered a variety of youth ministry issues, including school violence and sexual identity.

“Congregations turn to the youth and family people and ask, ‘How do we navigate this?’ I was so glad I had the background I had; we talked about this in seminary,” she said.

“We have some who have been going to church forever and are asking, is God real or is this something my parents want me to believe…Seminary gave me the ability to just be present with them, and to walk the faith journey with them,” she added.“At the end of the day, people may come to church because you have a really awesome Advent program or because of the choir, but they stay because people take time to care about them.”

Some members of her church’s youth group, along with their parents, serve meals at a local men’s mission. The congregation also is a meeting place for two Narcotics Anonymous groups and five Alcoholics Anonymous groups.

“I called Cheryl Peterson and told her that everyone at the seminary should participate in the Addiction Awareness Group on campus,” said Sarah. She is referring to the seminary group initiated in 2009 with the support of Dr. Peterson, associate professor of systematic theology. Addiction Awareness Group (AAG) meets regularly to learn about addiction’s impact in the life of pastors and congregations.

Sarah taps into all of her seminary training in her new role. She especially appreciates the lessons learned in Person in Ministry and Care of the Souls, and the course on music in the African- American tradition.

“I live in a racially diverse community, and that class proved to be really helpful to me,” she said.

Now that she has met other colleagues working in the field of youth ministry in her area, she is convinced of the value of her Trinity education.

“I have had people ask me what I learned in Person in Ministry or Care of Souls, or how to set up a curriculum. I know how to do that because of my seminary education – those two years really prepared me for what is out here,” she said.

Student Sings Praises of M.A.C.M.

organFew can match Ned Perwo’s enthusiasm for Trinity’s Master of Arts in Church Music program.

At the completion of his third Summer Term last June, he praised the program and gave the seminary credit for his recent call to serve as Director of Music Ministries at a large Methodist congregation in Newark, Delaware.

“To say that my musical and theological training at Trinity put me in the front of the pack is an understatement. Two days after a seven-hour interview process, I was offered and accepted the position at Newark United Methodist Church,” he said.

He now directs a program that includes two children’s choirs, a high school youth chorale, adult choir, three handbell ensembles, a concert series, and four diverse Sunday services. The church also serves as a recital and concert venue for the University of Delaware and the city of Newark.

Like many who end up at seminary, Ned’s vocational path did not lead directly to the church.

“If you asked me 11 years ago what my career goals were, you would have gotten a very different answer…I did what most music majors do upon graduation and applied for a full-time teaching position,” he said.

Equipped with a bachelor’s degree in music education, he taught music fulltime to elementary school students in New Jersey, beginning what he thought would be his vocation to retirement. At the same time, he served as a part-time music director for a Presbyterian congregation.

“Though I liked teaching, I was always disappointed I couldn’t give more to the church,” he said.

That disappointment eventually fueled his decision to quit teaching in 2004 and work fulltime as a music director at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. He followed that call with a position at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manasquan, New Jersey, where he directed children’s, youth, and adult choirs, youth brass, a contemporary worship ensemble, and music for Sunday services. The church’s children’s program also was affiliated with the Royal School of Church Music in America.

As Ned’s planning for the choirs and services progressed, he found himself engaged in wide-ranging liturgy planning. He also attended weekly meetings with the pastors and monthly worship committee meetings.  

“The role required more extensive knowledge of that intersection of hymnody and theology,” he said. As a result, he began to contemplate further education and initiated an Internet search of graduate programs in church music. Many of the programs he discovered in his initial pursuit required full-time enrollment. Then a Google search directed him to Trinity’s summer music program.

Trinity’s music students can complete the M.A. in Church Music program over four summers with additional online courses, or in two years of full-time study on campus. The summer program typically includes several one and three-week intensive classes.

“I already had a music degree, and I wanted something with a good mix of music and theology. I’ve always been really active in the church; I just wanted to go deeper. I wanted that theology piece,” he said.

Ned auditioned at Trinity in February 2010, and enrolled in his first courses that summer. Three summers later, his list of completed courses include a range of music, Bible, and theology courses. In addition, he has had the opportunity to practice on the highly regarded organs in Columbus’ St. Joseph Cathedral and First Congregational Church.

He has enrolled in everything from “Building Parish Music Programs” and “Music in the Contemporary Church” to “Choral Conducting” —the latter course three times. “I always learn something new,” he said.

In addition to the summer courses, he has added online courses through other seminaries, with course credit contributing to his Trinity degree. He hopes to complete all of his requirements and graduate after the 2013 summer session.

“As a church music director you have to be well versed in everything. Even if you don’t do everything, you have to be able to manage and direct other musicians,” he said.

Ned also appreciates the camaraderie and exchange of ideas generated among the students in the summer program. His classmates work in churches from New York to Florida and places in between. “Working in the church can be isolating, so it’s great to share ideas with others in the field,” he said.

When these music and choir directors return home after the summer term at Trinity, they meet again on Facebook and through e-mail, exchanging ideas and offering one another support.

“For classically trained musicians, everything revolves around perfection in performance. With music ministry we strive for excellence, but we never reach perfection. At a certain point you say this is going to be how it is going to be, and you let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. The goal is to make it a worshipful experience,” he said.

Often church musicians have to work other jobs to make ends meet. Ned once had three other jobs in addition to his role as music director.

So why pursue a career in a field that requires long hours and offers few financial benefits?

“The joy that results from being part of something bigger than me and making an impact on all who come into contact with my congregation fuels my passion for church music,” said Ned.

“There is a desperate need in the field for musicians who have a strong theological foundation. A vibrant music ministry program completes the puzzle. Congregations who hold preaching, music, education, and community outreach in high regard find that their churches become a beacon that not only shines the light of Christ into the world, but feeds and nourishes the people within its walls.