Sound of the Genuine

Lynn Cooper: Opening the Doors to Ministry

July 09, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 7
Sound of the Genuine
Lynn Cooper: Opening the Doors to Ministry
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Lynn Cooper is the Catholic Chaplain at Tufts University, where she serves on an interfaith chaplaincy team. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a Doctor of Ministry in Transformational Leadership from Boston University School of Theology. Dr. Cooper’s ministry is grounded in Catholic Social Teaching. She seeks to help students make meaningful connections between their education, faith, and the work for justice. Her doctoral work explored loneliness in higher education, proposing a model for embracing friendship as the sacrament that it is. Her spouse, Andrew, is a Unitarian Universalist minister and chaplain. Together they delight in their son Rory. If becoming a mom has taught her anything it is that spirituality can—and must—thrive in the messy, mucky, and mundane.

Instagram: @tufts_catholic_chaplaincy

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

Patrick: Hello and welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s limited audio series on vocation, meaning purpose. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and today we have another special guest, a campus minister in Boston. Welcome to Dr. Lynn Cooper. 

All right, Dr. Cooper. I am glad you're here with us. It’s good to see you. How are you doing? 

Lynn: Doing well. It's so wonderful to be with you all today. So thank you for inviting me. 

Patrick: Yeah. I'm excited to talk to you about your vocational journey. Now I have known you for a while, and I know that you're a chaplain now, and we're going to get to that, how you got to be a campus chaplain, but tell me a little bit about where you grew up. What it was like, where you were, take me back to the beginning. 

Lynn: You got it. So I am from an Irish Catholic family. I'm the fifth child of five kids. And we grew up going to mass every Sunday. If we ever traveled, first thing my mom would do is get out the yellow pages. Where is the church, call them up, when's mass? Like we did not miss mass ever. But when I was in church, I often didn't feel like myself. Now I know I felt this kind of disembodiment. I was a pretty confident kid, but as soon as I walked through that doors, I just folded in on myself. And I remember thinking like, is this what God wants me to feel in God's house?

Like this just feels incongruous with what I think I should be feeling. And through that time as a middle schooler, just absorbing the richness of the liturgy, but also feeling so much tension around it. And I had some English teacher who really encouraged me to write in my journals, write poetry and looking back now, I see that was my spiritual practice.

That was something that was a way to dive into meaning as a kid. And as I went through high school, I had one teacher as a social science teacher, Dr. Fasini and he always taught about religion within his courses. And I took every one of his classes. Sometimes my classes would be back to back and I would just stay in my desk because I would be ready for the next class.

And I realized there was nothing I'd ever felt like in that study of religion, it just ignited something within me. It made me passionate. It was exhilarating. And so I went to college knowing I want to study religion. I didn't tell people that because people tell 17 year olds, like you don't know what you want, you're going to change your major a hundred times.

And so secretly I was looking at schools and just narrowing in on, do they have a religion department? What does it look like? And when I arrived at Tufts as an undergraduate - I've been at Tufts now awhile - but as an undergrad, and declared my major, I started taking religion classes. I took new Testament and that was a real point of rupture for me, because how do you worship, how do you go to mass and hear one narrative and then be in class and hear the historical critical method and hermeneutics, and like, how do you make these things come together? I just couldn't do it. 

And I was asking really hard questions too, about what is my role in this church? Am I seen, am I valued as a full human being here? I don't see any representation that looks like me. And so I really stepped back from mass, but in doing so I encountered, I think my first real experience of church, and that was in the religion department with these professors who cared so deeply for us. In my year, there were four majors, two of whom are still my closest friends.

And I made a lot of like art friends, sports friends, from my work. And in all of these settings, we were doing things together that I felt like why isn't church like this? Why isn't church feel like leaving our shift and going swimming in Walden pond at midnight? That feels so Holy, but why isn't church feel Holy?

Why isn't church more like making art with your friends at five o'clock in the morning together cause you've been up all night talking? Like why doesn't church feel like that? And I headed into that next stage of asking some of these questions and having a lot of anger honestly, but not really knowing where to go with that.

And so I just explore it and I just felt so at home in those in-between places. Going to different kinds of worship and different traditions, Holy spaces, and shrines, and being in that exhilarating place of learning was really a deep source of comfort for me even though, kind of the other scaffolding was falling around me.

Patrick: I'm curious about that in between space. And as you're saying, the scaffolding falling around, how do you navigate that? Both as a teenager, but also as you're in college where you have a religion department, that's really probably teaching you a lot about the traditions going deep in it. And you have this like family commitment.

