Rev. Sarah Osborne, MDiv '22, serves as the Director of Religious Exploration for Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church in Cordova, TN. She shared how her career led to MLTS, why she chose MLTS for her seminary, what she regards as the best experience at the school, and some advice for those who are thinking about entering seminary.
Before, during, and after seminary, I have been a Director of Religious Exploration. I have been serving one congregation for over 13 years now. That’s where I really got the call to seminary and my call to professional ministry. It was really early on in my career as a DRE. It was just a matter of time and finding the right moment to be able to go to seminary. Before I was a DRE, there was a short while when I was a stay-at-home mom, although I was never really at home. I homeschooled my children all the way through and did a lot of volunteer work. Before that, I was a public school teacher. I worked specifically with unique populations of individuals that required special programming. whether it was intellectually gifted or special needs. I did that for a number of years. I also worked my way through college, working in bookstores and the library.
By being a Director of Religious Exploration and being a religious professional, you’re sort of doing the church work, right? It's a different perspective and a different wheelhouse of skills, but there's a lot of overlap into professional ministry as well. I preached my first sermon in 2010 and it was very well received. It was on Mother's Day, and I thought, “Oh, this is really awesome, I could really do this.” At that time, I had young kids at home, and we were homeschooling and I was working part-time at the church. I thought, “Now is not the time to pursue this,” but it was always there. It was like I was biding my time and watching and waiting for the right moment when I could go to school full-time.
I realized that I really just wanted to refine my skills. I saw a seminary as the next level. I felt like I had come so far in my work as a Director of Religious Education, and I wanted to do something more with that. I wanted to expand my wheelhouse and serve in a different way. Those skills were being refined while I worked in church life, but seminary brought an incredibly deep, rich layer to that experience and just kind of kicked it up a huge notch for me professionally and personally.
There were a couple of reasons. The first was I felt like it was incredibly important for me to go to a Unitarian Universalist seminary because the piece that I felt was lacking before I went to seminary was my idea of theology and what is a Unitarian Universalist theology. I felt it was really important to have that be my experience. I also knew that by going to a UU seminary, it would be a little bit easier to go through that ministerial formation process with the Unitarian Universalist Association. I knew that I needed to go through this process as easily as possible. It seemed that by going through a UU seminary, they would kind of guide me through that a little bit easier than if I were on my own at some local seminary. That left me with Starr King and Meadville Lombard. I investigated both programs and I felt that it was going to be geographically easier for me to get to Chicago than California, and I also liked the format.
I started right before the pandemic happened. Going for the intensives for a short period of time and then working from home made the program incredibly doable. They said, “You can do this in three years and be done.” That was also very appealing because I wanted to just get through and see what came next for me. The other piece was that I had gone to Meadville Lombard for a prospective student event. I actually went twice! The first time I went up for the overnighter and weekend, I believe it was 2016 or 2017, and then I went again the following year. I talked with the people up there. I talked with the students. That was really valuable to me. I asked, “How do you make this work practically? Not just the school part, but where do you stay? How do you do this financially? Do you think this is worth it?”
I talked to several of the staff and learned from them, and that was very helpful in knowing that this was the right place for me. My background theologically is very earth-centered—pagan, if you will. Meadville Lombard has a very rigorous academic intellectual reputation, and I wanted to make sure that my heart-centered theology would be embraced and welcomed at Meadville Lombard. And the response that I got from the staff was, “Oh, absolutely.” That has been completely true in my experience. The students have a level of respect and curiosity for one another, and I think that was guided by the professors and the staff of Meadville Lombard as well.
It was the relationships that I developed with people at Meadville Lombard. For my first class, I was put into a cohort group with a person who became a close friend of mine almost instantly. We journeyed through three years of seminary together, taking all of our classes together, having each other to bounce back and forth with what was going on in our hearts and our minds. That was an essential piece to getting through this program. Because most of it is online, there’s not a lot of face-to-face time with one another, and so having those opportunities to build relationships with people who are going through similar things was the part that made the survival happen. That made us thrive and get through it. The part of the program where you’re built-in to have these dialogue groups or cohort groups, that was a really huge piece of it.
I would also say that one of the best things that I did at Meadville Lombard was taking Dr. Mark Hicks’s class, Multiracial Congregations as Faith Formation. That was a class that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was at a church, it was in the field, if you will. It wasn’t on the campus of Meadville Lombard although there were remote online components, too. To actually see the practical application, to be able to ask questions of people doing the work and their experiences of it, and to see it and to experience it, was incredibly powerful. I think every semester having some sort of in-the-field kind of class opportunity would be phenomenal! I’d come back for that, just for the one class.
