Donna Covington, Vice President of Formation at Asbury Seminary, joins me on the Thrive with Asbury Seminary Podcast. In this episode, we talk about the formation journey students begin during their time at Asbury Seminary, but also Donna’s personal story of formation, healing and hope.
Rev. Donna Covington, Vice President of Formation at Asbury Seminary
She is a highly accomplished senior leader with experience in both corporate and higher education with a heart for ministry. Corporately, she has extensive proficiency and expertise in organizational development, strategic planning and change management. She has a proven track record for problem solving and bringing organizations and groups together. Rev. Covington has led global organizations and traveled extensively in over 30 countries in her various roles at IBM and Lexmark International, Inc. She brings a global perspective along with knowledge and understanding of diversity and cultural complexities to her work.
Heidi Wilcox, host of the Thrive Podcast
Writer, podcaster, and social media manager, Heidi Wilcox shares stories of truth, justice, healing and hope. She is best known as the host of Spotlight, (especially her blooper reel) highlighting news, events, culturally relevant topics and stories of the ways alumni, current students and faculty are attempting something big for God. If you can’t find her, she’s probably cheering on her Kentucky Wildcats, enjoying a cup of coffee, reading or spending time with her husband, Wes.
Heidi: Hey everyone. Welcome to this weeks episode of The Thrive with Asbury Seminary podcast, where every other week we bring you conversations with authors, [inaudible 00:00:14] leaders, and people just like you, to help you connect with where your passions meet the worlds deep needs.
Heidi: This week on the Podcast we’re talking with Reverend Donna Covington, Vice President of Formation at Asbury Seminary. In this episode we talk about the formation journey students begin during their time at the seminary, but also Donna’s personal story of formation, healing, and hope. Let’s listen.
Heidi: I’m excited to talk to you today about formation, not just at Asbury, but your own formation journey. Because it is a journey, right?
Donna: It absolutely is a journey, and that’s what we talk about as we’re talking about how we do formation at the seminary. We’re talking about formation is a journey. It starts, and it never ends.
Heidi: I want to start when you were a little girl, and how you got into becoming who you are now. As I was researching for this interview, I read that somebody had told you girls didn’t do science.
Heidi: But you have two degrees.
Donna: I do.
Heidi: In chemistry.
Donna: That’s right.
Heidi: Why did you decide to pursue this, and how? Because, I would imagine it was hard to overcome that voice that was like, “You can’t do this.”
Donna: Yeah. You know, it’s really interesting for me. Growing up, I grew up in Lexington. I grew up in a segregated Lexington.
Donna: I grew up in the 60s where there was kind of the African American part of town, and the other part of town.
Heidi: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Donna: Growing up it was a community. While many may think about that as, “That’s horrible.” In fact, it was a formative community. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I can see how the neighborhood, the teachers, in church, all of that was forming all of us. It was very much a village that formed. For example, if you were in school and you misbehaved in class, because the teachers all lived in the neighborhood, your parents knew immediately. If you misbehaved in class and got punished, you then get punished at home. Right? So this is this community that’s forming.
Donna: I have two younger brothers. I was the youngest of three. Education was a big deal because it was seen as the key that would get you out. My mother was a secretary, my dad was a mechanic.
Heidi: My dad was a mechanic, too.
Donna: Yeah, so Daddy owned one of the two business in Lexington that did auto mechanics, worked on cars for African Americans, because you just couldn’t take your car anywhere to have it fixed. Right? You couldn’t go to the movies, you could only go to the Lyric. You just couldn’t go wherever you wanted to go.
Heidi: Oh my goodness. That seems so amazing to me today, but wow, go ahead.
Donna: It was life in the 60s. Right?
Donna: We grew up in church. We had to be at church every time the doors opened. Right? And that’s not based on racial things, that’s based on family tradition.
Heidi: Mine too.
Donna: You go to Sunday School, right? You go to Sunday School and church, and BTU and evening service.
Heidi: Right. You didn’t miss. If there was an opportunity, you were there.
Donna: But looking back, that started to shape who I became as a woman, as a person. That shaping in Sunday school of the stories of the Bible, I just never thought about it that way because we learned how to memorize things. We were introduced to Christ at a very young age. Because my mother was a secretary and this is a very small community, she was a secretary to chemist at IBM.
Heidi: Oh wow.
Donna: There were three African American chemists that I met there through just going there because my mom worked there.
Heidi: Oh that’s amazing.
Donna: They became my idols. I wanted to be just like them. It’s the power of how a model or example can shape you. We’re either formed in community spiritually, or we’re formed in community in the world, or we’re deformed in families and communities and churches. That’s the power of shaping and forming, whether we’re formed spiritually or whether we’re deformed in our walk of life.
Donna: I was very blessed to be formed with great role models with people telling us that education was the key. We’re first generation college students, right? My brothers and I are the first ones in our family to ever go to college. I’m watching my mother and father save because they wanted their children to be educated.
Donna: Then schools were desegregated.
