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And One to Grow On

One year ago I was preparing for my move from Cleveland to Chicago.  A three month break following the conclusion of my term as General Minister and President had given me a taste of leisure and I faced the prospect of a new job in a new place with considerable ambivalence.  While the invitation to come to Chicago Theological Seminary was a welcome one, at age 59 I was also feeling my years, and was even somewhat resentful that after the incredibly consuming and demanding work in Cleveland I now needed to start all over again.  All my predecessors had completed their tenure at retirement age, the presidency of the denomination providing a kind of capstone to their careers after which they could take on special assignments if and when they chose.  But I was too young to retire and so needed to do a “next thing.”

After eighteen years in one place and ten years in a job I had grown comfortable with, I now found myself either the new kid on the block or the old dog trying to learn new tricks.  The faculty was friendly, but their rhythms and patterns have been set for a long time focused, as should be the case, around teaching, students, and research.  The staff was welcoming, but they had their defined roles in the school, and my job description doesn’t always easily fit established institutional categories.  I got to know students in my one class, but beyond that I wondered if I was simply a curiosity, if even that.  I have always loved teaching, but a regular class of graduate students was another thing, especially once a week for three hours in the evening!  Can I really do this well?

While the pace was considerably slower in some ways, especially the drastic diminishment of travel obligations, in other ways the work was harder.  Everything was new.   Like most seminaries, the place felt locked in the security of well established routines and at the same time fragile and vulnerable.  Do I belong?  Can I make a meaningful contribution?  Do I even know what I am doing?  After years of feeling pretty competent, no matter how complicated or challenging the circumstances, I now felt only marginally capable.  With one foot in the faculty and one foot in the administration, I wasn’t sure whether I had standing anywhere.

A year has passed.  There have been wonderful experiences and humbling ones as well.  There are students who seem grateful for what I have to offer, and students who make me wonder if I have anything useful to offer at all!  Many of the “new ideas” I had for enriching things here haven’t panned out.  No time, no money, maybe no interest, or perhaps not very good ideas to begin with!  Not to mention urgent agendas demanding attention that I hadn’t anticipated.  Friendships have emerged, and projects for which I have some usefulness.  The place still feels “odd,” though no odder I suppose than any other seminary or, for that matter, any other new environment that follows years in a familiar setting.

The truth is I had to grow, and still do.  Grow into a new organizational culture.  Grow into a new appreciation for the challenges, interests and aspirations of a younger generation.  Grow into a readiness to have my ideas challenged by folk who either don’t know or don’t care that I was once the GMP, or the denomination’s ecumenical officer, or a seasoned pastor.  In other words, I had to grow competencies and humility all at the same time and in a hurry.

As much as we might wish it weren’t so, that’s what leadership is really all about.  I was reminded of this recently while reading a book about Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery by Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia.  Foner reminds us that Lincoln’s views evolved considerably over time.  While he was never a defender of slavery, he wasn’t an abolitionist, either.  He favored gradual emancipation in which slaveholders would be compensated for freeing their slaves.  And his scheme for dealing with freed men and women was colonization in Africa.  He began his presidency focused on preserving the Union, not abolishing slavery.  Foner’s portrait reveals many flaws in this iconic figure, and human traits far from those associated with “The Great Emancipator.”  And yet.  Foner gives abolitionist Lydia Maria Child the last word:

I think we have reason to thank God for Abraham Lincoln.  With all his deficiencies, it must be admitted that he has grown continuously; and considering how slavery had weakened and perverted the moral sense of the whole country, it was great good luck to have the people elect a man who was willing to grow, (Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery).

He was willing to grow.  That’s not a bad thought for all of us to hold onto as we begin a new year, wherever or in whatever circumstances that may be.  After all, fear of growth can simply entrench us in old patterns, comfortable because they are known, but not necessarily healthy, faithful, or just.  Chicago Theological Seminary commits itself to “the development of religious leadership to transform society toward greater justice and mercy.”  At the very least that means all of us must be willing to grow in ways large and small.

This has been a demanding year, but a very good “next thing.”  I’ve grown some, probably because I was pushed.  And that’s good, especially for a new member of the sixty and over crowd.  Now, in a few weeks I’m scheduled to start learning how to teach on-line.  Yikes!

John H. Thomas

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