MERRILL FELLOW at Harvard Divinity School

In 1988, I applied for and was accepted as a Merrill Fellow for the Spring Semester at Harvard Divinity School. I learned that four active pastors were accepted for this program every term, with all expenses being paid by Charles Merrill.  He was an heir of the a partner associated with Merrill Lynch and it was said that he lived “uneasily with his wealth”.  The author of several books and the founder and leader of a charter school in Boston with a very good reputation.

The Merrill Fellows Program was begun in 1964 to offer continuing theological education to parish ministers who seek to strengthen their ministry by a period of study in a university setting. The program was intended as a concentrated time for “academic rigor and recaptured discipline as well as unhurried reflection.” It was all of that and more.

I applied after seven years at East Anchorage and thought it would be a good renewal break as I continued to serve in that parish, only to be tapped to transfer to the United Methodist Church of Sitka.  So I arrived in Sitka in the summer of 1988, only to say to the leadership, “by the way, I am going to be away for three months (Feb. – April) during my first year as your pastor.”  Not a great introduction to a new parish.  Some claim that I said that I would give up the scholarship if they wanted me to do so, but I don’t remember saying it. With a couple of grumbles, they agreed to my plan. I recruited Harold Loyd from Illinois to be my replacement. One of my critics suggested that I never return after enjoying his leadership, but he was retired and not open to staying forever. I was allowed back to Sitka.

Barbara insisted on going with me and we soon learned that, with the permission of the professor, she could audit any classes in the greater Harvard community. She had a great experience, especially in a class taught by three professors on The New Testament.

As we were leaving Sitka, a member of the church slipped me $50 and directed me to take Barbara to a specific eatery for lobster. He didn’t give me enough money, but I didn’t send him a bill for the balanced needed.

This is a quote from a letter to a District Superintendent in the PNW Conference, written many years after my experience:

“The former Dean Krister Stendahl (and now retired bishop) taught a course on “Spirituality for Clergy” which was a delight for me. An Orthodox priest by the name of Demetrios Trakatellis taught a course “Gnostic Religion and Literature” mostly on the Nag Hammadi Library and by the time the quarter was over I was able to pronounce the words. I think I learned my intellectual limitations in that course.  (Added: Demetrios Trakatellis became an Archbishop in 1999 and is now known as the leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and Exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He was very short, but he had a giant intellect. I could listen to him for an hour and still not understand the subject matter. I was impressed to learn from the gnostic scriptures that one becomes pregnant by kissing.  Aren’t we glad that scripture did not make it into the canon. The Texas legislature won’t know what to do with that ‘truth’.)

The weekly seminars (Merrill Fellows Colloquium) were personal highlights. Each professor would share papers with us in advance and sincerely appreciated our reaction as active pastors. Harvey Cox even came back from a sabbatical to meet with us. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza was also very good. Others included Ronald Thiemann (Acting Dean), Ralph Potter, Richard Niebuhr, Guy Martin, John Carman, Jon Levenson, Arthur Dyck and Nancy Jay.

I took a course with Richard Niebuhr (“Symbolizations of Christ”) and when some one asked him a question about his uncle Reinhold, he frostily said: “I don’t teach my relatives”. I was so out of it academically that I thought I was signing up for a course with Reinhold’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr (who was alive when I attended seminary in the early 1960’s), but I was straightened out before I embarrassed myself publicly.

Normally the school tries to have a balance in the Merrill Fellows program, but my group of four included no women, perhaps in order to include two black males, Samuel Simpson of New York and Otha Gilyard of Michigan..

The story was told that when Harvard discovered that some of its graduates were actually becoming pastors in local churches that they decided they should have a course in preaching. Krister Stendahl volunteered. After his retirement as bishop, he volunteered to be in charge of the worship life at Harvard Divinity School.

Which leads me to say that my worship experiences there was another highlight of the experience. The student led sessions were inspiring and challenging, almost without fail.

Circumstances (in my life) were such that I was able to take several months off from my parish to immerse myself in this experience. I really enjoyed the access to the libraries there. I did a research paper on African polygamy, which leads to another story. I had promised an African lay person that I would answer a specific question he had (in 1986 when I was in Kenya for the World Methodist Conference ) and it took me three years to fulfill that promise.  His question (as he stood in front of his three wives) was: “What is the United Methodist position on polygamy?”

I used my salary to hire a replacement pastor of high quality, so my congregation was not cut short at all. Though they would have been hard to convince of that PRIOR to our leaving. I very gently told them they had a choice: to pout for three months or to focus on gaining all they could from the replacement. Fortunately, they did the latter. (end of letter)

We really enjoyed the Boston Area. On weekends we took drives to Cape Cod, Maine, Vermont and many cultural events in Boston plus a speech by Tony Campolo in a mega-church some where north of the city near Lexington or Concord. We lived 45 minutes from Harvard and while riding the transportation systems (the T) Green and Red lines, I was able to read “Satanic Verses” by Salmon Rushdie, covered with plain paper by Barbara in order to avoid any personal attacks. I am not a fan of the book or author.

I learned that Harvard Square was not very big.  We enjoyed the Harvard Library, the Peabody Museum and meeting with the chaplain of Harvard Chapel.


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