Retiring seminary professor Dorothy Jean Weaver on ‘I Always Knew That I Would Be a Teacher’

Dorothy Jean Weaver, professor of New Testament, reflected on her path to teaching during a March 13 seminary chapel service. She will retire in June after 33 years at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Here, she teaches a New Testament course with the fruits of one of her trademark "inductive" assignments on the board behind her. (Courtesy photo)

Professor Dorothy Jean Weaver speaks at a seminary commencement ceremony.

Dorothy Jean Weaver, professor of New Testament, concludes three-plus decades of teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in May. The senior faculty member also owns the distinction of having been the first woman to hold a full-time position at the seminary. She was named an instructor in 1984. Three years later, after receiving her doctorate in New Testament from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., she was appointed to an assistant professorship.

On Tuesday, March 13, by invitation from colleagues Kevin Clark and Carmen Schrock-Hurst, she offered a sermon titled “I Always Knew That I Would Be a Teacher’ during the seminary community’s bi-weekly chapel service.

It is reposted here with her permission. The podcast is also available.

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Thank you, Kevin and Carmen, for giving me the opportunity to share this morning. This is a very significant year in my life. I suppose I always knew in my rational mind that this year would come. But it is a year that, deep down in my gut, I somehow never quite imagined would actually arrive. At the end of this semester I will be laying down my formal, contracted responsibilities here at EMS. I will be leaving the EMS community – the classrooms, the students, the colleagues, the community life – which have been profoundly life-giving and life-shaping over these past 34 years. What I will share with you this morning is the story of how I arrived here back in August of 1984. It is a short-hand version of my life story. But it is, by the very same token, God’s story, the story of God’s grace and God’s great good humor – at work in the life of one human being. And this is without question the most important story that I have to share with you this morning. Here it is.

Chalkboard, chalk and a pointer: teaching verb conjugations in an elementary Greek class. Weaver first studied German and French at Eastern Mennonite College before turning to ancient languages.

I always knew that I would be a teacher. When I was a child, this was simply a given of my world. What other options were there? I was a child of the Lehman family, my mother’s family. I was growing up right in the heart of the Lehman world, here in Park View. And Lehmans were teachers, almost all of them, the ones I knew anyhow: my grandfather … my uncle … my aunt … my mother … and eventually both of my sisters. My grandmother, who wasn’t even a Lehman except by marriage, had been a school teacher early in her life. And even my father, whom I never knew and who took perhaps one education course in his entire college career, was a school teacher in a one-room school house on Lost Creek, near Paintsville, Kentucky, in wild and wooly Appalachia, for some five years before I was born. Teaching. I never once imagined any other life for myself.

This was the way that life proceeded, as viewed through my childhood lens. First you went to elementary school. Then you went to high school. Then you went to college. And then you became a teacher. It was that clear and that simple. And indeed I am a teacher and have been so for more than half of my present lifetime.  So in one respect my life has been what I always knew it would be. But in one respect only, that most basic respect. As I have discovered time and time again, God has a great sense of humor and a fascinating sense of timing. And God has brought me along for an extraordinary ride, a ride I could never have imagined in advance. My life thus far has been one that I could never have dreamed up on my own. And herein lies the tale.

To start at the beginning, I spent a happy childhood here in Park View in the heart of an extended family whose world revolved almost entirely around EMC as it was then. But just for the record, I should note that one summer, my sister Carol and I invented an imaginary world in which EMC was transformed into Eastern Mennonite University. That seemed so much more prestigious and sophisticated…  If I ever thought about the future, I knew that I would one day be a teacher. But I didn’t spend much time thinking that far ahead. I did love school, except for the days when we had to run relay races at recess. I hated relay races. But I did bring home good grades. At church and within my family, I learned about a gracious God, who loved and cared for God’s people and who loved and cared for me. And in 1962, at the age of 12, I responded to the call of Christ and was baptized into the Mount Clinton Mennonite Church family. Such was my childhood.

