THIS IS CENTRAL: Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

As I get to know the Central Baptist Theological Seminary community, I want you to hear some of the amazing stories that I am hearing. To share those stories with you I am “interviewing” students, alums, faculty, staff, board members, and supporters, and each week I am sharing an interview on my blog, THIS IS CENTRAL. I invite you to join me on the journey of meeting members of our Central community.

Today’s interview is with Nikki Finkelstein-Blair, a Central alum.

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

NFB: I was born in Kansas City, and we moved away when I was too little to remember. My family moved a lot, but no matter where we lived, we “went home” to visit grandparents in Kansas City, so my childhood memories are of the Plaza at Christmas and Royals games every summer.

Flash forward to Samford University in the early 1990s; Molly Marshall came to speak, and our campus minister told me “You should meet her.” I don’t know why I never did at the time! But I did see the documentary about Molly and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a few years later, when I was considering going to seminary, I figured finding out where Dr. Marshall was teaching might be a good start.

The fact that Central was in KC, the hometown of my heart, was a bonus. Discovering that my great-grandmother earned a night school certificate at Central in the 1950s felt like a true sign!

I started at Central in the fall of 1998 and graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in 2001.

PD: Share with us about your calling and your ministry and life journey.

NFB: My life journey has been a literal journey. When I was a kid, our family moved every 2-3 years, sometimes more, because of my dad’s job. In my adult life, I still move every 2-3 years because of my husband’s job as a military chaplain. I have never had a real hometown, or a real home church. This defines pretty much everything for me, including my sense of call.

As a kid I wanted to be a missionary (my mom remembers me saying I wanted to be a “missionary to Kansas City”!), and although I did journalism in high school and college, I always found myself circling back to religious studies. While I was at Samford, they offered a new program in Congregational Studies that pushed all the right buttons for me. Learning about faith development and sociology of religion, learning about how and why churches do what they do, and (this is the biggie) learning that women in ministry was a THING–all these were exciting to me! There was so much more to church than I’d ever realized, and this way of thinking about it inspired my creative mind. I’m not sure I ever would have seen myself in seminary, or in ministry, without that program.

When the time came, I felt confident about being called to seminary, and to Central . . . but then, as now, I was not certain about what my call to actual ministry was. At that time, my husband had not even considered joining the military, so I approached my seminary education as if I’d be going into “regular” church ministry. I came to Central insisting I didn’t want to preach (in spite of my background in writing and public speaking), but I got roped into it one time, for the Central Women in Ministry chapel service my first year. I’d had this wild idea that we could plan an entire worship service that ran backwards, and the group said, basically, it was my big idea, so I had to preach it. After that service, people I barely knew sought me out to affirm that gift–I gift I didn’t know I had and wasn’t sure I wanted. I was floored when the preaching professor, Dr. Mike Graves, approached me and said “I can’t wait to have you in class.” That experience changed the rest of my Central life, and basically shaped my sense of calling. I took every preaching and worship class I could, wrote bunches of prayers and liturgies, and made some of my best friends planning and leading creative worship experiences together.

I’m coming up on my 20th graduation/ordination anniversary (next summer), and the truth is, I’m still puzzling over what this call looks like in action. It seems to morph constantly. I have not been in “regular” church ministry because of my ongoing life (literal) journey. But I’ve loved and been affirmed by church families across denominations. I’ve written devotionals and curricula. I’ve shared sermons everyplace we’ve lived. Most recently I’ve been writing and handmaking “provisions” for worship both for church and at home. My ministry isn’t what I thought it might be, but I guess it suits me–it comes along with me on the way.

PD: What have been the best resources and experiences you had in your time at Central? What were your key take-aways from seminary?

NFB: This is an easy one: relationships.

I feel funny saying that, because, really, I’m not a “people person!” But what I found at Central was a totally welcoming community of people from all different backgrounds. No church I’ve ever been in was as diverse–denominationally, ethnically, and every other way. Worshipping and learning together was an absolute joy, and I have missed it for the last 20 years. Even so, it prepared me well to be a “cross-denominational” Christian in our family’s moving life!

I’ll always be grateful for the friendships that came out of shared class experiences, planning worship (wild or otherwise), retreating, interning, sermon-critiquing, teasing and arguing, and sometimes crying together. I learned a lot in classes, of course, but every one of those learning opportunities was deeper because of the other students around the tables and professors who engaged us in real life not just in class life. Every chance to plan and lead in worship was expanded by the friends working with me. I think in seminary I finally learned to be a team player!

And those relationships did something else vitally important for me: people at Central were paying attention, and naming and calling out the gifts they saw in me. At times (like with the preaching thing), I wasn’t looking, but they were. When people you respect and trust reflect back what they see in you–I think that’s one way God calls. When those people actively support you, offer you opportunities, help you puzzle out the complications of your calling–I think that’s a ministry in itself.

And 20 years later–when you can still email those same people for encouragement, more puzzling-out, or just to affirm you’re both still there for each other–I think that’s a gift.

PD: What is bringing you joy in this hard season of COVID? What hobbies, activities, adventures, family connections are keeping you healthy?

NFB: As I type this, our family is getting ready to move again (#8 since 2001) so that’s a sort of adventure, I guess! We’re pretty good at moving, but we’ve never done it in a pandemic–when we won’t be able to meet people at church or school, or find where we fit in the community. We’d appreciate your prayers!

I “play with yarn” a lot–I’ve had to take a break from knitting (terrible timing!!), but last year I started weaving clergy stoles. Weaving doesn’t bother my sore arm and it’s super meditative, so it’s good for me in more ways than one. I’m also doing more writing: trying my hand at children’s fiction, and I’m about to start work on a booklet of reflections and prayers for Advent (it’s coming up fast!).

This spring I joined a small online group practicing “Benedict-ish” spirituality in the midst of modern life. I’m early in the journey, but I’m already beginning to see the pieces of my life being gathered together under this umbrella of “prayer and work.” My awareness of St. Benedict started with retreats to Conception Abbey during my time at Central, so I feel like I’m coming full circle. And I’m so grateful.

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