Years ago, I attended a retreat to prepare for an extended overseas mission trip. As we walked into the retreat center, we were greeted with a large, hand-written sign that read: “Change is our friend who brings us closer to Jesus.” The mission coordinator wisely knew that our venture would bring language differences, culture shock, reverse culture shock, loneliness, and confusion. As with any challenges, we could choose to view them as curses or opportunities.
I am reminded of this catchphrase now in this challenging season of global pandemic and physical distancing. I am reminded of it day in and day out because I am fortunate to be an M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. PTS is a place where this season of change is bringing us closer to Jesus.
It would be impossible to capture all the ways that this community has embraced change and experienced God’s grace in the midst of the global crisis.
As I survey my own gratitude, I think these three aspects are worth celebrating:
Swift, Clear, and Compassionate Leadership
As soon as it became clear that we needed to brace for a global pandemic, PTS President Dr. David Esterline began to clearly and frequently communicate with the student body about the school’s response. There was never confusion about whether classes would be in-person or online, whether campus would be open or closed. I was comforted not merely by the clarity and frequency of the communication, but also its content. The Seminary’s Coronavirus Response Team has taken this crisis very seriously and implemented wise measures to keep us safe. One of these decisions was to move all classes this semester to pass/fail; this signaled to me that our leaders care not only about our physical health or academic metrics, but indeed about our holistic well-being.
Generous and Adaptable Faculty
Under regular circumstances, our seminary so values the classroom experience that it does not offer classes online. I think this is a strength in normal times, but it must have been a liability when it was time to abruptly shift all classes to online environments! Yet the professors (and IT department) worked extremely hard to move our classes online. There has been no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some classes meet synchronously on Zoom, while others utilize discussion forums. Others are hybrids of e-mails, online lectures, forums, and video calls! While I can’t speak to every PTS faculty member’s response, my professors have been patient, hard-working, and gracious as we explore new methods of teaching and learning.
Amazing Students Learning Online
The students of PTS are incredible. Even before the campus was closed, a student had organized a Facebook group to help coordinate needs and services within the Seminary community. There is also a daily video challenge; every day, a different student makes a short video about themselves so that the rest of the students can get to know them better. Our student government has scheduled a weekly video lunch hangout and a weekly video game night. Of course these online interactions are a somewhat sad substitute for spending time together in person. The students miss each other! This speaks to the strong bonds of trust, respect, and affection among the students here.
How long will the pandemic last? What will change in our health care system, government, and economy? As seminarians, we might have more specific questions about classes, teaching formats, campus closures, and student life. The frustrating thing about a season like this one is that we don’t have any of the answers. It’s a bit like preparing for an overseas trip.
But when gifted administrators and faculty exhibit wisdom and grace, and when students band together in encouragement and love, one thing is certain: these changes will continue to bring us closer to Jesus.
Jon Mathieu is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Most recently he has served as a writer and program director at an evangelical church. Sensing God was leading him into new ways of thinking, believing, and loving, he became a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a student at PTS. His writing has appeared on RelevantMagazine.com.