Dessa Fejta Tampio, ‘03, entered Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity in the hopes of becoming a Presbyterian chaplain.
Two years later, after taking “very interesting” courses, she decided not to be ordained.
Although raised in a secular home, Tampio became involved in the Presbyterian Church while in college and was later baptized as an adult.
“I went to divinity school because I was interested in being a chaplain, but I was never interested in congregation work,” she said.
“What drew me to chaplaincy was the idea of being a comforting presence for people during a time of crisis, illness and death.”
During her time at Vanderbilt, she had an internship as a hospital chaplain. Through that experience, she realized that what she liked was listening to people and praying with them.
“I like being the non-medical touch in the hospital and being with people in their time of sorrow or fear,” she said.
Tampio’s primary ministry interests were listening, prayer and pastoral care. She did not feel drawn to preaching or administering the sacraments (baptism and communion in the Presbyterian church).
“Everything that I felt drawn to and enjoyed was something that could be done by a layperson. I could do those things as a volunteer; I did not need to make the church my career.”
In the Vanderbilt master’s program, Tampio took foundational history courses, but said her most fascinating classes were her electives.
One of these – Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality – was taught by a lesbian professor whose wife was an ordained minister. The class was an overview of the relationship between homosexuality and the church throughout history.
Another elective that she found interesting was Sexuality and the Sacred.
This elective discussed sexual abuse in the clergy. The class taught that those who are drawn to become clergy are often charismatic people who can assert power over others. In turn, these people could abuse their power.
“We looked at case studies where abuse occurred in churches that revolved around one person of power,” she said.
“If that person has a power complex and ill intentions, they can take advantage of others. We discussed how that can destroy individuals and community.
“The class taught me why it’s so important that denominations are providing safety training and why they need to keep watch over people in power.”
Tampio has worked in an Episcopal church where priests’ doors are required to have windows. Additionally, two family members cannot run a Sunday school class by themselves.
Tampio said that this course gave her an appreciation for the oversight and structure of the church.
Tampio suggests that those considering studying to be a religious leader keep an open mind because they will be forced to examine their life, hopes and future.
“It can also bring skeletons out of the closet,” she said.
“You can’t be afraid to look behind the closed doors, and you can’t be scared of changing your opinion.”
In fact, Tampio had five friends who changed denominations while studying in the program.
“One was a Catholic and converted to the Church of the Nazarene; another was a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism,” she said.
“And another withdrew completely.”
—By Nicole Wolkov