May 22, 2015

I Am Starr King: Interview with Benjamin Dresner

Benjamin Dresner

2rd Year M.Div. Student

DSC_2394Why did you decide to become a religious leader?
For me, it was a surprise. I was a corporate accountant. I did customer service for a while and I became an office manager at the end of my corporate stint. And I thought I was heading towards nursing. I was volunteering at a hospital. I wanted to do something where I worked more with people, which is what I enjoy doing. But the nurses just didn’t talk enough with patients. And I found that nursing wasn’t calling to me the way I was hoping it would.

So I went to career counseling, thinking they were going to tell me, ‘You are perfect for nursing,’ and that I just needed that little push to find my excitement for it again. Instead, when I took all of these personality tests, over and over again they came back saying religious leader or chaplain. And I told the counselor that I thought he made a mistake—I didn’t really go to church then; I was not religious. I am Catholic, so when I think religious leader I think priest, and that does not sound like me. And the counselor told me I should look into chaplaincy.

I did not really know what a chaplain did, so I went home and I researched it. I read article after article about what a chaplain does. I just couldn’t believe that this was a real profession in the world, and that people got paid for doing what chaplains do. I thought that was something you would have to do in your volunteer time, as something to feed your soul. I came from corporate work, and that did not feed my soul. To find out that this was a profession, that this was something I could do everyday— talk with patients and be with people in crisis and need—that was my moment of calling. That was when I realized I was born to do this. This is what I did all the time in the world, and I had no idea this was a career option. So from that day forward, I dove further and further into how I could become a chaplain. It is what I want to be.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

Originally, I went to the Catholic Church—I did not know the path to chaplaincy. When I got there they said you had to be a priest in order to be chaplain in the Catholic Church. I already kind of knew where we were headed, but I said that I was gay and he said, ‘Whoa, we couldn’t accept you here. You cannot be a gay priest.’

I thought that maybe this was the end of the story. But I reached out to a reverend in the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, which is a non-denominational Christian church in the Castro area. And he asked, ‘Have you ever considered interfaith chaplaincy? Have you ever heard of The Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley?’ And I said, ‘No.’

So I checked them out and they were wonderful. I love The Chaplaincy Institute! The dean was very honest with me. She heard what I wanted to do and said that, since I wanted to work in a hospital, I would need a master’s degree from a seminary— something they did not offer. I told her that a Catholic seminary would not take me. So she thought for a moment and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Starr King?’ I told her, ‘No.’ She said that Starr King was a Unitarian Universalist seminary. I asked her what that was—I had never heard of it. And she laughed—she is a lifelong UU—and said that I should to check them out online.

I started reading about Starr King and some other schools. But when I came to Starr King and met with Jeremiah and walked around campus, and the more I read about the UU faith and theology, the more I thought that this was a perfect fit for me. To be honest, I feel very touched. As a Catholic, they would never allow someone who does not identify as Catholic into a Catholic seminary. So as someone who was rejected by my own faith tradition, when I found the UU faith, which is so welcoming to outsiders, I felt like I had found my home. And that is ultimately why I decided to come to Starr King.

Why did you decide to transfer from the M.A.S.C. program into the M.Div. program?

To be certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains, one needs a 72 unit master-level program or equivalent. So my equivalent, I decided, was going to be the Master of Arts in Social change, which is only a two-year program, plus a year at The Chaplaincy Institute (ChI). And I chose the M.A.S.C. program because, with all of my years of office experience and working for social change, I thought I could go into nonprofit and offer my skills as an office person, an organizer, and a religious leader.

But once Starr King and ChI affiliated with one another and I started taking ChI modules through Starr King, I started speaking to people at ChI. And over and over again I kept hearing that most chaplains have an M.Div. and that it is worth it to meet the requirements by completing a single academic program, rather than the combination I had originally planned. I called the Association of Professional Chaplains, and they said either plan would work, but that many Starr King graduates came through the Association with an M.Div. And it was really encouraging to hear about how many Starr King graduates had applied through the Association of Professional Chaplains, and that they were familiar with the Starr King M.Div. program.

So after doing some more research, I decided that this was the path for me. It will get me where I want to go more quickly. And as someone over forty, I am interested in finishing my degree and jumping into the work of chaplaincy.

What has been the most memorable or meaningful experience at Starr King?

There have been many… My three-day orientation was magical. I felt so held. Also the Symposium last September, with the Panel of Women of Color Spiritual Leaders and the welcoming of our new president. That was such a coming together experience with the whole school; it was really beautiful. And really any time the Starr King community comes together—those are the moments when my heart is so full. Those are my favorite moments at Starr King. I just think the community is incredible. I don’t know what it is about Starr King or the discernment process that brings people here, but I am surrounded by amazing individuals. So when I get to be in community with the people here, I feel so blessed.


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