I'm also asking as a Latino Catholic, like I always say my grandma will come down from heaven and beat me up if I ever leave the church.  It's more than just a tradition, it's tied to the culture. So I'm wondering how you really rested in that in between space and navigated that. Cause I think a lot of young people are navigating that from the, my tradition and from where I'm being pulled to really explore.

Lynn: That's a great question. Asking some of the scholarly questions was a way in for me. And when I think about that time period, and the moment that my mother found out I wasn't going to mass anymore, which was a big moment, yt actually went through the lens of my dad. My dad who did not go to church with us, he's not Catholic. But I came home and I brought with me Finding My Religion, by Scotty McLennan, who had been the university chaplain at Tufts for many years, a UU minister and really a towering figure in campus ministry in a lot of ways.

And I think the subtitle of that book was, when the faith of your childhood doesn't speak to you anymore, something to that effect. So here I am a sophomore in college coming home, reading my book, nothing subtle about it, but I think it was important to me that they understood it was coming from a meaningful place.

It wasn't just like dismissing this thing. It was really painful. And the times when I was going back to church, I looked at it like an experiment. I tried to pay attention to at what point do I feel dis-ease? What is it about the beauty of the liturgy in one place and then the next moment I'm enraged, like trying to sit in and have it - talk about an in between place - in those moments.

Because I had that scholarly lens, I was distancing myself a little bit to try to better understand where that was coming from. But I will say, and a nod to your grandma, that those relationships with my, with my mother's father, who I never met because he passed before I was born, it was knowing that in sacred time and sacred space, I could meet him.

That's what made me feel like I have a right to be here and I have a right to take up space here. And this is where the meaning is. It's not that no one has ever had issues with the church. I have this deep formative roots that I can transcend time and space in my relationships with beloveds and with people I've never met before. And that to me was the way in to rethinking a whole relationship to my tradition. 

Patrick: Dr. Cooper, what do you do with you're comfortable in this in between space? How do you even imagine your call at this moment coming out of this religion department? What were you going to do with it? 

Lynn: I knew that I was going to go to divinity school because my advisor told me I was to go to divinity school. And I really just did which she told me to do. At this point in time here's language I did not have: vocation, pastoral, ministry, call, discernment. This was not part of my vocabulary. I heard people use them in ways that I found very enchanting, but I didn't understand. And so when I started in divinity school, my advisor told me, go get an MTS and then maybe you'll get a PhD.

And at the last second, right when I was checking the box, it's like, you know, I should really go back and look at these programs. What are they? Maybe I should read the description. And when I read the description of the master divinity, I thought, no, that's what I want to do. I want to do field work. I want to learn what does this look like in real life?

I don't want it to just be an intellectual exercise, but I want to be with people. I want to learn from people. And so in that moment, I think that was the, that was like a concern moment. I do think in some way, not that I would have used that language then. So I arrived in Harvard divinity school and the first day that we had this little retreat, the policy center in Boston, which is a Catholic community.

And I heard the woman who was to be my advisor. I heard her speak and within the first minute I thought I'm in the right place. I don't know why, I have no idea why but I'm in the right place, which I think a lot of people feel that way in seminary. It's very mysterious and very intense in a lot of ways.

And I went in again through this lens of study, but in developing relationships with folks in my field work at a Lutheran church. I really love the Lutherans, the ELCA, I thought about becoming Lutheran. I also felt like I was missing some sort of like DNA love of Luther. Like I didn't have, I was just like, I didn't have something about, and that kept happening.

And then I would go to Unitarian Universalists. I had good friends who were UU's in college and so I was exposed to unitarian universalism in Cambridge, and I'd go there and I'd say, wow, the worship. So beautiful. I love Emily Dickinson. This is great! And then I leave feeling like, but it's just not hitting me in the way that there was something deeper within me that it wasn't resonating with.

And that's what I latched on to later on in my time in divinity school. If I'm going to feel like an outsider anywhere, I might as well take up space in the place where I have like a birthright. I have a history, I have a whole lineage. 

Patrick: And as you explore this in your MDiv. I love this phrase.that you said, if I'm going to be an outsider anywhere, might as well be in my tradition. What does that look like as you're exploring? Like, how are you thinking about your tradition? How are you thinking about serving? How are you thinking about ministering or doing art? What is it that you're imagining for yourself as being an outsider anywhere might as well be in my tradition?

Lynn: Interestingly enough, I had started studying these turn of the century American anarchist women, and it was, it was they who showed me how to turn things on their heads, who taught me the power of subversive existence in some ways, and not in a way of tearing something down, but loving something so much, you want it to be better. And I started to meet folks who were really living out Catholic social teaching in various settings.

