It’s not uncommon for History majors to go on to seminary. But to go from studying the past to leading worship? Andene (Christopherson) O’Neil (’05) shares her journey from AC 2nd to her current role in a local Anglican church.
First off, did you come to Bethel knowing you wanted to study History? How did your choice of major come about?
I have always been curious about a million things — the sciences, business, education, philosophy, theology, the arts, and so on. Before college I’d anticipated becoming everything from a hospital administrator to a choir director to a lawyer. And to be honest, you could have talked me into a host of other unrelated career tracks as well. In Christianity in Western Culture (CWC) I saw how the discipline of history was not a series of memorization exercises but rather was the study of all things. I saw that a student of history studies the way in which God’s hand unfolds the complex, mysterious, and beautiful story of all time in terms of nature, the arts, the sciences, philosophy, social and cultural organization, etc. This, I realized, was for me. I changed from my Music Education major to History, and promptly became a CWC TA for the next two years. And with the flexibility of a History major, I took extra classes in Spanish, philosophy, secondary education, political science, music, and even business.
What courses or other experiences stand out most in your memories of Bethel’s History Department?
Due to its impact on my life, I loved many aspects of CWC. The primary source readings (everything from Plato to Augustine to Luther to MLK, Jr.) became stones that laid a foundation for my study of not just one isolated academic discipline, but of the depth and trajectory of God’s redemptive story in all of life. As a TA, I loved helping fellow students better understand the Fall of Rome or the Great Papal Schism. I think I may have even written a song to help students remember the transition from the Enlightenment to the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial Revolution. (Please, don’t ask me to sing it now). I loved seeing students’ eyes light up when they realized that history actually adds value to their understanding of the present. So if you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of CWC. And if you don’t believe me, I have a CWC T-Shirt and mug to prove it.
Additionally, I sincerely enjoyed the World War I class I took with Dr. Neil and Prof. Virginia Lettinga. We didn’t just study the Great War; we were immersed in it. We marched, we studied the trenches and the home-front, and my friend and I built a detailed 2D model of a U-boat. It left a lasting impact. In fact, I can still sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a famous tune sung by the Allies, without googling the lyrics.
I’ll also never forget that crazy project I worked on under the direction of Dr. Kevin Cragg. As a part of the Honors Program I was required to do some extra projects in some of my classes. So naturally, in the class History and the Human Environment, I made a massive, color-coded, map-like chart demonstrating how the Black Death of the 14th century would kill a third of Bethel’s campus. Probably one of the more interesting and gruesome, if not entirely useful, projects I’ve ever worked on.
And lastly, I recall working on my senior thesis, which involved Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Peasant Wars, and the role of the printing press in all of the above. As I recall, this paper was not a particularly important addition to the field of Reformation history (i.e., not my best paper). It was significant, however, because this focus on the tumult of the Reformation (and the lure of its primary sources) helped set the stage for many years of further study to continue.
Tell us about your time in seminary: When did you decide to continue your education? How did you pick the program you entered? (Were you looking towards a career in ministry? Academics? Both?) How did you come to focus on Reformation history?
The end of my junior year I realized that I loved three spheres of life: teaching/learning, music/arts, and theology/ministry. When someone suggested to me that I should consider seminary, it was as though a light bulb went off: This is how I could continue to hone my interdisciplinary interests and see what God might make of it. So I up and moved across the country after graduation, though I knew no one where I was going. I was simply turning the pages of my life and waiting to see what God might write next.
I chose Gordon-Conwell for two primary reasons. 1) It is a school with a very solid academic reputation. This school prepares you both for doctoral work and for vocational ministry. 2) It is located just north of Boston, MA. The rocky shores of the Atlantic, the colonial, cobblestone streets, the museums, pro sports teams, and the quaintness of the surrounding blue-collar fishing villages made for an amazing “home away from home.” [Ed. It’s also one of the alma maters of our own Prof. Ruben Rivera.]
Before I left Boston I had earned a Master of Divinity degree with a focus on the History of Worship Arts, a Master’s of Theology in Church History (a one-year academic capstone degree meant to help launch one into PhD work) focused on how the Reformation impacted the arts, and had spent five years as the Director of Worship at Gordon College nearby.
I chose to study the Reformation because I am awed by its nuance. Many Protestants look to the Reformation as a “starting place” for our Christian faith. This is faulty. Accounting for the first 1500 years of Christianity are imperative in order to have an accurate appreciation for our heritage. Furthermore, the Reformation itself is not simply to be lauded; while reform was needed and I value the efforts of many of the reformers, this period was not devoid of tragedy, destruction, and sin. As with any historical period, there are great complexities involved on a myriad of levels. I was particularly distressed to see the way in which aspects of the Reformation hindered or destroyed the use of arts within the context of worship, or even in its addition to the common good within wider society. It is my opinion, as a musician and a lover of fine-art, that Christian culture’s standard for good art is askew because of this. Among Protestants, the idea of art for the sake of God’s glory was not actually reformed in the Reformation, but was muddled, confused, and in many ways stunted. There is some evidence that in recent years this landscape may be changing for the better. If I choose to pursue PhD studies in the future, it would be write further on this subject.
As I look back, I feel very blessed to see how God has continued to intertwine my interests (just as CWC had done) into a more holistic path of study and vocation. God has taken my love of teaching/learning, music/art, and theology/ministry and has directed me now into a position as the Pastor of Worship & Adult Ministries at Church of the Cross in Hopkins, MN. (Yep, back in good ol’ Minnesota).
What do you enjoy most about your current job? Do you think there are any connections between the work you do now and your studies as a History major?
In my current job I get to continue to work toward one goal—to participate in God’s act of redemption—in multiple ways. Yes, I’m a worship leader. I was a worship leader before Bethel, during Bethel as a chapel or Vespers leader, and when in seminary I worked full time at a nearby college as the Worship Director. Earlier on in my schooling and ministry I would actually say that I didn’t want to head into worship-leading as a vocation. I didn’t want to be limited to being “the girl with a guitar.” I thoroughly enjoyed leading a congregation in singing praises, psalms, laments, etc., but I didn’t want to only do that. Well, I see now that I had a limited understanding of what being a worship leader meant.
A worship leader’s foundation should be comprised of a solid understanding of worship and liturgical history, of church history, of systematic theology, and biblical studies. Knowing how to play and sing within a church service are of less importance than knowing why you’re doing so. (And let me just add that all of life is worship — an opportunity to give God the value he is due; singing together just happens to be an enjoyable, concentrated, and unifying form of it.) I’ve discovered that being a professional worship leader is anything but limiting.
In my current role as Pastor of Worship & Adult Ministries at an Anglican church I might write music, prepare for a teaching or sermon, meet with people for prayer or counsel, learn an ancient chant, attend a theological conference, start a choir, mobilize teams of volunteers for various projects, oversee a fine arts committee, lead Bible studies, etc. In all of this I rely on and draw from my education.
Furthermore, as an Anglican my personal devotional life is inextricably tied to the brothers and sisters of the faith that have gone before me. I understand myself as a part of their communion and delight in praying the same prayers and reciting the same creeds as they did centuries ago.
Suffice it to say, history is not what I studied, it’s how I think. I have the privilege of standing on the foundational liberal arts education I received as a Bethel History major. By studying history, my world was not narrowed down to names and dates but cracked open to reveal a great story — a story I get to live in.