Thursday, April 25, 2013

When is Matt Going to Use His Seminary Degree?


I moved to California in 2007 to attend Fuller Theological Seminary.  I had spent the seven years prior trying on different ways of being a minister, searching for one that didn't feel like a sentence to a slow death.

During and after my BA in Biblical Studies and Philosophy, I had been a youth minister, a missionary and a hospital chaplain.  I was ready to bring my questions to a community known for new models, new ideas and new ways forward between the rock of the Christian tradition and the hard place of human culture and experience.  I was ready to explore the length and breadth of what it could mean to be faithful to a call to ministry because none of the ways I had tried had fully fit.

I went with the blessing and support of my family, my grandmother and the Church that ordained me to the gospel ministry.  I went with the expectations of dozens of teachers, ministers, colleagues and friends who saw in me potential, gifts and ability as a minister in the ways that they understood that role. I expected to hold my nose and tolerate Southern California. I never expected it to feel like coming home.

I finished my MDiv in 2011, exactly four years after I moved to California. It's now 2013 and I'm still here.  People are beginning to wonder why.  They are too polite to ask me, so my wife has to try to answer for me when they say "So... When is Matt going to USE his seminary degree?"

During my MDiv I studied with teachers and students from Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Malaysia, Philadelphia, PA and Little Rock, AR.  I came to deeper, more satisfying ways of understanding how culture, religion, scripture and the human mind interact. I came to see how God plays, composes and breathes among them all.

A Call From a Broken Community

For the first time since adolescence, I let myself look unshrinkingly at how broken the community that shaped my faith and my call to ministry had been. I began the painful process of questioning my own call and identity as a minister.  With help from dear friends, my pastors and my wife I emerged on the other side with a new confidence in my identity as one loved and called by God to faithfulness. But I came to realize that I had understood that call in far too narrow a way.  No matter what ministry I did, no matter how innovative or demanding, I heard in my mind a voice condemning me for running away from my “call” to be a pastor of the sort I had known at the small country church where I had grown up.  It was a searing, freeing sort of pain to realize that this wasn't the voice of God but of my old pastor, living on in a mental chorus of condemnation that I was conducting. Because that little church had been the context where I had become aware of God's call, I had mistakenly taken it as the boundary of that call.

Never Just one Thing

A wise teacher of mine once told me, “God doesn't call us to do one thing.  God calls us to faithfulness.” Those words have sustained me through many different things I have done and continue to do in my life of service to God.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of my MDiv was that faithfulness involves taking seriously the particular gifts, skills and opportunities God has given me.  Repeatedly in scripture, God calls particular people with particular histories and personalities and then makes use of them in ways that emphasize their particularity.

All my life I had imagined that one day I would have to cut off all the strands of myself that didn't fit within that narrow band of what ministry might look like, but I couldn't bear the thought of it so I leapt from one model of ministry to another, looking for a way to be both faithful and whole.

But what if God knew who he was calling? What if faithfulness didn't mean cutting off or stifling my love for science, technology, music, art, poetry and philosophy, but instead embracing them and the opportunities and joy they bring to me and others?  Suddenly a new way of being faithful to God AND to myself began to crack open.  At first I could only see a blurry image of what that kind of life might look like but it has grown clearer and clearer since.

A Gutenberg Moment

During my time at Fuller I developed my skills with the web which had begun when I was a chaplain.  Before long I was being paid by Fuller to work on web projects.  I moved through projects and positions until the last one was paying our rent and allowing my family to stay in Pasadena where we have a healthy church we love and a school where my oldest daughter is thriving.

Also toward the end of my degree I began thinking about ways I could share the transformative experience of studying scripture with people with very different experiences and history from one another. I started working on an experiment in social reading called in 2012.  Around this same time, Fuller began focusing its energy on expanding our online course offerings and new models of education and course delivery.  It became clear that my work on and the goals of the school were beginning to overlap.  Last June I accepted a new position as Online User Experience Strategist focusing on building the online structures to facilitate formative encounter between students, faculty and the entire seminary community.

