BSC logo

Religious Leadership

Although by no means the road most traveled, over the years, the English department has supplied a steady stream of graduates to divinity schools. Grappling with literature's questions about the human condition trains students for the kind of textual analysis and social service that are the foundation of religious leadership. At present we have no fewer than six graduates studying theology and ministry across the country.

Miriam SmithMiriam Smith, Class of 2009
Associate Pastor
Alabaster First United Methodist Church

Birmingham-Southern College taught me how to think. Being an English major was only a part of my experience at BSC, but all of my work for Leadership Studies, the Honors Program, and the Service-Learning department was enhanced by what I learned in my English classes. Renaissance poetry may not appear to have much in common with Shakers, online communities, or the people I got to know in West End, but my understanding of each was enhanced by what I knew of the others. Before I presented my final paper for my senior seminar at BSC, I had to travel to North Carolina to attend orientation for my graduate school program. I had applied, and was accepted, to Duke's Divinity School, where I earned a Master's of Divinity in 2012. Majoring in English and learning to think at BSC prepared me for the rigors of my graduate program, and ultimately for my vocation in the United Methodist Church, in ways I did not expect. Though I had to learn a new vocabulary in divinity school, I was well equipped to read and process and communicate my thoughts on the level Duke expected from their students. I was prepared to critically assess the texts assigned as well as the systems where they originated. BSC taught me how to read and interpret context just as well as any content that was assigned. Currently, I serve as a pastor in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and rely on my critical reading and writing skills daily.

Sara Doughton"Thanks to my undergraduate English major I have long been aware of the power of stories to make ideas, and lives, more intelligible. Now, I continue to use narrative as a tool to help others understand themselves and their place in the world."

Sara Doughton, Class of 2004
Yale Divinity School

As a college sophomore I became an English major almost without thinking about it - I loved reading novels and poetry, and talking about those readings with interested and interesting professors and classmates. And I thought an English major would help me develop my reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in preparation for law school. Instead of studying the LSAT, though, I found myself drawn to literary study as a way of asking questions about meaning-making - the commitments revealed or betrayed by fictional characters, the language that poets use to talk about the particularities and mysteries of human existence, and how societies discern, create, and enforce cultural discourses (and what happens when people and communities try to challenge them).

Following graduation, thanks to Rotary International I had an opportunity to study at the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College, Dublin), receiving an MPhil in Ecumenical Studies. I set off for Ireland with only an Intro to Christianity and Parables of Jesus course for preparation, yet soon found that my English training had well prepared me to consider questions like - how do we think about the lenses that people of faith bring to their sacred "texts" (scripture, tradition, etc.), and how do we navigate the different interpretations that emerge in a life-giving and justice-making way?  My final project dealt with fundamentalism as a response to modern and post-modern commitments in the ecumenical movement, grounded in the story of an Alabama journalist who sets out to interview members of a Holiness (snake-handling) church and finds that, in discovering their stories, he is also discovering his own.

My fascination with how people discover more about their commitments, joys, challenges, and meaning-making practices or sources eventually led me to graduate school, specifically Yale Divinity School and the MDiv program. In addition to coursework, students participate in a number of internship or work programs, and there I've found that the power of words - and the need to be conscious of this power - serves as a constant. In my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program--basically chaplaincy boot-camp--I found that the oncology patients I visited were often just as interested in walking me through their early childhood, familial relationships, adolescent exploits and coming-of-age tales as they were in talking about their illness and fears - although often these conversations became one and the same. Likewise, at the middle school where I help oversee the spiritual development program, students explore their social, emotional, and spiritual capacities and inclinations through personal narrative and stories of official and everyday saints who they look to as examples of human flourishing, even in the face of challenges and fallibility.

In many ways, I feel as if I am coming full circle as I move into my last year at YDS. As wonderful as traditional divinity school classes are, I especially love my religion and literature courses - Reading Poetry Theologically, Religious Themes in Contemporary Short Fiction - or the classes that make room for exploration of literature and theological inquiry. This summer I had a paper published on narrative therapy and pastoral care as a way of honoring the "sacred texts" of peoples' lives; I just finished a paper on Biblical allusions in Flannery O'Connor's "A Circle in the Fire," and am thinking about an essay on poetry, imagination, and moral formation for a moral theology class. I'm not sure what comes next - probably something in education, whether K-12, higher ed, or public religious education (like public theology - what I imagine Bread for the World as doing) - but I'm sure it will include thinking about the stories we tell, and the language we use about ourselves, the world, and whatever ultimate commitments we hold.