July 25, 2012
The following speech was delivered by Mr. Martin Lehfeldt, Chair of the Johnson C. Smith Seminary Board of Trustees during a luncheon for seminary alumnae/i and friends at the bi-annual Meeting of the General Assembly of the PCUSA in Pittsburgh, PA, on July 4, 2012. The speech provides a brilliant assessment of the seminary's recent past and projected future. Approximately 55 persons were in attendance to hear the speech and were deeply moved by its candor, humor, and passion.
It's my current plan to be around for a while longer because I believe that God has great things in store for our seminary, and I would like to continue to be a part of making them happen.
Today I am preaching to the choir. Most of you already know and love Smith Seminary. So, in the time allotted to me, my purpose is both to remind you of why your continued loyalty is important and also to give you some new reasons to be pleased about what we are doing these days and to supply you with a vision to excite you about our future.
First, though, a quick look backward:
In 1969, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, after a mighty effort by Jim Costen and others, relocated to Atlanta to become a part of the 11-year old Interdenominational Theological Center. As most of us know, had it not made that move, the seminary would have closed and become a short footnote in the history of theological education in America.
But God apparently still had plans for this seminary. And so, beginning with a dean who operated from an office the size of a small closet and who had four students, it opened a new chapter in its history. And for the past 43 years it has remained faithful to its mission of preparing men and women for ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other branches of the Reformed church around the world.
I also moved to Atlanta in 1969 to become the Vice President for Development at what was then Clark College and after seven years in that position, I became the Director of Development for the Atlanta University Center. In the course of that decade, I got to know Jim Costen as both an administrative colleague and personal friend and became well acquainted with the ITC.
Then in 1992, Holly Lockhart, a trustee of Smith whom some of you will remember, set in motion the process that led to the privilege of my being elected to the board. With the exception of a year or so off for good behavior, I have been a trustee of the seminary for the past 20 years, and its chair for the past 14 months.
Why have I stayed on this board for 20 years? Over those years both black and white friends have shaken their heads sorrowfully and said to me, "Let it go, Martin. Johnson C. Smith has had its day. It served its purpose. It's time to move on to something else." And my response is a simple one. I'm staying. Why? Because this seminary remains one of the most concrete manifestations of our denomination's oft-stated commitment to diversity and equity.
Time and again over the decades, our General Assemblies and other convocations of the Presbyterian Church have declared the importance of Johnson C. Smith. But I'm like the God of Amos. I take no delight in the noise of solemn assemblies, especially when they are followed by long periods of benign neglect. I stick around because I remain convinced that the rhetoric of inclusion must be matched by the reality of implementation.
And for 145 years our seminary has been about the business of welcoming and nurturing and training men and women, black and white, American and international, whose lives and labors have helped to make our church and our society more actively diverse and more powerfully inclusive. Many of you in the room today have been those pioneering leaders. At Smith you were empowered to become the leaven in that big white loaf of bread called the Presbyterian Church. And everyone is better for it.
These past twenty years have not always been easy. If one didn't already have a manic-depressive personality, service on the Smith Seminary board during this period would quickly have induced that psychological condition. It was a period marked by some highs, but also by some difficult times. There were periods of elation, but many more of deep frustration. Three years ago we had sunk to a new nadir. After 30 years in Atlanta, we were floundering badly. Enrollment had dropped precipitously; our finances were in chaos; key board members had slipped away; and longtime friends and supporters were heading for the exit. I don't know how many of you realized it at the time, but we once again were perilously close to turning out the lights and declaring that Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary had left the building-seemingly destined again to merit only brief mention in American church history.
Once again, though, God wasn't through with us. A faithful remnant of board members decided that we would continue-and today I want to express my profound appreciation to those trustees and other volunteers and friends who stayed the course.
Nonetheless, our return from the brink of disaster was at first achingly slow. Some days every step forward seemed to be offset by two steps backward. Every time we kicked a rock, something ugly would crawl out. It was a time when contributions to the seminary seemed only to be slowing our descent into oblivion. James Weldon Johnson's phrases about stony roads and bitter chastening rods took on painful new meaning, and our silent prayers often included the cry, "How long, O Lord, how long?"
We began to get our first glimmers of hope when Paul Roberts agreed to accept our invitation to serve as Johnson C. Smith Seminary's President/Dean. I am not going to embarrass Paul today by describing all that he has done during the past three years to transform and rejuvenate the entire ethos of our enterprise. (I also don't want to elevate his hopes that he's going to get a raise in the near future.) Suffice it to say that his intellect, his pastoral nurture of students, his humble personality, his preaching and speaking gifts, and his passion for his seminary alma mater are helping to put us back on the map. His leadership has helped us to increase enrollment, to attract a cadre of energetic new board members, to win back the support of past donors, and to attract some new contributions.
Some of you were present at Paul's inauguration when he described the "meant-to-be-ness" of the seminary. It was a powerful manifesto of a "can-do" attitude, rooted in an equally strong understanding of our dependence upon a gracious God.
Today I stand before you to report that we are again on the upward way. Our songs of joy are louder than our lamentations. As we plow new ground, we are uncovering healthy new seeds that are ready to sprout into thriving plants. Every dollar we receive from you can now be honestly described not as a stop-gap measure but as an investment in an exciting future.
What a treat to be able to use an optimistic phrase like "exciting future." It implies a vision and a plan to achieve it. As we all know, it's hard to design a plan to drain the swamp when you're up to your butt in alligators. We're not completely out of the swamp, but we've got both a vision and a plan.
In just five years, Johnson C. Smith is going to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Let me share with you just a few of the highlights of what we propose to look like.
