One Leader, Many Gifts

The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson is Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, an alumnus of Seminary of the Southwest, and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees.  

 

I arrived at the Seminary of the Southwest to begin divinity studies in the fall of 2000 with a recently minted master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Chicago.  I had enjoyed Chicago’s intellectual energy and academic rigor, but I had also experienced there a marked lack of community and bonhomie.  After all, Chicago undergraduates proudly wear a maroon t-shirt that reads on the front “The University of Chicago…” and on the back “…where fun comes to die.”

When it came time to choose a seminary for priestly formation, I sought a place that provided what Chicago lacked.  And I found it in Austin.  Community abounds at the Seminary of the Southwest.  Students are collaborative rather than hyper-competitive.  Worship is the lodestone of the place.  (But anyone reading this blog likely already knows these things.)

 
Pictured L to R:  The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, Mrs. Eugenia (Genie) Richardson Nash, The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Mrs. Nell Richardson Buchanan (Photo credit: Rob Mood)

On my first day as a divinity student I also met Cynthia Kittredge.  When I arrived at the seminary Cynthia was new to campus herself, having joined the faculty just a year before.  Last Friday evening my wife Jill and I were privileged to host a Houston-area “Meet the Dean” event in our home, and the occasion gave me the opportunity to reflect upon my friendship with Cynthia and her role at the seminary. 

I’m not convinced the seminary community fully realizes the coup it achieved in hiring Cynthia.  Educated at Harvard, she is a consummate scholar, an accessible writer, and a passionate teacher.  Through Cynthia’s fall semester biblical studies class my junior year, I quickly realized that the Seminary of the Southwest combines both of my loves: It embodies the University of Chicago’s sound academics with the formation in community for which I’d longed.  As a middler I served as Cynthia’s research assistant, which gave me even greater insight into the felicity of her mind and scholarship.

But the full range of Cynthia’s gifts was made known to me my senior year.  One Sunday I stepped into the pulpit of my field parish, and as I opened my mouth to preach, no words came.  (For those who know me well, you can imagine what a shock that was for me.)  I experienced pulpit paralysis, and upon further prayer and reflection I realized I was undergoing a crisis of confidence about my calling to the priesthood.  I sought out Cynthia for counsel, and she responded as a model of pastoral care and concern that would make Charlie Cook proud.  She listened with a discerning ear and spoke only when doing so helped me navigate toward God’s best answer.  She assured me of God’s presence and the grace of Christ even in the midst of my crisis.  That meeting was the beginning of my return to an even keel.

The best of my priesthood is due in large part to Cynthia Kittredge (and she bears no responsibility for my priesthood’s flaws and failings).  As a proud alum, a board member, and Cynthia’s friend, I rejoice with the Seminary of the Southwest community in the calling of our new dean and president.