Freelance theologian: Anna Madsen sets up shop

December 16, 2010

In 2009 Anna Madsen left her tenure-track job at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and started a business as a freelance theologian. Her venture is called OMG: Center for Theo­logical Conversation. She works with individuals and with churches to address theological concerns.

Why did you leave academia and start a business as quirky as this one?
In 2004, my husband and I were studying theology in Regensburg, Ger­many. Right before my family was to move to Augustana after my Ph.D. work was completed, my husband and almost-three-year-old son, Karl, were hit by a car. My husband died, and Karl suffered a traumatic brain injury. My daughter, Else, was only eight months old at the time. I moved to Sioux Falls. The constellation of a lot of things had changed: family, vocation—and not least of all, theology.

I was worried about finances, but Rey­nold, whom I married in 2009, said that while he respected my worries, he wondered if I really needed to put a dollar sign before all of my "emotional investments." So I resigned the teaching post.

How did the idea for OMG emerge?
I realized that if someone is theologically out of whack, then that person's whole life is out of whack. I thought that people really needed a space to contemplate their theological underpinnings and get themselves on track. What I envision for the future is a center where I would work with therapists, nutritionists, a financial planner—a whole range of services that would help people clarify their values and commitments.

How does being a freelance theologian work?
I have a number of clients I work with on a regular basis. For example, there's one woman who is so hungry for theological conversation that she has booked every Friday until kingdom come.

I also counsel a group whose congregation has been rent asunder by the issue of homosexuality. We chose to talk about homosexuality, but I decided that we needed to start with hermeneutics. I also work with a group of therapists in order to help them with clients who come to them with theological questions that are outside their realm of expertise.

What kind of feedback have you received from pastors?
I have heard from a few pastors concerned that I might be usurping their pastoral care role. But then one woman said that she understood—she realized that she never goes to one of her parishioners for medical care because she doesn't want to get naked in front of them. Likewise, she could see that to one of her parishioners, asking certain kinds of questions of one's pastor could feel like "getting naked."

I think the benefit of what I offer is that I do not have a particular church's theology in mind. People come to me with the sense that I don't have an agenda.

After I gave a presentation at one church, a man—a lifelong Lutheran—came up to me and said sheepishly, "After hearing you talk, I think I might be a Baptist. I don't mind Baptists, but I don't want to be a Baptist."

I ask the people who come to me for help: What is your theological core? What defines you? I tell them it is the thing in which you place your trust. If you recognize that what you think is your God isn't actually your God, that can be scary.

For example, my children are precariously close to becoming my God. I need to question that.

How has the accident influenced you theologically?
One of things that is so striking to me is how often we allow ourselves to be defined by the threat of death rather than by possibility—by fear instead of hope.

Resurrection has become central to my theology. If I allow death to win, then what hope do I have for my son Karl's healing?

A German word I use a lot is doch, which is hard to translate. If you use it once, you are basically saying, "That is wrong." If you use it twice, you mean that something is really wrong. Three times, and it becomes an insult.

So Karl and I have a little saying. I say to him, "When the doctors said that you would never walk again, what did we say?" He says, "Doch." "When the doctors said that you would never talk again, what did we say?" He says, "Doch, doch."

Death is real, I like to say, but life is real-er. You have to find a theological underpinning for living a doch life.



A very great, nice article.

freelance theology

Great stuff, Anna
OMG seems on the way to a real "come of age" (Bonhoeffer), "fourth man" (Weber) faith expression.
Totally agree that if one is theologically out of whack we are out of whack with life and therefore with G-D.
Go well with Karl, miracles do happen despite western
agnosticisms about their unthinkability in life.
Rein Zeilstra (NZ/ Aus)

Freelance Theologian

I used to think that people who would not go to their pastor for help were afraid or fearful of what might happen in their relationship. But now I realize that many people seek others outside of their immediate faith community for help. In small rural areas people do not want their car to be seen parked outside the pastor's office. Thus they go elsewhere. I would be happy that they are talking to someone who is trained in good theological understanding and is open to various theological views.

