"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." Isaiah 43:19.My name is Ashley Wilcox, and I am a Quaker minister, a lawyer, a writer, and a beloved child of God. I am a gospel minister in the prophetic, Friends tradition; my message is, “Turn toward God, in whatever language you use for God.” For the past few years, I have carried a concern for supporting ministers in the Religious Society of Friends. I am now feeling called to seminary, which I believe will give me some of the tools I need to support those ministers.
Friends believe that all are ministers and God can speak through anyone. We also believe that some are called to sustained, public ministry. I first felt that call to ministry in the spring of 2008, at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. The purpose of the women’s conference is to bring evangelical and liberal Friends together to try to discover the best of our tradition through the use of narrative theology―telling the story of how God is at work in our lives. Over the four days of the conference, I felt like God was holding up parts of my life that I had been unwilling to face, and asking me to deal with them. I felt broken open and very tender.
By the end of the weekend, I had agreed to be co-clerk of the planning committee for the next conference. I was exhausted and ready to go home when we entered into our final open worship. Then, out of the silence, God spoke to me. God said, “It’s not always going to be this easy.”
I said, “What?” Of all the words I could think of to describe my experience at the conference, “easy” was not one of them.
God responded, “Yes, this is the easy part. It is going to be a lot harder after this. But I will be there too.”*
At the time, I felt shattered and overwhelmed. But those words and the deep sense of calling I felt have gotten me through some very difficult times, and I am grateful for the sense I have of God’s presence with me.
Within a few months of the women’s conference I began to do traveling ministry. I traveled to Friends meetings and churches to worship with them and share about the women’s conference. I was not raised in the Religious Society of Friends―I became a “convinced Friend” while I was in law school―but I found that my childhood in the evangelical church was a great benefit in my ministry. As a child, I had grieved that I could not speak in tongues like my classmates in our charismatic Sunday school, but I suddenly found that I could: even though I was a member of a liberal, unprogrammed Friends meeting, I knew the songs and language in the evangelical, programmed Friends churches. I could act as a bridge between the two, and feel like I was part of both.
Since graduating from law school, I have worked as a judicial clerk for two state courts of appeals, in Washington and Oregon. I spend most of my time as a clerk researching and writing judicial opinions. I have enjoyed many things about clerking: it is good work and my colleagues are wonderful. I have had opportunities to improve my writing, editing, and research skills. One of the best things about working at the courts has been the 40-hour workweek, which is very rare in the legal profession!
While working for the courts, I have been able to do traveling ministry, participate in the School of the Spirit Ministry’s program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, organize retreats and conferences, serve on committees, give talks, write articles, and serve as clerk of my meeting, Freedom Friends Church. I am grateful for the flexibility and support I have received from my bosses and coworkers over the past several years. Now, however, I feel that God is calling me to transition away from full-time legal work.
Applying to seminary right now feels a little like stepping off the boat. As I said, I feel called to support ministers in the Religious Society of Friends, but that is not a job that currently exists. There are a number of things happening right now though that give me the sense that there are big changes coming for Friends and Christianity as a whole, and I want to be in the best position I can be to nurture these changes.
First, a large number of women across denominations are being called into ministry. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the church in general, but Friends have had women ministers for over 350 years, and I believe that Friends offer a unique perspective on women in ministry. Second, an unprecedented number of Friends are being called to seminary. It is not clear yet why God is calling so many to formal theological education―there currently are not enough positions for them―but I believe that there is a reason that Friends (and young Friends in particular) are being equipped for ministry in this way. Third, there is a generational shift beginning in the Religious Society of Friends. Until recently, the leadership was mostly comprised of people who came of age during the social activism of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Many of them were drawn to Friends because of the social causes Friends supported. The rising generation of leaders may also be involved in social justice issues but, at its core, this generation is calling Friends to faithfulness. Young Friends are seeking renewal, asking all of us to listen deeply to what the Spirit is calling us to do, individually and as a community.
A degree is not necessary to be a minister among Friends. On the contrary, if all goes according to plan, I will most likely have finished the recording process (the Quaker version of ordination) and be a recorded (ordained) minister before starting seminary. However, I believe that a Master of Divinity will give me useful tools for sustained public ministry. I tend to give ministry everything I have, and I hope that seminary will help me develop better boundaries and self-care in doing ministry. I am also interested in learning systematic theology, to give me perspective on the biases I unconsciously bring to texts and ministry. I know that I have much to learn from the faculty and from my peers in the context of seminary, and I am eager to make connections with others who are called to ministry.
I am applying to Candler School of Theology because it seems like the best place for me to hone my skills in leadership and ministry. I am impressed by how Candler explicitly supports denominational leadership, which is something that I would like to bring back to the Religious Society of Friends. I look forward to the opportunity to spend two years doing contextual education, and I am particularly interested in the possibility of serving in a women’s prison during my first year of seminary. I am also drawn to Candler because of its programs to support women in ministry; I am interested in exploring the certificate in Women, Theology, and Ministry. It is clear that Candler is a place where people not only study theology, but worship together, practice their faith, and put that faith into action in the world. I want to be a part of that kind of community.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
* I shared this story in the message I gave at the 2012 Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference, which was published in the July/August 2012 issue of Western Friend as Inviting Grace: Letters and Lessons from the Apostle Paul.