Meagan Henry is a current MDiv student, finishing up her studies to graduate in May 2023. We asked why she chose Meadville Lombard as her seminary, her experience at MLTS, and her ministerial formation journey including her Leadership Initiative project that took her to Jordan.
I live in New York City, so I have some seminary options that are in-person and local. I did look at some of the local seminaries. But honestly, going into that process, I had a feeling that I wanted to go to Meadville Lombard already. Part of that is because it felt very full circle for me. I grew up going to the Meadville Pennsylvania Unitarian church, which is where the Meadville part of Meadville Lombard originated. So, I already felt kind of an affinity toward MLTS, not just because of the name, but also because I grew up Unitarian Universalist. Meadville Lombard is much more of a UU-friendly and UU-centered seminary. I was looking for that, as someone who grew up Unitarian Universalist.
That might sound counterintuitive because someone steeped in UUism from birth might want to get a seminary education from a different kind of seminary to get a more well-rounded experience. I thought about that! However, I did go to undergraduate school and got my Bachelor’s in religious studies. I then went on and got my Master’s in religious studies in a very academic-oriented public school that was focused on the study of religion, not theology or spirituality, but the study of religion from different lenses. Psychological, anthropological, all these different lenses. In addition, as a high school student, I spent two and a half years attending a Southern Baptist boarding school where I was introduced to Southern Baptist Christianity.
In my background, I had some exposure to religion outside of UUism. And when I got my Master’s, I really studied a lot about different religions — Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism specifically. It felt to me like I had enough well-rounded understanding of some of the other religions that I wanted my theological grounding to be in a Unitarian Universalist context, which is a big reason why I chose Meadville Lombard. The other big reason is that I was going to be continuing working and it wasn't financially feasible for me to go to seminary full-time for three years or even two years, or however long the seminary might be, and then take a year off and work for a low-paid or unpaid internship in a congregation. I had been serving as a professional lifespan religious educator in UU congregations for 25 years. I knew that I wanted to be in parish ministry, but I also knew that I couldn't afford to give up my income for a year in order to be an intern. So, the piece that really attracted me to the Meadville Lombard program was the fact that I could do my internship part-time for two years while continuing to be in school at MLTS.
I came into seminary knowing that I wanted to serve in a parish context in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and I want to stay involved in family and children ministry. As far as I understand it, there was for a short period a track within the UU ministry that was called a Minister of Religious Education. I think that's what I would have done if that were still available, but rather than having tracks like that in our denomination now, people can specialize in certain things.
I have had such an amazing experience as a staff in the UU religious community, the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, New York. I wanted to be part of that as an ordained clergyperson. I haven't felt disrespected as a religious educator or anything like that in that community. On the contrary, they have really treated me very similarly to how they might treat a minister in their congregation. In fact, when I decided to go to seminary to get on the ordination track, several people mentioned to me that they just assumed I already was a minister! The congregation, the staff, and the senior minister, Reverend Ana Levy-Lyons, have given me the opportunity to live into the ministry that I was already doing in my work. They affirmed it and made space for it.
So, I didn't feel like I needed to go on and do more things and go back to school and get ordained and all of that until after I worked for seven or eight years in a congregation, in a community where I was so affirmed in those pieces of ministry that I realized, "Oh yeah, I do want to continue on this path of being an ordained minister. And this community actually will support me in doing that." It was many things coming together that really gave me the ability to live into fulfilling my calling.
I have found Meadville Lombard to be very supportive of me in terms of finances. I worked with Jon Coffee and was very authentic and honest about what I could and could not afford. I applied for a scholarship and didn’t get the full amount, only a very small partial scholarship. I felt that wasn’t going to work for me, so I went to the school and asked, “how can we work together?” I knew that it was really important for me not to go into many thousands of dollars of debt while pursuing this MDiv. While there were no special exceptions that could be made for me individually, I felt affirmed and heard. I was given many options and opportunities to figure out how to make it work financially, rather than just being told, "Oh well, too bad."
I felt valued. I felt like the school wanted me. I applied, I had been accepted, I applied for a scholarship, I didn't get the amount that I needed. But then MLTS worked with me and helped me to figure it out. I was prepared to try again the following year and re-enroll and reapply for scholarships. Jon put me on a waiting list and when other people declined their scholarship disbursements, there was more money that was available for me.
The school clearly felt I was worthy of receiving that. I felt very held and cared for and heard in that whole process. Money and finances, struggling through, paying for things, not wanting to go into debt — these are places where oftentimes we feel very dehumanized. I have often felt very dehumanized in other contexts in the process of dealing with money and payments. I have not felt that way at Meadville Lombard and I think it was because I reached out. I reached out and said, "Hey, can we have a conversation?" Every time I do that, I feel it was so worth it. As soon as I ask someone at MLTS to talk about something that I'm struggling with, they're right there. They're talking to me. They're human. They're understanding. That’s been one of the biggest things that I needed throughout this entire pandemic time of being in seminary.