Heidi: I bet that was an exciting day.
Donna: So, as I went to high school, now I’m in a integrated, at Henry Clay environment that’s very different then any environment I’d grown up in.
Heidi: What was that like? Was that-
Donna: Well, you’re walking into an environment you don’t know. It’s transition. I would liken it somewhat to how our students may come to seminary. Think about our international community-
Heidi: Oh my goodness yes.
Donna: It’s kind of a cultural shock, or certainly a cultural transition. As I went from growing up in elementary school, growing up in junior high school there, not middle school, all of a sudden being immersed in a different community that I didn’t know because growing up we stayed in our neighborhoods.
Heidi: Yeah, and I don’t know, might not have always felt welcomed into necessarily but just were there.
Donna: So that helps me think when I’m here about, how do we include? It’s not just about diversity of a community, it’s about how do we include people in community. It was in high school where I met this guidance counselor that the quote is from that you asked me about. Somewhere in my senior year or junior year, I had to go to a guidance counseling office. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a chemist.
Heidi: Well yes, absolutely.
Donna: Because I had watched these role models. I babysat for them. I wanted to be just like them.
Heidi: Were the role models, were they women? Chemists?
Donna: They were men.
Heidi: Okay, but you wanted-
Donna: They were African American men who had gone to Fisk. Not only did I know what a chemist really did, I just knew they were chemists and I wanted to be like them. I really didn’t know much about chemistry. She said to me, I wanted to go to Centre College… I shouldn’t say that, my mother wanted me to go to Centre College. I wanted to go to Fisk because they had gone to Fisk. It is a historically black college university. Centre had offered me a scholarship. Of course, my mom knew the value of money, and I had no idea about the value of money. She said, “You’re going to go to Centre College.” I remember my guidance counselor saying to me, “You can’t go to Centre, and you can’t be a chemist.”
Heidi: What kind of guidance counselor is that?
Donna: You have to put yourself Heidi, back in the 60s for a moment. Through a historical lens of, first of all, African Americans weren’t really being chemists, and certainly an African American woman, not to mention women in general weren’t practicing in the science and the maths.
Donna: In her mind, perhaps she was trying to be helpful. Let’s be graceful and say perhaps she wanted to see me on some path that she thought I might be successful with.
Heidi: Yes. I’m sure she wanted to guide you in a way that, to put you on a path that she knew you could succeed on, not pushing the envelope as you would’ve been doing at the time.
Donna: But it’s a nod to the power of words and what we speak over people’s lives, and our expectations. She was wrong on both accounts, by the way.
Heidi: Yes she was.
Donna: As I went to Centre, even then… I want to kind of take you through this lens so it will help us together understand how I’ve been shaped, and therefore how I think about some things.
Donna: At Centre, there were probably 12 African Americans on campus. Right? It’s a very small campus to begin with. It wasn’t horribly unusual for me because I had just been living through this season of integration anyway. I graduate, and I knew I had to go to grad school. So I get a masters in analytical chemistry, and because we come from an IBM family, my mother worked there, my brother worked there, I just assumed I would go work at IBM as a chemist.
Heidi: I wondered how you got involved with IBM and the corporate world. That makes sense.
Donna: Because IBM had been so great to my mother, she had had great career opportunities. She started as a secretary, and just kind of worked her way up to a staff position. She must have realized, and I didn’t that that’s a place where people could have opportunities. So it never occurred to me to go work anywhere else beside IBM. When I graduated from graduate school, IBM had a freeze on hiring so I couldn’t get it. Therefore I went to Texas Instruments and worked for a couple of years. That was such another stop of formation for me because I worked third shift at Texas Instruments in Versailles, Kentucky in the molding department so it was a bunch of grumpy old men, I shouldn’t say old men but grumpy men ,for sure, who worked third shift. When I look back on that, I thought I was pretty hot shot graduating with a masters degree in analytical chemistry, but it was there in that community where they accepted me as… Can you imagine these older guys having an African American woman as their supervisor?
Heidi: Wow, yeah.
Donna: So their boss.
Donna: It started to show me the power of love, and how that can either form us, or deform us. I’ll never forget that community as being so welcoming in Versailles, Kentucky, of all places. My mother insisted that I work for IBM, so as soon as they opened, I was hired as a chemist there.
Heidi: So, you’re first job at IBM was a chemist. I don’t know what a chemist at IBM would do? What did you do?
Donna: If you recall, and you may not be able to, there was such a thing called typewriters, and we formulated the ink for the ribbons and formulated lift-off tapes. So chemists did that, chemists set up the processes for manufacturing inks. We did a lot of competitive analysis, understanding what our competition was doing, what sort of pigments they were using, that sort of thing. So IBM hired a lot of chemists to do that sort of work in Lexington because Lexington was pretty much the headquarters for the typewriter division.
Heidi: That’s awesome. And then you just like your mother, you moved your way.