In 2017, we will be widely known as a post-graduate destination of choice for students with demonstrated leadership gifts who feel the call to make a difference in a world that is undergoing rapid change. Not all of them will necessarily be planning to occupy traditional pulpits. Some will be preparing themselves for careers in Christ-centered community development and the formation of non-traditional churches.
Ten per cent of the minimum annual enrollment of 50 will be comprised of international students from Africa, South America, and Asia, because our plans call for the re-globalization of the seminary. Our goal is to restore our engagement with the Reformed Church of East Africa, but we also are in conversation with evangelical seminaries in Egypt and Cuba who are excited about the prospect of affiliating with a seminary that has a deep understanding of how one functions as a minority within a majority culture.
Both those American and international students will be attracted to Johnson C. Smith and the ITC not just because of its excellent faculty like Margaret Aymer and the welcoming nature of its student fellowship but also because of the African-American perspective they will gain about Biblical hermeneutics and because of the one-of-a-kind ecumenical environment of the ITC where they will be exposed to the traditions and polity and preaching and worship styles of United Methodists and Pentecostals and Baptists and CMEs and AMEs.
And we are committing ourselves to steadily increasing the amount of financial aid we can provide to these students so they can graduate without being mired in crippling debt.
We believe that Johnson C. Smith is a national and international resource. As such our governance will reflect that understanding, and we even now are building a board that will include representation from around this country and have board members from other countries. We will continue our tradition of working very hard to achieve racial/ethnic, gender, and geographic balance on the board of trustees, but watch out especially for a growing number of African-American women and men from the world of business and the professions.
Two weeks ago, we convened a marketing task force to begin developing a set of messages that we will be employing as we step up our recruitment and fund raising strategies. Whether or not we use the actual phrase, the planning group found itself very attracted to the concept of the seminary becoming known as the place that prepares its students for the "church that's going to be happenin' next."
Now there's a phrase that speaks volumes. This week we've packed five or six Pittsburgh hotels and a convention center with folks who in one way or another are trying to figure out what the Presbyterian Church is going to become. Some are determined that it must change to keep pace with an ever-changing world. Others are equally determined that it dare not change. Some are committed to remaining connected. Others are ready to pull the switch and to dis-connect.
Johnson C. Smith Seminary has a perspective on change that comes from a long memory. We were training black pastors long before the church decided to desegregate itself. We were training white women for the ministry when other seminaries were reluctant to admit them. We think we know something about both diversity and inclusiveness and, yes, justice. We can, without apology, both embrace and encourage change.
We all know that there is a world outside our sanctuaries that is hungry for a message of welcome. On any given Sunday morning the crowded ways of life are filled with people who are looking for meaning. They fill the coffee shops and mill around the public plazas. Some consider themselves to be spiritual. All are resolutely non-religious. Yet most of them are hungry for more than lattes and bagels or even the empty companionship of mingling in a faceless crowd. They hunger for good news, but they suspect, often correctly, that they may not be welcome in our places of worship. Who will minister to them? I'd like to believe that our graduates will be among those who accept that call.
(I realize that I need to bring my remarks to a close. After one of my speeches had gone on too long, a friend of mine offered me a piece of advice. "Martin," he said, "if you want your words to be eternal, it's not necessary for them to be everlasting.")
Because I live in Atlanta, I have the opportunity to be a frequent visitor at the seminary. I love going over there. The offices are always a beehive of activity. We're the smallest constituent of the ITC, but I'm convinced that we're the liveliest. Students and professors wander in an out: men and women, young and older, straight and gay, Americans and Koreans, Presbyterians and Lutherans, Southerners and New Yorkers. All are greeted warmly by a welcoming staff. They gossip, they talk about their preparations for ordination exams, they discuss their internships. They share thoughts about their sense of call. Many of them anticipate being agents of change.
One last story: I have never been prouder of our seminary than I have been during the past few months as I have watched our students and their Presbyterian faculty members taking it upon themselves to design a program that will be a model for helping congregations to become far more responsive to the needs of God's people who are afflicted with HIV/AIDS. These men, women, and children are the lepers of our day-scorned, demonized and neglected-but at Johnson C. Smith, seminarians and their professors are working to change that dynamic. You ask me why I'm a board member of our seminary? It's because at Johnson C. Smith we talk about the same Jesus I follow-the one who was always ready to embrace the folks that no one else would touch.
As I was preparing these comments, I was reminded of some lines by Fred Pratt Green, one of the great hymn writers of the 20th century. See if they don't make you think of Johnson C. Smith Seminary too. The first verse goes like this:
The church of Christ in every age
Beset by change but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead.
The hymn closes with this verse:
We have no mission but to serve
In full obedience to our Lord:
To care for all, without reserve,
And spread Christ's liberating word.
Your seminary is going through another period of resurrection. It is claiming its 145-year heritage of preparing leaders who will help the church to spread that liberating word. It is envisioning a future filled with promise and excitement.
Paul Roberts likes to describe the new spirit at Smith as one of edginess. It's the edginess of someone preparing for an athletic event. Sometimes I think the author of the Letter to the Hebrews had us in mind when he wrote about running with perseverance the race that has been set before us. It has been a long race, and sometimes we have felt weary, but we've got our second wind now, we're up on our toes, and we're picking up the pace!
As you leave this luncheon today, I obviously want you to feel good about Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. But I want you to do more than that. I want you to be active alumni. I want you and your congregations to be diligent donors. By all means, keep praying powerfully for us, but I want your piety to translate itself into powerful performance on our behalf. May we count upon your prayers? May we count upon your financial support? Will you send us a new generation of students who have the potential to become the next cadre of leaders?
If you will covenant with us to be our partners, we will not simply survive. We will not just keep on keepin' on. Instead, we will succeed beyond our wildest imagination. God willing, may it be even so.
-Martin C. Lehfeldt, Chair of the Johnson C. Smith Seminary Board of Trustees