An Interview with Dr. Larry McSwain and Dr. Ron Johnson

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By Lesley-Ann Hix

Tableaux: What part of your own seminary education was most formative for you?

Mcswain: It was a long time ago, but I have to divide it up to two parts: My M.Div. studies, which at that time was a B.D., was a great ethical awakening for me. I went to Southwestern Seminary and it was heavily influenced by T.B. Masten and his generation of teachers. There was a great commitment to the church being ethically involved in its environment and making a difference in the local community. That commitment shaped me tremendously. I went from Southwestern to Southern Seminary for graduate studies, and it was an altogether different model of learning. I found it to be very challenging. My own style of understanding was shaped more heavily here than my first one. These two experiences stand out in my memory as being quite formative.

Johnson: When I attended Southern Seminary, I had been looking forward to going there since I was a freshman in college. So, the entire experience of finally being in seminary was for me most gratifying. I never missed any classes that I can remember (having cut a lot of college classes that bored me) and I actually took more classes than were required to graduate. I loved the academic give-and-take in the classroom. Probably the most formative thing for me was the fact that most of us were pastors in small churches that put up with our efforts to try to work out our theology on them. I will never forget the first Sunday in the first church I ever served…..The deacon met me at the door, shook my hand, welcomed me and then said, “You ain't the first one we have ever had, and you ain't gonna be the last one….” That served to keep me from taking myself too seriously…..But they were gracious and encouraged me in so many ways. Putting my classroom experience and the pastorate together made those days ones I shall never forget.

Tableaux: What been your most memorable experiences as a professor?

McSwain: Well, the most memorable part of the experience is being here at McAfee. I actually had retired from Shorter College and was not fully happy in that decision. The opportunity to come here was a great sense of affirmation for me. As I look back on my time, the collegiality of the faculty has been extraordinary. We really are friends as well as teachers, and that has been very meaningful for me. There is more community here than most seminary environments. Although it is hard to maintain, we still worship weekly and go annually on a faculty/staff/ student retreat. Finally, my office being in the Admissions Suite allowed me to stay connected to the community of learning. I truly felt like McAfee was a community where we all strived to know each other, struggle together with each other and care for each other.

Johnson: Of course, I must say the students. Their stories and struggles and the times when students came to my office to talk gave me an opportunity to share a few encouraging words with them outside of class…..The faces of these students will ever be important to me. And following what our graduates have done has been most rewarding. But above all, working with this faculty has been an absolute joy. People who get a chance to love what they do are most fortunate. And I have loved not only my students, but I have deeply loved my colleagues. They have laughed with me, shared their lives and struggles, and encouraged me in some dark times. Looking over my shoulder, I can only thank God for the opportunity to have been a small part of the founding of this school and for the 15 years of being family with this faculty.

Tableaux: Which of your courses has influenced you personally the most?

McSwain: That one's easy – Change and Conflict in the Church. I developed this course over my years of teaching. I've discovered when you are dealing with congregational studies and issues of conflict, your knowledge is cumulative. The more you invest in reading and interacting as a consultant, teaching students and watching them interact with the material, the more you enlarge your own knowledge in a particular field with a specialization. In short, this class influenced me the most because it's where I have personally learned the most.

Johnson: I have really enjoyed teaching Missiology. Getting students to understand God's missional heart is vital in my mind. Bringing others to the knowledge of Jesus as Lord and helping churches partner with God in redemptive ways is what we should be about. I have grown in my study of urban and global mission and especially with regard to the issues of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Another fun course for me was the Faces of Jesus course. That class let students view Jesus from the perspective of the world's great religions and it deepened my own understanding of Jesus in so many ways.

Tableaux: What do you think is distinctive about McAfee?

McSwain: It's diversity. I've taught for 23 years at Southern Seminary and the difference in the makeup of the student body was kind of like night and day from McAfee. There's a much greater gender and racial inclusiveness and theological variety at McAfee that makes for a yeastier kind of learning environment. Secondly, what makes McAfee distinctive is the authentic sense of community. We have to work at it, but we have much more community here than in many seminaries and certainly my previous experiences at seminaries.

Johnson: There really are many things….however, I would have to point again to the faculty. Friends who teach at other places tell me that what we have at McAfee is special. To have a faculty where we love one another and respect one another is a gift. I think it shines through to the students. The sense of community is strong at McAfee too. We are always working to encourage the students to find community that is meaningful to them. The connections they make at McAfee will serve them through an entire lifetime of ministry. Our mission immersion program has been very distinctive. Our students have had the opportunity to work overseas through our mission immersion program and at home in Atlanta in hundreds of sites. We have touched thousands of people over these 15 years as the students in EVM II have worked all across the city and immersed themselves in “hands on” mission ministry. I am grateful that mission immersion has been a part of our curriculum.

Tableaux: What have you found most rewarding and meaningful about teaching at McAfee? Is there anything you would do differently?

