You Never Graduate – Reflections on Graduation

I missed HBU graduation yesterday, for before I had realized the implications of the new calendar (perhaps before it was published) I had agreed to teach in an intensive bi-vocational clergy training program, the Iona School for Ministry. So I spent the day talking about the Gospel of John while students I loved were graduating. In our Department of Theology we saw students I know graduate from each of our programs, both MATS and BA, and even from the MABL program that used to be ours, but now is part of the new Department of Classics and Biblical Languages (it has moved up higher!). Each is a unique individual with differing gifts. most have bi-vocational experience (working and being involved in ministry while studying). This may be the shape of much of the church to come in that most churches are small and the bi-vocational minister or, even better, team of ministers, may be their best mode of existence. This is particularly true of churches that are pastorally strong and that because of that tend to stay small. (In my experience large church pastors tend to be leaders, communicators, and vision casters more than pastors, although there is usually someone pastoral on the staff.) And this is the way that churches start, so maybe some of this crew of graduates may end up as church planters. And, of course, some may go on to the new scholars who replace their professors who are growing older. Happy is the retiree who sees a former student doing a good job in the position he or she has vacated. Finally, some may lean harder on their “secular” vocational side and become “marketplace ministers” – serving God by thinking and living Christianly within a working situation that is not explicitly Christian. As I reflected on each of the graduates, I was thankful for the astounding range of possibilities the had to do good for Jesus the Anointed One and his Church.

But there is another reflection that was stimulated in me this weekend, and that was that graduation is not the ending, but the beginning of learning. If we faculty have done our jobs, we have sent people out on a life-trajectory of learning so that in 10 or 20 years most of what they know they will have learned after graduation day. This came home to me in a practical way when I went to church. The usual minister who led the service I go to (in my church most of the time different ministers lead each service) did not preach on Sunday, for the Ordinary (in essence, the usual minister’s boss) was present. The Ordinary started to preach on a wonderful passage from 1 Peter, then stopped and said that he was intimidated to do so with a 1 Peter scholar in the congregation and, after saying some very nice things about me and my commentary on the letter, actually had me stand. Then he went on and did indeed preach well. That was all very flattering and I am glad that he liked my commentary, but I am more glad that the ideas he liked from it I still agree with. I published that commentary in 1990. And I have gone on learning about 1 Peter (and other parts of the New Testament) since then. I would write it a bit differently today because I have learned more about 1 Peter since I wrote that work. But Eerdmans Publishers has (so far) left it frozen in time while I am not frozen in time. Nor will our students be frozen in time. If they have learned from us well, they will continually learning, continually growing, and continually thinking. In ten or twenty years I do indeed hope that they return and say, not “Thank you for my knowledge,” but “Thank you for giving me a start and pointing out a trajectory of growth for me.” HBU has some new graduates and with good reason the various offices of the university have to consider their education complete. But both my experience and my hope is that in their heart of hearts they never “graduate” but simply transition to another form of life-long learning.
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