What a wonderful occasion this is, as Cynthia Kittredge is installed as the 8th Dean and President of the Seminary of the Southwest! It is a great privilege and joy for me to be here to celebrate with Cynthia, with her family and friends, and with all of you in this seminary community that Cynthia loves so deeply.
It is a fortunate thing, indeed, when one of our Church’s finest scholars, teachers, and pastors is willing to add yet another new set of skills to her Linked -In profile – skills she probably never dreamed she might one day need….. Thank you, Cynthia!
And Cynthia, despite what some of your faculty colleagues may have suggested, you have not gone over to the dark side by taking on the yoke of seminary administration. The vocation of a seminary dean and president is a curious one, in many respects – (Not a career path that shows up on any of the vocational interest inventories), but I guarantee that it will present you with more interesting and satisfying challenges than you can imagine.
So what is this curious vocation to which Cynthia is offering herself? And what kind of leadership should we expect from your new dean and president?
First a few thoughts about the vocation of a theological school: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what our seminaries are called to do and to be, and I keep returning to an understanding of theological schools articulated by David Tiede, who served 18 years as President of Luther Seminary, the largest of the ELCA seminaries. (Like Cynthia, David earned his Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Harvard and was a seminary professor before becoming president of Luther Seminary.)
As David thought about his seminary’s history, he began to realize that at different times in its life Luther Seminary had embraced the values and the practices of three distinct entities, each of which remained present in its current life. He named those three entities the abbey, the academy, and the apostolate.
Abbey because theological education has its roots in monastic communities or abbeys, which existed as places of prayer and worship and study leading to ordination.
Academy, because as theological education moved out from the abbeys, schools were established that gradually evolved into institutions of higher learning with academic and professional standards for accreditation that mirror those of colleges and universities.
Apostolate,because seminaries have come to understand their mission as extending beyond abbey or academy, with a growing awareness of the importance of Christian witness and mission in a much broader and global context.
This understanding of a seminary as the place where the abbey, the academy, and the apostolate come together rings true to me as I think about the vocation of Seminary of the Southwest. Like an abbey, you are a worshipping community, with a Chapel from which the daily rhythms of your life radiate. Those daily rhythms are part of your corporate Rule of Life and a way of ordering your common life. So one strand of Cynthia’s leadership will be in the liturgical life of this community.
But you are also an academic community, committed to rigorous and critical engagement with scripture and with the texts of a comprehensive theological curriculum. So a second strand of Cynthia’s leadership will be in your academic life, upholding the importance of the life of the mind in Christian faith, encouraging the “utterance of knowledge and the utterance of wisdom” from its members, as Paul once did for the Christian community in Corinth. And you are an apostolate, as well, sending graduates into the world each year, to minister in a variety of settings: some in parish churches, but others in schools or prisons, in hospitals, counseling centers, and military bases. As Cynthia presides at Commencement she is weaving a third strand of her leadership role, sending you out, commissioning you for your work. (A former chaplain at the seminary where I worked used to say to graduating students: “It’s sad to see you go, but it would be tragic for you to stay.” His point was that seminary is not a destination unto itself, but a place of preparation for the ministries to which you are called.)
But what kind of leader will Dean Kittredge be? What values will shape her leadership? Several weeks ago I asked her why she chose the readings we just heard for this service. She chose them, she said, because they speak about leadership within the body of Christ. And then she told me that they also touch on themes she first explored in her doctoral dissertation, an examination of community, authority, and the rhetoric of obedience in the Pauline tradition. Those themes still resonate with her, Cynthia said, as she thinks about her new role in this community. So think with me, if you will, about these three themes, which may provide s a glimpse into the kind of leadership Cynthia will exercise in this community.
Let’s start with authority and obedience first – and let’s keep them together, since authority and obedience have so often been linked together in scripture and throughout the long trajectory of our Jewish and Christian history.
Authority and obedience are two words that make many of us profoundly uneasy. We live in a society that is increasingly suspicious and distrustful of people in positions of authority, the result, no doubt, of too many instances when our leaders have abused their authority and betrayed our trust.
Talk of obedience can also make us uneasy because we know all too well how often obedience has been invoked as a way of forcing individuals and nations into submission or slavery, only to suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of their oppressor.
