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Back to School at My Age?

Marnie Leinberger
Pueblo, Colorado
4-H Program Assistant, Pastor at Milagro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Previous occupations: 4-H Program Assistant; returned to church after a 20-year absence in 2009; started seminary in 2010.




What advice would you give to a prospective student returning to school after being out for many years?

Start slow. There’s no need to take 12 credit hours the first (or any) semester, especially if you have a full time job either inside or outside the home.  Ask a lot of questions, and talk to the awesome librarians about what’s offered.

What are you doing with your Phillips education?

I am the pastor at Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado. I plan to be ordained, and I plan to continue to pastor Milagro. When I graduate, I’ll probably still have a ‘secular’ job to pay the bills, but I also plan to start a prison ministry to take the place of the time I spent at Phillips.

What are five words that describe the Phillips community as you’ve experienced it?

Accepting, generous, smart, welcoming, and challenging.

What is the change or transformation in the world you want to see?

I hope that someday we’ll realize that violence does not redeem. I hope that we stop using religion (or lack of it) to define or exclude people. I hope that we will stop using our differences to insist we are unique, and instead we will begin to see our differences as reflective of the awesome creative power that is our Creator, whatever we deem that Creator to be.

How have you changed during your Phillips educational experience?

There have been a few biggies. The first—I remember telling my pastor when I returned to church that the First Testament (I referred to it as “the Old Testament” because I had no other language) should not have been included with the Second (again, “the New Testament”). When she asked why, I could only state that it was a depiction of God that was violent, vengeful, unforgiving, and (as a member of the GLBTQ community) it has been used as a bludgeon.  I now view the First Testament as the evolving understanding of God by a particular group of people.  As they grew in their understanding of God, God was revealed to be ever more loving. So, as we learn more about God, the more loving we learn God is.


Tell us about a time you felt challenged.

I have been challenged in my understanding of scripture at almost every turn. We all come to Phillips with preconceived ideas about scripture, whether we think we do or not. It is sometimes difficult to relinquish deeply-held ideas.  But we are not left floundering. It has been my experience that we are given the tools to bring evidence to our beliefs with facts, and we are supported  while we are in the wobbly, sometimes fragile, middle between “knowing” something and “understanding” it.

Is there a topic or conversation that you have been drawn to at Phillips?

I had deep misgivings about the Apostle Paul. Most of my views of him were negative (after all, it’s his letters combined with Leviticus that are used as “clobber verses” on people who are GLBTQI). The more I learned about Paul, the more I came to relate to his writing (the authentic letters) and his life, and his desire to carry the message.

Tell us about how financial aid has impacted your experience.

The only way I am able to afford seminary is because of the generous donations by Phillips supporters. I could not attend if it were not for the tuition assistance offered.  We talk a lot about identifying our privilege.  Scholarships make it possible for people like me – people who would not normally attend seminary – to go.

How would you describe the online class community at Phillips?

I am very close to the people I am in class with online. I look forward to each new semester, and I am excited to find I have many classes with the same people semester after semester. The best way the professors and students contribute to the sense of community is by participating. The best learning experiences I’ve had are those courses where we have each (professor and student) been given space to be “real” – to carry on conversations that are outside the required “substantive post.”

Tell us about being a student and a pastor at the same time.

I am able to bring engaging worship and challenging sermons to my ministry. I have also been taught the skills to navigate the sometimes tricky waters of congregational life. I have been given permission to be creative, even if that means that on occasion I will “fail.” The backgrounds of the people at Phillips are so varied that I am able to bring a wide range of experiences and understandings to the people I serve so that that they might get a fuller understanding of worship, of God, and of sacraments.

Tell us about the relationships that you made at Phillips.

I have made friends for life at Phillips.  I have a network of fellow pastors, ministers, and teachers with a variety of backgrounds and experiences that I can call on nationwide so that I can be the best pastor I can be. The diverse faces at Phillips have expanded my understanding of and relationship with God, as I have met people that I normally would not have met and discussed beliefs and ideas that I normally would not have been exposed to. I am not only a better pastor because of these relationships; I am a better Christian, a better citizen, and a better person.

What else would you like to share about your experience with Phillips?

Progressives spend a lot of time talking about privilege. With the expense, the requirement to spend time on campus, and their locations, seminaries can be among the most privileged institutions there are. Phillips does not just talk about privilege, they do something about it. Phillips lets people over 40 with "only” an associate’s degree to attend, and they are proactive about inviting people into vital conversations about God, worship, and faithfulness. Additionally, the alumni are an invaluable asset. Their continued support of the institution means that I am able to obtain generous tuition support. I might not have been born into the denomination, but I can honestly say that my ministry is built on a long line of Disciples.

If you had one sentence to convince someone to choose Phillips, what would you say?

You will be challenged; your ideas of God and how God works in the world will be deconstructed, and you will be incredibly blessed on a courageous journey from “knowing” to “understanding.”

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