A pencil sketch by EMS graduate David Huyard, in 1985.

Eighth grade was a very lonely year. Adolescence didn’t come easy for me. And I was a very awkward social outsider in my very small eighth-grade class at Eastern Mennonite High School. But from there things began to open up for me, as I gradually built friendships and found my way through high school. This was a significant faith-building time.  I began reading my Bible. I claimed Bible verses for myself. I participated in testimony meetings in EMHS chapel services. I joined in “conversational prayer” groups before school. I sought very earnestly to grow in my commitment to Jesus Christ. And I still loved school. It was the “child-in-the- candy-shop” syndrome: Latin, German, American and English literature, speech, American history, touring choir.  And then there was the Windsock, the EMHS newspaper. I was the assistant editor in my junior year and the editor in my senior year. I loved writing. And, just like in elementary school, I still brought home good grades.

College was never a question. Not in the Lehman family. Nor was there ever a question about where I would attend college. It never even occurred to me to consider a school other than EMC. So the only question I faced was what major to declare. And I made short work of that question. Very short work. I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of the car on our family trip to Expo ‘67 and puzzling out this question. I would be heading into my senior year at EMHS and it seemed an appropriate time to consider such questions. What were the options?  Well, I could study elementary education. That was surely a “Lehman” thing to do.  I could study history. That would be interesting, no doubt. I could study English. That would be fun. Or how about German? Now there was an idea! I had studied German in an after-school program during elementary school. And I had studied German in high school as well. I liked German. Lehmans studied German. And if I studied German, I could go to Germany. And that would be lots of fun. So, without any further ado, I settled on a major in German (and, as it turned out, French as well). I don’t set this out as a model for such crucial life decisions. But it’s exactly how I got there. The “travel bug” is a seriously addictive ailment. And I have always, then as now, been “bitten” hard. So German (and French) it was. And little did I know how God was chuckling.

Sharing in learning, mentoring students and celebrating their achievements, such as here with seminary graduate Ah-Sung and her husband at the 2003 commencement, has been a joy throughout Dorothy Jean Weaver’s long career.

College was for me remarkable largely in its beginning and its ending and nowhere else. I started my college career auspiciously enough as a dormitory student with a beautiful, good-hearted roommate who has in the meantime become a lifelong friend. I concluded that year as a short-term resident at Philhaven, a Mennonite mental health facility, struggling to find my way out of a deep depression. This was a life detour for which I had not planned. And I spent the next several years of my college career seeking and discovering the inner resources necessary for a long, slow, cyclical recovery period. But there was much of grace within this whole experience. And I came away with a strong sense of emotional self-awareness, a deep gratitude for the grace of God, and a good handful of “souvenirs” from my stay at Philhaven, the items that I had crafted in the creative therapy sessions day by day. These items remain for me a visible, tangible witness of the grace of God at work in my life at the age of 19.

I ended college on an international note. In the summer of 1971, just before my senior year, I spent eight weeks in Quebec City, Quebec, with a group of EMC colleagues and our fearless leader, Emery Yoder. This was surely one of the very first “cross-culturals” offered here at EMU. I lived with Monsieur and Madame Chainey and their three children Yvan, Martine, and Pascal. I got almost fluent in conversational French. And from the French Canadian history book that we studied as a class I learned a crucial lesson that I have never forgotten. History is not simply equal to history. It always comes with perspective. To my great amazement, the heroes of my Virginia history books were the villains in my French Canadian history book … and vice versa. It’s a lesson that I share with my New Testament students every single year.

