BANGOR, Maine — The moment Jennifer W. Reed stood in the pulpit of Vassalboro United Methodist Church and looked out at the faces of her congregation sitting in the pews, she felt a sense of belonging.
That was the beginning of her 6½-year journey toward becoming a minister. Reed said last week. She is one of the last students to earn a degree from Bangor Theological Seminary.
“When I reflect theologically on what I recognize now as ‘the call,’ the image of Moses comes to mind,” she said in an email. “Moses was called to be the shepherd of God’s people. My initial reaction to God’s calling was much the same as Moses. I would say, ‘Who am I?’
“However, the more excuses I tried to come up with, the more God kept pushing back by sending people into my life that I would find myself ministering to,” added Reed, 47, of Vassalboro. “Preaching opportunities would arise when I was not actively seeking any. In each experience, I would walk away sensing that God was with me, that he had indeed used me to make a difference in someone’s life. It was deeply humbling while also fulfilling.”
On Saturday, Reed, the pastor of Unity Union Church earned her Master of Divinity degree. She was awarded the Hoyt Hickman Award for Outstanding Liturgical Scholarship, a handmade chalice and plate.
Reed, who graduated with a grade point average of 3.97, was one of 47 students awarded degrees by BTS at 194th and final commencement ceremony at Gracie Theatre at Husson University.
“There is rejoicing and weeping,” seminary President Robert Grove-Markwood told the nearly 500 people who filled the theater. “There is weeping in our rejoicing and rejoicing in our weeping.”
BTS conferred 26 Master of Divinity degrees, 14 Master of Arts degrees, six Doctor of Ministry degrees and one certificate of Religion & Spirituality. Thirteen students were unable to complete their degree programs and will transfer to other institutions, according to Grove-Markwood. BTS delayed its graduation ceremony a month to allow students to complete projects and classes to meet degree requirements.
The school, founded in 1814, announced two years ago that 2013 would be the last year it would grant degrees. On July 1, BTS will become the BTS Center, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “equip and support clergy and laity for theologically ground and effective 21st century ministries.”
Reed described her final year at BTA as “bittersweet.”
“The announcement of the seminary’s closing came as such a shock,” she said. “Who would ever expect a nearly 200-year-old institution to close? Although there is and will continue to be a time of mourning … faith is what sustains. Speaking from a Christian perspective, with every death, there is the hope of resurrection … of new life. I see this hope taking shape in the BTS Center.”
Saturday’s ceremony was “marked by real joy and tender sadness,” the Rev. Daniel Aleshire, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada said in his commencement address.
“The centerpiece of [this] service is joy for the achievement that you graduates have attained and the gifts that you are taking into a wide range of ministry efforts,” he said. “Around the edges of the joy, however, there is sadness because the degree-granting mission of this historic and venerable institution comes to a close with this service.”
Aleshire, who served on the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1978 to 1990 and before that, as a research scientist at Search Institute in Minneapolis, told BTS’ last graduates that like Jacob in Genesis, they are doubly blessed.
“Good theological education engages your mind and crunches your soul,” he said. “Whenever you wrestle with the God who created you and seeks to save you, you will be changed. The faith that was altogether adequate to bring you here has been changed so that it will be adequate for the hard questions and personal tragedies that you encounter in ministry. If seminary has ‘worked’ for you, you have been blessed like Jacob at Peniel. The question for you today as you receive your diploma is, ‘What will you do with your blessing?’”