Teach the People

Teach the People

The Reverend Dr. J. Warren Smith of Duke Divinity School will be teaching at Genesis UMC  Sundays, January 13, 20 & 27, 2019 @ 10:10 AM

Reprinted with permission. Divinity Magazine, Duke Divinity School, Spring 2018

Warren Smith Has a Passion for Training Laypeople

by Bridgette A. Lacy

Try this experiment next Sunday at church: after you shake hands and say hello, ask people what they think of Ambrose, Gregory ‘of Nyssa, or John Chrysostom. Chances are you’ll be met with a quizzical look, a shoulder shrug, and the response, “Who?” Most laypeople don’t keep up with the latest debates within patristics, the study of the theologians and leaders of the earliest centuries of the Christian church. And most people assume that patristics scholars don’t care too much about teaching laypeople.

J. Warren Smith is an exception.

Smith, associate professor of historical theology at Duke Divinity School, is a patristics scholar who has published books and articles on Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, the Cappadocian Fathers, and more. He’s also spent years in the pulpit and is an ordained minister in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Throughout his career, he has explored ways that academic scholar­ ship and service to the church can inform and enrich each other.

That background makes him well­ suited to serve as a member of the teaching team for the Neighborhood Seminary program, which tries to bring the classroom to laypeople who want a deeper knowledge of Christianity or may want to explore a calling to full-time ministry themselves. This is an innovative program funded by the Parish Ministry Fund, and it provides robust missional, spiritual, theological, and practical formation to equip laypeople to minister in their home, neighborhood, workplace, and community. The pilot program is led by an integrated team of Duke faculty, staff, and alumni, community practitioners, and trained spiritual directors.

Smith has published on Gregory of Nyssa’s view of the sublimation and transformation of human emotions and their role in his theory of epectasy- the soul’s eternal movement into God’s infinite and eternal being. His current research explores how Ambrose’s and Augustine’s theological commitments influenced their different critiques, appropriations, and modifications of the Classical and Hellenistic language of magnanimity.

Why would someone with these scholarly interests want to teach in Neighborhood Seminary? Smith has always cared about the ways that this scholarship matters for people in the church today. His Nyssen research asks how Christ’s resurrection affects the way we live today. His current work asks how Christian theology and ethics answer the question of what it means to be a good person.

“One of the things that I think is important for any divinity school is that it be tied closely with the church,” Smith says. “If its main mission is to prepare ministers for the church, whether they are people preparing for ordination or people serving as lay ministers, a divinity school should provide a firm theological grounding in the catholic tradition.” For Smith, that doesn’t mean simply teaching his area of expertise but connecting students with knowledge that applies to the church of the present day.

Elaine A. Heath, dean and professor of missional and pastoral theology at Duke Divinity School, says Smith was one of the first to volunteer for the Neighborhood Seminary. She was happy to have him as part of the team.

“Warren enjoys bringing the wisdom of the early Christian era to the local church, the joyful insights of the early Christians. Warren is an outstanding teacher. He brings a lot of energy and skill to the work.”

Heath continues: “Warren has a deep love for the church. He’s very committed to robust theological education for laity. This program gives him the ability to teach alongside one of our pastors and to interact with laypeople meeting with practitioners. This program fits Warren’s own vision for theological education.”

“The more we as faculty are involved in local churches, the more that keeps us connected to the ones were are trying to serve, “says Smith, who believes a part of the Duke commitment to the community is stepping forward and contributing to the church community.


Smith also appreciates the teaching model of Neighborhood Seminary. “I like the way it brings together scholars and practitioners to teach together,” he said.”For instance, in the March and April sessions, I will be co-teaching with Rev. Jeff Patterson, who is a United Methodist minister in the Western North Carolina Conference and who has been a district superintendent.”

This teaching model ensures there is a connection between the history and theology he’s teaching and the experi­ ence of a United Methodist Church in the second decade of the 21st century.

“While I’ m an ordained Methodist minister and served in at least three churches as pastor for various lengths of times, my work is principally as a teacher. Therefore, it’s interesting for me to hear how somebody who has spent over 20 years as a pastor hears the voices of ancient Christian writers and imagines how they can be relevant to the people and situations in today’s church.”

