Q&A with Michaela O’Donnell Long, 2019 ADM Visiting Fellow
Scheduled around this year’s Annual Funding Event, ADM will host Dr. Michaela O’Donnell Long from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA as a Visiting Fellow. Because she’ll be involved in a variety of events during her time at ADM, we wanted folks to get to know her a bit. ADM caught up with her recently and asked her the following questions.
ADM: You grew up in the U.S. midwestern state of Nebraska, much of which is made up of farming communities. Tell us a bit about how the landscape/community might have shaped some of your perspectives and pursuits.
Michaela: Ah, yes. I did grow up in Nebraska. Although it was nothing like bustling Sydney, I grew up in the city of Omaha. With about a half million people, it was a mid-sized city mostly made up of houses and shops and other suburban amenities. Outside the city in nearly any direction, you’d find agriculture of various kinds.
Reflecting back, I realise that a large swath of the year was measured by the production of corn. In summer, the mantra was that corn would be “knee high by the 4th of July.” In August, farmers would load up their freshly harvested corn and drive into Omaha to sell their harvest out of the back of pick up trucks. And by late September the leftover stalks in the field would turn to golden brown. So, although I’ve never picked an ear of corn in my life, the rhythm of planting, growing, and harvesting is forever sketched into the aesthetics of my brain. And that aesthetic has shaped my own expectation for my work. I trust the rhythm of what I have seen, that there is a time for planting, a time for growing, a time for harvesting, and a time to clear the fields.
ADM: When you decided to attend university, the word on the street is you got an athletic scholarship. True? What sport/position? And so, from your personal experience, how might sports serve as a metaphor for working in ministry, business or an organisation?
Michaela: It’s true. I had the privilege of playing softball for a few years in college—as pitcher first, then short stop. My husband and I were recently talking about how formative sports have been for me, and about how great athletes are coachable. They learn quickly that there is always room to grow, that critique of their game isn’t personal, and that in order to achieve big goals you’ve got to ever evolve in your game.
I carry this same belief into my work as a leader, writer, mother, and creative. Early on in my PhD process, I remember turning in a paper that I thought was profound. When I got it back from my professor, there was so much red ink on the page that I gasped. And when my face reflected my disappointment, he said something that any good coach would agree with: “In order to be a top level thinker, you’ve got to love the critique.” And, now my own leadership style resembles that of a coach—always working with my team to finesse their gifts and skills so that they might flourish in their work.
ADM: You’re now at Fuller Theological Seminary in southern California, serving as the senior director at the De Pree Centre and a lecturer of practical theology—a long way from the softball field or Nebraska farmlands. You’re also an entrepreneur and co-founder of a branding and video production company. Tell us a bit about your journey and how God lead you there? And how does theology mix with business?
Michaela: Life really is unpredictable, isn’t it? When I look back, I can see how all these different parts of my life weave together. But at first glance, one might wonder how all these parts make up a whole. My husband Dan and I both graduated with MDivs from Fuller and started our creative agency soon after, mostly as a way to make money in the middle of a recession. God has been very good to us through Long Winter Media. We’ve learned lots of lessons, met amazing people, created meaningful projects, and paid our bills.
A few years into that, I sort of twisted my own arm into going back to school to get a PhD. And because I was desperate to integrate my work as a business owner with my work as student of practical theology, I studied people who had charted their own way in work, people who I called faithful entrepreneurs. This work eventually led me to the De Pree Center. In my role, I get to bring my full self to the role: entrepreneurial in that I get to create programs and resources rooted in my research; writing and teaching about calling, work, and leadership; and because I have a background in creative content, I serve as creative director on many of our multi-media content offerings. It’s actually sort of a dream. And I don’t take that privilege lightly. I’m committed to stewarding the resources God has given me in this season (including the resource of myself!).
ADM: What sparked your interest in practical theology as well as helping women in particular develop leadership skills?
Michaela: Practical theology is a discipline that revolves around four basic questions:
1) What’s going on in the world?
2) Why is it going on?
3) How might the Bible or Christian tradition speak into it?
4) What should we do going forward?
Over and over again, practical theologians seek to answer these four questions in particular contexts with particular praxis. A quick example of how I might answer those questions around one particular reality of women in leadership , given my role at De Pree Center, might include: 1) Women lack adequate mentorship in the workplace; 2) Statistics show that a majority of senior level men are uncomfortable mentoring women in 1 on 1 situations. Because so many men occupy leadership positions, women are missing out on key mentoring relationships; 3) Right from the start, we see a biblical commissioning of men and women working together in the Garden; 4) What if we created resources that outlined for men “how to mentor a woman” in an approachable way? Therefore, how can we work toward more opportunities for women to be mentored? This is why I love practical theology. It’s critical, synthetic, and practical.
ADM: Deaconess Mary Andrews, after whom our Bible college is named, once said that, “The measure of what you can do for the world will be simply what you let God do with yourself. With most of us God can do so little because we are so little between his hands. That Jesus really wants me and needs me is the wonder and strength of my life. He has met my every need and in him I am fully satisfied.” In what ways might this resonate with you and your scholarship/work on vocation, calling and entrepreneurship? Are there any easy steps to discovering our calling, or “what you let God do with yourself”?
Michaela: Wow, this quote resonates so much with me. It is convicting in that it highlights how our best doing comes not from getting great at doing, but by deepening our being. When we know who we are, and are deeply satisfied with Christ, it becomes like a wellspring bubbling up and impacting every move we make in the world.
I am convinced that most of what we think about how God’s calling works in our lives is limited and therefore unhelpful. I think God is much more interested in the long haul of our formation than any one thing we might put our hands to. And in that, the things we put our hands to are part of how God is always forming us. To let our beings sway in intimacy with God and all that God calls us to, we must ready ourselves to be disrupted over and over again.
ADM: As Visiting Fellow for ADM, you’ll be coming to Sydney in August with your family during the time of our Annual Funding Event. Have you ever been to Australia?
Michaela: It’s our first time. I’m bringing my whole crew: husband, two young children, my mother, and her husband!
ADM: What do you think you’ll find in the land down under?
Michaela: My three-year-old daughter talks nearly every day about seeing a kangaroo. She’s a big Winnie the Pooh fan and imagines that Australia is full of Kanga and Roos. So, fingers crossed.
ADM: Finally, as women prepare their pitches for the Annual Funding Event, what advice or guidance would you give them? Could you recommend a few resources that might help women work toward their goals and/or consider how God is calling them? Final insights?
Michaela: I am so excited to hear pitches from women there. I’m already praying for you and cheering you on! And, I know first hand how vulnerable it is to put yourself out there, so you’ve already got my respect. I’m excited for you to learn. Whenever I’ve given pitches (and I’ve given a lot), I inevitably have to get a little clearer on who I am, what I’m doing, and why it matters. And that process of refining and clarifying is a gift.
If I were going to encourage you to think about one thing for your pitch it would be value add. Value add is a shorthand way to think about the benefit that you and/or your idea adds to society. As Christians, we might think explicitly about how what we’re doing is a value add for the Kingdom. What I’ve learned over time is that while ideas and stories might overlap, each person brings a unique value add to the table.
This means that even if there are five people who pitch an idea for a coffee shop that furthers justice in their community, each will do so in a unique way and therefore add unique value to the Kingdom. In this, we can helpfully shift our internal focus from competing with all the other ideas of the day and instead think about how together we can get clear on the unique value add of our idea, organisation, or project!