Mr. Hevey is minister of the First Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont.
This article appeared in the Christian Century March 10, 1982, p. 273. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
In the view of even the most faithful and sophisticated church members, including those who are close friends of the clergy, the theological seminary and the seminary professor are mysterious and awesome — familiar only to the privileged and spiritual elite, speaking an esoteric tongue, and no place for the laity. So a seminary professor was invited to spend his sabbatical at our church.
In the view of even the most faithful and sophisticated church members, including those who are close friends of the clergy, the theological seminary is a mysterious and awesome institution — familiar only to the privileged and spiritual elite, speaking an esoteric tongue, and turning out men and women in a highly specialized field — but no place for the laity. Similarly, professors of theology are conceived as hoary, dignified old men (always men), devoid of humor, surrounded by thick tomes of biblical knowledge and frowning over reading glasses at theological neophytes.
These notions of the seminary surfaced when our congregation discussed the possibility of a seminary professor’s becoming a part of our official “family” for a semester. In the minister’s annual report, the congregation had been challenged to seek out a seminary professor who would like to spend his or her sabbatical leave in our lovely four-seasons resort village. In addition to writing a book, doing special study, or whatever else seminary faculty do on sabbatical, the professor and family members would also be able to enjoy the mountains, skiing, golf and numerous other recreational pleasures this Vermont community offers.
The congregation responded cautiously but positively to the challenge. Some were wildly enthusiastic, for ours is a church where adult study classes on a wide variety of subjects have been the norm for several years. Also, a retired seminary professor had recently taught a six-week New Testament course in our church. He was so engaging, his presentation of the material so clear, his humor so sincere and his personality so attractive that it was not surprising that between 30 and 40 persons remained after worship each Sunday to take his course.
A committee of six was formed: two deacons, two trustees, and two from the Christian education ministries. The committee placed an advertisement in The Christian Century and sent letters describing our search to several leading seminaries around the country, as well as to denominational executives. The denominations did not reply; neither did some of the seminaries. Others expressed interest in the idea but had no “takers” at the moment; still another seminary does not provide sabbaticals. We received nine impressive resumes, however. The committee members realized they faced a difficult task, for all the candidates had much to offer. The selection process was not at all like that of a pulpit committee, since in most cases travel expense prohibited personal interviews. Nevertheless, we engaged in correspondence and/or telephone conversation with the candidates who appeared to fill our needs.
Our agreement with the candidate was that the church would provide an attractive house for the family and $2,000 toward rent and utilities. We would also supply an office with telephone and the facilities of our church office, including secretarial assistance. In return, the church would expect four to five hours a week of classes (including preparation time), occasional preaching in the absence of the minister, and such other participation in the life of the church as the visitor wished to pursue.
The seminary visitor we finally chose was James Lindenberger, a professor of Old Testament at Vancouver School of Theology, a young, personable man with a similarly engaging wife and two small children. It was agreed that they would come to us for the period from January 15 to June 15. Naturally, one of their primary questions was schooling for the children. All arrangements were made to everyone’s satisfaction; as a matter of fact, our seminary family was delighted with the school. Since they were coming to us at the height of Vermont’s winter — and indeed did arrive in a snowstorm — several members were alerted to welcome them to a warm house, a good meal and warm clothing if they needed it.
From the first encounter, our relationship was cordial, positive and productive. The seminary family entered into every facet of our busy church life. Our professor taught, in the five-month period, two Old Testament courses in our church: one on the first 11 chapters of Genesis, and one on “Covenant in the Old Testament.” He also taught a course in Isaiah at the ecumenical Lenten School of Religion, a six-week venture with five local congregations cooperating. He was invited to preach in other churches in the community, and substituted for the pastor when he was on vacation.
Our “resident theologian,” as we called him, wished to be considered a team with his wife, Susan Lindenberger. A professional religious educator, she added much to the life of the church in meetings with the religious education committee, with women’s groups, and in consultations with teachers — our own and those of neighboring churches. Both were especially helpful in leading meetings of the youth fellowship. Our seminary couple had a great deal of professional experience in biblical archaeology — which was an added dividend, as they showed slides and presented lectures on archaeological digs in Palestine, both in our church and at a denominational association meeting. In addition, the resident theologian met twice with the association’s ministerial colleague group, presenting an exegesis of Old Testament passages appropriate to the season.
The seminary family were frequent guests in church homes and also entertained church people, so that there was much personal, intellectual and spiritual exchange. Strong friendship ties were built, and the departure of our seminary guests was an occasion for both tears and joy. The congregation honored the family at a reception following Sunday worship and presented them with gifts to express their gratitude for the visitors’ unique contribution to the life of the church.
Subsequently, several church leaders were invited to evaluate the experiment. All agreed that it had been an extremely rewarding five months, both for individuals and for the church as a whole. All felt that the encounter with seminary-level biblical scholarship was intellectually and personally beneficial. Most commented on insights gained as the teacher explained, for instance, the various authorships of Genesis and how these authorships may be reconstructed from the text of the Bible itself.
We asked our resident theologian to make an evaluation of his experience. In part, he said this: The idea of a local congregation’s bringing in a short-term “theologian in residence” is an innovative and creative one, and something which is quite unique in my experience. As to what benefit it may have been to the church, that is for you to judge. But I can speak enthusiastically about the benefits to the person who comes to you. I am convinced that anyone who teaches in a seminary gains a very important perspective by teaching not only full-time theology students but also laypeople and pastors. The curriculum at the school in which I teach is based on the premise that the seminary should be involved in theological education at all three levels. Though at the Vancouver School of Theology we have had an active lay education program for a number of years, our stay in Manchester has given me the opportunity for a rather more intensive teaching contact with laypeople of all ages than would generally be possible. I think my teaching of theology students should be improved as a result of the variety of kinds of teaching experiences I have had here.
Recently, the First Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont, held a special meeting and voted unanimously to proceed with the resident theologian program for the next three years, and allocated funds for it. A committee has been formed, and we are anticipating more enriching experiences in learning about the faith. We hope to find someone who will have a personal witness to share as well as academic proficiency. Perhaps we shall have a woman, perhaps a black professor (Vermont has a very small black population), perhaps a seminary professor from the Third World. Our church realizes that it has had an extraordinary experience, and wishes to continue it. Why shouldn’t other churches as well?