An Ambassador for 21st Century Lutheran Identity: Reflections from Our Outgoing Program Coordinator
Fiona Carson ‘18 has been integral to the success of the Lutheran Center since its launch in 2019. For the past three years, she has been dedicated to the Lutheran Center as its Administrative Assistant and then as its Program Coordinator. From the most difficult challenges to the easiest tasks and everything in between, Fiona has acted as a pillar for the Center and all who work here. In this blog post, Fiona reflects on her time working at the Lutheran Center.
What attracted you to apply to work with the Lutheran Center?
First, I have to give a shout out to the coaching at the Piper Center, specifically the alumni coach Jenele Grassle, who encouraged me to apply for this position! Between graduating from St. Olaf and starting my position at the Lutheran Center, I spent a year abroad in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission(YAGM) program. Through YAGM and my time in Eswatini, I learned so much about both the domestic and global Lutheran church. I saw the job posting for the Lutheran Center and was excited because it was a position where I could keep learning about Lutheran tradition, especially as it related to interfaith engagement and anti-racism.
You have been with the Lutheran Center since it was launched in 2019. How have you seen the Center change and evolve over the past three years?
Like the rest of the world, the Lutheran Center’s events and plans have been deeply impacted by COVID. We have done a whole host of virtual programming that we wouldn’t have dreamed of doing before the pandemic. There have been challenges along the way, but overall I’m super proud of how we switched to virtual and hybrid programming and how we took advantage of some of the positives that virtual interaction can afford. For example, we hosted two iterations of the Interfaith Leadership for the 21st Century Workplace seminar for the St. Olaf community with national interfaith leader Eboo Patel and alumni from across the country. Without Zoom, that wouldn’t have been possible!
COVID aside, under Deanna’s leadership the Center has made connections across campus from the Hostile Terrain 94 project to partnering with the Taylor Center, Piper Center, and many other departments on various events as well as establishing our student Interfaith Fellows program. I think the campus community increasingly sees the Center as a place that offers inclusive programming around questions of faith, core values, and vocation.
Like the rest of the world, the Lutheran Center’s events and plans have been deeply impacted by COVID… There have been challenges along the way, but overall I’m super proud of how we switched to virtual and hybrid programming and how we took advantage of some of the positives that virtual interaction can afford.
You have been integral to every aspect of the Lutheran Center’s success over the past three years. Who and/or what motivates you to do your best and “strive for excellence” in all you do?
I want the people who attend our events and our speakers to have a great experience at every Lutheran Center event! This has motivated me to try my best to keep on top of the details surrounding Lutheran Center programming. Deanna has taught me a lot about the importance of hospitality and being gracious hosts to all who interact with the Center.
I am also motivated by my deep belief in the work we do. When I was looking for jobs after returning to the United States, I wanted a workplace whose mission and work added good things to the world. I definitely found that in the Lutheran Center where we don’t shy away from discussing both the harm and the joy that religion can bring to people’s lives and strive to build a community where all faiths and worldviews are respected and valued. This belief in our work inspires me to do my best to make sure we deliver meaningful, justice-oriented, and compassionate programming.
What are some of the most interesting projects you have worked on while at the Lutheran Center?
One that comes to mind is the 2022 Conference on Worship, Theology, and the Arts (CWTA). CWTA is a bi-annual conference hosted by St. Olaf and this was the first one we were able to host on campus since 2018 due to COVID. I was fortunate to be involved through the whole CWTA process–gaining experience in building online registration forms, marketing, customer service, and more! It was so satisfying to see all of our planning come to fruition when conference participants came to campus (or joined us virtually). We had truly amazing presenters and the overall feel of the conference was sacred as people rejoiced in being together. Plus, I had to handle a range of interesting tasks that came along with event planning such as figuring out why the air conditioning in a room just turned off one day, dealing with key card access issues, making sure we had enough s’mores supplies, and more.
I’ve also really enjoyed helping plan events with Eboo Patel over the past two years. I especially enjoyed the two iterations of the Interfaith Leadership for the 21st Century Workplace seminar that we offered to students, faculty, and staff. In one of the sessions, Eboo had this great quote about religious diversity and the workplace: “People from different religions are distinct in ways that affect workplaces all the time. By workplaces I mean hospitals, I mean fashion companies, I mean food service, I mean schools… How does religious diversity affect how you’re going to do your job?” He emphasized that when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we often leave out religious diversity out of the conversation even though it can affect how medical care is considered, what foods people can and can’t eat, and more. In addition to Eboo’s presentations, we had breakout rooms by career sector and each room had alumni talking about their experience with religious diversity in the workplace. It was such a cool experience to be able to work on and offer this seminar and I feel like I learned so much from Eboo and the alumni. One alum even told the group that this had inspired her to think about forming an interfaith group at her workplace.
How has being an ambassador for 21st century Lutheran tradition through the Lutheran Center impacted you personally and professionally?
Personally, one of the biggest impacts has been my evolving understanding of vocation. Over the past two years, the Lutheran Center has administered a grant from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) aimed at expansive thinking around vocation, beyond just seeing it as tied with career. Being a part of this grant has helped me see that my vocation is not just in my paid work but also in my hobbies, my interests, and most importantly to me, my relationships. I deeply value spending time with the people in my life and hearing that that is not only a part of vocation but an integral part of vocation has been really affirming.
Professionally, I think being an ambassador for 21st century Lutheran tradition has strengthened my ability to give and accept grace at work and reminds me of the ongoing need for community in the work that I do. Grace–God’s love without prerequisites–is one of the core tenets of Lutheranism and the Lutheran Center aspires to be gracious in all the work we do, extending this gift to our neighbors. I have learned that in the workplace, it is important to extend grace to others and yourself, as nobody is perfect. The ECLA’s Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment is one of the documents core to the Lutheran Center’s mission. The Declaration has a section on “Limits of our knowing,” and how Lutheran tradition emphasizes that you cannot fully know another person’s relationship with God. For inter-religious relations, this means we do not need to agree on all theological commitments to treat neighbors with respect and kindness. This “limits of our knowing” tenet has also impacted me in thinking about my work–I do not know everything and have so much to learn from the voices in my community.
Professionally, I think being an ambassador for 21st century Lutheran tradition has strengthened my ability to give and accept grace at work and reminds me of the ongoing need for community in the work that I do.
What’s next for you after you conclude your time with the Lutheran Center?
Short answer: I’m not sure yet! I hope to take some time to discern the next steps that are right for me. I’ll also be continuing to enjoy some of my hobbies: playing the trombone, listening to Taylor Swift, baking, and doing puzzles!
What’s one piece of advice you would give someone who just started a job or their career, either here at the Lutheran Center or at St. Olaf in general?
Attend the amazing events and programming on campus! We have so many events going on that it’s not possible to attend them all, but I would recommend choosing a few key events with topics that interest you. Not only will you learn something, but it’s also a chance to make connections across campus with students, faculty, and staff that you might not work with normally in your role.
Thank you, Fiona, for all you have done!
Please join us in wishing her the best of luck in her future endeavors!
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