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ECF Fellows Spotlight: Liza Anderson - Rethinking Vocation & Leadership in the Church

The ECF Fellowship Partners Program turns fifty this year, and we are marking that milestone with a series of interviews as we prepare to announce the names of the 2014 Fellows. In this third of four interviews, we hear Elizabeth (Liza) Anderson as she reflects on her work, her ECF Fellowship, leadership development and vocation.

The accepted insight that study abroad has a defining influence on the rest of a student’s life is certainly true for 2010 ECF Fellow Elizabeth (Liza) Anderson. A religion major at Swarthmore College, she traveled to Egypt in 2003 for her junior year abroad. “I thought I was going to study Islam,” she says, “but I fell head over heels in love with the Coptic Church.” That unexpected passion marked the beginning of her study of early Christianity, ecumenism, and Christianity in the Middle East.

It was also when she began worshipping in the Anglican Church. “Normally, I’m the kind of person who, upon becoming a Christian, would have this intense internal debate about which denomination I should be,” says Anderson. “And actually, it came down to…I’d like to worship in a language I understand.” Confirmed in the Episcopal Church the following year, she went on from Swarthmore to earn a master’s degree in ecumenical relations from Trinity College Dublin and a second master’s from Harvard Divinity School, where she studied the history and languages of early Eastern Christianity.

Today, thanks to her ECF Fellowship, Anderson is well on her way to a Ph.D. in theology at Yale University, with work in historical theology, world Christianity and ecumenism. An active leader in the Episcopal Church, she is also serving a three-year term on the Executive Council.

She’s hoping that her research on ancient and medieval Christianity in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa will change the way people understand the history of Christianity. “If I tell people I’m studying medieval Christianity, they instantly think Europe,” says Anderson, adding that working with material like eighth century biblical commentaries from Turkmenistan and literature from Iraq is just not on most people’s radar screens. “What I would hope,” she says, “is that my work would change the horizons of people’s imaginations, so that we imagine the whole history of Christianity differently and we don’t have to be freaked out by the idea that it is no longer a basically European and North American religion. That’s not actually new.”

Anderson is grateful for more than the financial support she received as an ECF Fellow. “Of course, the money was very important in terms of enabling me to do overseas research and to attend ecumenical conferences that wouldn’t otherwise be in my budget,” she says. “But for me, the important thing about ECF was that it was the first and in some ways the only time I felt recognized and validated by the wider church as a layperson.” The ECF Fellowship came along just when she needed an organization in the church that “really affirms both lay and ordained ministry.”

Rethinking vocation and leadership in the church

One of the things Anderson loves about being at Yale, is that at 31 she is frequently the oldest member of the congregation at the daily Eucharist. Worshipping with young adults who “love the church and the traditional practices in quiet and non-fussy but faithful ways,” is a source of hope for her. “But where I don’t find hope,” she says, “is that every one of them, except for me, is already in the ordination process or wants to be. And I sometimes see a future for the church where I’m the only layperson left.”

Anderson is convinced that we need to diversify our understanding of vocation and what it means to be a leader in the church. “We say we value all kinds of leaders and ministries, but we don’t really,” she says. Her thinking reflects her experiences — the common assumption she encounters at theological and ecumenical conferences that she must be a newly ordained priest or the wife of one; the inevitable argument, “why settle for second best,” when she mentions her interest in a monastic vocation.

“We’ve reified this whole idea that you have a calling or you don’t,” says Anderson, “and that vocation means vocation to ordained ministry.” Because of this one-size-fits-all idea of leadership, people like her and many of the seminarians that surround her at Yale, active in the church and sensing a call to some sort of leadership, are pushed toward ordination.

“I think we need to go a little deeper than that,” she says. “I think God calls people to different kinds of ministry. Depending on what that ministry is, the church and the individual might feel that the individual should be ordained — but I don’t think God cares who’s a bishop or a priest or a deacon or a layperson.”

Anderson goes on to speculate “whether we wouldn’t benefit from some kind of clear, professionalized, credentialed lay ministry that recognized that you were competent and trained to do various things — an official way of acknowledging that, rather than a sort of ad hoc thing that’s not taking us seriously.”

Next Steps

Anderson is taking her comprehensives this spring and plans to write her dissertation on the intersections of mysticism and medicine in texts on ascetical theology and prayer written in Syriac and Arabic by Christian physicians. “One never really knows how long everything will take,” she says, “but my plan would be to graduate in 2016 or 2017.” After a decade immersed in research and study in 70 countries, of work with ecumenical organizations and the Episcopal Church, of nurturing the faith she found on her study abroad year, she’s thinking she may test a vocation in a monastic community, either in the Episcopal Church or the Church of England. She’s also interested in teaching at a seminary or working with an ecumenical organization. “It depends on what opens up at the right time,” she says.

ECF will announce the 2014 Fellows on May 28. Click here for more information about the Fellowship Partners Program or email us.

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