An earlier version of this article appeared in The Anvil: Serving Well, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
|Leah Gaskin Fitchue is president of Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, and a consultant on theological education.
It has been said that the position of seminary president is a lonely ministry, and on many days, I find it to be so. Leadership carries the weight of burdensome responsibility, and there are simply times when a president needs company in the discernment process. Things are not always as they seem, and mere sight alone may not reveal every necessary consideration -- especially at a school like Payne Theological Seminary.
The fact that Payne is both the product of the Black Church and a steward of its growth and development makes the contours of the seminary's approach to theological education unique and the lens of its biblical hermeneutic is distinct. Payne lives for the Black Church and without the church, Payne would not have a mission. In order to effectively advance the contextual theology that forms the philosophy of Payne's pedagogy, the cooperative efforts of the chair of the board of trustees and the institution's senior administrative officer are imperative.
During these early years as president of the seminary, I have been privileged to team with a board chair who has served as both a guide and griot to me. Vinton Randolph Anderson, a veteran bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and longtime chair of the seminary's board of trustees, and I enjoy a cordial and collegial relationship that is rooted in our shared commitment to the seminary first. The pastoral witness that is at the heart of Bishop Anderson's ministry has done much to broaden my understanding of the diversity of thought which a seminary president must seek if she is to serve her flock well.
The wit and humor that lace Bishop Anderson's conversations bring relief to difficult decision-making moments. His eyes still brim with tears when talking about the status of Mitchell Hall, where he lived during his student days at Payne more than 50 years ago. If pushed to the edge, his annoyance is quietly evident in ways that give the other a clear indication of what may come next. But always, he is a servant leader in the way he confidently and consistently exercises his authority.
Patient listening, a word in season
I think, for example, of a time recently when I consulted with Bishop Anderson about a crisis on the campus. I talked and he listened. I talked some more, and he continued to listen. He didn't break into the "conversation" except to indicate that he was actively listening or to ask a clarifying question. Like a good teacher, mentor, and pastor, he patiently allowed me to continue on until I was able to hear in my own words the divergent components of what I was thinking. It was only when I had said all I had to say that he offered several pastoral interpretations. Then, in a robust, send-off tone, he declared: "It's going to be all right because I am going to lay my scripture on you. 'Wait on the Lord: Be of good courage and God will strengthen your heart. Wait, I say, on the Lord'" (Psalm 27:14).
|Bishop Vinton Randolph Anderson
Bishop Anderson's wise counsel provided me with a much-needed faith transfusion, as his calm assurance of God with us flowed from his heart to mine. Bishop Anderson expresses fearless confidence in a God who never fails, no matter how grave the moment. The pastoral wisdom that he shared with me that day was a reminder that crises, too, have their beauty, not in the tension of the moment, but in the afterglow -- when all is said and done, and, once again, the grace of God is visibly triumphant. He wanted me to understand -- to believe along with him -- that the formula does work. Wait on the Lord: Be of good courage, and God will strengthen your heart.
Bishop Anderson has provided leadership to Payne Theological Seminary for 18 years, nurturing the quality of institutional life with his pastoral witness. Over these past three years, he has contributed significantly to the pastoral leadership of my presidency. Payne is a stronger institution as a result of the relationship that has developed from his ability to hear the president and from my ability to be mentored by my board chair. What we have both learned in the process is that our mutual love and respect for Payne and its sacred history holds us captive as we practice our authority to serve well those who have been placed in our charge. Our commitment to be servant leaders, and to know that Payne comes first, keeps each of us pastorally positioned.
Interdependence as cornerstone
Bishop Anderson also uses the gifts of his pastoral episcopacy leadership style to mentor the board, faculty, graduates, and students. His pastoral trajectory guides others into a relational harmony that encourages mutual respect and regard. He and I agree that to need each other is to be fully human, and to be able to admit one's need for another is a sign of mature faith. As he states in his book, My Soul Shouts!, "Independence can never take the place of interdependence, for there must always be that modicum of the humane to connect us to one another's reality."
In the role of board chair, Bishop Anderson uses this notion of interdependence as a pastoral cornerstone to anchor the relationship dynamics of respect and regard between the board and the administration. In turn, he expects me to nurture respect and regard between the administration, on the one hand, and faculty, students, and alumni on the other. Bishop Anderson, in concert with his wife, Vivienne, considers it a privilege to contribute to the nurturing of Payne students when teaching their course, "Integrative Theology and Human Development." Here they engage students in a "serving well" exercise as they analyze the interdependence that occurs in praxis when ministry moves from the seminary classroom into the Black Church and community, as well as the marketplace of the larger society.
Setting the bar high
During each of the twice-yearly, two-day sessions of Payne's board, the chair's skills are busily at work, from the opening procedures (during his acknowledgement of those in attendance) to the final minutes (when he selects a member to offer the closing prayer). He is never separate from the fact that this is not just any board, but the board of his seminary that has honored its mission for 162 years, and of which he has been pleased to be a residential student, an adjunct faculty member in the Mitchell-Anderson Institute, and chair of the board of trustees for nearly two decades. Prayer, biblical reflection, inclusiveness, Robert's Rule of Order, appropriate decorum, humor, astute governance, and common sense all blend into a synchronized unanimity, and all are held together by pastoral love and pastoral leadership.
Payne's board chair is a "high bar" leader who eschews "low bar" behavior. In everything, he seeks the solution that affirms the rule rather than attacks its exception, that comprehends rather than condones, and that encourages rather than exacerbates. In moments when voices and tensions rise over competing points of view, the chair uses his seasoned pastoral gavel to get the business done, keeping the order of the day while smoothing the feathers of those holding a minority position. Bishop Anderson's behavior is a pastoral reminder that no matter the severity of the issue under consideration, all board members are called to serve well first as Christians, then as church, education, and business leaders.