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Day 40: Honor Ambiguous, Celebration Real

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

A day of celebration, as the daughter of my closest friend successfully defended her dissertation for the PsyD degree at a local state university. My role was outside-reader in a process that I recognized, but also one that is foreign to me given the disciplinary location and state university context. I claim my own expertise that landed me here—clinical pastoral education, women’s studies and women’s struggles with body-image, my own PhD in Practical Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. While I felt blessed and delighted to contribute to this young woman’s process, I also lament participation in processes that I no longer value, seeing the dynamics play out, without what I now know authentic dialogue can be. Dissertation defenses are rarely authentic discourse, in my experience of them, but does that completely discredit them? I don’t know…

I once valued this process enough to go through it. I landed at Princeton Seminary in 1993, matriculated (ironically) into the Masters of Divinity degree program, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses tinted with “everyone loves Jesus” naivete. One thing led to another, and three years later, I became one of two doctoral students of the spiritually esteemed but intensely lonely James E. Loder. He was a dear man and mentor I think of thankfully every time I pray the rosary’s Glorious Mysteries, specifically the Descent of the Holy Spirit mystery. I was his final graduate, May 2001, before he died of an aneurysm on November 9th that year. He was so charismatic and politically untouchable at Princeton that I was never quite sure whether my work was any good, or whether he simply pushed it through. I’ve had to relinquish the inevitable imposter’s syndrome we all pick up, it seems, going through this formation of dissertation and defense.

At some level, I knew my defense would be successful because I stacked the room to make it so. I knew the academic insecurity in my professors about being theorists amongst church practitioners, so I invited every nationally-renown Christian educator in Princeton to my defense. Several APCE “Educators of the Year” were present, as well as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. I also coordinated the scheduling of my defense, knowing the end of the lunch hour would drive its timely closure. I’m a practical theologian in the truest sense, in other words. My contextual and emotional wisdom created the highest probability of success.

Success! Celebration. My continuing education colleagues had a reception prepared for me. In a bookend gesture, the President of the Seminary even brought me a bottle of really good Scotch the next morning. I was officially inducted into the old boys’ club of the Community of Scholars, an ironic name, to be sure.

How does a poet at heart breathe here, amongst discourse that dissociates community? I am asking this question more and more these days. But today…

Doing her part for another woman, balancing and defending. And now celebrating!

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Tenneson Woolf
Tenneson Woolf
May 27, 2022

"How does a poet at heart breathe here, amongst discourse that dissociates community?" Thank you for this Lisa. It is a question that has been framing much for me recently.


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