Donna: Yeah, so what I didn’t know, again it’s kind of fun to lean back and think about this. IBM was a great place to work, and they had processes and programs in place to identify people throughout IBM, no matter where they were located, that might have potential to make it to the executive rights. They called it their High Potential Program.
Heidi: What a great company that would have that in place already.
Donna: I was one of those people among a lot of people that were tapped as, “She may have enough potential to move up the ranks.” So when they identify you, they put development plans in place so that you have experiences in different places as you move up the ranks so that you’re broad enough to be an executive. They let you go as high as your potential will take you.
Heidi: That’s awesome.
Donna: They don’t say, “Heidi’s going to be a vice president.” They’ll say, “We think Heidi has potential.”
Heidi: And let you decide how hard you want to work, what you want to learn. That’s amazing.
Donna: So it was a phenomenal opportunity for someone like me. I didn’t know those things were possible. I couldn’t of… I dreamed of being a chemist, that was a big dream for me. I never dreamed of being an executive. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.
Heidi: Right. That makes sense, like I grew up in Eastern Kentucky and even just being here I’m like, “Yeah, these are possible.” But you don’t know to dream what you don’t know.
Heidi: If you haven’t seen it modeled, like you were saying earlier, you don’t know. You see it in other families, but not for you because nobody before you has done that.
Donna: So you don’t know what you don’t know. All through this journey, being formed in church, molded the person that I was. It molded my character. It molded my values. It was at Centre where I really encountered Jesus, and experienced Jesus.
Heidi: I came up with questions but you’re kind of leading me right through because I was going to ask you when Christ became part of your life because I, too, grew up in a Christian home, but you have to decide for you. And when he becomes important to you and starts molding your own life.
Donna: Exactly. So, I was baptized at seven because that’s what we did. We’d have revival, we’d sit on the mourners bench, and at the end of revival you were expected to go forth in the baptist church to make a profession of your faith with baptism. Of course we all did that, but I didn’t realize what that meant. My eyes were opened. I’ve never been the same since that day. Another student Melanie Davis, I’ll never forget her, shared the gospel with me, and the love of Christ. It’s like the light bulbs went off and I understood in a way that I never understood before. But I would like to think that all of those Sunday school lessons, and the Bible stories, and being raised in church all helped culminate my understanding of being drawn to who Jesus is and his love. It was at that point at Centre when my life just changed dramatically.
Heidi: How so?
Donna: Well, what I desire. I had a love for scripture that I’d never experienced before. The Lord filled me with the holy spirit. Growing up in a Baptist church, you just didn’t talk about that stuff. Right? I didn’t even know what it meant. I didn’t know what Pentecostal was. I had no biblical understanding of what was happening to me. That’s how I know that the holy spirit will lead us, because I experienced that in my own formation of no one was sitting there teaching me. There’s nothing wrong with teaching, we want to teach, we want to take people on a journey. But I’d like to think the Lord was forming me, as he does everyone for the journey he’s going to put us on.
Donna: Certainly, he knows. The Bible tells us our stories have been written, Psalm 139. How we live them out, is something different. He knows his plans and his purposes for our lives. The question is, will we be obedient and submit to the good things that God has planned for us. That’s where I encountered Christ, and encountered the Holy Spirit in a way that I’d never seen before. That led me toward different experiences that you can imagine than growing up in a Baptist church as a young girl.
Heidi: So then you kept working at IBM. Going into that, knowing Christ, how did that kind of… Because you’re aware of things, how did you see Christ shaping you during those years?
Donna: I was married in graduate school, so now we’re starting a family in addition to starting a career, and again in my mind, being hired as a chemist was a phenomenal thing. Now we’re starting to shape ourselves in a church community locally. That starts a different shaping as married and family and all of those things.
Heidi: That’s totally different. Yeah.
Donna: It was that shaping, I think, that started to shape who I was in the workplace. I wasn’t sitting there saying, “I want a promotion.” Or, “I want a raise.” I didn’t know those things were possible.
Donna: I didn’t. I mean, how would you know?
Heidi: Right. Exactly.
Donna: I remember hearing The Lord speak to me about giving, and it wasn’t giving to get, it was, “I want to teach you principles of sowing and reaping.” And I think part of my career, and maybe perhaps just how I’m built is, the fun of seeing other people increase their capacity or be developed to more. You know the interesting principle is the more you develop others, the more you are developed. Right? And that started to shape how I worked.
Heidi: Right. But you’re not going at it with that attitude, “It’s going to make me better.” It was just a genuine, “I want to help others.”
Donna: I can remember my first promotion into the executive ranks. I was actually going to see some executives about a guy who worked in my organization who didn’t have a college education, but was really smart, was doing phenomenal work. I knew I’d have to go defend him because they weren’t promoting people to the ranks I wanted without college degrees. In all of that process of getting this guy hired, or promoted, I ended up being promoted also. That was my first promotion into the executive ranks. Again, it was starting to understand, and I see it here at the seminary, the power of teams.
