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An Adventist in an Evangelical World

It all started with a simple Google search.

It was late on a Saturday night when I had typed “master’s degrees in theology” in the search bar, pressed enter, and watched the results appear. I recognized several schools—Yale Divinity School, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Fuller Seminary—among other lesser known institutions, but there was one name that stood out: Wheaton College Graduate School. One click led to another, and before I could stop myself, I was reading the admission requirements and requesting a campus visit. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I graduated in 2009 from Southern Adventist University with my degree in Theology and went to work as an assistant pastor in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. While I loved my work, I also had dreams of pursuing higher education in theology, a master’s degree followed by a Ph.D. I had long admired my theology professors at Southern and had, on several occasions, shared my academic aspirations with them. The path seemed clear: I would get some pastoral experience followed by a master’s degree and hopefully, a terminal degree. The only question was where I should go to school.

I shared the findings of my Google search, and my intention to apply to several schools—the Seminary at Andrews as well as Wheaton—with my friends, family, mentors and professors, and their responses were mixed, at best. Some directed their concerns towards my personal life: “I’d hate for you to miss out on Seminary,” one friend said. “I have such great memories of my time there.” “What about meeting Adventist guys?” others asked, intimating the school I chose could adversely affect my social life. Others weighed in on the professional ramifications of my decision. “The typical path to becoming a theology professor in an Adventist institution is to get your master’s from one of our schools. Then, maybe, you can consider getting a Ph.D. from a non-Adventist school.” The most common concern, though, was whether I would still be an Adventist upon graduation. “We are afraid you might lose your beliefs,” my parents confessed during one lengthy conversation.

This feedback both discouraged and disappointed me, alternately. If I were going to law school or veterinary medicine school, this conversation would be moot, I reasoned. Why was attending a non-Adventist theological school so different?

The truth was, I wasn’t surprised by the tenor of the comments I received. No one needed to explain what made attending a state law school different from studying theology at an evangelical school; I already knew.

I knew our denominational history of distinctiveness, of being a peculiar people. I knew of the pride we take in having our own institutions—our own church buildings, hospitals, schools. I knew most Adventists felt more comfortable being the “light of the world, a city on a hill” than the “salt of the earth.” I knew of leaders and administrators who urged us to stay away from non-Adventist books, sermons, or speakers. Deep down, I knew this: being Adventist means staying away from those who are not.

And yet, when my acceptance letters arrived, when a decision had to be made and a deposit sent, I chose to attend Wheaton College Graduate School. I didn’t feel particularly like a rebel or saint. I hadn’t chosen Wheaton to demonstrate a contrarian spirit, nor to create a paradigm for salt-of-the-earth-evangelism, nor to recommend the same decision to others. I chose Wheaton because it was the right school for me at that point in my life.

Today, nearly a year into my education at Wheaton, I still think this is the right school for me. I could point to experiences I’ve had—my housemate asking to come to church with me, a friend asking me about my practice of Sabbath-keeping—as a sort of empirical confirmation of my decision, but I think the real evidence rests in things that cannot always be seen or measured. Like being a part of conversations instead of monologues, like building relationships where questions can be asked and truth can be shared, like having my vision of what it means to be an Adventist expanded, not diminished.

Not all who wander are lost.” I’d like to believe this applies to me (and others) who wander off the beaten path of Adventist education.

—Alyssa M. Foll is earning her M.A. in Systematic Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois.

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