Authority and obedience are both highly relational nouns. We know that abuse is far more likely to happen when authority and obedience are not deeply grounded in mutual trust, a trust that must be earned before authority can be respected. The Letter of Institution that Bp. Doyle read earlier confers on Cynthia the formal authority of her new office: authority granted by the charter and by-laws of the Seminary, by virtue of her election by the board of trustees. But Cynthia’s real authority – her more authentic authority – will never come from a legal document. Cynthia’s real authority is grounded in the trust she has already earned and must continue to earn in this community. And the obedience that is linked to her authority is not so much about the community’s obedience to Cynthia (Good luck with that, Cynthia…) it is, instead, about her own obedience to her call to serve this community.
One of the best illustrations I know about the interplay of authority and obedience and leadership in community comes from a novel written by Gail Godwin back in 1991. It tells the story of a young girl named Margaret and her father, Walter Gower, an Episcopal priest whose periodic bouts of depression earned him the nickname Father Melancholy. One autumn day (which happened to be September 13th) Margaret’s mother left for a vacation with an old school friend and never returned, leaving her husband and daughter to spend the rest of their lives trying to come to terms with their loss. Yet all the while, year after year, day in and day out, Fr. Gower faithfully carried out his duties as the Rector of a small parish in Southwestern Virginia. Despite the dark curtain of despondency that would wrap itself around him for periods of time, Fr. Gower was respected and revered by all who knew him. He was known for the dignity and beauty of his liturgies, for the careful preparation he gave to his preaching and the administration of the sacraments, and especially for his patience in the pastoral care of his flock – a flock that contained, as all congregations and seminaries do, a generous share of souls that try the patience of their leaders. They respected his authority because they knew that he loved them and accepted them and valued them for who they were: beloved children of God.
One day, when Margaret was home from college, a new priest in town expressed his admiration for her father: her father was “a priest who lived by the grace of daily obligation”, he noted. Each day Fr. Gower rose and said his prayers and cared for his flock.
Living by the grace of daily obligation is a form of obedience that is particularly suited to life and leadership within a seminary – not only for its Dean, but all members of the community.
And what about community? Community is what we all say we want in seminary: scroll though the websites of a few dozen seminaries and you’ll see what I mean: widespread agreement that theological education at its best must be grounded in the life of a community. The problem is that most of us like the idea of community more than we like the reality of community.
Last month I spent a rainy day in Maine browsing the bookshelves of a small independent bookstore where I purchased a volume of short stories. One of the stories was about a man named Mitchell, the owner of a small bookstore similar to the one I was visiting. Mitchell’s twelve year old daughter accused her father of “loving his books but hating his customers.” He didn’t really hate them, she said, he “just didn’t like to have to chat with them. He would have liked to have a bouncer at the door who would quietly usher them out” when they became difficult. That’s what it’s sometimes like in seminaries: we love our community, it’s just that some of its members can really get under our skin.
The associate dean for community life in another seminary describes a phenomenon that often happens to new students about six weeks into seminary life. After the rosy glow of the first heady weeks has faded, disillusionment inevitably sets in; the worship is dull, the food is bad, the workload is too heavy. And there comes a time – maybe in a classroom or perhaps over a shared meal in the Refectory – a time comes when you find yourself looking at the person sitting opposite you wondering how in the world that person could possibly be called to the same ministry as you. What was God thinking? What was the bishop thinking???
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his wonderful book Life Together, the sooner the disillusionment comes the better it is. “A community that cannot hear and cannot survive such a crisis”, he wrote, “which insists on keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.” It’s in those moments of disillusionment that we need a leader who not only understands this, but who can help us live into the hard work of creating true community, a leader who by her own authenticity can help us find ours – and a leader who can keep us attentive to the presence of God’s spirit, moving among us.
You probably noticed a unifying theme running through all of the readings Cynthia chose for this service: it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit:
the Spirit of the Lord that anointed the prophet Isaiah;
the Spiritmanifested in the variety of gifts that make up the body of Christ;
the one Spirit in which we are all baptized into one body;
the Holy Spirit that pours out on all who ask;
the Spirit that empowers us for the work God gives us to do.
It is not a coincidence that the presence of the Holy Spirit is the consistent theme in all these readings. The Holy Spirit, I believe, is the hermeneutic key to the kind of leadership that Cynthia already exercises in this community, and which she will, no doubt, continue to exercise in her new role.
So, Cynthia may the same Spirit that moved over the waters in creation
and the Spirit that has anointed you for leadership of this community
and the Spirit that will empower you for this ministry:
May this Holy Spirit sustain and nourish you with God’s grace as she continues to make all things new. Amen.
Sermon preached at the installation of the Very Reverend Cynthia Briggs Kittredge as the eighth dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest, The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, Texas – September 13, 2013
Texts for the service: Psalm 139, Isaiah 61:1-3, I Corinthians 12:4-14, Luke 11:9-13