From Quebec City it was on to Marburg an der Lahn. Marburg was a picture-book medieval city in central Germany, built on a steep hill with the Schloss, the castle, at the top of the hill, and the Altstadt, the old city spilling down the hillside to the Lahn River in the valley. The university buildings were clustered along the Lahn, while Studentendorf, “Student Village,” where I lived, was high up the hill across from the Altstadt. I ate huge bowls of split pea soup and rice pudding at lunch in the Mensa (the cheapest items on the menu!), made daily treks downhill and back up, attended fascinating lectures on German literature – and even one on the Anabaptists of the Reformation, sang in the Marburg Bach Choir, attended the local Baptist church, and learned above all to speak German, to listen to German lectures, and to take German notes. It was a rich and highly engaging experience.

And then came one of God’s greatest, most delightful, little jokes: New York City! I grew up in Harrisonburg, a very small city. And I had no interest whatsoever in going to live in some big metropolis. On my return trip from Germany, I went to special pains to fly from JFK to Washington Dulles and from there to Weyers Cave, precisely so that I could avoid “tangling” with New York City. Little did I know! In the great good humor of God, it was no more than three weeks later that I found myself on a Greyhound bus heading back to New York City to look for a job and to settle down for a two-year stint, working at the American Bible Society  at 61st and Broad.

This was surely not my doing. Left to my own devices, I would never have come to such an idea. But there it was, an opportunity that opened up out of the blue. And there I was, living and working in New York City and loving it! On Sundays, I attended worship services at Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.  Weekdays, I served as the periodicals librarian at ABS. I scanned hundreds of church magazines and routed them to staff members. I answered OB’s, “old Bible letters,” that folks would write to ABS inquiring about the Bibles they found in “Great Aunt Sally’s attic.” I gave people tours of the Bible library, a rare book library of thousands of published Bibles. And I learned the crucial art of wielding a Bible concordance as I answered phone calls from folks with questions about “a scripture that runs something like this.”

But the most enduring memory from my days at ABS comes from the staff meetings, something a bit like chapel services. Most often the folks who presented at these staff meetings were Bible Society folks back in the US from tours of duty all over the world. And what impressed me so deeply were the stories that they told. I don’t remember a single one of those stories in detail. But the general thrust remains embedded in my awareness. These were stories about people who encountered the Bible for the first time ever … and whose lives were profoundly transformed in that encounter. I came away from my own tour of duty at the American Bible Society with a deep awareness of the power of God at work through the Scriptures to transform human lives. And this story is also one that I share every year with my New Testament students. I still didn’t know it. But God was hard at work preparing me for a teaching job of which I had as yet no idea.

C.K. Lehman, Dorothy Jean Weaver’s grandfather, was a professor and academic dean at Eastern Mennonite College for many years. (EMU Archives)

I thought that I was going back to Germany. And God is my witness, how hard I tried to do just that. I had, after all, been a German major. And I had enjoyed my studies in Marburg.  I thought that I would go back to Germany and follow up with further studies at Philipps University. Before I even left Germany, I had considered – and turned down – a volunteer job in a German Mennonite nursing home. In New York, I applied for a Rotary scholarship to Germany. I investigated an opening at Eirene, the German equivalent of Mennonite Central Committee.  And I made application to enter the German program at Middlebury College in Vermont. I turned over every imaginable stone in an energetic search to find my way back to Germany. But none of these options opened up in the end.

What opened up instead was yet one more “God thing” and a very great surprise. It all came about because of my grandfather’s Old Testament Theology, one of a set of volumes that he published based on his class lectures from years of teaching right here at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. I had borrowed this book from my mother and had started to read it. I never got farther than the first few pages.  But what happened to me in the course of those pages was something I would never have expected, something that no one in my entire world of acquaintances had ever once suggested to me. All of a sudden and out of the blue I found myself thinking: “This is fascinating!  You know, I could go to seminary and study Bible.  And I think I would really enjoy that.” And in an instant, the plans for returning to Germany were passé. Instead I sent for seminary catalogs from EMS and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and submitted an application to AMBS. But even as I did so, I thought somewhat sadly to myself, “What a pity, to leave all my German and French behind!” Little did I know. And you will soon discover. Now, completely unbeknownst to me, God was opening the doors that would eventually lead me to EMS.

