TheoEd Stories: Building the Foundation for a Beloved Community
November 30, 2016 by Lee Hinson-Hasty
Editor’s note: We have asked PC(USA) pastors to write about their theological education and how it prepared them for ministry. The first to tackle this assignment is The Reverend Beth Merrill Neel, who is serving as co-pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. She is a 1993 M.Div. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Thanks to Beth for sharing! If you’d like to contribute to this ongoing series, please contact Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Fund, which is housed at the Presbyterian Foundation. You can reach Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the worst arguments I had in seminary was with a dear friend the week before ordination exams. We stood on the steps outside of Stewart Chapel, both of us utterly stressed out about the impending exams which felt like the final test of our ministerial worthiness. I was all of 28, single, wet behind the ears (though I didn’t think so). My friend was a married mother of two elementary-age kids, working part-time, with her husband stitching together a variety of part-time jobs. And there we were, arguing on the steps about our respective stress levels and the exams. I was not at my best.
But we got through the argument and the exams. Weeks later, when the results arrived in the mail, she and I and three of our other friends decided we would have dinner together that night, and open our envelopes together. Among the five of us, we had taken 20 exams, and we passed 18 of them. There is no better pizza than the one we shared that night, no bubblier Champagne than the bottle we shared.
That same night four of us had an evening class to which we arrived late, much to our professor’s horror as her mentor was the guest lecturer that night. We snuck in the back, rosy-cheeked and giddy with our academic success, and only slightly chagrined. At graduation, that same professor told us she remembered that night, how we came in, and that she wanted to stop the class and celebrate our success with us. Grace abounds.
I loved my three years at San Francisco Theological Seminary. I loved what I learned; I drank up the theology and Bible classes and preaching classes like some parched nomad. I loved the faculty. The school was small enough, and being California, laid-back enough that we had real relationships with our professors whom we called by their first names. I loved the community there – students of all ages, of many races, of differing backgrounds who came together to do this impossible thing – train for ministry.
All of life is training for ministry, but at seminary it gets more specific. At SFTS I received training in what it takes to build a community. It takes honest conversations, even arguments, that lead to resolution and forgiveness. It takes setting aside competition and falling and rising together. It takes grace, and joy, and hard work.
Surrounded by this community, learning about the beloved community in John’s gospel took on new meaning. Listening to and critiquing our sermons together built a community based on speaking the truth in love. Practicing forgiveness before coming to the table deepened the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
All five of us who opened our ordination exam results together are still serving as pastors, 23 years later. That’s a testament to the foundation laid by friendship and community and education, and I am a better pastor for it.