Donna: The ability to get things done through a team of people as opposed to a siloed view of how to get work done. The work we’re doing now in formation for students, for all of our students, particularly our students who are non-residential, when I think about that work I think about the communications team. We wouldn’t be nearly where we are today without a Deb and the whole team of communications. We wouldn’t be where we are without the faculty. We wouldn’t be where we are without Kevin Bish, and the student enrollment, and student affairs team. Nicole, and Jessica and just all the people that are contributing to how we invest in a formative way for our students.
Heidi: It goes back to the village thing that you were talking about at the beginning.
Donna: It does. It also goes back to because I grew up the way I did, some people may call me crazy and that’s okay. Sometimes I call myself crazy because I see the possibilities. Because I’ve seen God’s hand, so this is how I’m formed. Because I’ve seen God do the impossible in my life, from growing up as that little girl, in that little neighborhood on Ohio street in the early 60s, to being able to travel the world as a global executive. I know it’s possible. No one can tell me it’s not possible. Therefore, when I go at work that’s been prayed over, that we’ve heard the voice of God, he will do it. It’s not about my own effort, or our own efforts. It’s about what does God want to do at Asbury Theological Seminary globally?
Heidi: Yes, absolutely.
Donna: And how do we get on his agenda because he’s doing some great stuff, and he wants to do great things in our lives. Because I’m formed that way, I think all things are possible for God’s people.
Donna: We can do things that we never thought were possible because of it.
Heidi: Yes. So, if I’m talking ahead too far you can back me up a little bit. You worked for IBM for many years.
Donna: 30 years.
Heidi: 30 years.
Donna: IBM and Lexmark.
Heidi: IBM and Lexmark, and then you decided to start working more with students. What made you decide to do that because you were kind of, I mean you weren’t kind of, you were at the top of like…
Donna: I was. I was pretty much at the top of my game.
Heidi: Yeah, so why give that up?
Donna: At the pinnacle of my career. It was hard work first of all, but during that last year, I felt the call of God on my life. And I didn’t know what that was but it wouldn’t let me go. So every day, and it started kind of small, then it kept getting louder, and louder, and louder. This went on for a year.
Heidi: How did it start? What did you first start hearing, or knowing, or…?
Donna: Even in my own prayer time, it’s a sense of God’s presence in a way that wasn’t normal for me. I’d go to church, and I’d be in church service and just the presence of God would fall on me just out of nowhere. I’d sit at my kitchen table and it’s just the drawing and the presence of God just drawing me to something else. I didn’t hear a big loud voice that said, “Donna, I’m calling you to ministry.” It didn’t happen that way. In fact, I started interviewing at other companies. I thought The Lord was telling me to change jobs. I didn’t know what I was being called to, but at the end of a year I knew that it was time to leave me corporate role.
Heidi: Wow. Was that hard?
Donna: It was really hard. This is what I knew. This is what I loved. I enjoyed my job. I wasn’t unhappy. I was making a lot of money, right? I was traveling the world.
Heidi: Yeah, and you enjoyed what you did.
Donna: Being able to pour into other people to help their careers. At this point I’m in my 50s and I’m retiring.
Heidi: Yeah, starting again is not really on your bucket list.
Donna: Right, and so I really thought because I grew up in a Baptist church, women weren’t called to preach, and that also contributed to my not understanding one, and two, I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t talk about it to anyone. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want them to think I was crazy. Just, “What are you talking about God’s presence is falling on you?”
Heidi: Right. You didn’t have a community that could help you decipher what was happening.
Donna: And discern what was happening to me. But I knew that The Lord was telling me to leave Lexmark, I just didn’t know what was next. The day after I retire, I sat at my kitchen table and said, “Okay Lord, what now?” And I ended up writing a personal vision. Have you ever written a personal vision?
Heidi: I have not, no.
Donna: It’s Craig Groeschel’s book Chazown, it’s the Hebrew word for vision, revelation. I remember, it’s not very long. I still have it. I still use it. I sat there and wrote that just kind of that personal vision statement and it’s been my guide post as I’ve moved from place to place. It was all about leadership, it was all about pouring into others, doing it globally. I didn’t think the Lord was going to waste this global experience from IBM and Lexmark.
Heidi: No, he doesn’t waste anything.
Donna: He doesn’t waste anything.
Donna: And the next day I started working as executive director at Bethel Harvest Church.
Heidi: Wow. Did you know that? Had you applied?
Donna: I was going to church there. So I’d been going to church there after I left Main Street Baptist. That next day, I had a meeting with the pastor and his wife. I remember, in fact I’m having lunch with her today.
Heidi: Oh fun.
Donna: We still have this great relationship. I remember her saying to me that day, “Donna, be sure that you’re sure. Don’t let any human put a call on your life, because when you run into a tough place, you’re going to have to know that you know.” At that point we weren’t talking about a call to preach or a call to pastor or any of those things. I was just sharing with them, “Something’s happening in my life, and I’m not quite sure what this is.” Because I had some administrative gifts from the work I’d been doing at Lexmark, it was a great opportunity for me to be able to share some of that with the church. So I went in to do administrative things, to help them set up HR processes, to help them set up processes through the church because the church was growing really fast at that time. It’s through that process that I learned that in churches, we don’t always invest a lot in people from a leadership perspective.
