By: Erica Ramirez
April 17, 2018
From heart-stopping crisis, to mundane work, and then on to the sublime, Dr. Lewis’ path has been marked by the uneven challenges that often shape a vocational path through higher religious education.
With her vibrant congregation, new Doctor of Ministry project, successful social media presence, and network news experience, the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis is a living inspiration to which many Ph.D. candidates might aspire. But Lewis’ vocational trajectory has twists and even obstacles that many on a doctoral journey might find familiar.
The first is that moment she felt called to justice work. Dr. Lewis recounts being nine-years-old, under her bed and hiding from gunshots, as the beginning of her vocational journey. The grief and anger that erupted in her Chicago community after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. birthed for Jacqui a sense of mission. But such crisis points don’t flourish into vocational trajectories in uniform ways and, at times, may lie dormant. During her early twenties, Dr. Lewis found herself selling copiers, and then working in human resources. After about a decade, Dr. Lewis decided to adjust course to pursue the MDiv at Princeton. Her time in graduate school, Lewis candidly offers, was “stunning, growing, lovely, brain-on-fire”—it was, she ventures, “a luxury.”
From heart-stopping crisis, to mundane work, and then on to the sublime, Dr. Lewis’ path has been marked by the uneven challenges that often shape a vocational path through higher religious education. She went on to get her M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in Psychology and Religion from Drew University, where she faced a (very common) dearth of economic resources. Lewis credits Dr. Traci West, at Drew, and the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) for helping to sustain her academic work.
Another challenge that might sound familiar? Completing the dissertation while juggling competing commitments. While she was still working on her dissertation at Drew, the ABD Dr. Lewis unexpectedly got a job offer from the historic Middle Collegiate Church, founded in New York City in 1628, where she is now the first African American and the first woman to serve as the senior minister. She took the job fourteen years ago in January, working under a “truly wonderful” boss, who nevertheless “didn’t really understand” her call to finish her program and wasn’t actively supportive. She worked “very full time—50 hours a week for one and a half years” and, still in the midst of finding her footing in the pastorate, “wrote four chapters of her dissertation after January” of her writing year.
To balance the pastorate and her writing, Dr. Lewis will own that she basically had to “kick ass”. The doctoral journey often includes this impossible task of pulling off a miracle and making it look easy.
The pressure was intense, but the dissertation challenge did not make Lewis rethink her trajectory—she really wanted the opportunity to apprentice into the pastoral role. Her time spent in Princeton, and with her adviser, Peter Paris, had solidified her sense of calling to the pastorate.
Her interdisciplinary doctoral research at Drew honed in on “the homiletical plot”—just how does preaching transform the hearer? How does it help hearers to transform lives? Today in her work, these questions continue to inform her engagement with her congregation. Jacqui highlights how narratives influence how we are formed: “we are the product of stories told to us and about us. And we can change that story.”
She speaks, of course, from personal experience. “Jacqui,” to many in her church, consciously empowers her 900-person congregation, which is ethnically, racially, socio-economically diverse and affirming, to choose to live into better narratives.
But it’s clear that some of the power of her pulpit is also sourced from her incredible vision-casting.
Jacqui’s ministry is “fully committed to grace, fresh starts, and forgiveness” and to “rehearsing the reign of God— On earth as it is in Heaven. [We] really try to create what King calls ‘the beloved community,’ marked by right-relatedness with each other. If a child is hungry in Mississippi, my stomach should growl. When lives are shot down, I use my voice.”
Jacqui prioritizes her congregation, then her civic activism, and then her contributions to media and social media—this ordering helps keep her balanced. But because her job description actually stipulates that she is responsible to usher a “bold proclamation of liberty and liberation and radical welcome and love” as a public-facing theology, she engages the public through “a really amazing team” that includes a former journalist. With the mandate to bring healing to communities outside and exceeding the church, Jacqui engages in what she terms “vulnerable” prophetic work, self-disclosing and revealing in her sermons, so that her work springs from an integrated part of her own life and vice versa. By continually situating herself within the group of people (be it in her congregation or the wider public) who can yet change for the better and who can, in turn, bring real and lasting change for others, Jacqui says that she is able to avoid the tired, bitter crankiness that can set in when one is working hard, long, and with sometimes slow results.
Jacqui’s schedule of engagements, third book in the works, and plans to launch a D.Min. program with Drew are among the challenges that would seem to continually demand her full-capacities. But Jacqui says she is bolstered in her work by her own professional liminality—working with the Reformed Church, as a Presbyterian, and now with Methodist Drew, for example, allows her to mobilize multiple networks without being too constrained by any particular one. It’s this confluence of strategic positionings that enables Jacqui to be really nimble and active in her engagements. She’s busy, she’ll even admit she’s “really overbooked,” but the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis hastens to add, without a hint of reservation, “all my dreams have come true.”
Photo: Béatrice de Géa