A tribute to retiring professor Nora Tisdale

Editor’s Note: At the year-end faculty dinner May 10, YDS honored Leonora Tubbs TisdaleClement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics, who is retiring. The following is the tribute to her delivered by her longtime colleague and teaching partner Thomas Troeger, Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication. 

By Thomas Troeger, Professor Emeritus

How do you compress into ten minutes a career that spans over forty years? I have decided that I will not offer a condensed biography of Nora’s many accomplishments. Instead, I will focus on the robust, integrated character of her humanity as manifest in all that she has done as scholar and teacher, preacher, and pastor. 

Character tends to be neglected in a digital age that feeds on data rather than wisdom. Character cannot be reduced to so many megabytes of information. Character is a quality, not a quantity, and in Nora’s case her character has at least three outstanding features. All three share a common pattern of holding together domains of thinking and doing that are often considered incompatible if not antithetical to one another.

The first of these features is her ability to employ theology and the nuts and bolts of practical ministry in ways that are mutually illuminating. I think here of a story she regularly told in our class on preaching during Advent and Christmas. Earlier in her career she and her husband, Alfred, served a circuit of churches in Virginia.  One of these churches, upon learning that Nora was pregnant and due to deliver before the holiday season, rejoiced that they would have a real live infant to play the role of the baby Jesus. But another church that she also served, hearing the same news, was determined to stick with way they had always filled the role of the Christ child: a light bulb in the manger! The class chuckled at this story, but the wisdom of Nora is that she never left it at the laugh. She demonstrated how it was more than an amusing anecdote as she probed the distinctive cultures of the two congregations, and illuminated their very different Christmas pageants with incisive theology. We left class with a profounder understanding of what it means to proclaim, “The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” And we had a greater sense of what it means to declare, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

The second feature of Nora’s robust, integrated character is the way she blends academic rigor with pastoral sensitivity. I recall those few times when a student was not performing adequately in a course and we called her or him into the office for a conversation. Nora was crystal clear about the necessity of filling the course requirements, yet she listened and spoke to the student in a way that not only fully respected the student’s dignity but that engaged the student’s best aspirations and abilities. The result was that usually within a week we saw notable improvement in the student’s course work. I have talked here of the extreme case, but the vast majority of students had a clear sense from the start of how Nora blends academic rigor with pastoral sensitivity, and the result was that they responded to her teaching with energy and delight.

The third feature of Nora’s robust, integrated character is how she nurtured the reciprocal relationship between scholarship and teaching.  When I read articles in the popular press about higher education, I find it to be a common criticism that teaching suffers because professors are so dedicated to research. What the authors fail to understand is that research feeds a hunger to teach, and that teaching often raises questions that deepen and sharpen research. Again and again I observed this reciprocal relationship in Nora’s work. We would be planning a class and she would begin pulling books off her shelves and recalling articles she had read that would strengthen and enliven our classwork. Then when we ourselves were co-authoring our text book on preaching, she would say, “Remember when so and so said in class …” or “Do you recall that extended conversation we had in the seminar last year?” Research vitalized Nora’s teaching, and teaching humanized and deepened her research.

Theology and the practice of ministry, academic rigor and pastoral sensitivity, research and teaching: all of these working together in complemental patterns help to define the robust, integrated character of Nora’s humanity. Character this profound is a vessel of grace that transforms other lives, drawing forth the very best that is in them. And that is why this night I pray: For Nora Tubbs Tisdale thanks be to God!

May 16, 2018