I am a public theologian functioning outside of both the academy and the church. How I got here is a long and winding road, but if I’m honest it feels as if it was always to where I was headed.
To be blunt, I am outside of academia because I have no other choice. We’re all familiar with the reality that there are too few positions in theology and ethics for the number of us out there looking for positions within the academy. But it’s not that simple; the academy (thus far) has not counted my experience working in the non-profit sector and outside academia as valuable.
It’s not as if I don’t have skills, training, or knowledge from that experience that would be transferrable to a traditional academic position. Before I received my M.Div., I had more than 3 years of experience working in post-war Bosnia and Croatia and 5 years in missions and church ministry in the US. By the time I received my M.Phil. in Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation, I had been involved in peace and reconciliation work for about 6 years. And when I received my Ph.D. in Theology in 2012, I had added another 6+ years of experience working in Northern Ireland on issues related to sectarianism, collective memory, transitional justice, and interfaith/ecumenical cooperation.
I have taught classes as a guest lecturer and conducted workshops aplenty and trained as a secondary education teacher in university, but in academic settings those do not count as teaching experience. I have written handbooks, reports, essays, and conference responses galore but they do not count as publications because they were not published in an academic journal despite being reviewed by my practitioner peers.
Likewise, I am outside of the church because as a woman from a renegade Baptist heritage and as a survivor of fundamentalism, I think I am pre-disposed to a low/weak ecclesiology, a commitment to challenge tradition and authority, and a belief that God works both inside and outside of whatever religious structures we humans manage to construct. Moreover, I realized when I was doing my Ph.D. that I now had more in common with my Muslim, Jewish, humanist, and pagan sisters and brothers committed to working for peace and justice than I did with my fellow Christians on whose theological and ethical radars peace and justice do not appear.
In spite of this seeming “outsider” status, I am aware that there is a growing number of people who are similarly disaffected from organized religion but for whom theology and ethics still play an important role in the development of their spirituality and activism. Therefore, it is important for me to be independent, to remain outside of the spheres of denominational influence, and work from the margins speaking to the church when necessary.
Finally, I see my work as a public theologian as being a theologian for the public, not just for those within or connected to the institutional church. For me public theology calls everyone to listen to and work for the interest of those who are marginalized in order to change the system that threatens their survival and keeps them from thriving. Public theology is not just for the church or even for Christians. It is for everyone.
In short, I do not feel that I fit into the boxes academia and church requires in order to be part of the crowd. So I decided to strike out on my own and go freelance. It hurt my heart to not be doing theology after all of those years of training for something to which I felt called. Plus, let’s be honest: each month I paid on my student loan and I wasn’t doing anything theology-related felt like failure.
So, how am I doing it? (or Practical Details)
For now, I have a grant which pays for me to do my freelance public theology work 1 day per week for the next year (my side-hustle is for a charity as a Business Development Manager for the other 4 days). Since July when the grant started, I have launched a website, social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, and had the release of my first book, Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality (Pickwick: 2016). Five months later, I have 4 workshop dates in my diary with at least another 2 in the works for the coming year. I also have a number of writing projects on the go and am working on trying to get at least 2 of them ready for book proposal submissions within the next 4-6 months.
My goal is to grow the freelance work to a level where I can do it full-time, though that may be two or three years down the road yet. It helps that I am fairly entrepreneurial and have experience in supporting social enterprises through my work in the non-profit sector, but there’s no doubt that the transition into freelance is a bit of a leap into the unknown.
Pros & Cons to being freelance
Being freelance so far has been a largely positive experience for me. It is nice to have time set aside to work rather than trying to find the time and energy to squeeze it into evenings and weekends outside of an unrelated day job. Compared to being in church or academia, it also allows me to work on what I want to; I don’t have to teach or research anything in which I am not fully invested.
The downside to it right now is that it is fairly lonely, which reminds me of my Ph.D. days. Unlike church and academia, I do not feel as if I am part of a larger whole yet, though I am trying to rectify that through networking. As a result, it feels as if my realm of influence is minimal, relatively speaking. Another practical disadvantage to being freelance is that I have no book or conference budget; each purchase and expense comes out of my own personal account and each day I take away to attend a conference is a holiday day from my day job.
Despite the pros and cons, however, I am aware that there is enormous potential and scope for the work that I do, particularly in these days where we are facing the rise of hostility toward the “other” as seen through Brexit, the election of Trump, and the general gaining of power of the far-right in Western politics. Given my specialization in the convergence between theology, conflict, and peace through justice-oriented activism, it feels as if I have trained for such a time as this.