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Passing the mic

Sunspots, the Synod of the Sun’s podcast, turns an episode over to three women thinking about ‘The Educated Life’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Late last month, Sunspots, a podcast of the Synod of the Sun, turned the mic over to three women to talk about their identity as honest and authentic children of God through the lens of Christian education. Listen to their 55-minute conversation here.

The Rev. Elizabeth Brinegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Arkansas, as well as the chair of the synod’s network for dismantling racism and the operations director for the synod’s ecumenical mission, Solar Under the Sun, hosted the podcast. Her guests were Sarah Leer, a practical theologian and a former Young Adult Volunteer in New Orleans who’s serving First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, and Natarsha Sanders, who founded Centering the Sacred with her husband, Lorenzo, and is passionate about inclusion. Both Sanders and Leer are doctoral students in educational ministry in the same cohort at Columbia Theological Seminary.

Sarah Leer

“A lot of churches are looking at faith formation. Natarsha and I are both passionate about children having agency and voice,” Leer said. “Faith formation doesn’t have to happen inside that classroom with Noah’s ark on the wall.” Within the cohort, which is supervised by Columbia Seminary faculty members Dr. Kathy L. Dawson and Dr. Christine J. Hong, “we bring our whole selves. We talk about being co-learners and about elevating what that means from your social location.”

“The cohort is the way it is because this is the way we made it to be,” Sanders said. “Everyone in the cohort would say they have other things going on in their lives.” One pastors a Madagascar church with thousands of members. Another is planting a number of churches, while others are busy counselors. “We are not people who are saying, ‘What should we do next? Let’s get a degree!’”

“One thing I am intentional about is bringing my whole self,” Sanders said. “I don’t know how to leave anything that involves me at the door. The invitation to bring all we are to the learning helps shape the experience. We are able to unpack our experience among people who are ready for that in a space that is brave and needs the life experiences we are living in order to form the research.”

Sanders calls the curricula the cohort is developing “a very intense and intentional process. The learning and unlearning of the things we brought in, to see that crumble has been good — and to have a safe place for the crumbling to take place.”

“I applied for this program because I need a cohort. I need people to hold me accountable,” Leer said. “This is a part-time doctoral degree for people doing full-time ministry, parenting, preaching and teaching … It’s an interesting intersection of people that’s hard to put in a box.”

Brinegar asked the two how the work they’re doing might impact the world around them.

“When I made an oath as an educator to do no harm and to advocate for those who needed an advocate, I made that oath in front of people and I made a vow before God,” Sanders said. “It’s not worth me going back on my vow to please a human being.”

Natarsha Sanders

Sanders said she had an offline conversation with Leer about “white women tears and how they have been violent to my existence. I could only have that conversation because she was ready and because our relationship could hold it. I have learned to enter into only honest relationships.”

“You get in a program like this with women and men of color from around the world and the body of Christ transformed for me through this experience,” Leer said. “Natarsha is the voice in my head so often about being accountable to what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Early on in the class, Dr. Hong talked about being a good ancestor …  and reducing the harm we are doing every day. Knowing we are complicit in systems of sin, how do we reduce the harm?”

“How do we become more like Christ?” Sanders asked. “That is the question we should ask ourselves every day, giving the Holy Spirit room to answer that question without [our] being combative.”

Late last year, Sanders spoke at the Shaping Our Story Conference for the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conferences Association and Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association. As Leer tells the story, at one point Sanders asked the facility’s housekeeping staff to come forward “to recognize the folks who were making the conference happen. It was an example of bringing dignity to people. We didn’t get clean sheets magically. They are living, breathing people who do the work. The more we who have power and privilege can pass the mic and move off the stage, the better off this denomination and the country and the work we do will be.”

“If I had done the keynote, I never would have thought to do that,” Leer added. “Natarsha made that happen. That’s being Christlike.”

“They were humanized in that moment. The people doing that work are seen as an extension of the facility,” Sanders said. “Part of my thing is that right beside honesty is humanity.”

Leer confessed to having a “love-hate relationship” with the word “inclusion.”

“It may be semantics, but ‘inclusion’ is about a community saying, ‘We are happy to include you.’ I believe belonging is more,” Leer said. “Belonging” says that “Our community is going to bend and change because of the gifts that you bring … I hope we are bringing people to a space of belonging and that our communities are flexible and nimble enough to say, ‘We are not going back to the practices of before [the pandemics of COVID-19 and racial reckoning].’”

The doctoral program they’ve undertaken “is very robust,” Sanders said. “It doesn’t allow you to sit behind a desk or find your answers in a book. You’ve got to have skin in the game. It is shaping me in a way I didn’t know I needed shaping. I thought I was already a lifelong educator. I thought I was already doing the things that Jesus called me to do.”

The Rev. Elizabeth Brinegar

Four years ago, during the first few weeks of the cohort, Dawson and Hong asked their students to write up their life story on poster board. Leer included “the things that have happened to me and the things I have achieved.”

The professors recently returned the storyboards to cohort members.

“I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’” Leer said with a laugh. “It has not been simple. People have lost jobs and suffered other losses. Some people have new jobs. Not one person has stayed the same over four years.” These days, the cohort “is a more vulnerable, emotional, human and accountable space. Isn’t that what we do in ministry? We walk with people with deep honesty.”

“I have loved every second of this,” Brinegar said to conclude the podcast. “I look forward to our next time together.”

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