Inauguration Dinner Address – Dr. William D. Shiell
Preached by Dr. William D. Shiell, President of Northern Seminary. The address was given on October 15, 2016 at the presidential inauguration dinner for Dr. Shiell.
Live Christ’s Call
Inaugural Address by William D. Shiell, Ph.D.
President and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching
“I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:16
I want to thank our trustees, faculty, inaugural committee, students, and most importantly, my family for making this day a reality. Together we are committing our lives to Paul’s words in Philippians 3, to “press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
In 1936, in the days leading up to World War 2, the military trained fighter pilots at a base off Lake Michigan. Pilots such as a very young George Herbert Walker Bush would fly and train for combat at a place we call today “Navy Pier.” Because these were training missions, some planes would crash into Lake Michigan. The pilots were rescued, but their planes remained in the lake until a small naval training base in my hometown of Pensacola, Florida decided to open a museum of naval aviation. They wanted to exhibit planes of yesteryear, and they salvaged the planes that had been preserved in the fresh waters of Lake Michigan. I visited this place as a child. As a father, I’ve taken my boys to see the famous Museum of Naval Aviation. Little did I know that my trips to the museum were really a preview of life to come. I’m now serving a seminary not too far from the shores of Lake Michigan where those planes were once salvaged.
My life has intersected with the planes from Lake Michigan and God’s call to come to Northern Seminary. This experience is a picture of the way God is working across the world today. Out of the wreckage caused by sin, church struggles, war, violence, poverty, hate, racism, and partisanship, God is redeeming people and calling ministers to serve the church. In a time when clergy are maligned, violence is in the streets, churches are in decline, and our society is deeply divided, God is lifting us out of the waters. In our case, God is drawing us out of the waters of baptism, placing a call on our lives, and renewing the church through pastors and Christian leaders trained at Northern Seminary.
In 1 Samuel 3, right before the Lord called Samuel, the writer says, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” In times of darkness, God’s light is still shining brightly. When times seem to be difficult for churches, institutions, and believers, the lamp of God has not yet gone out.
According to the Lausanne institute, 50,000 people every day will be converted around the world. Today Methodists have experienced an exponential rise in lay clergy being called to ministry. They want to stay near their homes and serve their local communities. Despite what might seem like start statistics on church decline, nearly half of people in the US still listen to sermons about once/week. According to the Pew Institute, the number one reason people choose to attend the church is the quality of the sermon.
The lamp of God has not yet gone out.
Yes, we still have a country that turns once every four years to elections to solve problems. But we know better. We know that the most revolutionary act in the world that Christ calls us into is to be the church, bearing witness to and engaging our world with the love of Jesus Christ.
This kind of decision doesn’t come easily or naturally—even for church ministers. We get sidetracked managing budgets and decisions. We get caught up in crises and trauma. We worry about popularity and job security. We miss the calls and cries of the lost in our community while we’re trying to sustain and maintain the museum.
In Tallahassee, the mayor called a meeting of pastors to address is gun violence. Twenty pastors came, and only two of us were white pastors. As I sat there listening to the heartbreaking stories of these dedicated colleagues, I said to myself, “My seminary didn’t train me to address these issues.” But when Scot McKnight shared with me about the history and vision of Northern Seminary, I discovered a place that understands the complexities of church today.
If we’re going to bear witness to a world that still needs the love of Christ, we will need to be continually trained and retrained for the challenges of our world. If we knew how to address these concerns, we wouldn’t need a seminary. If we could just figure out what to do one our own, we would have done that by now. But instead, we need the revolutionary power of the transforming knowledge of Christ, to train, guide, equip, and transform our lives. Because at Northern, the “lamp of God has not gone out.”
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he describes the ultimate goal of seminary education: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
To know Christ—a practical knowledge that equips us where we are in our context to lead, renew, and start new churches for this generation. When we know Christ, we “press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Northern Seminary has always been the pilgrim community that has embodied this message. We come from the church, we train for the church, by church pastors, professors, and leaders. We are led by church people. Our faculty come out of the church, continue to serve the church, and plant churches even today. We don’t come to Northern to discover if we’re called. We are already living Christ’s call.
