By B.D. McClay
Continuing with our profiles of alumni-one-year-out, here’s Joseph Wood, who believes in God.
Joseph Wood! You and I have one big thing in common: we both entered with the class of 2011, dropped out, and then came back to the College. Also, we are both Episcopalians!
Huzzah! It’s an honor and a privilege to been in such distinguished company—even if it’s still a little surreal that we’ve graduated.
So what drew you to St. John’s? Especially the second time?
My experience with the college was really a love affair. In eighth grade, a teacher noticed just how much of a stereotypical bookworm I was, and she recommended I take a look at St. John’s. It was love at first sight. (You mean, I not only get to read all these books, but I get to talk about them with people!) It just seemed like a perfect fit, and I never really looked at another college after that first flush. The only problem being that I placed all the emphasis on becoming a Johnnie, and I never really gave thought to what that actually entailed. I got to the school and, within the first few months, was completely overwhelmed.
Fortunately, my tutors took notice and kicked me out at the end of our freshman year. Well, I say fortunately now, but at the time it was an incredibly difficult experience, the worst of all possible break ups. I had spent all of this energy trying to make this identity real, only to apparently be unable to hack it. The situation, however, forced me to really take a step back and examine my options. What did I want from life? And even more: was St. John’s the right way to get it?
After a good deal of thought and more than a little angst, I realized that all of the enthusiasm I had for the school was still there, I just need to be more ready to meet the college halfway. I realized that I couldn’t passively be a Johnnie. In so much of my schooling beforehand, I had been smart enough to just show up and excel, but that pattern certainly hadn’t held out at St. John’s. I needed to be willing to really put in the work, willing to really wrestle with all of it, if I wanted to engage with the works and their questions in the way the college offers. In fact, that expectation of struggle is now one of my favorite things about the college, and I even wonder if we should emphasize it more.
Now you’re in seminary. When did you know you wanted to go to seminary? What drew you there?
Haha. Speaking of being forced to struggle! While I had inklings of wanting to be a priest before college, it was really Sophomore Year and all of its Judeo-Christian goodness that forced the question for me. I had such strong emotional responses to some of the works, especially the biblical texts and Dante, that I finally admitted to myself that I had to do something about it.
I couldn’t just leave all of this faith talk at the seminar talk—I needed to figure out how it fit into my life as a whole. Since then, I’ve been discerning, both inside and outside the classroom. As of right now, the question of my faith seems to call me to ordained ministry. I mean, could there be a better way of continuing the conversation? Of getting the chance to share my insights and have the privilege of hearing other peoples’?
Has adjusting to seminary been difficult?
It definitely has. Nothing makes you appreciate the uniqueness of St. John’s like going back to “normal” school. This whole picking classes, figuring out a schedule, being taught through lectures, and worrying about grades and tests—it all feels very foreign now.
What’s an average day in seminary like? What do you love about it? What do you find difficult in ways you didn’t expect?
An average day in seminary looks like:
All of which is punctuated by on-campus work and/or homework. It’s a little disconcerting at first how little time is spent in-class in grad school.
It actually reminds me a lot of life at St. John’s, just with slightly more God. You’re still working to make sense of the big questions in class and as a community at large. The really challenging thing is that it comes with a lot more practical application than we like to discuss at St. John’s—or that people might think when they imagine seminary. Classes like “Biblical Hebrew” aren’t just so we can engage with the texts more deeply, not just so we can nurture our own souls. They are preparing us to use whatever grasp of Truth we might gain in our future ministries.
The shift is even more apparent when you talking about classes with names like “The Theory and Practice of Ministry.” This new perspective is a challenge because it means there’s a demand for more tangible results from your struggle with the material, because the seminary is responsible both for you and for whatever your future flock might be. We need to prepare (and be prepared) with an eye towards the fact that we will be seen as authorities on this stuff in the not-too-distant future.
It’s a prospect that’s both daunting and exhilarating. I love that we’re not just engaging in this work in the abstract, in a bubble removed from the rest of the world. We’re choosing to commit ourselves to apply whatever insights we gain during our time here both actively and publicly.
While it might not always be apparent, there’s always a real end behind what we’re doing and being taught. It’s thrilling that I’ll be working at this for the rest of my life, but it’s also very humbling. All of the learning that I do is for me not just personally but as a leader. Perhaps we at the college could learn a thing or two. . . .
