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BTFO and Convocation 2006: a "both/and" approach to church and study

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

New students. New professors. A newly renovated chapel. A new year.

Dramatic presentation of the Gospel of Mark.All of those elements came together on Sept. 5 when entering Yale Divinity School students joined returning students in Marquand Chapel for Opening Convocation 2006, featuring an address by newly appointed Professor of Homiletics Nora Tubbs Tisdale. It marked the first all-school gathering in the renovated chapel, which now boasts a greatly expanded choir loft, new wooden floors, chairs in place of pews, and improved acoustics.

Fresh off four years at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where she directed a lay theological institute, Tisdale challenged her audience to be "both/and" leaders for a "both/and" church..."people who not only know how to study and to think and to produce good academic papers but who know how to pray and to be silent and to wait on God's Spirit...people who not only love God with all their hearts but who also regularly look for the face of Christ in the face of the poor and marginalized and who are willing to invest their own lives in mending God's broken creation."

She offered some straightforward advice on how to prepare for such service as YDS students: "Guard your time with God as a sacred trust. Guard it, and do not let the other good and worthwhile things this place will require of you usurp it."

Coming on the heels of four days of traditional BTFO (Before the Fall Orientation) activities that captivated the new flock of students, Tisdale's reference to "other good and worthwhile things" might have had special resonance.

From Aug. 29-Sept. 1, YDS newcomers attended worship services, dashed off to the local Ikea store to stock up on furniture and supplies, took tours of Yale and New Haven, went to dinner at local restaurants with YDS faculty and staff, played Frisbee, viewed a dramatic presentation of the Gospel of Mark, ate at an outdoor bistro sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music, attended an opening day luncheon on the theme "You're not from Around Here, Are Ya?" and much more-including panel discussions on "God and the Classroom," "Faith Formation," "Vocational Development," and "Introduction to New Haven."

Tisdale's advice was resonant with suggestions made by others who made presentations during BTFO.ISM Bistro in Sterling Divinity Quadrangle.

Yolanda Smith, assistant professor of Christian education, said life at YDS "can and should be a holistic experience" in which academics, community life and spiritual growth go hand-in-hand. But she warned, "It is really busy around here-so many things to do. So many things to be involved with." That, she told students, means "you must be intentional about nurturing your own faith and spirituality."

"Try to maintain your devotional life," counseled John Hare, the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology. Passion and spirituality he likened to fire, as compared to the icy objectivity demanded by the intellect. The best work is done when fire and ice are combined although, he quipped, one must "avoid being just a puddle."

Both Smith and William Goettler, lecturer in history and polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a local pastor, recommended connecting with faith communities outside the Divinity School.

"Get connected, and stay connected, to some local church congregation," said Goettler. He suggested that students try something different-attending a more liberal church if the student comes from a conservative church background, and vice versa.

"It is very easy to stay within the confines of the Divinity School, as a cloistered kind of place," said Martha Highsmith, deputy secretary of the University and a YDS graduate. "God does not live only at the Divinity School. God is also elsewhere."

That could mean, for example, that a student might make time on a Sunday morning to read the New York Times and have a cup of coffee instead of going to church, said Highsmith. "This first year you have the holy gift of time on Sunday morning. It might not come again."

The incoming class of students is practically evenly balanced between women and men-69 women and 71 men (not including students enrolled through the Institute of Sacred Music ). The degree breakdown is M.Div., 61; M.A.R., 60; S.T.M., 9; and 10 non-degree students.

Sixteen international students are in the new class, representing Barbados, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Korea and the United Kingdom. Three exchange students from Westcott House at Cambridge University are on campus during the fall term. Two German exchange students and two exchange students from Lutheran seminaries will attend for the entire year, as well as a Fulbright visiting student researcher.

There are 13 African-American students, six Asian-Americans, and four Hispanics. The largest denominational group represented is the Episcopal Church, with 24 students, followed by Roman Catholic (21), United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (12 each).

Dramatic presentation of the Gospel of Mark.Among the entering class are a number of students with intriguing previous work backgrounds, including the head of public affairs at The New York Public Library who worked in the Off-Broadway theater; a professional opera singer who was a principal artist for The Metropolitan Opera; a Roman Catholic priest of 25 years who ministered to large, multi-ethic parishes in New York City; a graphic designer of museum exhibits; a cancer research scientist; and a retired career Air Force space and missile operations officer.

BTFO was organized by Wendy Little and Brandon Johnson, third-year and second-year M.Div. students, respectively.

"The new students bring a new ethos and personality while creating a new community that includes all of us," said Johnson. "Therefore, we wanted to establish a welcoming and open environment while exposing new students to the multiple and varied opportunities at Yale and in New Haven.

Liddle pointed out that, this year, she and Johnson had the idea of arranging several get-togethers in August even before BTFO began to get new students acquainted. "It seems that each year BTFO becomes a more holistic orientation and welcome to life at YDS," she said.

No doubt, for those who attended, the "both/and" motif was a dominant theme for BTFO 2006. Christopher Beeley, the Walter H. Gray Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies and Patristics, provided an engaging model for consideration. For him, there is a "mystical reaction between the work of study and work of the spirit," such that study can be thought of as a "spiritual discipline."

"We might discover the more we endeavor to learn about God, the more God is working on us," said Beeley, who brings an unabashedly spiritual element into his large lecture classes by beginning class with a prayer.