An Ecumenical Environment

Going straight from seminary to Sioux Falls in the early 1960's, I discovered there the most healthy inter-faith community I have seen before or since. An episcopal layman had reserved his bowling lanes to be used on Monday mornings by any interestd pastor/spouse free of charge. We called ourselves "The Holy Rollers." Over a years time barriers tumbled from interacting shoulder to shoulder in a "human" way with most every "faith leader" from liberal to conservattve, even includng the rabbi. The Y served a 1$ lunch to the min assoc every week with an average attendance of 35. We still visit Lutheran Lloyd and Dorothy Stivers. I constder American Baptist Roger Frederikson to be a guiding model of ministry. Your unique new ministry would have fit in well, then. Would welcome dialog:
J. Kent Borgaard ph 702 562 0992. 8709 Red Brook Dr. #103 Las Vegas, NV 89128


A great article and Ms Madsen is obviously providing a crucial service to her community. I'm a bit nervous about claiming that if one's theology is out of whack one's whole life is out of whack because we didn't really hear what she means by out of whack. Theological reflections and Biblical scholarship can only reveal the tiniest bits about the great mystery whom we call God, so I would hope that Ms Madsen gives space for some degree of mystical revelation and experiential evidence of who God reveals Godself to be.

For example, my Evangelical Christian foundation gives me a safe place from which to examine the mystery of God, but certainly doesn't define the boundaries of who God is or which evidentiary chains help me expand my understanding of God.

Freelance theologian

I enjoyed your "new" perspective and wish you well. My husband was brain injured in a horrible Christmas Eve accident 10 years ago, but has had a steady, "miraculous" though incomplete recovery due to excellent medical care (and insurance to support this), his own tough determination and attitude, and the prayers of hundreds if not thousands of Christians around the world linked in various ways to our story. I can offer a bit of hope for Karl, and hope he can value what is, rather than what isn't anymore, and trust God and medicine for "whole healing." What a wonderful career change! I, too, changed careers, becoming a full-time hospice chaplain for most of those years (great benefits and a surprising love for this work) and am now looking for a less frantic pace in my writing/consulting/pastoral care role. Thanks for sharing your courage and initiative. Judy Corey


Great idea. In my job I often provide theological support for folks who either don't want to see their pastor, can't get relevant advice from their pastor, or whose pastor doesn't explicate the story of Scripture sufficiently to provide the wanted assist for the parishoner - in addition to providing a safe place to explore differences of opinion with their faith community.


May God bless her efforts.

Letter from Patricia K. Tull

Amy Frykholm’s interview with Anna Madsen (“Freelance theologian,” Dec. 28) made me wonder how many religious scholars have intentionally left academia. When I retired very early from a tenured seminary position I felt I was swimming upstream. I love students and teaching, and had I been able to teach part-time I would have. But younger scholars who needed full-time work were entering the job market, and there were other ways I was being asked to serve where I could contribute more freely.
Now I write every day, preach, teach pastors and laity and find time to be a friend, relative, neighbor and earth-keeper. Shaping vocation beyond insti­tutional walls brings adjustments and anxieties, but it also brings adventure--journeys to places unknown both geographical and spiritual, many within ten miles of home.

Patricia K. Tull
Jeffersonville, Ind.

The "Nones"

Many, many (15.3 million strong) of the "Nones" in the US believe in the Christian God, pray to our God, and do so daily. But our churches do not provide the opportunities for worship they are looking for--in fact, many of them prefer individual worship and family/kid's activity time as their spiritual community time.

And then there are the millions who attend and regularly worship through the 12 step programs, where they confront their 'gods,' are set free from their idols, and maintain a real, face-to-face relationship with God. Yet, most church goers scoff at and demean those who attend 12 step meetings as "those people with those horrible, unspeakable problems." Not good enough for me, they say.

God doesn't view "Nones" and "12 Steppers" this way. He accepts and welcomes them, encourages their spiritual "nakedness" with and among each other and before Him. He can lead and heal and reveal Himself to open hearts. People who might not understand doctrine, but who "get" God. Does one want to be correct or be to honest before God? I agree with the processes of honesty and beginning afresh rather than the choice of correctness of doctrine.

What God sees in the Western world, and in the US in particular, is a vast, ripe harvest just waiting for Jesus to present himself with spiritual human skin on--a theophany of believers. We are ready for another Great Awakening!

And we all sit here and lament our dwindling budgets and memberships. Sometimes all we can think about is that "we're not like those people." Well, amazingly, maybe we aren't because we can't see them as they are, sojourners just like us.

I think we could benefit from a new pair of glasses, because what is happening "out there" in the spiritual realm is "OPPORTUNITY!"

So, as Anna asks me? Who is my God? And, who is yours? Sometimes I think it's an unwillingness to see, hear, and listen to God. Because the message is a big neon sign flashing "God Lives Here," and "Come and Harvest."

Dorothy Probst, Architect & Designer
MA Luther Seminary
Associate Faculty, Religion
University of Phoenix
Roseville Lutheran Church
Saint Paul, MN.