Heidi: That’s true. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Donna: So at IBM and Lexmark we had personal coaches, they sent us to classes. They were training us to be executives. So it was normative for me. I thought that’s the way everybody did it. I knew they were spending a lot of money in every executive they were making, so I thought everyone had that sort of leadership training. I should’ve known better, but because they were spending lots of money, churches don’t have that sort of money to spend. That’s where The Lord just sort of led me into, “How do we put leadership into churches? How do we bring volunteers? How do we bring…” Again it’s just these cross functional teams. The power of unleashing people’s passions to do kingdom work in its simplest way.
Donna: Then another church called and we worked together with these two churches that wanted me to come over there, Consolidated Baptist and help do some administrative work, put processes in place, the same thing. I’d only been at Consolidated about six months when The Lord starts speaking to me about seminary.
Heidi: Really? Just kind of out of the blue?
Donna: And I’m like sem… That can’t… I can’t be hearing that right. You know, “God do you realize I’m in my 50s?” Do you realize I already have two degrees? Do you realize I’ve been out of school for 30 years?” In my head only preachers went to seminaries, pastors, and I’m not either of those.
Heidi: That’s what I thought, too, before I started working at the seminary and realized it was for more people then just pastors.
Donna: This was a very short period of time where God really set on me deeply. He said, “I want you to go to Asbury.” And I thought, I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know anything about seminaries. I was resisting that and thinking, “No, that can’t be right.” And the spirit said to me, “Drive your car to Asbury.” Once I saw the sign I knew it was in Wilmore, Kentucky. I drove down here. I remember it, Heidi, like it was yesterday. Parking in that side parking lot over beside where the community formation area is now. I went there, I parked my car. I heard The Lord say, “Get out and just walk the campus.” As I did that, it was the same sort of thing I felt when I was leaving Lexmark. I knew this was the place for me.
Heidi: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Was that your “I know that I know” moment?
Donna: Yes. Right. I got up enough nerve to go into the enrollment management office.
Heidi:That takes guts.
Donna: Because I thought, why would they take someone like me? Right? And what would I do? Some lady there who was so kind, I don’t even remember who it was, pulled out the catalog and the literature and started showing me that there were more things to do other than a M.Div.
Heidi: Yeah, but I mean even just walking in there, it’s taking a step to do it which is scary.
Donna: You’re right. It was there where I saw Christian leadership and thought, “Well maybe I could do that. Maybe.” And applied, and like a week later was accepted. This is August so I’m thinking in my mind, “I’ll apply and start school in January.”
Heidi: Yeah, that’s what I’d be thinking too because I’m not like a let’s do this in two weeks.
Donna: And um, was accepted and they said, “Pick classes.” Right? And I’m like, “What am I doing?”
Donna: Ended up picking some classes with Dr. Steve Martyn Equipping the Laity and then I fell in love with seminary.
Heidi: Yeah. Were you still then working at Bethel Harvest and Consolidated Baptist?
Donna: No. I left both of those to come to seminary full time because I thought, “Lord, I haven’t written a paper in 30 years.” And I had no idea the deep formation that would go on in my life. I am so excited that we’re going to be doing the means of grace this fall.
Heidi: Yes, it’s going to be good isn’t it?
Donna: Right. I’m so excited because it was in that first semester that I learned about the means of grace with Dr. Martyn. I had always prayed. I’d always read the Bible, but I never understood this deeper inner life that we could enter into from a formative perspective. I didn’t have the language then to say, “There is a place that we can go deeper in God, and become more like Christ through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.” I had no language.
Heidi: And having that language is so important to be able to name what you’re feeling or what you desire.
Donna: Exactly. And it was there that Dr. Martyn put us in small groups, and we went through the books of the means of grace. It was at seminary that I learned about John Wesley. I’d grown up in a Baptist church. I didn’t know anything about this movement called Methodism that I fell in love with. It was in seminary that I lost my family. So we’re talking about how we’re formed. I started seminary, my mom goes in the hospital, and I was glad I wasn’t working because I’d go to class and then I’d go sit with her at the hospital.
Donna: She never came out. In November, she passed away. I was starting to be in this place called Asbury and Community where this communities starting to form and walk with you through this place. Well I knew my mother. I remember my mother praying every night on her knees. Growing up in church, I knew that she was going to heaven. We had a lot of good talks during those months.
Heidi: But that transition isn’t easy just because, no it’s not at all.
