Category: This is Central

THIS IS CENTRAL: Traci Bartell

Traci, tell us about your Central origin story. How did you come to be a student at Central? What led you to Central?

I was accepted into Central in January of 2014 and took my first class that summer. Rev. Dr. Julie Kilmer was the interim pastor at my home church. I shared with her that I felt called to ministry. Her response was so incredibly supportive. She pointed me in the direction of Central Seminary Ann Arbor. The site was new at that point. As I looked at other programs, this one seemed to be the most convenient, economical, and offered the in-person experience I knew would suit me the best. As the program shifted to be more on-line, I was gifted with great assistance with technology along the way. As I wind up seven years later, graduating in May and concluding course work in July of 2021, I am so glad that I chose Central. Along with outstanding professors and curriculum, God has encouraged and prepared me to use this Master of Divinity degree to teach and pastor a congregation within the United Church of Christ.

Share with us the story of your call to ministry and ministry journey—where you have served and where you are now serving.

I began listening to my call to ministry sixteen years ago. At that point I had re-entered “organized” religion after a long time away. I had returned to my hometown to teach in the public school system and took a music position at my home congregation, First United Church of Christ in Richmond, Michigan. Though there was a history of being hurt by this congregation, they welcomed me with open arms, repairing what had gone wrong in the past.

This also was a time of sadness and distress because my oldest sister had cancer. She and her medical team were doing everything they could and yet it did not seem to be going well. I remember Sunday after Sunday I would be sitting in the pews and hearing the scripture being read and all I could do was cry. I wondered what was wrong with me. One vivid Sunday, I was sitting next to Lori, my sister, and the tears were streaming down my face. She handed me a tissue and said, “You know. Jesus is calling you, Traci.” She died a few months later. The clarity with which she spoke those words seemed to send them deeper into my soul. I began to pay more attention to God and to what was being spoken within me. I look back now and know what an incredible gift that moment was. 

Shortly after my sister’s passing, I enrolled in a program in Wisconsin offered through the United Church of Christ called Lay Academy. This is a two year education program that afforded me the opportunity to experience weekend intensives with seminary professors. I called it “pre-seminary.” If I liked this experience, still felt called, I would apply and attend seminary. “Here I am, Lord! Here I am.”

Over the course of these years of seminary work I have remained active in church leadership locally, at the association level, and through serving as a delegate to the UCC’s General Synod. The last five years I have been the director of music ministry and adult choir director at First Congregational UCC in Rochester, Michigan. In this position I am afforded the wonderful opportunity to work with many fine musicians, conduct a choir, program five different music ensembles, choose music for our community worship singing. Currently, I am preaching and leading worship every week as we await our new settled pastor. I continue, over and over, to sense that God has led me every step of the way. Through sadness and loss, through rejoicing, and everything in between, the Great Loving Presence has held me.  

What have been the best resources and experiences you had in your time at Central?

A dear friend likened the seminary experience to having an entire jigsaw puzzle completed, pictures clear, boarder stable, only to have the study, the wrestling, and the growth dismantle the puzzle bit by bit. “Be ready” he said. “This can be a jarring experience.” I have felt jarred, beliefs jostled along the way. Sometimes, felt like I even lost my spiritual footing. Each professor that I had was a beautiful example of both/and: those who try to undo the pieces we have all neatly put together as we enter the course, leaders who help us sort it all out and encourage us to begin to put some of the pieces back together again. They support our choice to ditch some of the pieces all together. If it no longer works or fits, feel free to throw it out. Professors have helped me see things with new perspective, urged me to grow, and nurtured me as the growing pains, the puzzle dismantling and repairing, seemed very real.

My fellow students have done some of the same work professors offered. Enlightened me, supported me, and reminded me that learning is best done in community. The more classes I took, the more convinced I was that God’s revelation was occurring not only through assignments and homework, also through the Divine light shining through my fellow classmates. As I put this seminary experience behind me, ready for what is next, the puzzle I began with does not have the same picture on it at all. Pieces have been moved, taken off, put back on again. Professors and students have helped me realize that the process of picking up, analyzing, placing is most important. This is invaluable resource for living a faith centered life.

What brought you joy in the hard season of COVID? What hobbies, activities, adventures, family connections are keeping you healthy?

During the weeks of near complete COVID-19 shut down, I was called to reconnect to Nature. I live in a rural area with gravel roads, and a few wide-open fields remain. As I learned that COVID-19 was literally taking the breath away from people, I thought that somehow if I took some deeper breaths or breathed a little harder by moving my body around, I would be assisting those who were gasping and struggling. Daily walks along the dirt roads became necessary, and, as the days went along, I covered more territory. On these walks, I noticed things and documented a few on my Facebook page. I called them Little Signs of Big Hope. As the fear ramped up within me, Nature was the centering balm. Other people’s comments, responses led me to know I wasn’t alone. What a gift!

Inspirare. Latin: to breathe or blow into. Somehow, during this pandemic time, breathing deeply with Nature inspired me, breathed life into something new. God is filled with the unexpected, isn’t She? The Holy Spirit flies on and on!