The Pastoral Wisdom of Dr. Tom Gillespie

This article was originally posted on The Presbyterian Outlook webpage on November 12. 2011.

I’ll never forget the day Dr. Tom Gillespie, then president of Princeton Theological Seminary, restored my academic pursuit and pastoral training such that I am now celebrating my 11th year in pastoral ministry.

I found myself at the end of my first semester sitting anxiously across a long, forbidding conference table off his austere office on the seminary campus. Two others were with me as the accused, and another friend of ours sat opposite us in tears. As far as I could discern, this was the end of my Princeton education and a setback in my pastoral training.

Sophomoric teasing with this tearful friend had been misinterpreted by others, other people not even present when the incident occurred. Their version of our teasing spread and the campus erupted into a furor. The rumor was far from what the four of us as friends knew personally, but it was too late for that. Students were wearing all black as signs of protest. Others were refusing to speak to us. Some students were threatening to boycott the cafeteria while others were writing to national media outlets begging for attention. All were taking advantage of our internal misunderstanding to push for greater institutional and structural changes. And there we sat in his quiet, historic office while a campus raged outside the windows.

Dr. Gillespie heard us each share our story, our offended friend included. Some of us cried, we all confessed our love for one another, and we collectively benefitted from Dr. Gillespie’s commanding, but peaceful, presence as our guide.

Then, Dr. Gillespie sat back in his chair, and in the next few moments I heard such wisdom and compassion that I will always draw on that moment as I seek to lead in ministry. He spoke truth, he spoke as a leader, and he drew on his love of the church and pastoral experience to bring reconciliation, not just to us, but the campus.

First, he said, “Boys, this isn’t the fraternity anymore. I expect better.” Wow. That landed hard, and it needed to. Our friendships had gotten too casual, too public and now a campus was at odds with one another.

Second, he said that the student protests were about bigger and more complicated matters. He was sorry we were being caught up in larger agendas. I was stunned. None of us expected the accusations others had placed on us to fall away. I appreciated that Dr. Gillespie made space for our personal growth and reconciliation separate from the institutional dynamics with which he had to contend.

Third, Dr. Gillespie said the seminary cafeteria was offered as a convenience, and if some students wanted to boycott, there was a Wawa store just a block away they were welcome to visit. Bam! Nobody was going to push this man around.

Finally, he said that he knew we were reconciled as friends, and that if we so chose, he would make that coming Friday’s service of worship an opportunity for us to share with the hopes of bringing healing to our fractured campus community. At that time we decided that we were reconciled, and a public mea culpa would not be needed. Sadly, as events unfolded over the week, all four of us agreed to share yearning for a shalom peace to return to Princeton Seminary.

That Friday was the last day of class for the fall semester. The seminary community was gathered for corporate worship concluding with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. All four of us shared our stories of reconciliation just after the sermon and before the sacrament. Then, as he had done a few days prior, Dr. Gillespie led in a manner that epitomized his pastoral experience and theological acumen. While sharing the words of institution from behind the great communion table of Miller Chapel, he pointed out that when informed there was a traitor among them, the disciples did not point to one another, but rather asked, “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” In such situations, Dr. Gillespie exhorted us all, we are first to acknowledge the sin within and pause before pointing out the sin of another.

That day the Holy Spirit fell in Miller Chapel thanks to Dr. Gillespie’s leadership. Three academic careers, a fourth friendship, and a campus were saved. For the life and ministry of the Reverend Doctor Thomas W. Gillespie, thanks be to God.

Case Thorp is associate pastor for mission and evangelism at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Fla.

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