Sometimes, life’s most difficult detours can lead the way to new adventures. A traumatic accident helped lead Carrie Teller to Perkins; a life-threatening diagnosis taught her to lean into her faith. Both will undoubtedly inform her ministry going forward. Teller, an M.Div. student, expects to graduate in May 2021 and is considering ordination in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Teller’s story begins in December 2016, when her teenaged son sustained life-threatening injuries in a car accident. Teller had been an active member of Highland Park United Methodist Church for years, but the accident triggered a desire to go deeper into her faith. As her son recovered, her interest in Perkins grew.
“I realized I didn’t want to compartmentalize my faith anymore,” she said. “It was an existential moment. I realized my only way forward was going to be walking with God 24/7. I was going to be led by my faith, because that was the only way I could live.”
With encouragement from her friend and pastor, the Rev. Linda Roby (M.Div. ’00), Teller applied to Perkins and started in the fall of 2017. Soon she was back in school at the same campus as her son and daughter, now 20 and 22, and both undergraduate students at SMU.
“That first year was tough,” she said. “At one point I remember telling someone, ‘I think there’s been a mistake. I have no idea what I’m doing here. Everyone knows more than me.’” But she stuck with it, made it through the first year and did well. Things began to fall into place. She fell in love with the early church while taking Prof. James Lee’s course in Christian Heritage.
“I am fascinated by the tremendous faith of the early church, especially since there was no Bible and very little literacy during this time,” she said. “Yet people were moved by the Holy Spirit and through stories that were shared orally. They had to trust what others were saying to them. That message was powerful enough for the early church leaders to confront the powerful and to face persecution and to accomplish extraordinary things.”
In September 2018, life handed Teller another detour. After a routine mammogram, doctors called her back for a second look. An ultrasound proved inconclusive, and she was advised to come back in six months for another look. But that didn’t seem right to Teller. She kept questioning and pressing for answers. Finally, one doctor relented and ordered a biopsy, which turned up a malignancy. Her ultimate diagnosis was triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive and often deadly type.
“The diagnosis scared me to death,” she said. “Having come off the trauma with my son, it was not the worst day of my life, but I was in shock. For about four or five days, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk.”
Finally, she said, she was able to pray: “God, I have no idea what you’re trying to show me, but I know you’re there. I’m going to use this opportunity to bring praise to your name and to show my children how Mom acted when faced with adversity.”
Teller took a sabbatical from Perkins for the 2018-19 school year to undergo treatment, including several rounds of chemo. During that time, she re-read the many papers she had written about the early church and systematic theology during her first year of seminary. Reading and reflecting on what she had written gave her a lot of comfort.
While in treatment, she took up running for the first time. Even though she has always been active – she was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader before marrying and starting a family – running was new. It became a daily discipline that brought comfort and hope. She developed a ritual: while running, she would stop by Highland Park UMC, and place her hands on the side of the church building and pray.
“It brought me great peace,” she said. “I knew that whatever was going to happen, I would be okay.” Then she added, “I hope there are no security cameras at the church!”
Back to School
Teller completed treatment in early 2019 and returned to school this past fall. Because the cancer was detected early, doctors are optimistic about her prognosis. Her oncologist called her “one of the lucky few” who responded extremely well to the treatment for this type of cancer.
“Your best chance with triple negative breast cancer is to get it really early,” Teller said. “I never felt a lump; this turned up on a routine mammogram.”
Looking back, Teller says the ordeal strengthened her faith. Two Bible verses kept her hopeful while in treatment: Romans 8:28 (“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”) and Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”). She also found inspiration in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
“Viktor Frankl taught me that suffering does not define you,” she said. “No one can take away how I choose to respond to adversity. Our power is finding a way that we matter. Even when all is taken away from us, we can find a way to have purpose. The diagnosis may be out of my control, but I can still choose how to respond. This is how you walk when you’re scared to death.”