This is the text of the Commencement Address preached by Rev. Debora Jackson, DMin. at the 2014 Commencement Service at Lake Shore Baptist Church, Oakland, CA.
To the President of American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Rev. Dr. Paul Martin,
To you, the members of the Board of Trustees and distinguished faculty,
To you, the members of the graduating class of American Baptist Seminary of the West, 2014
To you, the family and friends of the graduates and seminary
I am here today to share a word with you on this beautiful afternoon, but my job is made all the more difficult because I am…discouraged. That’s right, I’m discouraged. Here I am at the ABSW Commencement – this is supposed to be the pinnacle of your seminary experience, a defining moment, what you have spent the last several years – your blood, your sweat, your tears, your prayers working to complete, this is supposed to be like the cherry on top, but I’m here as your speaker admittedly discouraged.
And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well, what’s up with that?”
But allow me to explain myself. I’m discouraged because I worry and fear that we failed you – you the graduating class. I mean think about it: You are here because you have completed your studies to achieve your Master of Divinity, Master of Arts, or even Doctor of Ministry degree. Your education has prepared you to serve the church – maybe as pastor, or associate, maybe in Christian Education, or Mission Leadership. And in your heart of hearts, you hoped to serve a
nice suburban church in a small community, maybe with about 150 people. Well guess what? Those churches don’t exist – or increasingly they don’t. And even if they do, they can’t afford full time staff.
Maybe you wanted to serve in urban ministry. You felt called to serve an urban church in the city. Maybe you felt called to lead a city mission. Maybe you hoped to minister in a non profit organization that supports the poor and underserved. Well
guess what? Those churches are in decline, those mission organizations can’t afford staff, and those non-profit organizations; they don’t have any money.
And then the overwhelming majority of you as graduates are women. Oh my sisters, I hate to say it, but churches aren’t really looking for us. For many of us, the phone does not ring. And if it does, it’s a call from someone who wants you to speak on Women’s Day, or it’s a call from someone who wants to you “speak” for $100 when the standard honorarium is $300, or it’s a call from a church that’s on it’s last legs and with it’s last gasp is calling you in hopes that you will serve.
And I haven’t even gotten to the finances. Many of you are leaving seminary with thousands of dollars of debt. And if you are fortunate enough to receive a call, the majority of you will not be paid enough to offset and pay back the debt that you have amassed.
So yes, I am discouraged.
And the sad truth of the matter is that after my tirade, I would imagine that you are discouraged too. We’ve been prepared for assignments that do not exist. That full time pastorate is increasingly moving to extinction as churches continue to face decline.
We are filled with knowledge for which there is little application. Oh sure, I’m glad that I learned of Origen and Augustine, Eusebius, and Tertullian, but truth be told, I’ve yet to meet anyone outside of my Systematic Theology courses who has ever
cared anything about what any of these people said.
We are members of the most over-educated and yet least paid professions in the country. We’ve amassed more education than medical doctors, psychologists, even lawyers, and yet we command a starting salary that’s sadly equivalent to what is being made by kids who have received their high school diploma.
These are the realities that discourage us. These are the realities that try our hearts and souls. These are the realities that make us question our call and sometimes question our God. Ah, but if we could only step back. If we could take some time to reflect, we might start to see some new patterns emerge.
Think about it. God told us not to remember the former things or to consider the things of old. God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the
desert.” These words are as relevant today as they were when first inspired. I believe that God is truly saying them in our midst. See there’s a reason why the “traditional” pastoral roles of the past are decreasingly able to be found. There is a reason that the standard roles in urban and suburban churches aren’t there and that the non profits are being limited in their tried and true approaches. God has a new plan and a new way for us to do ministry. God has a new notion about how the gospel is to be forwarded.
God has something else for us to do. And I am convinced that as we are discerning and seeking of that new way, God will faithfully reveal his plan to us. Then more people will come to know our God. Then more people will come to believe in our
God. Then more people will a part of the coming kingdom of our God. But we need to understand that the new ways will not fit into the old paradigms, just as new wine doesn’t fit in the old wine skins. We need women and men with a burning desire to discern God’s plan. We need women and men with a hunger and willingness to blaze new trails in the wilderness. We need women and men who will fearlessly and boldly step forward saying, “Here am I send me!” You are those men and women.
You are those leaders.
You are the ones who won’t see the limits.
You are the ones who will see the possibilities. You are the ones who can see the potential.
You are the ones who will lead us into new ways of ministry, new ways of mission, new ways of service and new ways of being.
And because God is doing a new thing, he is extending a new call.
I remember when I first acknowledged my call into ministry. Almost from the moment that I acknowledged that call, I felt compelled that I would be a pastor to pastors. Yes, I was sure that God was calling me to be a pastor to pastors. But I also remember the ambivalence I felt in response to that call, because I remember thinking, “What job is that? Is there even such a thing as a pastor to pastors?” After all, I am a Baptist – we don’t have bishops and such hierarchy – or at least not supposedly – and in that regard, I found myself sort of doubting my call, thinking, “God can’t be calling me to that because that job that doesn’t even exist.” It didn’t make sense. Well, one day, I was in my office – I had yet to surrender my corporate job even though I was in seminary, because after all I was the Chief Information Officer of an Energy Services Company. It pays a little better than ministry… My phone rang. It was a woman who had received my name and contact information from a friend.
She was relocating to the Boston area and reached out to me to make connection. Interested in why she was coming to the area, I asked, “So, what do you do? What is bringing you to Massachusetts?” She said, “Well, the best way to describe my job is that I’m a pastor to pastors.” Well I tell you, I actually dropped the phone. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I was hearing God say, “Why would I call you to something that doesn’t exist?”
That might be your story today – to what is God calling you? What new endeavor, what new ministry, what new mission field is God making space for which you will fill? You see, God gave me a heart and a burden for clergy recognizing that so many
of us are so busy ministering to others that we do not recognize the need to be ministered to ourselves. And so this is what God has called me to do and I’ll tell you, when I first felt that tug, I was certain that there was no such job.
But God can make a way out of no way.
God can make streams in the desert.
God can make pathways through what is impassable.
God can exalt the valleys.
God can level the mountains.
God can do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine by the power that works in us.
Step out in your call and trust God to fulfill that call in you. And really that’s my third point. You see, it has not yet been revealed what you will be. Your ministry may not look like mine. Your experiences won’t be just like mine.
Your call is not exactly like mine. But that is a good thing because God is doing a new thing. And while you may not know what it’s going to look like, and while you may not be sure about how you will proceed, you may not even know where you will go or what you will do, I know that we serve a God of increase. I know that we serve a God of addition and multiplication. I know that what is to be will be greater than what has been. And while it may not yet be revealed, I believe that it’s going to be greater.
I believe that it’s going to be better. I believe it’s going to be glorious. Why. because I believe in you.
So let me tell you something – you may not be certain of the application of your degree, you may not know where you will go from here, you may have debt up to your eyeballs, but trust God’s call on your life, because if God brought you to it, then
he will bring you through it.
You may feel a call for a roll that you’ve never heard of before, but be emboldened by simply saying, “I’ll go where you want me to go and I’ll do what you want me to do.” You see nothing but decline in your midst, but trust that you’re part of remnant, you are like Gideon’s winnowed forces, you have been called for such a time as this and God is about to do a new thing in you because you’re open to receiving it and open to believing it.
Go from this place with the boldness of God. Go from this place with the courage of your conviction. Go from this place with the power of the Holy Spirit. Go from this place with the love of Jesus Christ. Go with a full heart. Go and know that I am no
longer discouraged for when I look at you by the grace of God, I can only be encouraged.