Donna: It’s not an easy transition. Of course, Dr, Martyn will laugh at me telling this story so, he said, “Look, I’m going on a mission trip. I’m taking a class on a mission trip to Costa Rica, and I want you to go with us.” I’m sure he was sensing that I was in this place… And I went. Dr. Martyn said it was something I should do, certainly I was going to do that. I’d been the student in class who sat in the back who was quiet. To this day, I’m not sure I even understand how Steve Martyn even knew anything about me. I don’t know how he knew I was a retired executive. Somehow he knew.
Heidi: Amazing isn’t it?
Donna: It is. But I’d sat in the back of the class and all these young people, and I was quiet. I didn’t say much. We get to Costa Rica and it’s probably 20 of us. With the [inaudible 00:36:32] who I love, and every morning we’re having our morning, they called them devotionals but it’s a full-blown service. Right? It’s a time of worship.
Heidi: Don’t you love how they worship in other countries? They’re just all in.
Donna: Yes. All in. Many of the pastors who were being trained at the seminary there were bringing the morning messages, and they were phenomenal. Just fabulous.
Donna: Half way through the week, Dr. Martyn says to me, “You’re going to be sharing on Friday.”
Heidi: Oh gosh.
Donna: And they had sent us an email before we went and said, “Bring a sermon with you.” Well, I deleted the email because I’m not a preacher. Right?
Heidi: I would’ve done the same.
Donna: Right, and I’m with 20 other students who are an pastors.
Heidi: Preachers, so let them do it, yeah.
Donna: So they’ll be the ones asked to preach and not me. I was horrified. Do you hear me Heidi? I was just like this… I cried for three hours. Like, “Really God?”
Heidi: Yes. I understand.
Donna: So on Friday, not only will I have to preach, I’ve never put a sermon together. I have nothing with me but a bible. These Costa Rica pastors were bringing the word. I have nothing. I have a Bible, and I don’t speak Spanish so I’m going to have to work through a translator.
Heidi: Yes, which complicates everything.
Donna: So we’re talking about formation, and I watch God do it. I watch God work through this vessel, through this person to do something I knew wasn’t possible.
Heidi: Yeah. So, what did he do?
Donna: I remember the sermon that I shared that day. It was a word for us as now as preachers of how we walk with God. I picked a sermon from where the 5000 were fed and the disciples must’ve been feeling pretty good about themselves right? 5000 people were just fed. And then Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, you’re going to have to deny yourself and take up your cross, because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose their soul.” I knew that’s something I could talk about, that these disciples must’ve been feeling pretty good about following Jesus at this point. Right? Look what just happened. Now Jesus is talking about, “But you’re going to have to lose who you are, every bit of who you are to follow me. Because you can have all of this, and what will it profit you if you lose yourself in the miracles, in the things that look shiny.”
Donna: For me that was a way of at least sharing my experience to the preachers. So I was like, thank you. I got through that. Bishop Palomo who’s just a very spiritual man, comes up to me and says, “And you’ll preach in one of my churches on Sunday.” And I thought…
Heidi: Oh no I won’t.
Donna: I know right.
Heidi: I just made it through this one. Let’s not push it.
Donna: Who’s going to tell the Bishop no?
Donna: Who’s going to say no to the Bishop?
Heidi: Well, not, no.
Donna: After I just kind of rung myself out for Friday, Sunday’s coming and I’m expected to have another message. I don’t know how to do this. Anyway, the point of telling that story is, I watched God work. We’re talking about formation, and certainly our education and what we do in our head is important, but this is the hard piece of being able to walk with the Lord in the spiritual realm to hear what he has for his people, and to be able to speak a word into that community, and be loved and be transformed. Not just their transformation, I was transformed in Costa Rica. I go back almost every year and do their woman’s conference. That was just born out of being obedient, and listening to Dr. Martyn on that mission trip.
Heidi: Did you become a preacher after that?
Donna: I still didn’t really get in this track. So the next year, my son is killed. Many of you all know that story if read about it or you’ve heard me talk about it.
Heidi: That’s a horrible tragedy.
Donna: What a tragedy in my life, right? I knew the enemy could go no deeper. The one I loved the most has been tragically taken away and it’s a racial confrontation, everything about it is just horrible.
Heidi: Terrible. Yes.
Donna: I wanted to give up. In my mind I’m thinking I don’t really need this seminary degree. I’m at a place, I’ll never pastor a church. I’ll never use this. I’m just done. And people like Dr. Martyn and the Palomos and the Gobers, I’ll miss someone, Steve Seamands, they just would not let me give up.
Heidi: That’s good. Like community.
Donna: That community. Russell West, I mean.
Heidi: Oh, I love Dr. West.
Donna: All these people are showing up at my house, they’re at the funeral. I’m still overwhelmed by it all, but it’s in that point that God walked me through. Now Heidi, we’re still talking about formation. Fast forward to Aaron Nickerson, and it’s my great joy to serve his family during this time because I could sit with his mother and say, “I know how your hearts broken into a million pieces.”