They were anti-war folks. They were climate justice folks. And I had never seen that part of Catholicism. They don't teach catholic social teaching in the pews, sadly, and it should start soon. Yesterday. Basically. I started to fall in love with elements of the tradition that I was pretty pissed that I hadn't been exposed to as someone who went to church every Sunday.

How do I not know about Catholic social teaching? How do I not know about preferential option for the poor? Like, there's something really wrong here. And I had some anger. I had some sense of purpose and call and, and, and desire to learn more about this tradition. You know, the really formative element of my story too, was I started working at an all-boys Catholic high school, and it was like a prep school.

I was a campus minister there and I taught religion and it was the first time I'd ever been in a Catholic setting in my life. I had never been on a retreat, but I was like running retreats for 70 high school boys. At the end of the first year I worked there I made a list of everything I did that I had never done before. And even in this time, I was still in the back of my mind, thinking about becoming an Episcopalian. Maybe I do have a call to the priesthood and slowly over time, it became clear to me that call was to be with people. And to be with young folks who are asking hard questions. I remember being in CCD and asking questions that really upset the teacher and the poor teacher was not prepared theologically to do this kind of formation.

And so it was like a setup. And then you're targeted, not targeted with retaliation, but you're not the favorite student. And then you already feel like pushed to the margins again and again. And I just started to see bigger systemic issues in how we do church. And in my last year of divinity school, I had taken a year off in between my second and third years, because there was just so much to process.

This is the drinking from a fire hose. And I saw some of my classmates finishing divinity school, finishing their thesis. Just get me outta here. And I felt like this is a really special place. It's bizarre, theological school can be really strange, but I don't want to feel that way. I don't want to be wishing my life away at the end of this program. I want to savor it. I'd had basically a religious experience writing my undergraduate thesis about women and bodies and early Christianity. And I wanted that again, it was so formative. And when I took that time off, I remember one morning being at my friend's house and sitting outside and going for a walk like really early.

And I thought, my gosh, I've been to divinity school for a couple years. I don't know what I want to do. Like how did I spend all this time and money? And I just, I don't have a plan. I don't know what's next. And it made me really upset, but also it made me go back to the drawing board a little bit. The parish work with the Lutherans was great. Congregational ministry like wasn't for me. And so I ended up calling up the chaplaincy at Tufts and saying will you take me as a field ed student? I'd already fulfilled all my requirements, but I ended up doing this extra unit. And while we didn't use this language then, my role was to minister to the nones, the N.O.N.E.S. nones, who are the students who are doing justice work.

Really wrestling with these questions of meaning and purpose. Like, why am I getting this world-class education if I'm not going to use it in a way to create change and disrupt the status quo? And so that was my task in this work. So a couple of years later when their Catholic chaplain left quickly, she'd given proper notice, but it happened over the summer.

And the university chaplain there gave me a call and invited me in for an interview. And I just felt like this is the work I want to be doing. It was super part-time as many university chaplaincy positions are, which we can talk about more later, but it felt like this is my entry point into the ministry that I think I'm called to do. And so I told you, even though I had a full-time job - had a full-time job and I took this on top of it. 

Patrick: What were you doing for full-time? 

Lynn: I was working at the high school. 

Patrick: Here's what's curious to me, you're going back to where you did your undergrad. Was that ever like on your radar? Like, I would love to return and be a chaplain at the place where these questions started awakening, where I was living it for the first time in that in-between space. Was that on your radar or you're just like, this is a cool phone call?

Lynn: It was not on my radar. I didn't know what a chaplain was. I was hired as the Catholic chaplain I didn't know what that meant. I had been working in campus ministry. I've been teaching religion, but I didn't know what it meant.

That's kind of a funny story, but my first year Palm Sunday, I didn't buy palms. I didn't like, I didn't know. That's a logistical thing, but there was just a profound disconnect. I also came into consciousness that as someone who had been disenfranchised within the church, it should not be a surprise that I do not know how to set up the altar table.

Things like that where I had at the beginning, some shame and like imposter syndrome of, gosh I should know this. And then I thought I wasn't allowed to be an altar observer. There's a reason why this is a whole component of knowledge and experience I don't have. I had the spirituality experience, the deep questioning that I think there are more people asking these kinds of questions usually It's not safe for us to ask some of these questions. And so I took up my ministry as a way to throw open the doors of the church, you know, that great image of Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate of this tiny Pope Francis and these huge doors. And that's how I think about widening those doors for students who come and feel comfortable going to the 7:00 AM Sunday mass down the street at the parish that's not really thriving in some way. I'm not as concerned about that student. I think that they're going to find a spiritual home. I'm really worried about the people for whom church has been hostile, for whom church has been alienating and to create a space of care, deep care and comfort and challenge, but also to tell a new story that this can be different. Church can be way better.

