A Just Calling

By the Book | Pursuing Academia while in Ministry

by Angela Yarber (Ph.D. ’10)

For nearly 14 years I’ve had a foot in the church and a foot in academia.

I had planned to pursue a career in the performing arts, majoring in musical theatre or dance in college. A conversion experience in a Christian church in my late teens shifted my plans for life and career. Fortunately, wonderful religion professors quickly taught me that my calling in ministry can coincide with my gifts in the arts and my deep interest in feminism. As a college freshman, I served as a youth minister.

I often describe my calling as a stool. The seat is social justice and the three legs are the church, the academy, and the arts. If any are off balance in my life, my work in justice is tilted. So, balance is very important. All my work is aimed at creating a more just, sustainable, equitable world for all people and creation.

When I completed my Ph.D. which focused on the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality, I always assumed I would get a full-time job in academia or non-profit activism and perhaps work part-time in a church, or pastor later in life. But then I took a position focused specifically on preaching and worship at an open and affirming church located on a university campus in a “city of the arts.” I served there for two and a half years.

During that time, I published three books on gender, dancing, preaching, and worship. I am also on the Art and Religion Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion where I try to present at least once a year. I write a monthly article for Feminism and Religion and, whenever possible, guest lecture and teach as an adjunct.

Academia is limited to a select group of people. But through my ministry I can give people who haven’t had the privilege of higher education some of the tools and language I have been given. For example, there are a lot of queer young adults living in rural North Carolina who commute to the church I served because it is where they can be affirmed for who they are. Just because these people don’t have degrees in religion or queer theory doesn’t mean they can’t understand the concepts. My research in queer theory and feminism informed my leadership in the church’s LGBT Spirituality Group, Transgender Support Group, and LGBT Parenting Support Group. In these ways, my academic work makes me a better minister and vice versa.

Ministry helps ground my academic work, forcing me to be in community and working with real people and real issues. My academic work helps give my ministry and activism the critical edge needed to be thoughtful and intentional. I’m not certain what will happen next for me vocationally, but it’s my hope that I can remain committed to social activism, justice, and inclusion in whatever path I take next.