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The Seminary of the Soul

I was nervous. This meeting was the culmination of nearly three years of struggling with this issue. Many tears, numerous days of prayer and agonizing fearful thoughts culminated at this gathering. I entered the meeting, with notes in my hand, and sat at a table with three Ph.D.s: The Academic Dean, the Dean of Students, and the tenured professor of Evangelism, all of whom would decide my fate as a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS).

Let me take you back to what brought me to this fateful meeting. I began my first year at TEDS immediately after completing my B.A. at Gordon College. I graduated, got married, and packed up our Honda Civic with a rooftop carrier and headed out on a one way journey to the greater Chicago area for my seminary career. My wife and I were both young, excited and hopeful. Only God knew what was in store for us, and that was fine by me.

I signed up for my core classes, among which was Evangelism 101. As we began the course, the evangelism professor spent the first class talking about his own testimony, and discussed the required assignment of evangelism reports. As a necessary part of the class, each student was to evangelize ten people and write a report on them. As was the case with most students, the thought of starting conversations with complete strangers and sharing the gospel with them was a bit nerve racking. However, the reporting part of the assignment bothered me in a different way.

Wasn’t this using people as a project? How would people feel if they knew that the reason why I was sharing my faith with them was because of an assignment for seminary? How would they feel about me writing up a report on them, as if they were a labrat? My conscience was not clear on this. I gave the class a chance for a few weeks, and realized I just couldn’t do it. So, I did what I thought was best in this situation. I went to speak with the professor.

The professor was at the time a middle-aged, stocky-built man just under six feet, with blond unkept hair. He was a man of obvious passion and forcefulness. I walked into his office and began explaining to him my dilemma, with all respect due a seminary faculty member. His response was something I never would have expected from a Christian leader. He proceeded to pour out insult after insult on me. It was a tirade. I eventually said something to the effect of, “I am leaving,” (I believe after he called me a coward) and walked out on him. 

I was crushed. To be honest, even to this day, I cannot remember the specifics of what he said. I wish I could. I was in shock. “Did this really just happen? What would this mean for my seminary career? What am I supposed to do now?” I never returned to the class, and ended up taking a WF (Withdrawal Failure) for the course. I tried to put it out of my mind for as long as I could.

As I said, Evangelism 101 is a required class for the Master of Divinity at TEDS. I had only a few options without the class: find someone else who taught it, switch to a different degree program, or leave seminary altogether. I strongly wanted to utilize option #1, but the semesters were flying by and no other teachers were offering it. My final semester of seminary was fast approaching.

I knew I had to do something. I figured there must be a process of appeal. I talked to some other students, who offered sympathy, some even let me know they struggled with the same issue but pressed ahead. There wasn’t much they could do anyways. One student, a woman in her 30s, also dropped out of the class because of the professor. She invited me to her church, and my wife and I attended there for a number of months. Her husband was on the executive staff and they even brought up the issue to discuss as a church board. They were, similarly, wary of such an assignment, and this was a church that took evangelism pretty seriously, Willow Creek Community Church.

I went to speak with my advisor. He was very understanding. He said something I would hear often along the way in my process of appeal: “You're not the first one to have problems with him.” He dismissed the barrage of insults, saying it would be his word against mine. Instead, he went into the best way to go about an appeal concerning the required class. I actually appreciated this, as I would rather just move on with life than to get into some conflict with a tenured prof. The next step would be to meet with a dean. I set up an appointment.

Overtime, I met with deans, professors and mentors for advice. Virtually all of them replied with the familiar, “you are not the first one.” My wife and I spent many days in prayer agonizing over this. It was a brutal trial for us as a young married couple. What was God doing through this? Should I just leave seminary?

I also went to speak with my pastor (at this point, I was no longer at “Willow”). As I met with him in my office and explained to him what happened, I broke down in tears. This was not something I am prone to do! It was bottled up emotion that I didn't even know was in there. I apologized and tried to explain, leaving everything behind in New England and coming here to have all this happen at the very start of seminary, I was overwhelmed. Ironically, he gave me the opposite response of my advisor. He felt the class requirement is not what was important, instead I should deal with the interpersonal issue with the instructor. He was willing to be an intermediary, so I decided to take him up on the offer. 

I should say that I had very little interaction with this professor after that meeting. Only one comes to mind. I was approaching the chapel entrance as he was heading out. Seeing me, he opened the door extra wide, stared at me and stretched out his arms in mockery, as if to say, “make way for the student who thinks he is above me.” I found it to be particularly childish for a seminary professor.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this meeting with my pastor and the evangelism professor, and was disappointed from the start. It became clear that the pastor and this professor were old friends. They exchanged compliments as I stood there, and then we sat down and got to the subject at hand. What I will say next may seem like an exaggeration, but this time I wrote it down to make sure not to forget the details. He proceeded to tell me and my pastor that he felt his life was literally threatened by me! He said, “With all of these anthrax scares today, you never know.” He then said, he cried after I left. He then talked to a number of other faculty and asked if they have ever had anyone do what I did to him, and he said they all replied they never had a student treat them the way I did him. 

My pastor was in an awkward situation, so I find it difficult to blame him. He simply wanted to salvage the conversation and save face. The professor ended with a smirking, “IF I offended you, then I am sorry,” to which I responded, “IF I offended you then, I am sorry, too.” I guess it was enough to at least end the meeting and try to move on.

Fast forward to my meeting with the two deans and the evangelism professor. I was prepared, spiritually and mentally. In this meeting, I was given the time and opportunity to explain the events as I saw them, for which I am very thankful. Next, he was given an opportunity to respond. His response was a radical 180 degrees from his previous one. This time, he claimed he barely even remembered me. I walked out of his office and he forgot all about me. The insinuation being, I am too insignificant to even have this meeting over. We are making a big deal about nothing. I relayed to the deans what he said at the previous meeting with my pastor: the anthrax, the tears, the sob story with other professors. The deans tried to offer him a way out: maybe at first you were scared and tearful, but then forgot all about it immediately after that? It was obvious desperation. Finally, the professor snapped, exclaiming loudly with a vague, “I don’t know what I thought!” 

The conversation continued, as the deans assured me someone else would also be teaching the class, and in the end the evangelism professor was asked to close in prayer. I remember his closing words vividly, as he ended with Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” It wasn't an apology or even a recognition of wrongdoing, but it was something.

Relief. Vindication. Gratitude to God.

My time at seminary has always been tainted by this. For all of the invaluable experiences and outstanding faculty, this memory is most raw. I did eventually graduate with a Master of Divinity from TEDS, and by God’s grace went on to pastor a church for approaching 20 years now. It has taken me this long to process, reflect and write about this experience. In retrospect, I am grateful to God for it. It was more than theological training. It was soul training; a seminary for the soul.


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