Shawn Kennedy serves as Lead Pastor of Existence Church in San Diego, California. The following interview was conducted at Alliance Theological Seminary in Rockland County while student cohorts were gathered to take classes for the Doctor of Ministry degree.
What prompted you to get your Doctor of Ministry degree?
It was an invitation through a conversation with Ron Walborn to consider joining the Doctor of Ministry department. I remember thinking: I just have so many things going on in my life that it’s challenging to make time. I think that’s been one of the challenges and stresses for everything. But after conversations with my wife and taking time to pray about it, I thought: It’s so easy to miss getting invested into. I think in ministry and in leadership it’s often lonely, so this provided me with an opportunity just to get away and have space to process and to be invested into in a different way.
Did you have any hopes or goals going into the Doctor of Ministry program—what you thought it would be or what you thought you’d gain from it?
Yeah, I did. It was different than what I expected. Part of my hope when I first came in had to do with the scholastic engagement. I immediately realized that what I needed more than an increase in knowledge, if you will, was actually to be pastored and loved and invested into as a pastor. I found myself in that first class realizing: Wow, I’ve received some healing over the last years of ministry. To be honest, it’s not always easy to let—I wouldn’t say let your guard down as a pastor, but just to have those types of relationships that people speak into your life. So for me, I would say this particular journey has been far less about what I’ve wanted to accomplish or the hopes of what would come out of it. It’s been more a journey of who I’m becoming. I think that I would summarize what has taken place so far as a journey toward help in a new way and a new holy imagination of serving as a pastor.
What do you think makes Alliance Theological Seminary uniquely able to help you on that journey? And what do you think has brought that healing or self-knowledge?
By far it is relationally oriented. Ministry is easily disorienting. I would say that Martin, Rob, Joseph, professors that have been a part of this, they have such a high relational disposition, and I think that builds great trust and allows you to entrust. There’s that angle. The other angle is: How can you not be reminded in this program that we serve a global God? It’s just the sheer noticing and observing, “Wow, oh, you’re from Australia. Oh, you’re in an inner city. Oh, you’re on the rural side. Oh, you’re in Manhattan or in Boston or on the West Coast.” You’re just reminded that God’s at work in multiple places in many ways, and there’s a certain aspect of that that’s just humbling and yet, at the same time, inspiring.
So building on that, when you think of Alliance Theological Seminary, what words come to mind?
I think “authentic.” Alliance Theological Seminary is very authentic, genuine, and transparent. I would say “very intentional.” With the word “intentional,” I probably would partner it with the words “soul intentionality.” I did not expect how intentional the entire cohort would be around engaging me on a soul level. Alliance Theological Seminary is diverse—extremely diverse. There’s the diversity of not just of the students, but also the diversity of the professors. For instance, just getting to be in a class with Warren Bird—and Warren Bird connected with Edmund Chan. You have someone who’s local in New York, and then you have someone who’s spending his life in Singapore. It’s a diversity of professors as well as students.
When you think about the people you’ve met at Alliance Theological Seminary, be it students or professors, what sort of images or words come to mind in terms of the relationships you’ve made?
Yeah, it’s several friendships. Maybe I’d use language like “missional friendships.” There are several missional friendships that have occurred in diverse settings during my time at Alliance Theological Seminary so far. I think that’s part of the joy, you know, just processing, to be honest, part of several different learning experiences. And, unfortunately, it seems like the learning experiences that I’ve been a part of since graduating have been all about size and strength and speed. Conversations are always about how you can be a high-capacity leader and what it looks like to increase your influence. I have been so grateful that this program has pointed me toward healthy stewardship and being faithful and leaving the fruit up to God. I need that. I have enough voices constantly pointing towards growth versus health.
You mentioned being surprised because you came here more for the academic aspect, but you found that there were other things that you needed and were gaining from the Doctor of Ministry program.
Could you speak a bit more about how you feel you’re different as a leader or as a person because of your time here at Alliance Theological Seminary?
Yeah. I would say the largest impact might be the impact of awareness towards grief. For instance, the first class was dedicated to walking through soul care and specifically unpacking one’s family of origin. It’s something I’ve done before, but I think one thing that stood out to me in this context was how long it was stretched out. It was stretched out in community, and so I think it allowed more time for things to surface and for me to have more introspection. What that did for me is—again, I partner it in this way: You can have conversations about enlarging your influence, but I think more leaders need conversations about enlarging their souls. I think the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary set up a journey towards processing and grieving, which is something that I needed to do and still need to do. But that was extremely helpful in multiple ways—from the way that I relate to my staff, to the way that I pastor, to the way that I preach.
You mentioned that you were specifically invited to attend Alliance Theological Seminary.
If you had the opportunity to invite someone to come here, what would your pitch be? What would you say about the Doctor of Ministry program and what someone might gain from it?
It would be an invitation of becoming. Ministry is toxic on the soul. Churches are toxic on the soul. We all need places that are not attempting to increase our influence as much as they are attempting to increase our soul and our delight and our joy in serving God. I think Alliance Theological Seminary is a wonderful place where you can find a sense of belonging, a sense of sharpening. And I do think that it’ll allow you to reimagine what it might look like to serve in whatever capacity that you’re serving in.
You talked a bit about treating your staff differently. Are there any other things you can point to in terms of approaching your job or ministry differently now because of this Doctor of Ministry program?
Yeah. I would say I approach my marriage differently. That’s for sure. I think it allowed me—I’d use the image for it: I feel like, at my current setting, I had been running at a fast speed. And it’s exciting and exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting. Being at Alliance Theological Seminary gave me some time to slow down to process and reflect. That is a rare commodity in anything, including ministry, which, you know, raises your overall level of gratitude and increases your humility. That certainly impacted my marriage. I love being able to discuss what we’re learning here with my wife and allowing that to be a part of the process for us as a couple.
You’re in the middle of the program right now, right?
Yes, I’m finishing the fourth cohort. So I have two more electives left.
Is there some kind of connection between what you’re experiencing and what you’re learning here at Alliance Theological Seminary to your day-to-day in your ministry and in your work?
What are some of those things that you are learning and grabbing onto—things that you are able to implement in your ministry?
So there have been several things that have impacted how I do ministry. One has been working through a class here that strongly, strongly encouraged me to continue to come back to the “why,” and I realized that I had become enamored with the “what” and “how” of ministry, and I had started to lose sight of the “why” of ministry. It impacted me so much that in the beginning of January 2017, we lead our church through the discovery of one word for the year. We move from just discovering individual words to saying, “What’s our word for the year as a church?” Our word for the year as a church was the word “why.” That really gave us an opportunity to re-evaluate our vision and our values. It’s a question that we now ask in every staff meeting as we begin. Why are we doing this? Whenever we gather together to pray before a Sunday morning service we say, “Why are we doing this?” That’s been one way the Doctor of Ministry program has impacted me and then my team. Whenever we sit down, we have conversations. We’re constantly filtering it through the lens of “why.” The other thing that’s been really impactful for me on a personal level, but it’s also impacted so much of the ministry, is realizing that your calendar, in so many ways, is a greater determiner of what is impacting your soul and your ministry. As a result of this, I’ve shifted from having a to-do list versus a calendar. And I spend a lot of time and energy making sure that this calendar is actually answering for me the question of: Who am I becoming? Even with our staff, as we work through what we’re doing in a given month—in a given year—we’re constantly looking at each others’ calendars. It’s great that we have this on paper. What does it look like to re-evaluate and say, “This is how we’re leveraging our time”?