elyse-story1.jpgThroughout my undergraduate experience, I was privileged to have some amazing faculty and staff as mentors. These members of the Wittenberg University community took great interest in my academic work in addition to what I felt I was called to do. They spent countless hours having conversations with me, which would later help in discerning my next steps following graduation.

After graduating in May of 2013, I began my career as an elementary school teacher and taught for four years prior to applying and enrolling at Candler. During my career as a teacher, I learned firsthand the impact of building relationships with students and partnerships with fellow teachers. I experienced the joy of mentoring, providing care, and the bonds formed. I witnessed the emotional, social, and academic growth that occurs from the power of vulnerability and creating safe environments of mutual respect.

Before I even arrived at Candler, some faculty and staff members reached out to me, either by e-mail or by phone, not only to congratulate me on my acceptance, but to extend the offer of drinking coffee and starting the conversation about how my life might unfold during seminary. I felt instantly welcomed into the Candler community months before I would actually begin my journey to Atlanta! As a former teacher, I was comforted by these acts of unprecedented compassion and was hopeful for the relationships I would build with my professors and other staff members.

I came to Candler (as many of us did) with a strong sense of vocation paired with a desire to serve God and the Church. However, that vocation also came with many questions about how I could use my gifts to fulfill my hopes and goals. I have found nothing less than an incredibly supportive environment where faculty and staff are dedicated not only to strengthening your academic performance, but also to challenging you in thinking critically about your call.

Here at Candler, our faculty members wear a variety of hats, often taking on multiple responsibilities. They include but are not limited to: theologians, pastors, teachers, chairs of committees, directors, mentors, partners, counselors, and parents. We might not see these aspects of our faculty at all times, but something unique I’ve discovered is the occurrence when the hat of academia is swapped for the hat of pastoral care.

One chilly fall afternoon in October, I stopped by the office of my Old Testament professor, Dr. Joel LeMon, to ask him a question about the assigned readings, when he asked me if I was okay. Slightly hesitant to share the inner turmoil I was experiencing, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I took a breath (knowing that my facial expressions always tell what’s on my heart) and replied, “Well actually,  no…” and immediately began to cry. At the time, I was faced with a very difficult, unimaginable situation and felt completely distraught and hopeless (to a name a few emotions). Through broken sobs and newfound vulnerability, I explained the problem in a couple of sentences to him. I wasn’t sure how he would react, how I could move forward, or what support I needed in this daunting process. Yet, I continued to weep, attempting words between breaths and sniffles, even though we both knew there were no words to be spoken.

Rather than interjecting or asking specific questions to inquire further, he put on the “pastoral care” hat and sat silently with me for a long time. Even though he knew I was in deep pain and in a situation he could not remedy, he remained fully present with me. Dr. LeMon sat across from me as I cried out in utter anguish. He comforted me as I tried to make sense of the swirling thoughts in my head, followed by more tears. As this cycle of grief continued to scatter from one point to another, he stayed still. At the end of our time together, he prayed a lament. He demonstrated that lamenting was okay because as we’ve learned in Old Testament 502, a lament is indeed a faithful response and one that builds the relationship between us and God. Dr. LeMon provided a safe environment where I felt comfortable to be upset. I knew I was not alone.

Looking back, it was this shared moment where I realized the faculty here aren’t always focused on students’ academic performance, but also invested in their well-being. I not only learned how effective great pastoral care could be, but I gained insight into what it meant to hold sacred space for someone and truly lament, knowing that it was okay to not be okay.

Over the last six months, I’ve observed how Candler’s faculty is truly committed to both church and academia. I’ve been enamored by their passion for teaching and their desires for me to reach beyond what is comfortable and convenient as I gain understanding of what it means to learn and serve in various capacities. Their compassion does not go unnoticed. Despite their extremely busy lives, they take the time to invest in students to help them navigate Candler and their callings. For me, I have been supported in ways I did not expect, allowing me to feel at home and at peace in the process. I look forward to building more relationships with faculty as I make my way through the next two and a half years. Right now, I’m simply grateful to have found professors and staff members who accept and understand me for who I am and who I will become during my time here at Candler and beyond.

Top photo: When LeMon preached last semester, 11 of his students (including Elyse, on the bottom row second from left) dressed as different "versions" of their Old Testament professor.