Seminary was nothing short of a revolution, in its quiet, academic sort of way. The first thing that hit me was “Elementary Greek,” a six-week course in the summer of 1974. What did I imagine? I don’t know. But I loved Greek. Language had always been fun for me, and Greek was no different. It was, just as I now tell my own students, a jigsaw puzzle, with countless little pieces that needed to be fit together. But the real excitement was not just putting the pieces together. The real excitement was the fact that when you did so, you were reading the New Testament as it had actually been written 2,000 years ago. The excitement for me was almost palpable.

And that was only the beginning. The language courses took me straight into the Bible courses, as many of them as I could squeeze into my program. I realized almost right away that I was being drawn to the Bible courses as if by a very strong magnet. And before very long, I began to realize that what I was encountering here, in the study of the Scriptures, was something that had lifelong implications. I was drawn. I was deeply engaged. I was compelled. And my whole sense of calling was completely redirected. I remember sitting in Howard Charles’ New Testament classes (one day or was it many days or was it every day?) and thinking, “Yes!!!  This is what I need to do with my life, to open the Scriptures for others the way Howard is opening them for us.”

My three years of seminary were rich, challenging, enormously growth-producing. But they were not always easy. The most challenging thing I had to do in my seminary career was to tangle with the human character of the Scriptures, the fact that they were profoundly human documents written by ordinary human beings in response to the God-events unfolding in their world, even as God was at work in their lives, drawing these writings forth from them. Somehow the human aspect of the Scriptures had passed me by up to that point. And I struggled as I saw my quasi-magical view of the Scriptures assaulted by the forces of historical criticism. But in the end I came away, ironically, with a far sturdier understanding of inspiration and a far higher view of the Scriptures than the virtual “house of cards” with which I had entered seminary.

By the time I graduated from seminary, and in fact well before that, I knew where my life was headed. This was clear to me, to my professors, and most likely to my student colleagues as well. I was headed first to graduate school, to get a PhD in New Testament Studies. And from there it would be back to the seminary classroom. But not by a direct route. I knew that I needed to go out into the real world somewhere and engage in some real-world activity for a year or so before I headed back to the “ivory towers.” Otherwise, I feared that I would come out of grad school of no earthly good in the real world or the real church. I may be a strong “tj” sort of person on the Meyers Briggs Personality Tests. But I also have some deep intuitions down inside of me. And this one was very strong. So strong, in fact, that I found myself almost “arguing” with Marlin Miller, AMBS president, who was encouraging me to head straight to grad school. I persisted. I knew that I needed the real world. And evidently God did as well.

My next stopping-off place was Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, my “Jonah experience.” I have already told you of my struggles as an adolescent. I knew that I was not a high school teacher. I was very sure that I didn’t have what it took to teach roomfuls of adolescents. The high school classroom was the one place I would have avoided at all costs. The only problem was that God had another idea about that. And I found myself pursued by the relentless “Hound of Heaven.” That is another whole story. But the bottom line was clear. The harder (and the more deviously) I tried to avoid a teaching job at Christopher Dock, the more clearly and unambiguously I found myself pursued by that heavenly hound.  And when a unanimous invitation came from the Personnel Committee for me to teach Bible and German, I had no choice. “OK, God. You win. I’ll do this. I have no idea why this is right. But you win.”

Thus began my Christopher Dock saga. Things started out not too badly.  But by Thanksgiving time of my first year, I had already hit a personal time of crisis and needed to step back from the bulk of my teaching for several weeks.  During that time I reached out for assistance from a trained counselor. And I likewise found deep support and deep belonging within my home congregation, the Perkasie Mennonite Church.

