Faculty Profile: Dr. Karyn Wiseman

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Professor Karyn Wiseman once ran from a call
Now she’s at home teaching preaching at LTSP

The Rev. Dr. Karyn WisemanThe Rev. Dr. Karyn Wiseman, LTSP’s associate professor of Homiletics and director of United Methodist Studies, says she “probably knew that there was a call on me when I was 9, 10 or 11, but I wasn’t sure what that meant.”

Wiseman certainly had no trouble identifying with the church. Her father was a United Methodist pastor, and her mother was an elementary school teacher. Both had real passion for their professions.

“When the doorbell would ring my Dad lit up over the opportunity to help other people by preaching a sermon or visiting someone in the hospital,” Wiseman remembers. “My mother lit up over her work as a teacher. They just loved what they did.”

Wiseman explains that as a young person she and her two sisters were “always there” when it came to church. “It was such a part of our lives,” she says. “There must have been 100,000 potluck dinners where when two or more are gathered together there was fried chicken,” she cracks.

Small wonder Wiseman these days finds herself at LTSP as someone who’s been ordained and who now teaches the art of preaching. But she says that during her formative youth she couldn’t exactly figure out what a call on her life could look like. “There simply weren’t any women serving a congregation where I lived,” she recalls. “So I had no real models to turn to. I didn’t know how a call could happen.”

She attended several Texas colleges, earning her bachelor’s degree from Angelo State College. For a time, she explains, she rebelled against any notion of a call to professional ministry, teaching at the secondary school level and volunteering as a church youth advisor. “I was running away for quite a while,” she says, “but then I realized that I wasn’t living up to what God had laid on my heart.” So when she reached the age of 30 she finally decided to enroll at St. Paul School of Theology, earning her MDiv there.

She served as a pastor in several rural church settings in Kansas, including a couple of years as a university pastor at Kansas State in which pastors from six denominations worked with about 750 students. Later she served as pastor of Grand View United Methodist Church in Grand View, KS, a congregation which grew from 95 to about 400 congregants during her service. She also taught as an adjunct at St. Paul School of Theology.

While enjoying a team teaching assignment, a colleague mentioned to her unequivocally that Wiseman should become a teacher at the seminary level and challenged her to get her PhD. “God never gave up nudging me in that direction,” she says. So it was off to Drew University, where she earned a Master of Philosophy and PhD. At Drew she enjoyed the mentoring of Professors Leonard Sweet, Ron Allen and Heather Murray Elkins. “I discovered that what I was most passionate about was teaching that involved the writing and preaching of sermons,” she says. During her studies she also served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ.

After earning her graduate degrees at Drew, Wiseman found a fulfilling faculty position  as professor of Ministry Studies at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, NC.  She taught preaching, worship andUnited Methodist classes, and led the field education initiative. “I taught there three years and really enjoyed it,” she recalls. The student body was 45 percent United Methodist but also included strong segments of African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion students, as well as some Lutherans, she recalls. Hood was founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and operates under the sponsorship of that communion.

Financial challenges at Hood resulted in her being laid off. Then in the fall of 2009 she was among those interviewed for the Homiletics position at LTSP. A full communion agreement between United Methodists and Lutherans that preceded the interview made her a viable candidate, and she was offered the position. She began teaching at LTSP in June 2010.

“I was amazed at the immediate outreach to me by other faculty,” she says. “The faculty here is so diverse in terms of race and gender, and I find it remarkable how well we mesh. We have disagreements, but we also have a strong covenant to collaborate. It is not always true at other places. At LTSP our collegiality is really honored and lived out.”

Wiseman finds that today’s LTSP student body is younger than at other schools she has known. “There is a richness of enthusiasm among our students. Questions of younger students are always allowed and encouraged no matter what they are. These students are willing to look at their rough edges and search for areas of growth.”

She talks about an early preaching class of 12 diverse students, half of whom were Lutheran and half Baptists or African Methodist Episcopal. “The class members were each very open to exploring what they believe as opposed to others,” she says. “One of our students preached a sermon to the class exploring his works righteousness view that believers need to earn their way along their faith journey.” The Lutherans recoiled at the message, she says. Wiseman encouraged the students to first review the style of the delivery, and then engage in a civil theological debate involving their own questions and the questions of others in the class. “We talked about what we believe and where we get our theological ideas. Do we really own them or are they inherited? I think the discussion really helped to shape everyone’s approach to preaching.”

Wiseman says her approach to teaching preaching is to persuade scholars that the foundation of the preaching practice “is to tell the truth about who God is. Sometimes we challenge. Sometimes we invite others in. Sometimes we challenge listeners. We encourage. We heal. We edify, and we educate,” she says.

She explains that approaches to preaching have “moved through a lot of styles” in the past decades. “In recent years, we’ve changed to a more narrative approach,” she explains. “We tell stories, and we try to connect our own story to the Bible story.

“At the same time, people in our congregations have changed,” she says. “They are often less connected and more isolated than before. So part of the challenge is to re-engage the relationality of people through the preaching moment.” She adds that for the most part sermons have become shorter “because there is a limit to the time people will give to preachers. Attention spans are shorter, so it becomes a greater challenge to concisely teach listeners to engage how to live the faithful life.”

She adds that technology provides an additional opportunity for a preaching moment. She tells the story of a pastor who invited his congregants to take out their technology devices and, right at that moment, “text someone that God loves you.”  Wiseman says the act triggered hundreds of responses from others asking, “Why are you doing this?” Technology is a special way to connect in the modern age, she says.

“It’s important today to be good listeners in order to figure out the best way for us to be engaged with those preachers are serving,” she says in talking about the challenges confronting congregations in decline.

“Many congregations have simply stopped engaging people around their buildings,” she says. “That’s why I’m delighted that this seminary is putting the notion of public theology front and center to help emerging leaders learn how to live into their wider communities. If they do that, they can create synergy in their neighborhoods and develop new and exciting creative partnerships.” She says she knows of many instances where congregations are breaking down their own walls, “throwing open the windows and letting others in.”

What about taking on tough and controversial issues in the pulpit? “I think there are times when a pastor has to preach with bags packed,” she says with a smile. “But before you do that, I think it is critical to listen to your parishioners, know them and their context fully. Once you are known as someone who is credible you can take on tough topics by speaking a difficult word. Once you get there, if you find an issue is creating a split in your congregation, it is important to make it clear that God speaks to both sides, and it is important for everyone involved to be prayerful and speak openly about the issue.”

Wiseman recalls visiting a congregation after Hurricane Katrina had hit in the south, “and the pastor did not address the tragedy at all.” The pastor told her later he was afraid to stir up issues surrounding poverty and race. “But in reality not speaking about the issue at all can be more damaging than what someone might fear,” she says.

Finally, for those attempting to discern a call to professional ministry, she advises them to first ”figure out what God is calling them to be. Too many get caught up first in trying to figure out the logistics. How can I manage this financially? What will be the impact on my family? First decide what God is nudging you toward, and once you know that God will find a way for you to deal with the logistics. Doors will open. And remember there are all kinds of choices and ways to serve – Word and Table, chaplaincy, social justice.”

And she acknowledges that, as in her own case, “you can only run away from the direction God is calling you toward for so long.”

Extended interview segments with Dr. Wiseman

From Preacher's Kid to Answering God's CallLTSP's Collegial and Diverse Faculty
Students and DiversityPreaching in a Changing World
Public Theology and Being the ChurchDiscernment
Preach with Your Bags Packed