Linda and I departed our native East Tennessee in June 1962 for seminary. Both of us wanted to live and study outside our native South. Having been offered a scholarship and an appointment as student pastor, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., seemed the right choice.
The school had moved from Westminster, Maryland, to the campus of American University in 1958. The location was part of the curriculum as the seminary intentionally claimed the Christian gospel’s witness in the public arena.
Where else could a student take a class on “The Prophets” and be assigned attendance at Congressional hearings on poverty or Pentagon briefings on the Vietnam War?
Or, what better place for a naïve young man from the Jim Crow South to be required to walk the streets of a ghetto within site of the US Capitol and interview residents on their impression of the Methodist Church located up the street?
One comment from an interviewee shaped my practice as a pastor, bishop, and seminary teacher. “They don’t do nothin’ up there but have church.” I learned that you don’t really know the local church apart from the neighbors’ experience of it.
The seminary faculty members all had pastoral experience and were deeply committed to the formation of congregations that embody the gospel.
Seminary education can take place in isolation from the surrounding world! Not at Wesley! World events were not only in the news media. They were in the classroom, subjected to rigorous biblical and theological reflection.
The Bay of Pigs! Build up of war in Vietnam! Assassination of President Kennedy! Martin Luther King and the March on Washington! Civil Rights legislation! Selma March! Campus unrest! Black Power!
The notion that such events had nothing to do with theology and the church was totally foreign to life at Wesley Seminary, at least in my experience during those three years.
Education and formation were integral to my seminary experience. Contrary to current practice, psychological evaluations were done as part of the orientation process at Wesley. The purpose was to identify personality, psychological, and emotional qualities that may need attention.
A clinical psychologist and faculty members with appropriate training were available to provide support in addressing identified issues. As we were told, “We are here to help prepare you intellectually, spiritually, and psychologically to be the best pastors you can be.”
One incident captures the impact those three years had on my own education and formation. It happened during my second year in the class called “Sermonic Clinic,” a required class in the practice of preaching.
The professor was Dr. Earl H. Ferguson. He was known as a tough professor whose critique of sermons could be brutal. We called the class “Fergatory!” When it came my turn to preach, I used an Easter sermon I had delivered in one of my local churches.
I preached on the resurrection and promptly experienced the crucifixion when Dr. Ferguson delivered his critique before the whole class. He found nothing positive in the sermon. I failed to define what I meant by resurrection or explain how it provided forgiveness for the past, strength for the present, and hope for the future–the three points. My delivery was wooden, dispassionate, and “boring.”
I was crushed by the evaluation. I left for home immediately after class. I burst into tears when Linda greeted me with “How did it go?” I had failed! I tossed and turned through the night before returning to campus the next morning.
Upon arriving on campus for a first period class, I entered the underground tunnel connecting the classroom building to Oxnam Chapel and several faculty offices, including Dr. Ferguson’s.
Suddenly, I heard that familiar voice, “Kenneth! Wait up!” It was Dr. Ferguson.
“That hurt yesterday, didn’t it?” he commented.
“Yes, it hurt very much,” as I choked back my emotions.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you; but we need to understand one another. I assume you are here because you have been called to preach. I am here because I have been called to make you the best preacher you can be.”
Then he did something I had never experienced from him. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Kenneth, I believe in you!”
Suddenly, this brilliant man put his arm around me and continued, “And I’m going to hold you to it.” While he held me in compassion, he held me accountable to my calling.
I asked if I could preach another sermon. Though it was an improvement and his critique included some positives, I had more work to do (and still do).
Thereafter, I took every class I could from Dr. Ferguson. He was a Tillich scholar and one of his classes was “The Meaning of Love.” The basic texts were Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Paul Tillich’s Love, Power, and Justice. I still have the notes from that class and the term paper I wrote, “Masochism and Sadism and Their Theological Formulations.”
Ten years after graduating from Wesley, I wrote to Dr. Ferguson and thanked him for what he taught me about preaching AND the meaning of discipleship. He had retired and moved to Maine. His response includes this paragraph:
Your letter warmed an old man’s heart on a cold winter day in Maine. Teaching and preaching are like shooting arrows into the air. You’re never quite sure they hit any targets. Then, someone takes the time to write a note or letter to say ‘thank you.’ You realize that something you said or did made a difference. Thank you!
Here are a few arrows shot into the air by Wesley Seminary that landed firmly in my understanding of the gospel and practice of ministry:
- There is only one gospel, with personal, social, and cosmic implications
- Education and formation are inseparable components of ministry
- Knowledge and vital piety belong together
- A congregation that neglects its community isn’t the church
- God is as concerned about what happens in politics as in religion
- Justice and evangelism are conjoined twins, not adversaries
- The world is God’s preoccupation, not the institutional church
- “God’s kingdom will come. Join it or get out of its way!” (Quote from Professor Lowell Hazzard,1965.)
Whatever effectiveness I may have had over five decades of ordained ministry, I owe much of it to Wesley Seminary during three life-changing years, 1962-65,
*This is the second in a series as I engage in the coming months on a pilgrimage of remembering sixty years of ministry and life with my deceased wife, Linda. When possible, I will be visiting the communities where Linda and I lived and served.
Photo: Copyright, Wesley Theological Seminary, 2020. All rights reserved. Used with permission.