Patrick: What is the day-to-day look like going back to the very beginning of you've received this call, your multi vocational. You're working at this all boys school to begin with and trying to do this part-time, which a lot of campus ministers have to piece some things together to make a living. What is your day to day look like especially as you reimagine church to be so inclusive as you've put?

Lynn: Well we're trying. Day to day now, or day to day when I first started?

Patrick: Both/and. Give us the when you first started and tell us what it looks like now. 

Lynn: So when I first stared, this was in 2008, right as the financial crash was happening and it was lonely. I must say I worked really closely with our Muslim chaplain, who was a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School, Naila Baloch.

And we were two women in our twenties in these roles. It was an important shift at Tufts. And I think within talk about representation and difference, telling different stories of folks in religious leadership. Now keep in mind, like I wasn't part of the Catholic community when I was at Tufts. Okay. No way.

I went to church twice and one of those times I left the chapel crying and someone, some kind person came up to me as I'm walking down this hill in the dark, it was like 11 o'clock at night, cause mass was at 10:00 PM and this kind person came up to me and asked if I was okay. You know, so there was a profound disconnect for me of what does ministry look like?

How do I use my experience of asking some of these questions? But I don't know what chaplaincy looks like and I wasn't part of it! And so it was really just building those relationships. And as you know, it takes time and it takes showing up and it takes being a face that people see on campus and start to slowly recognize.

Pre-pandemic I spend a lot of time in the various coffee centers on campus. I do a lot of work there. I'd bumped into people have impromptu conversations or just like check-ins with folks - that's students, faculty, and staff, but in being able to inhabit that space in a different way, because of the investment into my position and my colleagues’ positions, we take that really seriously.

The interfaith center is a wonderful place, but where is the energy, you know? And it can be like a respite. It's a little bit off campus, two blocks or something, and it's a peaceful place. But if I want to know what's going on campus, I need to be in the midst of the scrum and see where people are and how they're doing.

And also with my colleagues, we try to hang out together to model inter-faith dialogue, I guess, but to model like deep relationships and all of those messages matter. That collaborative spirit. Any way that we can model dialogue any way that we can model a collaborative spirit of our multi-faith chaplaincy, we try to take advantage of that. 

Patrick: And so chaplaincy, for you now, is it a full-time call? Are you still piecing things together? As you think about your colleagues that you work with, what does campus chaplaincy look like right now? 

Lynn: So my role is three quarters time right now, and which for me is ideal. I have a young child. And so this is just what I want. But it took a while to get there and it took finishing my doctor of ministry. There was a path to get to this place and I'm really delighted that Tufts invested in me and in this way where I can stay here and continue to grow these roots. If that hadn't happened, I'd be getting another job, like a full-time other job or another part-time job, which is just - the bi-vocationality is real. It's also really hard. I've done that for a while. Within like the multi-faith chaplaincy world there is I think a commitment to diversify, which is really exciting. And with that comes the challenges of, we want to bring in and we want to respond to students expressed desire for chaplain support, but building those positions from the ground up sometimes these roles, most of the time, these roles are part-time. Some of the bigger universities have all full time. All of my colleagues, the associate chaplains: so that's myself, the protestant chaplain and the Muslim chaplain, the Hindu chaplain, the Buddhist chaplain, the humanist and Africana spirituality, we have this breadth of amazing colleagues and they're all part-time. So it's a bigger question, I mean it's a justice question of like, how do we, how do you retain people, fabulous people? How do you invest in, the actual, like human resources that we are and have it so folks can make a living? You know, it's like this chicken, egg thing too with ministry, because the more you're there, the more relationships you can have. The more you can listen to your colleagues to know what their needs are.

All of this is identifying needs and then being able to say, here's what we did. Here's what we could have done if we had that investment. It's hard having all these part-time positions and then also there's positions like, mine now is different because I'm in more of a leadership role, this in-between role, which is pretty atypical, I would say.

So it's very difficult to make that jump from Associate Chaplain to Dean of the Chapel or Associate Chaplain to University Chaplains. So that's something within the field that I think there needs to be more opportunity for advancement to get that experience. Cause like how else do you, how else do you learn how to supervise and manage folks if you don't have that first step? We work really collaboratively as an interfaith chaplaincy, and one project that I have been working on grew out of my DMin work, which was on loneliness and higher education. And so we created an interfaith friendship program called Be-friend. It's a shared spiritual practice model.

