“We stand on the shoulders of our teachers and mentors. In the church we stand on the shoulders of all the saints that have gone before us. This is a lineage of grace.”
The challenge of evangelism in our time is the constant rediscovering of who we are and who God calls us to be. How do we reconcile all people to God through Jesus Christ and how do we articulate that mission to the world? We must think and decide what we believe. Who does that make us? And most importantly, how are we going to share it with the world? The Rev. Warren Swenson, T’18, says “Christianity, before it is anything, before it’s a belief system, a creed, or a faith, it is a relationship with God.” He answered his call not only through ordination as a priest, but more importantly as a thinker, deliberator, teacher, and assiduous learner.
Swenson’s college professor from Baker University where he received his B.A. in communication studies and Spanish, Dr. Susan Emel, taught him that there is a beautiful marriage between vocation and the role of a teacher and scholar. “She first showed me how I could be both a pastor and a teacher; how I could bring my identity as a Christian minister into a secular classroom even in subtle ways.” The Rt. Rev. Neil Alexander, dean of the School of Theology, continued Susan’s lesson and encouraged Swenson to be attentive and pursue God’s call: “He instilled in me this idea that preaching in the Anglican tradition is important, encouraging me to make my own contribution all while staying grounded in my identity as a priest. I remembered that we are agents of Christ and can only do God’s work in the world because of God’s grace.”
Since his graduation and ordination, the majority of his Sundays are spent as the associate priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Winchester, Tennessee, a part of the Southeast Tennessee Episcopal Ministry (S.T.E.M.). Swenson continues to impart his teaching wisdom through regular weekly bible study, Sunday School, visits to the homebound and hospitalized, preaching, and presiding over the Eucharist. The Rev. Dr. Amy Lamborn is the vicar over S.T.E.M., including five congregations on and around the Cumberland Plateau: Trinity Winchester, Holy Comforter Monteagle, Christ Church Alto, Christ Church Tracy City, and Epiphany Mission Church Sherwood.
“The more we read and write and talk and take notes and listen to others, the more we absorb. And sometimes not until we share it with others do we realize how impactful it’s been on us.”
The service of ordination reminds us that the ordained serve the Church and its people as pastors, priests, and teachers. Swenson says: “Teaching pervades the priesthood and all priests teach any time they are on the pulpit. Any time we have the collar on, we respond to people in certain ways and we teach by example.”
“A considerable part of the vocation as a teacher is that of a learner. That’s why we have commencement exercises; now that you’re educated, go out and live in your calling, continue to educate and pass down the information, but in order to do that you must continue to learn.”
Public Speaking Rhetoric 101, a secular course at the University of the South’s college taught by Swenson, speaks to his interest and skill set: “How can I, as a minister of the Gospel, which is who I am at my core, fulfill my call to teach people not only within the Church, but also in the community and in the college? I teach public speaking so that my students can make cohesive and credible arguments backed up by reliable sources. We live in a time where the truth is under attack, the true mission of the church must be helping us rediscover what truth is. Jesus calls us to organize our lives based on his principles, but how do I embody them in the secular classroom?”
Swenson says that one of the greatest things about Sewanee is that he doesn’t feel pigeonholed; he can work as a priest in local parishes while simultaneously studying for his second master’s degree, and teaching undergraduates. “Even though public speaking is a secular course, a big part of my ministry and the Church’s ministry is the passing on of knowledge. We have this idea that the church’s only ministry is feeding the hungry and clothing the naked etc., I think it’s the teaching and sharing of knowledge that is the true ministry of the church.”
“The books on your shelf aren’t all published during your time in seminary.”
Swenson earned his master of divinity in 2018 from the School of Theology. In the summer following his graduation, he turned right around and began an advanced academic master’s degree in the Master of Sacred Theology program, considered a degree similar to a doctor of ministry, where an M.Div. is required for admittance. Swenson says, “It’s a more intensive program; more writing, more reading, etc. There is a capstone project—a 100-page thesis. I’ve finished all of my coursework and I am now working on my thesis about queer theology in preaching. I’m further defining it, focusing on queer homiletics, the lens through which one preaches, and preaching from a queer perspective. We’re seeing more literature about queer theology, but there’s not much about how it influences Gospel proclamation.
“A priest is not just a communion dispenser.”
Taking a non-traditional path may not be easy, but if God is calling you to a vocation, it is your duty to answer. “Be attentive to God’s call,'' Swenson says. He’s learned that you must be available, you must be open to what the spirit is calling you to do. But, “ordination is not finite, the priesthood is a fundamentally sacramental role that’s incredibly important. We preside over the sacrament, but that’s not all a priest does. A priest is not just a communion dispenser. If you feel God is calling you, step to it, even if it’s something you think might be non-traditional, just be attentive to it.”