Meet incoming Dean J. Jayakiran Sebastian

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The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia welcomes J. Jayakiran Sebastian as the new Dean July 1, 2012

The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran SebastianThe Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian assumes the post of Dean of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) July 1. He succeeds the Rev. Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar, who has held the post for 12 years and will now focus his energies on a variety of interests, including returning more fully to the classroom as the Luther D. Reed Professor of Systematic Theology.

Dr. Sebastian, 53, a resident of Philadelphia’s East Mt. Airy neighborhood on the seminary campus, has served on the faculty since 2007. Called “Kiran” by colleagues and friends, he is the H. George Anderson Professor of Mission and Cultures, directs the seminary’s Multicultural Mission Resource Center, and for the past three years held the position of Seminary Chaplain.

He earned his Doctor of Theology in 1997 from the University of Hamburg, Germany (Magna Cum Laude). In 1991 he earned his Master of Theology from the Federated Faculty for Research in Religion and Culture, Kottayam, India, where he received the all-India prize for having the highest grade in all branches of study for the degree. He was awarded his Bachelor of Divinity in 1984 from the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, where he was likewise honored for receiving the highest grades during his studies. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Bangalore University (1980). He went on to teach from 1988 to 2007 at the United Theological College, where he served as Professor of Theology and Ethics and Chair of the Department, Dean of the Doctoral Division, Secretary of the Governing Council, and Editor of the Bangalore Theological Forum.

Dr. Sebastian’s teaching background reflects his wide-ranging scholarly interests and love of books fostered by his family — especially his grandmother, whom he terms his foremost mentor, and his parents and uncles, many of whom were pastors and scholars. At LTSP, courses he has led include the History of Christianity, with a focus on the Early Church, Theology and Ethics of the Early Teachers of Faith, Gospel and Cultures, Global Christianity, Study of the Churches at the edge of Empire, Eucharist and the Koinonia of the Church, Baptism and the Unity of the Church, and courses on Religious Toleration and Public Theology.

Dr. Sebastian teaching“I enjoy a range of interests,” he smiles. Dr. Sebastian’s decision to teach at LTSP arose out of an invitation from Dr. Rajashekar to consider joining the faculty after former LTSP Professor H.S. Wilson stepped down as the first faculty member to hold the Anderson Chair. Dean Rajashekar’s link with Dr. Sebastian began in the early 1980s, when Dr. Rajashekar, fresh from earning his doctorate at the University of Iowa, taught him at the United Theological College in Bangalore in courses including “Introduction to Indian Christian Theology” and “Life and Thought of Martin Luther.”

Dr. Sebastian became an ordained pastor of the Church of South India in 1985. The Church of South India was formed in 1947 by a union of Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational traditions in what has been good-humoredly called “the greatest coming together of traditions to form a church since the Pentecost!” Being part of such a church has made him feel “very comfortable” at LTSP, which he says is firmly rooted in its Lutheran tradition but which has also welcomed students from the range of traditions he has known in India, as well as students from many other backgrounds. The United Theological College likewise features a diverse faculty and student body including students and scholars from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal backgrounds.

Dr. Sebastian says he is thrilled at his new opportunity as Dean at a seminary with a wide range of interests that reflect his own, including foci on public and global theology and strong Lutheran roots that have been fed by other traditions, including the school’s 30-year-old Urban Theological Institute with its breadth of traditions and student backgrounds. “Our Latino/Latina, Urban/Metro, Multicultural, and Black Studies concentrations and Interfaith perspectives reflect the changing demographics of our landscape,” he says. “Our challenge will be to harvest these rich gains into a format for a new curriculum flexible enough to accommodate full- and part-time students.”

While the seminary faces economic challenges in a difficult time, he describes the circumstances as posing an opportunity. “We can’t stretch ourselves too broadly,” he says. “The economic realities force us to meet our core challenge to provide a top quality theological education training public leaders for the church and wider society. It is not only the seminary, but our staff, faculty, and students who are dealing with these economic realities. In such a time we need to continue to be faithful to our mission. It is a chance to rethink about how to maximize our effectiveness.”

