Rev. Gary Simpson
Spring Matriculation Address
2 February 2012
President Weisbuch, University cabinet and Officials. Dean Kuan, faculty colleagues, staff, students-entering and returning-and friends.
I am deeply honored to have this privilege to share with you for a little while. I checked the “Theo Weekly” only to discover that this conversation was listed as “Preaching.” I can assure you that I will not be doing that today. In thinking about what to do today, I wanted to be so careful not to have this sound like the proverbial “This is what I did on my summer vacation” we all dreaded in our pre-college days.
Nevertheless, I am pleased to address you today. For the sake of establishing context, I affirm that I am returning to Drew after a teaching sabbatical this fall that was immediately preceded by a three month Lilly Endowment Funded sabbatical as Pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn. I have learned that learning to do nothing is the hardest thing for a pastor to learn. I spent the first six weeks of the pastoral sabbatical decompressing. One does not know what one is under until one gets out from under it. I had to learn to do nothing. Doing nothing well will allow one to do something better.
I return to this place with a renewed clarity about my particular place in this ecology. I understand my presence in this community as a modeling practitioner. I am a pastor and teacher. My journey to this point has been rather interesting indeed. My father was a devout pastor and when I shared with him my sense of calling, his response was short, simple, succinct, “Do something else.” Too late, I had surrendered to the vocare. But I became very intentional about being a pastor…and something else. I do not know why, but for some reason being a pastor was not enough.
In reality, the pastor is one of the last generalists in our culture of specialization. It is some science, some art, some theology…and some luck! One of the reasons why I love what I do is that on any given day–even with the assistance of meticulously kept electronic appointments-I never know what that day will bring because simply put, life happens: family counselor, teen rescuer, senior caregiver, baby blesser, ritual leader, music critic, historian, theologian, ethicist, philosopher, accountant and protestor.
Regrettably, it appears at times in seminary education that the pursuit to become a pastor is itself not enough. We need the seminarian to be more. Even though we have a few students who will go on to graduate study, the majority of you will end up providing congregational leadership in your respective denominations (1). Too often, this is perceived as a default position. Nothing else arises, nothing else allows me to show competence, so I will be a pastor. But at the present time, there is no more urgent work than this, considering the state of the local church and the sponsoring denominations. We must prepare these students with the depth and breadth of education that is characteristic of Drew; preparing them to be scholars and theologians in their local communities (2). There is no more critical time in the life of the church. The church desperately needs pastors of substance and integrity.
Regardless of what may be forecasted, we are not going to convert all of our church buildings into luxury condos. The ecclesially faithful are not going to continue to pack out megachurch amphitheaters where thousands can enjoy the show put on by polished professionals. Now is the time for pastors to come forward who have passionate intelligence, what Craig Dykstra calls, “pastoral imagination” who believe that pastoring is enough and that local communities of faith still matter.
In my first church in Morristown, I went to visit a family at their home. The young son, then 7 or 8 years old, peaked out to see who it was. He ran to his parents and said, ”It’s the man who talks.”
It’s a miscalculation to think that one gets better at preaching by doing more talking. The converse is true. One gets better at preaching and pastoring by listening. I spent the first week of my pastoral sabbatical in retreat with Eugene Peterson and a group of 20 scholars, teachers and pastors discussing his memoir, The Pastor.
The light went on for me after reading a chapter in the book about a gathering of pastors who came together with a local psychologist for the purpose of learning how to understand the beginning signs of mental disease and disorder. After a few weeks of the discussion about the disorders followed up by a one hour group session of the pastors, Peterson noticed a change in the way he understood and consequently interacted with the congregation. They seemed to be no longer people but problems that needed to be fixed. It was then that he started to differentiate that he was a pastor and not a psychologist. These were not problems that needed fixing but people who needed to be led in worship of God right where they were. What they needed was a Pastor.
Jana Childers contends that preachers should have three indulgences. OK, in my time away I did purchase an IPad. I wanted to mark the sabbatical and so I had engraved on it, “Pastoral Sabbatical 2011: Every step an awakening.” It was a misquote of Peterson’s observation that we never truly master the life as pastors, we are never experts, and yet every step is an “arrival.” For some reason I had heard the word “arrival” as “awakening.” (OK, a Whitfieldian, Edwardsian or perhaps a Wesleyan slip. Definitely not Freudian, though!)
My pastoral predecessor at Concord Church, Gardner Taylor, received the prestigious Union Medal the year I began seminary and worked at Concord as a student pastor. I had no idea nor inkling that 28 years later I would be 22 years in as the Senior Pastor (Oh, be careful how you approach your field education!) The late Church historian, James Melvin Washington, carefully crafted the words of the citation accompanying the Medal. He lauded Dr. Taylor as both a “pastoral scholar” and “scholarly pastor.” I never forgot those nuances. They have been my aspiration for my entire pastoral life.
In the reading for today, the Apostle Paul (or the person who uses his name) describes the gifts given to the church:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (3).
“Pastors and teachers” is the only couplet in the Ephesians listing of the charismata, or spiritual gifts. Interesting that the Drew mission statement declares “Drew sends pastors, preachers and prophets, deacons, activists and teachers.” Probably the unabridged form. Dang that redactor!
My intellectual curiosity begins to fire again. What does it mean to hold these two gifts in tandem? Why are they coupled? What would it look like if we understood them as inextricably bound together? How does this change our understanding of the community in which this doubled sided gift is expressed? How do we teach our students to live in this dialectic?
Sometimes, in order to understand a particular work or a discipline, it is necessary to step outside of the discipline. Sometimes we are too close to make objective observations about the work that defines us. Patricia Bennett writes of the four stages of expertise in Practical Nursing (4):
- Advanced Beginners
- Competence Stage
- Expert Practice
While there are some interesting parallels to seminary and pastoral life to explore here, what caught me was that Bennett contends that some experts in nursing go on to teach. For me, this is where we find the difference between pastoral competence and pastoral expertise. One cannot be, at least in the Ephesians text and in my mind, an expert practitioner of preaching without teaching as a component thereof. In other words, one does not possess expertise in pastoring until one teaches others to do it. Perhaps implied in this also is the necessary mentoring to bring others along as aspiring “teachers and pastors.” That is not to say that all expert pastors ought to end up in seminaries, rather there exists for some the responsibility to teach and model competencies within the congregations where they serve.
This summer I got a chance to think intentionally about vocation and voice. It is difficult to understand preaching outside the context in which it occurs and for me that context has to do with words like the common good, community, the Latin American liberation theologians’ understanding of communitas, communion.
I recognize we are still a long way from understanding the nature of a pastor as rising from within the community. I am now writing about the relation and intersection of the practice of preaching and the pastoral identity. What does it mean to preach as pastor? Most of us would agree that for better or worse, preaching shapes community if for no other reason than our returning to a particular place at a particular time where we believe, or desperately hope there is a word from the Lord, forms us (5). We are not asking the converse question, that is to say, how does the community both form and inform the preacher and her/his preaching? I would certainly like to be “Exhibit A.”
I am not bi-vocational. I do not have two jobs. I have one life and one calling. What I do here in the seminary is every bit a part of what I do when I am pastoring the people of Concord. And my love for them and their hopes for the good of the church compel me to continue to both learn and teach.
May it be so with you.
(1) From my personal statement for tenure, November 2011.
(3) The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (Eph 4:11–13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
(5) Long, Thomas G., and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale. Teaching Preaching As a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.