We have a program for faculty and staff and a program for students. So they're being partnered one-to-one they commit with a covenant, they create a covenant together, they commit to giving each other an hour of their time each week. And so it's, again, it's just prioritizing your relationships over tasks.

We have to get the tasks done, but we have to prioritize people and building those skills, the active listening skills, the showing up for one another. This is formative for the rest of your life and your marriage, like for your relationship with your parents or your relationship with your boss. So that's a piece that we rolled out this past semester that was really successful.

And quite a time for it. Some of the feedback we got was, wow I never thought I'd make a new friend during COVID and have it be so meaningful. So really it's that excuse to get beyond the surface and go deep quickly. So each week we call them invitations. They are just suggestions, but written by our multi-faith chaplaincy team.

And again, it's to make things accessible, offer that scaffolding so that people can go and talk about the things that matter. When you think of our work as community organizing within the university, deep listening to our colleagues to support them in their work. What are the needs that students are identifying in identity centers, in counseling mental health services?

Those are the meetings I find the most exhilarating because we see the other dimensions to our students and to the needs of our campus as they're being expressed in these different corners. And then the other piece is worship and ritual. And as a lay woman, I cannot celebrate our mass. So I collaborate with some priest in religious orders in the area, and they come to celebrate mass with our community.

Usually I have about two or three and we try to really focus on student empowerment and hearing student voices. From my own experience in church of being afraid to take up space, literally with my body, just turning that on its head again of you have a right to be here, your voice matters. Get your fingerprints all over this liturgy.

That's the only way that I think on a bigger picture of thinking about the future of our church is to have people who have had that. They leave, hopefully with that sense of ownership so that when they go to a parish a couple of years down the road and they say, wow, there's no, there's no social justice ministry here. Or there's no racial justice work here. Like how about I start that? Not just, oh man, I wish they were doing this, but no, like you're a leader. Go do it yourself. But that sense of leadership and that's what I'm trying to really foster in our students. 

Patrick: I'm going back to your story and thinking through that, you have these student leaders and you're creating those spaces, those liturgical moments for deep inclusion, where you can see yourself in the space and, and grounded on relationships, like we fundamentally know each other, so we want one another to be here. I just think that's absolutely beautiful. So I got one more question for you. This is really a question of call and how you see your own sense of vocation. But as you imagine yourself, where you are right now, how much is it due to the community that forms you, all of these formative experiences, how much is it a sense of a call inside? This is what you were meant to do. 

Lynn: Yeah. I got the call brother. I feel like where I may have been unsure eight years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. It has become clear. And I'm not called to the priesthood. And it's a whole other set of real ambivalence as a woman to have the call to the priesthood and not be able to inhabit it within the church of your home. But I know that I'm called to do this work within this structure and to be pushing back and opening those doors. The experience within the college setting is often fraught with the questions of identity and questions of, as I had myself, of where am I within this structure that I take deep issue with a lot of the ways that they are operating.

And I used to think, oh gosh, am I like, am I giving people a false sense of hope? And now I know this is what you gotta do. Because we're only going to be creating the seeds for change the seeds for enrichment and that enchanting religious imagination if we're modeling it and embodying it and living it out.

When I get text messages from graduates, giving me these beautiful little nuggets of their stories, I think, no, this is what we need to be doing. That person who could have easily, you know, as a first-year student who came to Tufts, a lesbian woman had just come out to her family and has coffee with me in her first two weeks at Tufts and says, I want to be part of the Catholic community, but I also want to be part of the LGBT community here. Is there a place for me? Like the fact that question even has to be asked is a sin and is horrible. And also thank God she asked. And this is someone who is now in ordination process, not within our church, of course, but like it's a bigger appreciation for Jesus and like, and our call to, again, open those doors.

Patrick: Thank you. Just thank you for your story and for sharing the journey. That's going to stick with me for a long time, but that's what this space opens up and navigating the between. And being an outsider anywhere so might as well be here, so that way you can fling those doors open for these students to come in and ask the big, hard questions and push back and build the spaces in the community. It's a wonderful story Dr. Cooper. Thank you so much. I'm grateful to be in relationship with you and I'm grateful for this interview. So thank you so much. 

Lynn: Thank you. It was a joy to chat and I look forward to whatever's next. 

Patrick: I want to thank you for listening to Dr. Cooper's story. We know you can find inspiration in many places in your life and we are so grateful you chose FTE to hear this story. If you like what you heard, be sure to share it with a friend. Special gratitude to our design managers Heather Wallace, Elsie Barnhart, and the rest of the FTE leaders crew. And a special thanks to @siryalibeats for his music. Don't forget you can find out more about FTE and our many resources at Thank you for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.