Skip to main content

On road to becoming a pastor, religious studies grad values the freedom to ask 'why'

| Alex Jansen

Ashlei Buhrow knew from an early age what she wanted to be. Finding the right path was less clear. After spending her freshman year at Carthage College, she transferred to UW-Eau Claire for the opportunity to be closer to home and to study religion.

“I knew I wanted to be a pastor, but I wanted to learn about other religions first,” she said.

Ashlei, of Chippewa Falls, graduated in 2016, majoring in religious studies with a topical minor in family development studies. Continuing on her route to becoming an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she is now a graduate student at Luther Seminary pursuing her master of divinity degree. In addition to being a full-time student, she also has a part-time position as interim faith formation minister at University Church of Hope.

“Having a religious studies background covering many of the world's religions before going to seminary has been very valuable," Ashlei says. "It has allowed me to study the Christian faith and practices in a more critical way than many of my fellow classmates.”

She describes proficiency in reading the Bible using different hermeneutics and reading in context rather than based on faith as helpful skills for understanding and sharing scripture as a pastor. Her background in religious studies has enabled her to understand other people's interpretations and assumptions, helping her to better understand who they are as individuals rather than judging them for holding different beliefs from her own.

Thinking back on the religious studies program at UW-Eau Claire, Ashlei specifically remembers an openness to ask “Why?” which to her meant, "You have the freedom to ask questions and to think theologically and critically about why things happen, leading to great growth as an individual.”

The program allowed her passions to intersect with her studies. In a class like "Religion in Popular Culture," delving into movies, TV shows and comic books helped her understand religion as part of every aspect of our secular lives. This gave her another tool to use in better understanding others. For her independent study, Ashlei was able to combine her major and minor to study the passing of faith across generations of families.

“Religious studies is an important area to study,” she explains. “It teaches you about people, yourself and why we are where we are today. It forces you to think critically about the tough questions in life and to dig deep to find out who you are as a person. Just like art and music, religious studies plays an important role in shaping a well-rounded individual.”

The small nature of the program allowed Ashlei ample opportunity to really get to know her professors — and vice versa. She remembers the faculty being readily available when needed. And despite being a transfer student, Ashlei actually graduated early.

“I was given the tools for understanding religion better and for communicating about religion in a way that was accepting of others while allowing for many great dialogues,” she said.

Her religious studies coursework taught her the difference between tolerance and acceptance, and as she gets closer to becoming a pastor, Ashlei continues to be grateful for that perspective.