And God was gracious. After Christmas, I returned fulltime to my classroom. And I discovered in the process that God was once again, in the business of miracles. When I told my Gospel of John students the story of the man lying by the pool of Bethesda, I thought to myself: “These students have no clue that I am actually telling them my own story.” I was that man whom Jesus told to stand up on legs he knew would not hold him and walk on feet that hadn’t walked in 38 years. I was also Peter, whom Jesus called to get out of the boat and walk to him on the water. My teaching was far from perfect. Classroom discipline was still a challenge. But I was up on my feet, I was out of the boat, I was back in my classroom teaching. How much more evidence does anyone need of the God who works miracles?

My sojourn at Christopher Dock was a mere two years in length. But it was long enough, surely, to learn some profound life lessons. Chief among these had to do with the abundant grace of God and the amazing discovery that I could love myself and even respect myself, even if I wasn’t great at high school teaching.  I think God knew that I needed deliverance from that profoundly hard-wired “success ethic” that came both in my genes and in my history of academic success.  And so it happened, on God’s own schedule and just in time for my next challenging venture, grad school.

Dorothy Jean Weaver, newly hooded, in conversation with her doctoral advisor Dr. Jack Dean Kingsbury at Union Theological Seminary commencement in 1987.

I had never thought about doctoral work as a child. That wasn’t an obvious piece of my “elementary-school-to-high-school-to-college-to-teaching” formula.  But now I knew that grad school was essential. There was no other route, if I wanted to become a seminary teacher. So I put out my applications: Princeton Theological Seminary, Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I was accepted at all three schools. And Candler, for one, worked really hard to entice me. I received a handwritten letter from a current grad student, welcoming me there. I settled, however, on Union.  Once again intuition won out. I sensed that I would need good access to a family-based support system for this academic challenge. And Richmond, Virginia, was only a few short hours “down the pike” from Harrisonburg. So Union it was. And I never once looked back.

This was truly one of the biggest challenges I had ever faced. At AMBS, I had excelled in a “very small pond.” But at Union, I was merely one rather ordinary grad student among a very competitive field of colleagues. And during my first year, my urgent and ongoing question was, “When are they going to weed me out?” But the one thing, the only thing, that I didn’t “sweat” for one tiny moment was the very first thing we had to do, namely language exams, modern language exams, German and French exams! Remember my sad little lament all the way back in New York City about leaving my German and French behind. God must have been chuckling right out loud. What can I say? As is abundantly clear by now, this journey has not been one of my own design. It has God’s fingerprints all over it. And it is the product of God’s grace and great good humor all along the way.

But back to the difficult journey. We had major exams at the end of our first semester. And by the time I reached the final of four exams, I found myself sitting terrified in the dean’s office, waiting for that fateful envelope with the exam question for the day, and saying to myself, “I can’t even think of a question that they could ask me that I could answer on this exam.” The fact that I came through that day somewhat purposefully and actually had an exam paper to turn in at the end of the day was yet another of those incredible miracles, or, if you will, another of those great graces of God.

The rest of my program was a long, hard, slog.  I did not “ease on through” my doctorate. I went into that program with 150 percent commitment. I knew why I was doing this. I knew that God had called me to a destination which lay down this highway. There were no alternate routes. Even so I came to a spot in my doctoral journey where I was doing little more than running in place. The only words I had for it were “moving a mountain with a teaspoon.” A day was good if I accomplished a solid paragraph of progress. But even here, at this lowest of low points, God was faithful. And I found that every single morning, I woke up with new courage for the task of the day. Maybe this would be the day that I would make good progress.

And then there were the truly amazing gifts that God dropped into my world.  The first of these came following my first two years on campus, just as I was ready to begin work on my dissertation. Just then I learned about and applied for an exchange fellowship to the University of Berne in Switzerland. I don’t even know if there were other competitors besides one grad colleague. All I know is that, in the great good humor of God, the fellowship was awarded to me, because my German was better than my colleague’s, as the story got to me. And once again, for absolute certain, God must have been chuckling audibly.

