By Brian Hayes, Staff Writer
By the time we all finish this degree program, we will have taken at least 81 hours of graduate level classes. We will have read thousands of pages on the subjects of theology, church history, biblical interpretation, spirituality, and countless others. We will have written hundreds of pages of our own, depicting our personal research, reflection, and creative understandings. And we will have spent an unquantifiable amount of time in the classroom, in worship, and in informal interactions with our diverse and thoughtful colleagues. Through all of this, we learn an awful lot in the three years we pass through this place. However, we would be remiss if we thought that our education stops when we leave Wingate Hall after a day of classes or at graduation when we are handed our diplomas. What we learn here in divinity school is only the beginning.
We would also be remiss if we thought our only sources for learning are professors, scholarly books, and academic journals. Sometimes our greatest opportunities for education come from the surprisingly common and ordinary circumstances we encounter. This has been true for me in my own experience through my involvement at New Bessemer Baptist Church in McLeansville, NC. In the three years I have been pursuing an MDiv, I also served in youth ministry at New Bessemer. Through this work, I unexpectedly became an active participant in this caring church family. While dealing with the foundational and earth-shattering questions we are all faced with here at Wake Div, this faith community kept me grounded in the reality of people’s everyday Christian lives. Through this group of believers, I have had the honor of seeing how theology functions in the life of a congregation as it seeks to discover and express its communal identity. Without the people of New Bessemer constantly reminding me what faith looks like concretely, I just might have gone insane through this whole academic process.
Looking back over my time spent simultaneously at Wake Div and New Bessemer, I realize that I have learned just as much (if not more) from the people at my church than I have in divinity school. Joining with this congregation to live faithfully together has deeply formed me by showing me what it means to be the body of Christ. While I was officially on staff at this church to minister to others, the reality is that I also received ministry in powerful ways. While the expectation of my position was that I pass on my academic and experiential knowledge to adolescents growing in their faith, the reality is that they taught me more about the nature of God and the world than I could have ever imagined.
My experience at New Bessemer has revealed to me that all too often, we do not give the people we work with in ministry enough credit. Sure, our parishioners may have never attended divinity school. Those we offer care to may not be able to describe their biblical hermeneutic. The people taking refuge in homeless shelters may not be well versed in theology. Yet, all of the people to whom we minister have the capacity to minister to us in poignant ways if we are simply willing to pay attention.
There is certainly a sense in which a Master of Divinity sets us apart as experts in the field of ministry. However, we are never beyond being taught by the insights and experiences of those we minister to. My hope is that I never see the spiritual understandings of those I work with as inferior. Instead, I hope to always be able to humble myself enough to listen to and learn from the people I am called to serve. After all, if we really believe that all people reflect the image of God and that all people have equal access to God’s Kingdom, then anyone in any situation can be a source of sacred wisdom.
So in this light, may we not allow the academic perspectives we have gained here at Wake Div to cloud our ability to learn from the everyday lives of the faithful. Instead, let us always keep our minds and hearts open to the voice of God as it is revealed through the people of God. Our education in and of itself will never make a difference in the world. Rather, it is our love for people and our willingness to be taught by others that will empower us to bring the Kingdom of God to life in our midst.