Donna: And I love that about how God forms us, that no matter what brokenness we have walked through, as our students in our seminary, as we walk with faculty and staff, no matter what the brokenness is, our God is a restoring God. He will take those broken places, and use them for his honor and for his glory. And he does that in everyone that’s willing to walk with him. That’s what’s really important to me about formation at the seminary, that as our students come here, and they come to study, that they start these practices that will take them deeper in God because when they graduate and get to their places, the storms are going to come against them, they’re going to rise. They’ll have continued brokenness on those journeys, but if they find a place in God, he will never forsake them. He will never leave them and it will give them the strength for the journey.
Heidi: Yes. How are you helping students design like rhythms of grace to help them, not just when they’re here but then when they leave?
Donna: So that’s a lot of what you guys have been working on also, right? As we start to say, “Asbury’s such a phenomenal place that they invest in formation.” Most seminaries, most higher education institutions aren’t spending money, they aren’t investing in the formative part of students, it’s, “Get your degree.” Right?
Donna: So this work this year has been around, how do we help students who are already busy with classes, take a formation journey? We’re starting with the means of grace. How do we help them develop the inward life? How do we help them develop the outward life of worship and communion and understanding, all these aspects of God that he wants to give us? How do we present that in a way that they will embrace? Then, also how do we also help them understand the importance of community? We call it bands. It’s small group accountability. For not only our residential students, but also our non-residential students, which is almost half of our student population. So our work, and it’s the work of the cross-functional team, has been around designing a formation pathway for our students to go out. We’re rolling out phase one this fall which is really exciting for me.
Heidi: Yes, it’s very exciting.
Donna: But, we have other phases to design as we go through this process so that every year our students, we’re pointing them on a journey. We’re inviting them to take the journey to become mature in God, in Christ, through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. We’re starting these big themes for the seminary that everyone is going to be hearing and thinking about and praying and studying all the same things. I think of it as a potter starts to mold clay. Clay’s really hard when you buy it, and you have to slam it on the floor and things just start getting it pliable where you can knead it.
Heidi: It’s a process, yes.
Donna: I hope that’s what our journey’s about for our students that while they’re here studying and being academically prepared, they’re also being prepared spiritually to lead and to have high bar discipleship for wherever they’re going in the world to spread the gospel. I love that, and I get to be a part of it. It’s just pretty exciting.
Heidi: It’s cool. It’s bringing together everything. The things are definitely there for you. Oh go ahead.
Donna: One of the things I never dreamed of, we’re talking about things we dream about. When I graduated from seminary, and I went off into higher education to be the dean of the college of business at a couple different places, I never dreamed that I would be back at Asbury Theological Seminary.
Heidi: Yeah, how did you get back?
Donna: Well, that’s an interesting question. My seminary degree prepared me well. I didn’t see it at the time, prepared me well to be the dean of the college of business in two historically black colleges and universities because I was going to start to meet people that were very much like me, first generation college students, were not dreaming, had no idea, but they were diamonds in the rough. It was just being able to walk with them on an academic journey to help them get to that point.
Donna: I’m from Lexington, my home is here, my family is here, my grandchildren are here. I was in Delaware on a contract. I knew it had a beginning, I knew it had an end so I was looking forward to coming back to Kentucky to be with my grandchildren particularly, with my son and my daughter-in-law but particularly.
Heidi: But the grandchildren are the draw.
Donna: Yeah, particularly my grandchildren. Several people from Asbury reached out to me and said, “Hey this job is open, and we think you would be a great person to apply for this role.”
Heidi: And it’s important to listen to your community, to what they’re telling you even if you can’t see it.
Donna: So in my mind, I was thinking, oh Lord, now I get to retire.
Heidi: Spend more time with the grandchildren.
Donna: Now I get to go home and be a grand… Right. The more I prayed about it, and the more people talked about it, it was getting close to the end where they were taking the posting down and they had probably, God only knows how many great candidates applied for that role, many of whom in my mind were more qualified than I was. I mean, they had M.Div.’s. They had pastored churches and so on and so on.
Donna: However I thought, let me apply, and let me continue to put this in prayer, and it evolved. And here we are.
Heidi: I love that. We’re really glad that you are here.
Donna: And I’m glad to be here. What an exciting place to be at this time and this place to be able to pour into the people that are taking the gospel to the world and that next generation. As I listen to our students, and talk to them individually and in groups, we just did a group at lunch when the board was here as they shared about Asbury. The gospel is in good hands. The church is not dying. The church is living, and God is still raising up people that are going to lead his church. Our role is to be their armor bearers, to be the people that journey with them to help them to be equipped and prepared in the classroom and outside the classroom. It’s an exciting job to have.
Heidi: It is an exciting job, yeah. Well I really appreciate you taking the time to be here today, and as we wrap it up I have three questions that we’re asking everybody on the podcast.
Heidi: We call our podcast The Thrive Podcast, so what is one practice, it can be spiritual or otherwise, that helps you thrive in your life right now?
Donna: I love the practice of reading a Psalm every day, of getting up in the morning and starting my day. In many ways it is our prayer book.
Heidi: Yes. It is.