We offer an incarnational ministry where we are. Someone has already placed a call on our students’ lives. They are already living out that call in rural areas, metropolitan neighborhoods, and suburbs. Our alumni stretch around the globe in India and Hungary. In Lombard and Naperville. Compelled by the Risen Christ they are going and living and serving.
For example, one of our pastors serves a church four blocks from the recent protests in Milwaukee. He preaches four times on the weekend to a large multi-ethnic congregation. His fastest growing demographic is African American. During a recent visit, he admitted to me that his church has struggled to address the violence in his community this summer. As a student at Northern, he told me his most uncomfortable class—and yet the one bearing the most fruit in his life today—was a class on racial reconciliation. Now over nine years later, he’s standing in the midst of a hurting community.
This summer, he and a group of pastors formed a prayer circle near the burned BP gas station. A protestor interrupted their prayer time, and they listened to this person carefully. After a long time of discussion, the pastors asked this young man what he thought should be done to address the problems in Milwaukee. The young man said to the pastors, “I don’t know the answers, but “we want you here with us while we try to solve the problems.”
Northern is training pastors like this alumnus who has the courage and compassion to minister in Milwaukee and cities across the globe. If this is what Northern has been about for over 100 years, what kind of seminary can Northern be to lead, renew, and start new churches for the kingdom of God in the years to come? We need to be affordable, accessible, and contextual.
The Future of Northern Seminary Education
Affordable. We know seminary education is too expensive, but we also know that pay for what we value. The average seminarian who takes out student loans finishes seminary with over $38,000 in student debt. We need to bring down the cost of seminary education so our students can fulfill their callings.
Accessible. Northern’s enrollment grew by 11% this year because of the innovative work of staff and faculty to develop Northern Live. These are just the first two degree programs of more to come as we deliver seminary education to prospective students and alumni. By making seminary available to individuals through live streaming, we are able to fulfill the third quality of today’s seminary education.
Contextual. Our training needs to be adaptable to the contexts where our students live. What works in Lisle doesn’t work in Lombard. What is needed in Bronzeville is different than what’s needed in Bolingbrook.
Over the last few months, I’ve met with pastors in Michigan, the West side of Chicago, and the South side and South suburbs. Remarkably, they tell me that the kind of training they need today is virtually the same. They want better training in leadership, conflict management, stewardship and finances, evangelism, biblical training, crisis management, and communication. Remarkably, their anecdotal evidence supports our alumni surveys and research on the future of seminary education. Northern’s future will be determined by not only what we train but how we equip pastors and leaders with the capacity to adapt this training to their local congregations and communities.
We Want You Here With Us
So how do we take the steps necessary to offer this kind of seminary that is needed for the church today? Just as our pastor in Milwaukee learned, I too say, “We want you here with us.”
1. We want your prayers
Pray for our students, many of whom face difficult financial challenges. Many of these students are fundraising for their ministries. I read about one woman who has recently moved into a full time pastoral position at her church plant. She commutes to Northern on Monday nights and is also seeking support for her church ministry. It’s exciting to read about her calling and commitment to Northern. She sees us as the place that is training her for ministry to come.
Pray for our faculty as they teach the Bible and equip our students with the necessary skills for faithful ministry.
Pray for our staff who behind the scenes are the glue that holds everything together.
2. We want your partnership
We cannot go it alone. We can’t even be the only seminary in the country. We need your partnership for our seminary and for our students to be able to learn at Northern. One of our best programs that helps address student loan debt is the “Partners in Ministry” program. If a student can receive 25% of scholarship support from their home church, Northern will give them a discount of 25%. But for students who come from poor churches or from contexts that do not affirm their calling, they miss out on the partnership. Imagine if all of our students had a partner in ministry, to pray, invest, and care for them today and into the future.
3. We want your pastors and future pastors
For churches to change we need pastors who learn to be leaders.
When pastors are changed, they raise up Christian leaders who are changed.
Still today, the number one influence on seminary choice is the influence of the senior pastor. Churches that call students are churches that have pastors that recommend us and who train pastors.
But we also want students who are called to be pastors. To lead, renew, and start new churches we need people who are called or are open to be pastoral leaders.
Because you see the lamp of God has not yet gone out. With your help at Northern, together, we will press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.