Patterson, the senior pastor at Wesley Memorial UMC in High Point, describes Smith as one of the people who serves as a bridge between the academy and the church. “Warren has a foot in both worlds. He has a warm pastoral presence. That’s not normally what you expect from a patristic scholar. He really connects with people. He has a sincere caring for people’s spiritual lives.”

That gift is welcomed as part of the faculty for the Neighborhood Seminary. “People are hungry for serious theological education and reflection,” Patterson explains. “They want to grow deeper and richer in their spiritual life.”

Patterson says many Christians want more than an hour on Sunday morning. “We don’t acknowledge the deep theological hunger among the laity. People really want to know and grow.”

Sometimes bringing in a scholar sparks something in the congregation. Patterson has seen that from Smith’s preaching in his own church, “I will never forget an Advent sermon he preached on Mary.”

Smith recalls he spoke about Mary as the image for the church. “She’s the one who bore Jesus in the world. She is the only person who awaited both his first coming as her infant son and his second coming in glory after the resurrection and ascension. So too the church in Advent awaits the celebration of the Word’s becoming flesh and proclaims the hope of Christ’s return and the establishment of his kingdom.”


Smith followed in his father’s footsteps as a teacher and preacher.

“For for the first 10 years of my life, I was a pastor’s son,” Smith says. His father, the late Warren Thomas Smith, shifted from ministry in the pulpit to become a professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of five predominantly African-American denominational seminaries, including the famed Morehouse College. Located in Atlanta, Ga., the seminaries operate together as a professional graduate school of theology.

Smith says the experience of observing his father serve at various United Methodist churches in Atlanta was rewarding. His family continued to be involved in the last church his father served as pastor. Smith recalls that their church family sustained them during his mother’s cancer and nurtured him through his young adulthood.

“But through my father’s experience as a teacher, I was able to hear him lecture to laypeople at various churches around Atlanta about Methodist history, the Protestant Reformation and Saint Augustine,” Smith says. “This stimulated a theological interest in me.”

Smith discerned a call to ministry while he was in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Emory University,and during graduate school he knew his ministry would take the form of teaching. While studying for his master’s degree at Yale Divinity School, he took a year off to teach at a United Methodist mission school in Zimbabwe.

“That really solidified my sense of my calling to be a teacher,” Smith says. “I love teaching.”

For the past five years, Ellen Allen, director of adult ministries at Genesis UMC in Cary, N.C., has called on Smith to do what he loves at her church. “I give my facilitators a break in January,” she said . “I bring in a speaker during our Christian education hour. Warren is the best!”

Smith will teach for three or four Sundays in a row on various topics. “He will take a topic that is rather tough for us laypeople and make it understand­ able,” Allen says. “He’ll explain what it is and provide a whole new meaning to what he’s talking about. He’s engaging. And he’s funny. He’s real.”

“One year he came and talked about the Lord’s Prayer,” A llen says. “He broke down the Lord’s  Prayer, and it was very meaningful to people. He brings to light things we didn’t know.”


Neighborhood Seminary offers a new way to train laypeople . “Creating a nondegree program provides interested adults with deeper theological knowledge for their own personal edification or for those making a transition to the ministry,” Smith says.

“We find a significant percentage of people going into the ministry as the ir second career. They may have spent a good portion of their life in the business world. As they get older, their faith becomes more important. They get involved in the church on a deeper level. Neighbor hood Seminary is a way of tapping into laypeople who want to deepen their knowledge of the Christian faith and provide for the subset of that group that would be interested in going to seminary. The program is a sampling of a theological education.”

Heidi A. Miller, director of the Neighborhood Seminary at Duke Divinity School, says the first class of 17 participants range in age from the early 20s to the 70s and are of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The class includes a physician with a rural family practice, a car sales manager, a mother and daughter, as well as three peop le considering further theological training.

Smith described his first class meeting as a ” delightful time. The participants were attentive and asked some good questions. There was a good spirit.” ■