Dr. Sebastian and ATSI 2012 Scholars“I am amazed that my colleagues entrusted me to this post,” Dr. Sebastian says. “That they have welcomed a stranger who until recently was an outsider to this country and seminary says a lot about what the seminary has accomplished and about its ethos. They have made me feel like I belong.” He praises Dr. Rajashekar for providing a solid legacy as a hard-working Dean that he can build upon.

In a time when many focus on a “declining” church, Dr. Sebastian cautions that decline is not a part of church life everywhere. “The Bride of Christ always has surprises for us,” he says. “A Christian needs to ask, ‘Why is there this living hope in us?’ We are here to tell the good old story in a changing and messy context. We are not witnessing to a dead faith but rather to the real, living Christ, interacting with all of humankind and beyond.”

Dr. Sebastian explains his family background and upbringing, which led him seamlessly to become a pastor. His grandfather was a pastor of the Basel Mission (formed early in the nineteenth century as a joint mission of South German Lutherans and North Swiss Reformed) who died when Dr. Sebastian was an infant, but his grandmother kept memories alive and was the first to tell him stories from the Bible and of the Christian heritage, including the story of Luther at the Diet at Worms in Germany, a 1521 trial by the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy during which the Reformer refused to recant his writings that disputed the church’s claim that freedom from God’s punishment of sin could be purchased with money. “She dramatized that story of courage,” he says. “She taught me the family’s history and made the Bible come alive.” His parents were both teachers at a prominent and well-known school in Bangalore. His father went on to become Professor of English at the Regional Institute of English in Bangalore and senior editor at Orient Longman, an international publishing house. His mother taught Sunday school at his home parish, the St. Dr. Sebastian in classMark’s Cathedral of the Karnataka Central Diocese of the Church of South India, Bangalore, where his father also served as organist for 43 years. “I used to listen to him practice, and I was an altar boy,” Dr. Sebastian says. In fact, Sebastian explains, he received his last name through a choice made by his father because of his Dad’s love of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. “Bach is my favorite classical musician today,” Dr. Sebastian says. He likes to listen to classical music when he reads. In addition to enjoying a range of scholarly books, Dr. Sebastian admits to enjoying real-life stories of Jim Corbett, the famous hunter and conservationist, who has written many tales about villagers in North India living amongst (gulp) tigers that eat people. A seminary alumnus, the Rev. Ben Krey, has taught Dr. Sebastian about baseball, and he is now a Phillies fan.

While a lover of academia, books, and scholarly pursuits, Dr. Sebastian says he remains influenced daily by his pastoral ministry experiences in India. “My first posting was to a remote and rural area with five congregations that brought me back to earth and grounded me in the life of the people,” he recalls. “The parishioners were poor and vulnerable, what some would term ‘untouchable’ people. These people embodied for me and taught me what ministry is. Today I teach about these people and draw from my experiences with them. I have never been able to get away from them, and I don’t want to. They taught me lessons for life, about centeredness, about how to live a life of faithfulness.”

Dr. Sebastian tells of how he and his wife of 25 years, Mrinalini, would, during a subsequent call to a large urban church, ride a Moped to visit a dozen or more urban church families each evening through the chaotic traffic in Bangalore in order to regularly reach out to the 750 families they served.

The couple has two adult children — Neeraj, 22, holds a BS in Biology from Drexel University and is now engaged in cell biology research, and Saagarika, 18, soon begins her studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Sebastian credits his wife for all her support in fostering his career and helping the family adjust to a new culture. “She gave up a lot.” She holds a Doctorate in Literature from the University of Hamburg, has served as a lecturer in a number of colleges, and was a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore.

(Read the resolution the faculty presented to outgoing Dean J. Paul Rajashekar)

Extended interview segments with Dr. Sebastian

Personal History and Faith FormationEcumenism at Seminaries in India and at LTSP
More on his Formation - Grounded in the PeopleAnswering God's Call
To LTSP via Liberation TheologyTeaching Interests
Students are the OxygenLTSP Ahead of the Curve
Becoming DeanThe Church Today
On Dean RajashekarMessage to Those Considering Seminary
Leisure Pursuits