It was very hard to be in seminary when the pandemic started. I was in my first semester when COVID-19 lockdowns began. There was support, there was love, there was care. We all did that for each other. It was really important to be part of a community that realized we were going to make some mistakes in dealing with the COVID shutdowns. The situation was so new and required us to adapt. We were asking, “how do we do this?” We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect and that we would need to give one another some grace. That’s what I felt really did happen for me in being a part of the Meadville Lombard community during this whole time. I still have professors who will say, "I understand. There's a pandemic, everybody is dealing with this in their own ways. If you need to turn in something late, let me know." You have to communicate, but if you do, you're going to be heard. At least that's been my experience. That’s been really important to me, to have that kind of support in this whole process.
In the third year of the MDiv program at Meadville Lombard, we take a class that complements and supports our internship. In that class, we are asked to create a Leadership Initiative for the community that we're serving, something that we as the intern ministers are going to create and implement. We get to practice what it’s like to be a leader in a congregation, to start something, get people involved in it, and follow it through to the end.
In an initial conversation with my teaching pastor at my internship, I shared that one of the things I have loved doing in my life is engaging with other cultures by way of intercultural competency. Then, during my Clinical Pastoral Education over the summer at a hospital, I read an essay in which I was introduced to the concept of “cultural humility.” It was a light bulb going off for me in terms of moving from this idea of cultural "competence" to cultural "humility." Rather than a competency of, "I can navigate back and forth and in and out of different cultures," embracing cultural humility takes it to another level. To have cultural humility, I recognize my own cultural placement. My identities, my history, my experiences, the color of my skin, my gender, my sexual orientation, all of the things that make up me, Meagan. It’s about recognizing that not only am I different from other people but that when I’m in a cross-cultural situation, I have an opportunity to be open to being in relationships with people who are very different from me without judging them or criticizing them or comparing them to me. It's about approaching another culture from a place in which one can, not deny oneself, but not center oneself.
I knew I wanted to do a project engaging with this idea of cultural humility, recognizing that what gets me really excited has been my past experiences of working with the UU College of Social Justice and facilitating groups of Unitarian Universalists in learning immersion experiences where they are engaging with difference. I put all of this together — learning immersion experiences, engaging with different cultures, cultural competency, intercultural competency, and cultural humility — into a program I built for my Leadership Initiative. I organized a group of congregants from my internship congregation and staff to come with me on a journey to the Middle East. We ended up calling it “Bridge to Jordan.”
One of the goals of the trip was to engage with the concept of cultural humility. We wanted to get away from centering ourselves and our culture, our being from the United States and being from New York City. For us as progressive religious people, sometimes we have very strong ideas and ideals that can come into conflict with the ideas and ideals, the religious beliefs and practices, of another culture and country. So, as preparation for the trip, we worked through some learning seminars where we started unpacking these concepts and unpacking our own identities together. We thought about times when we’ve been very uncomfortable. How do we handle being really uncomfortable? What are some tools that we can rely on when we’re in uncomfortable situations? What does it mean to travel, to be a tourist, to be a tourist from the U.S. going to the Middle East? What do we need to know about the history of our country’s involvement in the Middle East that has created some of the systems of inequity that we are going to witness? Then thinking about times when we've been very uncomfortable, and how do we handle being really uncomfortable? And what are some tools that we can rely on when we are in uncomfortable situations?
We worked on programs around how to recognize feelings of what I’m going to call “white saviorism,” although not everybody on the trip was white. Maybe it's a Westernized idea of a savior complex. We talked through what we would do when we went and met people who might have a lot less than us or who are struggling with a lack of resources but maybe have much more than us to offer in other areas. We did all these learning seminars and programs, and I worked for a year putting together the itinerary of this journey.
One of the hopes that we had on the journey and that one of the things that I was trying to bring to fruition was to actually meet people in Jordan who are grassroots organizers, working within their own communities to lift up their local communities, to bring financial stability and independence into their communities, and to highlight the gifts of their own communities. I was able to do that. We met with different organizations. We started building some relationships. We learned a lot and we experienced a lot. We had the incredible experience of being Unitarian Universalists from the United States, traveling in Jordan and meeting people who are Muslim, people who are living without much access to water, and people who are really trying to restore their livelihoods and their country’s economy after tourism was devastated by COVID. We were in the first wave of tourists coming back. That also was really enlightening to see and experience how the pandemic has impacted people outside of our own bubbles and spheres of knowledge and understanding.
One highlight of the trip was listening to an amazing presentation from someone who has worked for many, many years with the refugee population in Jordan. They worked in the Zaatari camp in Northeast Jordan, which is right across the Syrian border and is the largest refugee camp in Jordan right now. We learned a lot about the refugee situation there and tried to understand some of the root causes. We were inspired to hear about what it's like to be in a country where refugees are integrated more quickly into the community, where they are welcomed and given work visas and have a lot more opportunities to engage very quickly than what happens in our own country.
Meagan Henry is a current MDiv student. She serves as the Director of Education and Family Ministry at the First Unitarian Congregational Society, Brooklyn, NY. She believes we never stop learning and growing and developing our spiritual selves, and as such, she is an advocate of holistic, life-long faith formation.