That year was a beautiful little gem, a story far too extensive for this slot.  Just one significant note: In Berne I had the outstanding opportunity to be “adopted” by Dr. Ulrich Luz, a prominent Matthean scholar then teaching at the University of Berne. And Ulrich not only included me in his crew of grad students.  He also gave me the gift of an hour or so of his precious time one day in order to discuss the outlines that were beginning to emerge from my initial work with Matthew 10, the Missionary Discourse.

But before I left Berne, another gift dropped into my lap, the opportunity to spend a semester in Elkhart teaching “Greek Readings.” This was the moment I had been waiting for, the moment to test out what I believed was my true calling. I now knew for absolute certain that I didn’t belong in a high school classroom. Now was the time to discover whether I truly did, as I believed, belong in a seminary classroom. And the first day of class was all that it took. I walked into the classroom and started to teach. And as I did so, I could almost literally feel myself relaxing. Yes!  This was the right place and the right job.  I could feel it down deep within me. I had truly come home.

That was the fall of 1982. And then I headed back to Richmond. I meant to finish. But instead the inevitable happened. I ran out of money. I had gotten all the financial aid that was available from UTS. They had been more than gracious.  But now financial aid was running out. And I wasn’t yet finished. I had told myself that I would never drop out of school and start teaching before finishing my degree. I knew it was risky, but I had no choice.

The letter (front) from seminary dean George R. Brunk III confirming Dorothy Jean Weaver’s teaching appointment at Eastern Mennonite Seminary is a special memento. Taken March 13, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Jim Bishop)

So I came to Harrisonburg to look for work. And I knocked on the door of Dean George R. Brunk III. Did EMS have any opening in New Testament? Whatever made me think that I could find a job that simply and that easily? Was there a search on? I don’t think so. Were there competitors? I wasn’t aware of any. Best I can remember George simply put me up as a candidate for a new position in New Testament, halftime in the seminary, halftime in the undergrad. I remember sitting in the front classroom of the old seminary building with my future colleagues, all of them men, and fielding questions from them. More than that I don’t remember about the process.

But what I do remember vividly is what happened just after Christmas in 1983. I had come home from Richmond for the holidays. And my mother and I had traveled to Manassas to spend Christmas with my sister Kathie and her family. While we were gone, the weather was frigid, well down below freezing. And we returned to Harrisonburg to find a bitter cold house, since the oil line from the tank to the house had frozen. So my mother lit her little kerosene heater. And as we stood there by the heater warming our hands, the doorbell rang. When I went to the door, George R. Brunk III was standing there. I invited him into our frigid house and explained our plight. George didn’t miss a beat. “I have something here that will warm you up,” he said, handing me an envelope. It was a formal invitation to me to accept a teaching position at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, starting in the fall of 1984.

Weaver with a copy of “The Irony of Power: The Politics of God in Matthew’s Narrative,” which brings together essays on a theme in the Gospel of Matthew that has preoccupied her for much of her working life.

And the rest has truly been history. I always knew that I would be a teacher. And in God’s grace and God’s great good humor, God saw to it that this has come to pass. These past years have been a deep, rich, beautiful gift from God. I have been blessed with the joy of the classroom, the sturdy back-and-forth with students, and the opportunity to walk along beside them on holy ground as they find out who they are becoming as ministering persons. I have been blessed with a beautiful circle of colleagues, colleagues who have become strong and sturdy friends over the years. I have been blessed with the gift of a seminary family where teachers minister to students and students in turn minister to teachers. And above all, I have been blessed with a warm and supportive environment in which to live out my passion for opening the Scriptures in the classroom and for searching out, every day over again, what these texts are all about and what they mean for the life of the present-day church. It has truly been the ride of a lifetime. And it has truly been the gift of God, a God full of grace and of great good humor. Thanks be to God!

In 2017, Dorothy Jean Weaver published “The Irony of Power: The Politics of God in Matthew’s Narrative” (Pickwick, 2017). Read more here.