When I started seminary, I was very clear that I would graduate and pass the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee and go into search and serve in parish ministry. Because of where I live geographically in Memphis, I’m very isolated from a lot of opportunities compared to the Northeast where there are lots of congregations available and lots of opportunities. My whole experience of seminary was “making a way out of no way” to quote Dr. Monica A. Coleman, a womanist process theologian. I had to come up with different things to meet my requirements for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), for my internship, and for all kinds of requirements to get through this program. As a result of doing things differently, it opened my eyes to the fact that ministry is more than parish ministry.
I still live in Memphis; I’m not able to relocate because of my family for a couple of years. We need to stay put, and so that limits my possibilities for parish ministry. There’s nothing available locally. I’ve had to once again become creative and think outside the box with what I’m going to do. I’m pretty open right now to what I can do. Eventually, I would like to go into the parish ministry, but I’m not married to that idea. My CPE was at a summer camp where I served as a chaplain, and it was absolutely phenomenal. These were kids that had no clue about Unitarian Universalism. I was the first religious professional that they had met that shared a message of love and inclusion. Some of these young adults who were the counselors were in tears when we had staff training and I guided them through some justice work in preparation for treating the children with kindness.
I would love to do more work like that—being out in the larger community, sharing a message of what I call grace and love. That’s really the avenue that I see and the goal for what I’m going to do, whether that’s in a parish, in a summer camp, or in a variety of nonprofit opportunities. I’m just keeping my options open. Right now, I am serving at the congregation where I’ve been a DRE for these many years. It’s only part-time, but I’m also doing some work with other local congregations and filling in for ministers and some pulpit supplies and things like that.
I’m really interested in the idea of innovation and change and creativity. I’d like to see how Unitarian Universalism can evolve as a faith of creativity, as a faith where how we are agents in the world is that we inspire people to heal and to reclaim their creative selves, and how that might be an expression of love that can promote justice and healing in the larger world. That’s really the message and the mission that I’m on. I’m continuing to get myself out there in little bits and sort of spread slowly out into the world. I’m also doing a little bit of work for Beloved Conversations as part of their design team for the Un/Learning for Liberation, the white caucus. I have kind of a diversified portfolio of work at the moment!
Meadville Lombard was very instrumental in giving me some words and some framing around the concept of liberation theology and how liberation means we all get free. I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. It was really important for my humility and vulnerability to switch myself into a deeper learning mode and be receptive to voices that are on the margins, especially to BIPOC siblings and folks with disabilities and the LBGTQ community and people working in climate justice, all of these people that are doing the work and living the experiences. As a white, middle-class woman who may not share those experiences, I can develop relationships with people so that I can really understand better. I can use my privilege to center the work that needs to be done to bring healing and wholeness to all of us.
What I realize is that we’re all locked into this system that is not working at all. We’ve long lived in a domination game and played in survivor mode, and now we need to be in creative mode. Now we need to be in something that’s generative. Meadville Lombard set me on that trajectory more than I was aware of. It was a deepening to my level of understanding. I believe that learning is lifelong, so I’ll never be done with that piece of it.
I think that Meadville Lombard is really great on the theoretical. My hope and my wish is that we could get a little bit more practical and acknowledge the real discrepancy that we find in congregations. Because people who go to Meadville Lombard want that learning and they’re getting the learning, and so they’re operating up here at a higher, deeper faith formation development level. Then we return to congregations where maybe that’s not the case for everyone. There’s this disconnect that happens.
I would love to see more work being done to bridge that disconnection. Maybe that’s the job for us as ministers. Maybe the point is for us to go out and to serve people, to help bring them closer and deeper into their own spiritual lives. I think having some practical tools to do that would be a really helpful thing for all the students.
Personally, seminary was transformational. It’s hard work. As I said at graduation, there’s an unraveling process that happens in seminary, so be prepared for that. At the same time, you get woven anew and stronger and better. You go back out into the world better able to not only serve the people, but you become a better version of yourself in the process. It requires a lot of you, not just your time and your finances, but a lot of your heart goes into this. I think proper discernment time is important. If we’re going to be relevant for the future, if we’re going to be a faith that draws people in, we need to be doing something really unique and different, and I think Meadville Lombard supports that idea. As evidenced by being able to pivot during the pandemic and still for all of us to get through, that’s a testament to the strength of the good people at Meadville Lombard.
Sarah is the Director of Religious Exploration for Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church. She is a trained facilitator for Our Whole Lives (OWLs) comprehensive sexuality education program and a Youth Ministry Consultant for the Southern Region of the UUA. Sarah nurtures spirituality at Neshoba by creating and supporting open spaces for learning and wondering for the whole family through lifespan faith development opportunities. She and the family enjoy pursuing their passions in art, dance, karate, gaming, cosplay, travel, programming, and whatever strikes their fancy.