Commencement 2021: A year of asking, and now facing, 'What's next?'

President James Nieman during commencement 2021

In campus apartments and in homes well beyond Chicago, LSTC 2021 graduates gathered around screens to “officially” graduate on Sunday, May 16, as they watched the seminary’s 161st commencement video released on YouTube and Facebook.

This was the second year the global pandemic prevented graduates from taking their traditional walk to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church to receive their diplomas and hoods in person. Nevertheless, they persisted.

President James Nieman in his opening remarks named some of the constraints graduates have been under, saying a pandemic wasn’t all they’d faced.

“Almost daily this past year, waves of new challenges washed ashore, one after another: social division and political hostility, racial violence and the structures that fuel it, climate change and financial hardship, let alone the personal sorrows you lamented privately.

“There were surely mornings, maybe many, when your first question was, ‘Well, what’s next?’”

He recalled what graduates of predecessor seminaries more than a century ago faced as they also regarded their prospects: influenza, world war, Jim Crow, and fiscal panic.

“I do know that their witness, even so, is one reason we are here right now. The same can be said now of you. You faced a year asking ‘What’s next?’ – but still you persisted. Your ‘What’s next?’ became not a feeble whimper but instead a durable cry of resistance – ‘So, what’s next?’ We’re still here. Bring it on.

“I want your persistent, resistant ‘What’s next?’ to ring in our ears and remind us of you. For you, daily challenges became your proving ground, testing your resilience. After all, following a year like this, what could still surprise you? All those days of ‘What’s next?’ made you ready. Atop that, you saw how greater changes still lay ahead for our church and so rose to meet them. More than most, you learned we must leave behind tired habits and now forge new forms of ministry better suited for the days ahead. Your ‘What’s next?’ will change us, and shows you hopeful.”

The ceremony

The video began with a rapid virtual walk to St. Thomas that featured photos provided by the community. It included greetings from ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Metropolitan Chicago Synod Bishop Yehiel Curry, and continued with conferring of degrees: master of arts (two), master of arts in ministry (one), master of divinity (32), master of theology (six), doctor of ministry in preaching (two) and doctor of philosophy (two). As their names were announced, a video (or photo) of the graduate moving their tassel to the left appeared. PhD students provided humor by holding signs that said PhD graduates don’t move tassels.

José David Rodríguez, Augustana Heritage Chair of Global Mission and World Christianity and acting dean of academic affairs who has been on the faculty since 1985, gave the commencement address and was recognized for his service upon his retirement. LSTC also honored retiring Javier “Jay” Alanís, executive director of the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest (LSPS) in Austin, Texas. LSPS is a joint program of LSTC and Wartburg Theological Seminary.

A Zoom choir made up of students, staff and alumni provided music. The commencement video ended with the presentation of the class gift—$2,021 toward scholarships for students of color and LGBTQIA+ students—and greetings of congratulations from a variety of staff and faculty. Those who wished joined a festive Zoom reception in which they were able to mingle, share memories, and offer congratulations and toasts. Not the same as taking photos in person, or eating wonderful food at a reception, but some called it the best part of the day.

The speaker

In his commencement address, Rodríguez examined the future of theological education—both its challenges and promise.

“We are moving away from a theological education paradigm where the dominant expression of identity and culture had to fit everyone. We are now recognizing the diversity of creation, but still trying to fit it all under the same traditional paradigm,” he said. “We need a new paradigm that not only recognizes our diversity of expression but allows it to flourish as God intended.”

He proceeded to outline fresh ways of looking at theological education through the lens of the Latinx community. Rodríguez began and ended his address with the parable of the sower. As he reminded graduates of their “rights and privileges” of their seminary degree, he also challenged them to claim and use their privileges, the blessedness, of their Christian faith.

“How will the practice in your new working environments represent that which you have seen and what you have heard during your programs of studies… remember that, when your experience in ministry gets rough, and your efforts seem worthless, your call to witness in words and deeds will be complemented by the power of God, the Sower, who is guiding and empowering our witness, over all terrains.”

Baccalaureate

On Saturday afternoon, graduates, families and friends, and the LSTC community participated in a virtual baccalaureate service (on YouTube and Facebook) at which Kimberly Wagner, assistant professor of homiletics and Alex Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair in Homiletics, preached.

She also noted that the year had been stranger and harder than most academic years. But, “here we are.. We celebrate those of you who have run the race, written the papers, discussed the ideas, studied the texts, grappled with articulating through word and action God’s presence and work in the world.”

Wagner urged graduates to follow the model and wisdom of the day’s texts, Psalm 1, Acts 1:1-11 and John 17:6-26, which she said “offer us language of blessing and prayer.”

In the midst of liminal, uncertain, and unsteady realities, Jesus prays—not for success, right action or even adequate knowledge, Wagner said, but that along with the first disciples we “may be swept up and formed, oriented, protected, and sustained by the relational love of God… In these last moments, Jesus doesn’t test or teach the disciples but enwraps them in prayer that they may be continuously formed through, grounded in, and steadied by the relational care and love of God.

“We, your faculty, staff, colleagues, and mentors at LSTC, know we must send you into a world that we cannot control and for which we cannot fully prepare you. We send you into a church that has been and will be forced to reimagine its role and work in the world. We send you into spaces of service and learning and teaching, as systems and educational institutions are shifting and the questions seem to be larger and more numerous than the answers.

“But… We trust that you are ready, not because you know all the right answers (as gifted and talented as you are), but because, we pray, you have been and will continue to be rooted and formed in the love of God and intertwined with communities of support and care.”


Original article published in the Summer 2021 Epistle Magazine; written by Julie Sevig

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