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By Mashaun D. Simon, Doctor of Ministry, ’24
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early August when Dr. Nicole Symmonds is sitting in a corner of one of her favorite coffee shops in downtown Decatur, sipping on iced jasmine tea.
It’s a much-needed break after spending much of the day settling into her office on the third floor of Columbia Theological Seminary’s Campbell Hall. Much of that time was spent unboxing the books she moved to campus from her home library and figuring out how to organize them all.
“I’m trying to decide what makes most sense,” she says.
Dr. Symmonds was appointed Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics by the CTS Board of Trustees in March. She joins Columbia from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology where she served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics. To say that there is great excitement about Dr. Symmonds’ arrival at Columbia is an understatement.
Excitement, she admits, she also shares.
“Columbia feels like a rich community to be in,” she said. “It is the kind of institution that is committed to not only having a diverse faculty, but also giving the faculty the ability to research to their strengths and not just about producing work for the academy.”
She references, for example, Dr. Christine Hong, Associate Professor of Educational Ministry and the Director of the Doctor of Educational Ministry Program, and her innovative work on decolonized pedagogy.
“Having that chance allows us to shape work that pushes not only the students we encounter, but [Columbia as an] institution further,” Dr. Symmonds added. “As a junior professor, it affords me the opportunity to continue the research I started for my dissertation as well.”
Seminaries and theological education in general facilitates one’s coming into relationship with God in a way that is deeply personal. The experience, if done right, allows those matriculating a greater connection to not only God, but themselves. If one is not different when they come out of the seminary experience then they did it wrong, said Dr. Symmonds.
“You are becoming a self-actualized person, as well as figuring out who and what God is and looks like for you. That means you are not going to stay in the same place you were when you arrived,” she said. “What theological education helped me realize is that we can impact how we understand ourselves in relationship to God. And those things will change.”
It happened to her.
When she arrived in Atlanta to attend the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in the summer of 2010, she was, in her own words, a “conservative Christian.” Much of it had to do, she says, with choices made on her behalf along her religious journey. When she was young, her parents believed it necessary for her to attend church, even though they didn’t.
“With me they believed in training up a child in the way they should go, so they sent me to a traditional Baptist church in Queens, New York,” Dr. Symmonds said. “Then when we moved to Florida, I was Baptist in a Southern Baptist Church before I understood what SBC was. It was the mid-90s and a significant time in the SBC.”
Eventually, while a student of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), she attended what she intentionally describes as a “Black Baptist” church. When she moved back to New York after graduating FAMU, she joined the historic Greater Allen Cathedral African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“All of those churches – from the Baptist one in Queens to the SBC in Florida – was about following the mores of society. I was going because that’s where my parents wanted me to go or where my friends were going. Even becoming AME,” she said. “There was some connection to the choices my parents made for me in the past. But then getting to Candler, the deconstruction happens. Seminary opened me up in so many ways and deconstructed so many things for me.”
Part of that deconstruction led her to the Catholic church and to Christian social ethics.
Her journey has been about finding a way to orient herself to God. Her commitment in the classroom is that, through her teaching, she can help her students understand the importance of orienting for themselves, as well as, for those they will encounter in ministry in ways that make sense for their faith, collectively and individually.
Her tea done, she hasn’t quite decided about the bookshelves. She contemplates rushing back to campus to figure it out, but instead decides the shelves can wait for the next day. Before she departs, she makes one final statement.
“My hope is that I can do great work at Columbia. I think I can,” she said determined.