Donna: No matter how many times I go through the book of psalms, it’s always an exciting journey the next day. No matter what situation I find myself in, I find comfort, I find peace.
Heidi: I love the honesty in the psalms too.
Donna: Yes. David, right?
Donna: So I think of one practice, I know we’re wrapping up, last night I was with a young man that’s 34 who’s had just a very interesting journey in life. He’s been called to be a minister. We get together every two weeks and just spend some time together. He asked me last night, “What’s one practice that I need to incorporate?” And I said, “Look, I want you to get up early and read a Psalm every day. And I’m going to sow into you a devotional that’s written by our president Dr. Tim Tennent and his wife Julie Tennent, on a meditative journey on the book of psalms, and just start there and watch what God will do.
Heidi: That is so good. I love that.
Heidi: What book are you reading right now? For fun or for your edification.
Donna: I don’t know, Heidi, if you’re like me, but sometimes I get two or three going at the same time.
Heidi: Yes I do, too. Yep.
Donna: I’m reading a book by, I think his name is Evan Howard, it’s called “A Guide to Spiritual Formation.” Dr. Tennent give me that book early on when I came and I’ve read it, and I’m re-reading it because I think it’s a very good practical guide on how we can practice formation here at the Seminary, and practice it in our personal lives. That’s one book I’m reading.
Donna: I just finished reading a book by Dr. Cynthia James called “The Anointing.” Just phenomenal. Then I’ve just ordered a book that a guy on the board recommended around how do we reach the new generation who may not do it the way we’ve all been taught in a traditional sense. I am going on vacation Lord willing the first week of June so I’m stacking my books now.
Heidi: You just have a couple more weeks to get there.
Donna: To read. But those are, I’ve really been trying to read articles and books more around spiritual formation and what things can we do at the seminary to help our students.
Heidi: How important. Yeah.
Donna: That’s fun reading for me also. And reading again for probably, just started this the sixth or seventh time “Celebration of Disciplines” as we start to think about moving into this season of the means of grace.
Heidi: What’s your favorite book of all time?
Donna: The Bible.
Heidi: That’s a good answer. Yeah.
Donna: The Bible. I mean, it’s so real. I’ve been reading in, let’s see where I’m reading in the Old Testament right now that’s been, I mean, it’s all I could do to draw myself away to come to work, right? So I’m reading in Samuel, and the stories of David, and Jonathan, and Samuel. The scripture is just full of everyday people.
Heidi: Don’t you love that? Yeah.
Donna: Who want to mature in their walk with God. One of the things I love about Dr. Tennent and Julie’s devotional is how they take every Psalm and point us to Christ. It’s a book, Heidi, I’ve been reading scripture now, I’d have to think about this, over 40 years. It never grows old to me. It just…
Heidi: Isn’t that amazing?
Donna: It is. You never get bored with it no matter how many times you read. So it’s my favorite book.
Heidi: Alright, so our last question is, What’s something that’s still on your bucket list to do? It could be somewhere to go, it can be something serious, something fun.
Donna: I can’t think of anything that’s just jumping out to me. Recently, I’ve been looking at Mozambique, and probably been thinking about that because of the horrible storms that destroyed Mozambique recently. I don’t know if you ever read Heidi Baker?
Heidi: No, I haven’t. No.
Donna: She has a huge ministry there. Heidi Baker has a Ph.D. In biblical studies. Her and her husband have spent their life ministering particularly to children in trash heaps in Mozambique. Mozambique is probably one of the poorest countries in the world. So I always through the years pray for their ministry and have been watching as this cyclone has just destroyed Mozambique, so many areas there.
Donna: One of the things on my bucket list, I would love to go to Mozambique and spend a month or two months with Heidi Baker and their team just ministering to people there.
Heidi: Yeah, that would be awesome.
Donna: That would be fun.
Heidi: That would be fun. Yeah, well I hope that works out.
Donna: I hope I have a chance to do that.
Heidi: Well, thank you so much for stopping by today. I have so enjoyed our conversation.
Donna: Thank you, Heidi. Thank you for the invitation to do this. I’m sure I’ve jumped around and rambled a lot but this is great. Thank you for the work you do.
Heidi: Thank you. Thanks for saying yes.
Heidi: Hey y’all, thank you so much for joining me for today’s conversation with Reverend Donna Covington. Grateful for her leadership and today’s conversation. I hope you all enjoyed it as well.
Heidi: In our next episode Dr. Dorothy Smith-Hubbard, pastor of Community of Love, United Methodist Church in Texas, and alumna of Asbury Seminary joins us to talk about her book, “Releasing the Anxiety of Persons Practicing Pastoral Care” that explores ways to reduce personal anxiety in order to more effectively practice pastoral care.
Heidi: New podcast episodes released every other week, and you want want to miss out.
Heidi: Subscribe in iTunes or wherever you listen your podcast. You can follow is in all the places on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @AsburySeminary. Have a great day y’all, and go do something that helps you thrive!