A New Kind of Beginning
Hosting an all-digital Prolog Week was certainly an atypical start to a new academic year at Wartburg Seminary, but we began in the way that we always do: centering our community in worship. The worshipping community at Wartburg Seminary gathers to receive God’s Word and sing God’s praise throughout the year as the center of life together as a learning community.
Looking towards a semester of gathering fully online, we continue to be committed to living into being a worship-centered community. Each student, faculty, and staff member received a 5×7 Good Shepherd icon in the mail with an invitation to set a sacred space in their home or office to use for daily chapel worship and personal prayer. A much larger version of the icon will also hang in our chapel and be a focus during our liturgies. Matthew O’Rear, Interim Dean of the Chapel and Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives, shared that the icon “will help connect the community when we are not gathered and provide a tool for students to set a sacred place in their home for prayer, reflection, and the reminder the Christ is indeed the good shepherd, ever calling and leading us.”
Each day during worship, members of the community will be invited to have various objects: a bowl of water, a candle, a Bible or something that conveys God’s word to tie into our daily worship. Having dedicated space for worship helps as we transition from class time to worship.
Opening Worship at Wartburg Seminary is a long-held tradition, taking place on the afternoon of Labor Day in September. It is a time to gather as a community for the first time in a new year, but also to welcome the new students in our midst. Each of their names is read by our Admissions team, and they are officially welcomed into the student community by our Academic Dean and Seminary President (in this case, Interim President).
Our beloved Rev. Amy Current, Vice President for Admissions and Student Services, preached her last sermon in her role at WTS before she steps into her new calling as Bishop to the Southeastern Iowa Synod. She preached these words to the community: “We are a people—siblings in Christ—claimed, called, and sent to bring the good news of peace to a world that is suffering. We are called to carry the Good News of Jesus from behind closed doors, to remind one another—friends, neighbors, those with who we disagree—to proclaim that God is God of the living. The church is not dead or dying, but the church, through the the Holy Spirit, is resurrecting still.”
Following the sermon, Dr. Kristine Stache, Interim President, marked the official opening of the year with this charge: “As we begin this new year together, I encourage you to embrace your studies, because what you will learn has the power to change the world. I encourage you to seek out ways of being community that might look and feel different, but constant through Christ’s presence. And I implore you to be gentle and patient with one another—your student colleagues, staff, faculty, and yourself in these challenging days. Continue to find ways to listen to God’s voice, the same voice that called you here and who will continue to call you throughout your life. And so, even in such an uncertain and unusual time as this, it is with great joy that I officially open Wartburg Theological Seminary’s 167th academic year.
Convocations at Wartburg Seminary are community conversations about topics that matter. They focus on current, often-challenging topics that deserve face-to-face dialogue. Convocations strive to host discussion in ways that bring us together as community, invite open-ended questions, and welcome everyone’s voice. Convocations are neither lectures nor simply presentations. They are face-to-face conversations, inspired by Jesus’ teachings (Matt 18:15-20), that strive for mutual understanding, solidarity, and wholeness in communities today. Our Prolog Week topic was “Being a Community Digitally in These Unique Times.”
Troy Troftgruben, Associate Professor of New Testament and Community Life Chair, shared: “We had a refreshing and real conversation about the many stresses and challenges upon us these days—from the pandemic to injustice, from schoolwork to ministry responsibilities, from childcare to zoom fatigue, and from fear of the unknown to sadness about not being ‘at the castle.’ Many of us feel burdened, tired, and in grief. We reflected on the dynamics around technology—why it makes us tired even as it connects us in life-saving ways.
We also heard words of good counsel about taking time away from screens, time with others, time for ourselves, and time for play. We reflected on the power of prayer, worship, and time in silence. We are reminded of the spiritual significance of practicing joy, even during a pandemic. In the end, we share some of our greatest stresses as well as the things now giving us joy. One student wrote to me: ‘It felt like a re-set for me in so many ways—odd to say that is needed at the start of the semester, but I suspect others felt this way too.’”
Rev. Dr. Jan Schnell, Assistant Professor of Liturgics, shared of her first Convocation with the WTS community as a faculty member: “I’m coming into a deeper appreciation of what our Distance Learning (DL) and Collaborative Learning (CL) students have experienced for years—that learning online fatigued us in particular physiological and psychological ways. This makes me grateful for the mentorship our DL and CL students have shown: they are hungry to learn, attentive, and active participants. As far as I can gather, this is because they focus on how important this work is and how fortunate we are to get to study the practices of leading Christian communities to the honor of God’s glory. Their model calls to those of us who have been residential to show up similarly focused on the calling of the Spirit in this time of learning, while being honest about particular challenges we face during this time, so that we can also be aware of particular strategies for thriving in learning and community during a time that is, yes, stressful, and yet also beloved.”
Matthew O’Rear reflected on our time together in worship over Prolog Week: “A robust worshipping life has long been a hallmark of our life together. Even though the community is not physically gathered, our commitment to worship is still core to the mission at Wartburg Seminary. For the first time in 167 years, the Seminary community did not gather to open the academic year in person. Nevertheless, the Wartburg Seminary community gathered in digital space, around the means of grace, to hear the Word, sing, pray, and welcome those new to our community. Christ was indeed present! We know time apart will provide many challenges, but by God’s grace, we will gather daily as a community to hear God’s story, possibly in a new way.”
We invite you to pray with us in our continued life together as Christian community undefined by physical space as we press on in a new academic year:
We give you thanks, O God, for all of life and for our common calling as your servants, for the work of your church and for the ministries of word, sacrament, and service. We give you thanks for women and men whom you call to be leaders in your church and for teachers who form them for service. Through the witness and mission of our seminaries may the church join courageously in your work of compassion, mercy, justice, and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.