Forty years after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the reformation happened along with the complete social and political upheaval of Europe.  We are twenty years into the Internet and I don't believe we fully understand the extent to which this will change us.  The church survived and thrived in that era because individuals and communities were exploring how this new information technology could be used well and in ways faithful to the Christian tradition.  I see my work today very much along the same lines. is on the verge of private beta launch (you can sign up now to keep up with the latest).  I'm working on a project for Fuller that is a pioneering new effort in connecting students with the life of the seminary online.  What we are learning has implications beyond the simple survival of theological Higher Education.  We are experimenting with the new tools the Church and the rest of humanity will use to encounter, hear and hopefully be changed by one another. We are helping shape the future of human discourse and cultural exchange.

This is not the kind of life I could have imagined as faithful to a call before my degree at Fuller.  My MDiv expanded the horizons of the possible so that I could see this work for the service to the church and humanity that it is.  My education enables me to think critically, anthropologicaly and theologically about the rapid transformations our species and the church are undergoing.

The Answer

I teach an adult bible study class every week at my church, Altadena Baptist.  I preach, teach and speak whenever I can both there and other places.  I welcome other artists, musicians and creatives who are struggling between the same rock and hard place of identity that I passed through.  I play music with worship bands, release albums of experimental electronic music online and occasionally perform it or lend it to filmmakers to tell stories with.  I paint and draw in church as a part of worship or on my own as therapy and catharsis. And I eat lunch almost every day with my wife and youngest daughter in the warm California sun and the cool breeze.

I have found a place of faithfulness where every part of me is vibrant and alive, humming with the creative energy of the God who created the universe and the unquenchable life of the Son who came to embrace it through death into resurrection.

But when you decide to go off the existing paths in a new direction, you have to expect that people will ask where you are headed and that you will have to offer some word of explanation if they are going to understand, let alone follow you.  

Still, the misunderstanding of those who ask the question stings the wounds I carry and rouses the chorus of voices for whom my faithfulness will never be enough --that is until it conforms to familiar patterns.

But I do have an answer:  My degree created a context for a new vision of where the church and the world's need and my gifts, personality and opportunities intersect. My degree got me
where I am and I'm finding new ways it informs my work every day.  

I hope you will join me in my gratitude to God who revels in fresh possibilities and loves to set them free and see them thrive.


  1. Well said Matt. Reading your story brought new clarity and possible insight to my own internal struggle with post-seminary guilt. I had such a similar experience when I left Biblical Studies to pursue Marriage and Family Therapy. I think you gave me a new area to dig into, especially with the idea that the context of the call is not the same as the boundary of the call.

    Thank you

  2. I think many people will see their own journey in your story, especially because of how rapidly things seem to have changed in thirty years. My mom once told my sister "I think Lauren would have become a pastor if she hadn't married one." And I found it profoundly strange since I never had any intention of becoming a pastor, even though I've always had a strong desire to understand God's work and be a part of it. Being a stay at home mom is the environment in which I'm attempting to live out my call right now, which has certainly been met with a mixed bag of comments from teachers, friends, and relatives. At least I don't have an MDiv to account for! (lol) Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it.

  3. Matt Lumpkin. Thank you so much for sharing this. I can't deny the Kingdom pulse that is humming through so many of us at once—especially when I read in your words exactly what has been welling up within Bryan and me these past few years.

  4. Thank you for your post Matt. As usual, you have offered a well thought out perspective that touches us in ways beyond what I think you realize. I think that you have answered the question, not only for yourself, or for those who have pursued Biblical studies, but also for us plain old creatives, who went to college, got our degrees, and have taken our gifts down an untraditional path that many don`t understand, and question, every day. The pangs of guilt, and self-doubt belong to all of us, who have taken what some would call, the untraditional path. To coin a phrase, "I FEEL where you`re coming from." Thank you Matt.

  5. A big thanks to all of you who wrote. It will come perhaps to you as no surprise but to me a great surprise at how much this piece resonated with a great many people I know and many whom you shared it with. It has been by far the single most widely read and shared thing I have ever posted online.

    My only regret is that I didn't express in what high esteem I hold my friends who have found a home in vocational ministry. Their work is vital and they are enacting their faithfulness in ways that as crucial for the future of the church as where I am hoping to make my contribution. Nor am I closed to future faithfulness taking more traditional forms. I have simply found a different path forward through the doors open to me at present.

    Thank you all for listening and hearing enough truth of the human experience of discovery of the grand complexity of who God has created us to be to find in my experience something common to yours.


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