You’ve done some internships, too, right? What kind of work did you do there?
I have, mainly focused around church work and discerning how I want to be involved in it. After my junior year, I worked with the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations out in Berkeley, California, doing interfaith LGBTQ outreach. The summer after my senior year, I received a Hodson grant to work directly with an Episcopal Church to learn the business side of things, and then I spent a year working with the Episcopal Service Corps in Baltimore. (I worked directly for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, helping to oversee a community center and run a young adult ministry for 20 to 30-somethings: Spiritually Thirsty.)
I don’t think I can overemphasize the value of real world experience when it comes to this whole being a St. John’s graduate situation—it kind of sneaks up on you.
What would be your ideal situation once you’ve finished seminary?
While I want to do parish work immediately after I finish up here, I would love to eventually go into academics. The intersections of love, sexuality, and gender fascinate me, especially what they mean in a faith context and for the future of the Church.
What steps would you recommend a current student (or a recent graduate) interested in entering seminary take? Are there any things you wish you had done?
Stay as connected as possible with your church and try out as many different ways of being involved as possible. Remember when I said graduation kind of sneaks up on you? That’s doubly true when you’re trying to balance the two worlds of school and your faith community. I think I could have done a better job of integrating the two.
That being said, if you’re open and honest about the process, your fellow students and the rest of the community at St. John’s can be an incredible resource in regards to opportunities and charting your discernment. So, I suppose, be aware of what balance is best for you personally in terms of being invested in both church and the college, and remember that they’re both towards the same end.
How do you understand the idea of “vocation,” as opposed to “career”? Has there been anything—whether in your studies or in your life—that’s clarified or deepened that word or distinction for you?
(Re-reading this interview, this question comes off a little abrupt, but I often think of “vocation” as a religious concept, since it brings in the question of being-called to something, which is why I asked this question in this context.)
The unexamined career is not worth living?
But really, I think that’s the legacy of a St. John’s education: the understanding that it’s not so much about what we do with our degrees as much as that we do it intentionally. We’re trained for four (or more) years to think critically and be constantly asking questions, and we then take that mindset out into the world with us. Whether or not we choose to continue to wrestle with the “big questions”—like we can help it!—we still have to make sense of where we are and what we’re doing in the same way. I just feel blessed that where I’m called to is a career that is so open about that continued struggle and growth that we name it. Discernment is what we’re taught to do at St. John’s.
Not to paint an overly rosy picture, since it’s not as if we alumni immediately stumble upon the career that best allows us to live that out. But I think that even in that search, we bring a certain vocational way of doing things to most jobs. At least, that’s what I would hope for my fellow (and our future) alumni.
Finally: Joseph Wood, what did you get out of your liberal education?
I’ve been trying to figure that out for myself as we get a little bit farther away from the experience of being students at St. John’s. It’s especially important since I keep meeting people who are very curious to hear about the college and this whole “New Program” business. I tell them all the wonderful things about how the school taught me to think for myself, to learn from everyone, and exposed me to so many more ways of seeing and understanding than I can imagine—all of which is entirely true. I am who I am today because I went to St. John’s College, because I’m a Johnnie.
However, there’s a part of that story that I don’t generally mention. While I think that it’s okay to get overwhelmed by the Program, maybe even a necessary experience, I think we sometimes allow ourselves to fall into a kind of idolatry when it comes to our favorite author or what it means to be a Johnnie or even our relationship to the world at large. I certainly did/do at times, and perhaps it’s a danger we all face when we become especially passionate about something. But St. John’s, like any other college, is about getting on with it, about taking that intentionality we gain and translating it into the rest of life.
So I suppose my liberal education taught me the value and necessity of constantly learning. I still surprise myself by finding new ways of applying what I gleaned from my time at St. John’s, and I don’t expect that will ever stop. (It’s that “certain vocational way of doing things” from the last question.) It’s something I’m very grateful for, and I pray that I’m able to do said discernment as humbly and joyously as possible. In short, to shamelessly steal from Rilke, I look forward to continuing to live the questions.
Joseph Wood is a first-year student at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia (he hails originally from the San Francisco Bay area). He hopes to eventually become a priest so that he can continue to ask silly questions and be ridiculous in a more Godly way.
Note: In the Episcopal Church, seminary usually consists of a three-year program to earn a Masters of Divinity.