Losing Your Life to Jesus In Order to Save It

Remarks of President Carol E. Lytch at Lancaster Seminary's Luncheon
at the United Church of Christ General Synod, Baltimore, July 3, 2017 

A passage of scripture that I’ve been pondering lately is the teaching of Jesus:

“Those who save their lives will lose it and those who lose their lives for my sake will save it.”

That sounds like an impossible challenge: to lose your life for Jesus in order to save it.  What does that really mean?

In the news yesterday there was a story about an eccentric millionaire, a wealthy dealer in Native American art from Santa Fe, who buried a chest of gold and precious gems in the Rocky Mountains in an undisclosed location somewhere between the border of Mexico and Canada. He designed it as a treasure hunt. Since 2010 hikers have been searching in the mountains for it. It was in the news this weekend because it was reported that a second person died looking for the treasure.

This reminds me of the parable Jesus told of the man who hears that there is a treasure in a field.  He finds the treasure and reburies it. Then he sells all that he has to purchase that field for the treasure.  

I think of this because I’m aware of the sacrifices that many of you and many of our seminarians make to pursue the treasure of a seminary education. Some of our students are selling all that they have and going into debt to answer God’s call. They are choosing to lose their livelihoods in order to save their lives.

Even though I respect that very much, that’s not what I want for our ministers. The faculty, trustees, and I don’t want students and ministers to make such extreme sacrifices to answer God’s call.  (Can I get an amen, David, Ruth-Aimée, Carrie, Paul, Lee, Brian, Holly, Edward, Monica, Ken?) 

I’m also serving on the Pension Boards of the UCC, and I discovered at my first meeting how hard the executives and staff and elected trustees work to ensure that UCC members get the medical coverage and the pension that they need to live well into their old age. (Can I get an amen, Brian, Geneva?)

There’s no need for me to say that these are challenging times with decreased opportunities for full-time well-compensated jobs in the UCC.  Many people, including the good people at MESA are working very hard to crack this nut (Can I get an amen, Holly?)  They are working hard to figure out how to serve our churches far and wide, and also how to provide gifted ministerial leadership for our congregations.  We want ministers who have the competencies to lead a congregation and other ministries.  We know it is a privilege to join God in the creative, redemptive, and liberating work of advancing God’s reign on Earth—for the sake of all creation.

Let me share with you some of our thinking and our hopes and our deep, deep desire for our graduates to flourish in life and ministry.

First, Lancaster Seminary has a wonderful grant from Lilly Endowment that has allowed us to work with our students to develop financial literacy. They learn how to right-size their budgets. They work with mentors who help them be accountable. They are learning how to talk about money in a Christian framework. And we are getting results. The amount of debt that our 2017 graduates left with is, on average, $20,000 less than the average debt of the previous year’s graduates. They are reducing the size of the loans they are taking.

Second, we continue to work hard at getting scholarship money. Our tuition is $17,750 per year for the 3-year MDiv and $13,313 per year for the 4-year MDiv. That’s pretty much in line with all the seminaries in our area, but much less than most other graduate school programs. And the majority of our students, 63% of them, get need-based scholarships up to 40% of tuition. There’s also a merit-based housing scholarship for those who live on campus. This coming year we can offer scholarship money for DMins, and for a new master’s program we are launching called the Master of Arts in Ministry and Leadership, a two-year program designed for licensed ministers who have at least 3 years in ministry and now want to get a seminary degree.  We now have a scholarship for those people.

Third (and finally), Lancaster Seminary just got a $50,000 innovation grant to explore building a closer relationship with the Pennsylvania Academy of Ministry (which used to be called Lay Ministry in the 21st Century.) We are excited to work with Steve Hummel who leads that work. As you may know, this is non-degree training program for lay people, and we want to explore how we can work collaboratively with this program. We want to reach people in your churches and give them access to this treasure of a seminary education.

Speaking of access, we have 3 new things besides what I’ve mentioned already. Giving access means removing barriers, and that’s what we are doing.

  • We have a partnership with Elizabethtown College to offer a bachelor’s completion program in the evenings on our campus.  As you know, you have to have a bachelor’s degree to get a master’s. Our accrediting agency allows us a small percentage who can come without a bachelor’s, but we want to help more people get the bachelor’s so they can apply and come to seminary.

  • We have a partnership with St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute here in Baltimore. They are authorized to offer a two-year master’s, and now we offer the third year so more people can come to Lancaster after Baltimore and graduate with a three-year MDiv degree from Lancaster.

  • This year we want to start a pre-seminary program, too. Some people come to seminary with a bachelor’s, but it’s in a field that doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the kind of writing and critical thinking that is necessary. And some come a little later in life and need a refresher. We want our students to succeed, and we think this program will offer some who are reluctant to enter into our rigorous academic program some extra help that will make them confident and successful.

These are just some of the new things I want to share.  It’s very good news about your Seminary.

Finally, the thing that is so amazing to me is that while people are coming to seminary and making sacrifices for this treasure, they are also giving us treasure. This year’s graduating class of 27 made an astonishing pledge of a generous gift to the Seminary of over $10,000. We receive these gifts each year from our graduates, and I never cease to be awed by the gratitude that it represents to our faculty for the opportunity to be educated and spiritually formed as ministers and religious leaders.

I guess that is what it’s like to lose your life to Jesus in order to save it.

There’s treasure in the field. There’s treasure in the life of ministry.

And you, Lancaster graduates, are a treasure to your Seminary and to your Church, the United Church of Christ.

May God bless you richly as you follow the example of Jesus and pour yourself out in love for God, for others, and for the world. Amen.