The cliché “God works in mysterious ways” might be overused, but it certainly describes Dr. Sheri Kling’s journey to her new role as the executive director of the Beecken Center and associate dean of the School of Theology.
Though Kling began her duties as executive director back in July 2018, her time in Sewanee actually began a year earlier, when she took a job as associate registrar at the University of the South. When she took that job in 2017, Kling had expected that her role might evolve—she just didn’t think it would evolve quite so quickly. “I had no idea it would only take a year,” she said to me during a recent phone call, laughing.
Kling holds graduate degrees from both the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) and the Claremont School of Theology (CST) in California, and theological studies have always interested her. Thus a move from central campus over to Hamilton Hall had been on her radar from the start. When she saw the position posted for executive director of the Beecken Center, she knew right away that she had to apply.
“This is perfect for me,” she thought. “And here I am. God does works in mysterious ways.”
So what was so mysterious about her being a good fit for a position at the Beecken Center?
Long a fan of singer-songwriters like Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Gorka, and James Taylor, Kling had originally hoped for a career in music. Yet in the early 2000s Kling was working in Atlanta doing marketing and communication in the software industry. Worried that her dream of pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter might go un-fulfilled, she issued herself an ultimatum: “I said ‘If I can’t make this career as a singer-songwriter work and pay the bills, then I will have to do something else.’”
She poured her heart and soul into a musical career, but despite some limited success, things just weren’t coming together as she had hoped. “I threw myself at the mercy of God,” she recalled, “and I just said ‘Please, put me where you want me! But what do you want me to do?’” The answer to that question came from an unlikely place.
As a musician, Kling was also leading spiritual retreats and workshops. One day, a local English teacher approached her with a unique opportunity that led to the development of a program for high-school English students that used music to talk about the hero’s journey, creativity, and finding one’s own voice. The success of this program prompted a friend to suggest that Kling go back to school, get a graduate degree, and consider teaching English. Yet Kling didn’t feel that English was the right choice.
“I told my friend that if I were going to go to graduate school, I’d want to study theology,” she told me when recounting her conversation.
Kling grew up Lutheran, and for years folks had told her she should go to seminary since she was always interested in theology and the church. In particular, she had a passion for interweaving Jungian psychology with theological and spiritual exploration. Though her “church nerd” bona fides seemed to point toward seminary as a sensical path forward, she didn’t think it was right for her. “I just really never felt called to ordained ministry.”
Yet her feelings about seminary shifted when she realized she could study theology as an academic discipline without pursuing a pathway to ordination. That’s when she enrolled at LSTC for her master’s degree before pursuing her Ph.D. in process theology at CST.
Kling applied to faculty jobs but she knew that, given her work experience, she might have more success if she opened her search to include administrative positions as well. The position in the registrar’s office at Sewanee fit her work background and interests almost perfectly—almost, in that it didn’t fully incorporate her theological interests. Her new role as the executive director of the Beecken Center does just that.
Despite the ostensibly circuitous route to her current role, Kling notes a through line that connects her work in marketing with her vocation as a musician and her vocation as a public theologian: “In a sense, so much of my life has been just about communicating ideas. Communicating ideas in a way that is compelling.” The idea that Kling now seeks to communicate in her role at the Beecken Center—the transformative power of the Gospel through an encounter with the living God—is rather compelling on its own.
“How can the work of the Beecken Center serve the mission of the Church and connect people with a transformative relationship with the living God? That is what we’re about. If the Beecken Center isn’t doing that, then what are we here for?”
As she looks to the future, Kling hopes to bolster the core programs of the Beecken Center (such as EfM, Invite Welcome Connect, and SUMMA) while also continuing to respond to the shifts in the religious landscape and equip folks in congregations—both clergy and laity alike—to respond to those shifts in ministry context. Kling sees a real need outside of the Church for the kinds of things that the Church at its best provides.
“We have a culture right now,” Kling observes, “that is very fragmented and divisive—fragmented politically, fragmented socially—and you can just look at all the studies coming out about how lonely we are. There is so much evidence that people are in pain in our culture.” Yet Kling sees a powerful response to that pain in the heart of our faith. Drawing on the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Kling notes that “the reality of this loving, liberating, life-giving God has something profound to say to all of that.” How the work of the Beecken Center might address those things is precisely the kind of big question that Kling is interested in exploring as they begin a visioning process for the future.
Yet if Kling’s own story is any indication, one doesn’t always know what surprises God might have in store. From marketing to songwriting to theologizing, Kling brings a dynamism and flexibility to her role that should serve her and the Beecken Center well amidst the changing context of ministry in the 21st century.
“I believe that no experience is ever wasted,” she says. “Maybe it’s unusual, but I feel so completely blessed by having the ability to be in a job now that pretty much uses everything I’ve ever done, even though my journey has not been a straight line by any stretch of the imagination.”
God works in mysterious ways, indeed.