December 2022 News Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean

For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not fleshly and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not all too human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  (1 Corinthians 3:3b-6)

In this well-known passage, Paul warns the Corinthians not to form factions based on allegiance to specific leaders. To do so is “fleshy and behaving according to human inclinations.” The my-apostle-is-better-than-your-apostle argument is just one example of the countless ways people find identity and status by aligning with what they perceive to be a superior group. It is a sign of human insecurity and vulnerability as much today as it was then. It has always been divisive and is quite frequently perilous, sometimes catastrophically so.

Thankfully, Corinthian-level identification with leaders is not an issue at Perkins. That’s not to say that this or that former leader is not regarded with particular appreciation. That is as it should be. It becomes a problem only when such admiration exists to the exclusion of and in competition with appreciation for the gifts and achievements of others. In that case, the true focus in not on the leader but on us.

When I read this text, my attention is drawn instead to verse 6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Unquestionably, I knew this lesson to be true on an intellectual level before becoming Dean. Still, it is easy to begin a leadership position with the unconsidered and largely unconscious conviction that one’s job is to solve every problem and, in due time, to hand off the school to the next Dean in all but perfect order.

Over the years, several things become much more front-of-mind thanks to lived experience. Among them are the following:

  1. Whatever you achieve, there will always be new opportunities and new problems. Who saw COVID coming with its myriad long-term effects? What new technologies will emerge in the next decade or two that will disrupt (and improve, one hopes) current models of education?
  2. Where significant advances are made, it will be because others bought into a shared vision, whatever its origin, and worked to see it come to pass. There is only so much you can do alone. It follows that, over the years, your appreciation for your colleagues will deepen. It also follows that you see retirement not as the occasion for leaving colleagues in the past, but rather as a chance to continue to know them, though now wholly as friends.
  3. Likewise, the more time goes by, the more admiration you will have for your predecessors—in my case, Deans Lawrence, Lovin, and Kirby in particular—and the more appreciation you will have for their accomplishments. (Thank God for the things they did that freed me to focus my attention elsewhere!) The same goes for the members of the Perkins Executive Board and other benefactors whose generosity made possible those advances.
  4. The borderland between continuity and change has always existed in the church (consider, for example, the controversy over Gentile inclusion in the 1st century church), and it will always be hotly contested territory. This tension can be avoided to some extent through the adoption of self-contained, circular positions that promise ongoing and comfortable certainty, but that certainty eventually will be challenged by the threat of some new change.
  5. Perhaps the most insidious change is that which is not even recognized as change. My children grew up with computers, social media, streaming content, and so on. The enormous cultural shifts brought by such technologies are largely unknown to them as change. Similarly, a great deal of what passes for normal, acceptable Christian life in America today would have been unrecognizable to St. Paul or even to John Wesley.
  6. You see this dynamic of continuity and change playing out over the decades at Perkins, recognize it in our own time, and anticipate it in the future. You hope that vital continuity will remain, but also that necessary change will occur every year, just as it has in each of the years of my own deanship.

Perhaps you’ve heard recited “The Oscar Romero Prayer.”  It was composed by Bishop Ken Untener for inclusion in a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in 1979 at a celebration of departed priests.  It is often prayed at services commemorating the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, but also on other occasions of transition. It sums up perfectly my own thoughts as I am about to move into a new phase of life.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen, indeed.

Let me close by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all of the many wonderful people associated with Perkins School of Theology and SMU. I trust that you will continue to support our cherished school and its leadership for years to come. I shall always remember you with profound gratitude.

Grace and peace,