June 1, 2017

I Am Starr King: Interview with Em Kianka

Em Kianka

2nd-year M.Div. student

Why did you decide to become a religious leader?

I knew I wanted to become a minister since I was a teenager. It was actually my mother’s recommendation–she told me I would be a good minister when I was sixteen. Since I was a teenager, and it was my mother’s idea, I dismissed it, but I remember secretly feeling intrigued. Something stirred in me, I noticed it, and from then on that feeling just began to grow and become more tangible. A few of the ministers that I knew, however, told me that it was a very hard life, and that I should seriously discern if I was called–that it was important for me to know the realities of the financial hardship and burn out that ministry often entails. I then spent the next four years of my undergraduate education figuring out if there was anything else I wanted to do as much. There isn’t.

When I was younger, and people asked me why I wanted to become a minister, I often wasn’t sure how to respond. And I knew they wanted responses–I grew up in a pretty nonreligious social context and went to a college that was known for its brazen liberalness. I felt a little stuck in my articulation of who I was and what my call looked like to people who expected an explanation, so to speak, because I felt like I had to account for so much to be seen and understood by them. I’m still undoing this, and learning how to simply state my call. Right now, being a Unitarian Universalist minister is the way in which I want to meet the deep pain of this world and help transform it. I hope that through my ministry I can help facilitate a community in which my congregants feel spiritually fed in such a way that invites  and encourages them to use their gifts to make the world a more just and equitable place.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

What drew me originally to study at Starr King, among many other things, was the dual Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Social Change program. I knew I wanted to eventually become an ordained minister, but at the time I was working as a community organizer and I wanted to complete something more like the MASC program in the context of SKSM’s commitment to countering oppression through education. As soon as I discovered that I could do both, I was pretty much immediately sold. Ironically enough, since matriculating, I have actually dropped MASC so I can focus on my MDiv and my ordination track. For me, personally, I realized that–as exciting as it had originally been–needing to pursue this dual degree was the most recent manifestation of my perfectionism and workaholism. A huge part of seminary for me has been gently recognizing and undoing how hard I am on myself. I am so grateful that Starr King is a place that pedagogically honors this kind of growth and views it as “success,” instead of upholding an idea of “success” that actually involves overwork and burn out. This leads me to the second reason why I chose Starr King: the amount of self-direction presupposed by the curriculum and the educational pedagogy. The self-direction is extremely important to me, and I feel that it is a particular embodiment of our Unitarian Universalist heritage that I find very meaningful. I also, however, greatly value community and accountability. That’s exactly what Starr King offers–the flexibility to determine your own education, but in the context of accountable community that is both fiercely compassionate and compassionately fierce.

What is your most meaningful or memorable experience at Starr King?

Oh, there are so many. I think something I’ve really valued is my time working at the front desk as a work-study student. It’s allowed me to have more of an understanding of the running of the school, and to become close with the people who work here and help keep the school open. Besides that generally positive experience, I think my favorite memories at SKSM so far have been the threshold and vespers ceremony that happens at the beginning of each semester to honor and welcome the new students. I find it to be so moving. Even now, when I feel bogged down by various deadlines or by my own anxiety about the future, my memory of entering seminary and being anointed by Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, our president, and Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé, our beloved provost who has since passed, remains a certain source of trust and clarity that I can draw on.

Would you like to share any work you’re involved in outside of Starr King?

Sure! Outside of Starr King, I am a trained trauma-informed yoga instructor. This means that I modify yoga–asana, the physical practice, and pranayama, the practices involving breathwork–to be a healing tool for survivors of trauma. Instead of necessarily focusing on fitness and flexibility, as a teacher I help hold a space in which my students can explore befriending their body, noticing sensation in ways that are gentle and curious and practice setting boundaries and making choices that feel good–all important aspects of healing for many trauma survivors. I’m a proud member of The Breathe Network, an organization that connects survivors of sexual violence to sliding scale holistic arts practitioners who provide healing.

What do you hope to do with your Starr King education moving forward?

My first call is to a parish setting. I would, ideally, love to serve as an associate minister of pastoral care. I’m very drawn to the pastoral aspects and responsibilities of ministry, but I want to serve in a community (as opposed to being a chaplain in a clinical setting). I also feel really called to connect the importance of having a strong, pastoral grounding in a faith community to their social justice work. I think it’s common for Unitarian Universalists, myself included, to focus on the external world, and all the work that needs to be done. It’s important to develop spiritual practices that are grounding and nourishing so that focus on the external world becomes sustainable. I feel called to be a pastoral presence that can facilitate and strengthen those connections in a community that does strong social justice work.


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