McSwain: The freedom of expression. McAfee is a very free place where faculty can explore new ideas without fear of some administrator coming down on them. This academic freedom is amazing and a little scary, but a wonderful strength. If I were to do anything differently, I would probably try to work a little less at task and spend more time interacting with students one on one. Part of that is my personality. I'm more task-orientated than people-oriented, and I know that. Because of my personally, I get asked to do a lot of tasks which makes it harder to have personal levels of interaction. If I could do it all over again, I would have worked with an informal group of students interested in congregational ministry. This would have forced me to give up writing the rare books that I've written, so I guess it's all a matter of balance. I'm like Will Campbell, “I'm the author of rare books that are rarely read.”

Johnson: The most rewarding part to me has been the philosophy of Alan Culpepper. He has viewed the faculty as a baseball team where each one of us has certain strengths. He lets us play our position and use our talents with freedom. He has never elevated one faculty member or discipline over another. He has encouraged us all and supported our disciplines and been a strong advocate for all we have tried to do. What would I do differently? It is very difficult for me to say at this point. A lot of factors play into how our personalities are shaped and how we live out our lives. We never really know the silent concerns or burdens that we all carry. These are private matters that only God understands. So, we all work within certain limitations. The important thing is to be faithful to what we honestly feel God has called us to be….. So, I am not going to second guess things at this point in my life. I prefer to give thanks for all the opportunities I have had.

Tableaux: How has theological education changed over the course of your teaching career? What has been gained, and what has been lost?

McSwain: It's changed in variety of students attending seminaries. More women, older students, and more minority students are attending than when I began teaching. The development of evangelical seminaries has been a primary effect in theological seminaries. In the past, Roman Catholics and mainline protestant seminaries were the norm, but now there are more conservative, evangelical seminaries. The biggest gain birthed from these changes is a renewed focus on globalization. Theological education is more concerned about the world than ever before. It's less provincial. It's more ethnic. It has more specialization in the practice of ministry (i.e. pastoral care, social work, etc.) and I think more attention has been given to the church as the arena for ministry. Unfortunately, there are things that have been lost. There is less focus on the classical disciplines. Students today, as a whole, are less focused on the core biblical, theological, and historical coursework that was more central in theological education fifty years ago.

Johnson: Wow, what a question…… I hate to sound like an old geezer at this point…..but I think some things have indeed changed:
A. Smaller schools. Southern was a large seminary. McAfee is much smaller with smaller classes. But even this is becoming a problem. Our smaller classes are getting larger all the time because we have a limited number of faculty. Seems to be a lot more pressure on the faculty to do all sorts of things other than to teach. This keeps faculty from being as creative as they wish to be.
B. Students who try to work full time and be a full time student as well…..leads to students who are just plain weary all the time. No wonder some do not proof-read the papers they turn in or finish the books assigned for the course.
C. The cost of seminary education……student loans…..this is an awful problem. I fear that seminary education, as well as all education might well leave out deserving people who just cannot afford it.
D. Grade inflation. Let's be honest here.
But we have gained something very significant…..more women in seminary who have a real chance to shape ministry in creative ways for the future. And, I am delighted at the contribution from African American students who bring a very real commitment to church life to our school. I hope we can eventually gather more ethnic students, Hispanic, Latino, Asian and so on…this will only add richness and depth. If we do not work on it, we may lose unity as a school as we grow larger. I would not like to see our students become isolated into this group or that group but instead to emphasize the importance of what the McAfee community can be and do together. It just may be that the greatest learning experience we can have together is to take time for more community wide fellowships and perhaps projects that do something special for the campus or a community. Maybe we could set aside a day or two during the year when the whole school gets involved in a habitat for humanity project or some other event that would demonstrate the power of community together…..

Tableaux: What advice, challenge, or encouragement would you give to current students and alumni?

McSwain: I spoke about this in my last sermon in chapel. First, we must be open to global experiences. In our line of world, more students and alums need to invest their lives in overseas ventures. There are grand opportunities to doing the work of the gospel overseas and around the world. Second, it's critical to keep the church central to one's life. The church is not perfect. Congregations are clay pots. But I believe in the church more than I ever have. I believe in a church that preserves a certain kind of tradition so that relevance is less important as it used to be. The church can't please everybody; therefore, it must choose who it can please . . . and that ought to be Jesus Christ. Keeping the church central is my encouragement.

Johnson: My challenge would be to let God write your resume. You were called by God into this ministry, now let God direct you in every way. Don't kick open any doors….instead, let God open them for you. When someone has honestly prayed and then called you to come over to Macedonia to help them, put your trust in what God is doing. It may not be that large church or ministry you might desire. It may not even pay as much as you think you are worth. But approach it all in a spirit of humility and prayer. Let God lead. Walk through the doors God opens. And in the end, after you have been in ministry for 30 or 40 years, you will look back over your shoulder and be amazed at the resume that God has written.