Columbia Presbyterian Church here was filled to the rafters as the Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) community gathered April 12 to celebrate the inauguration of the Rev. Stephen A. Hayner as the ninth president in the school’s 182-year history.

The event had the feel of a family reunion and in the middle of it all stood a grinning Steve Hayner.       

The colorful, not quite solemn, processional reflected the growing diversity at Columbia Seminary and across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The music — in many languages — was yet another symbol of the changing denomination.

After the attendees reaffirmed their baptismal vows, William Scheu, chair of the CTS board of directors, led Hayner through his inaugural vow. Kimberly Long, assistant professor of worship, anointed Hayner with oil, saying, "Steve, I mark you with the sign of the cross. Remember your baptism and be anointed by the Holy Spirit for this part of your ministry."

Hayner then moved, with Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education, to the middle of the sanctuary for the laying on of hands. Referring to Romans 8, Nishioka told Hayner, "that neither death, nor life, nor angels ... nor whining faculty members, nor vice presidents, nor students, nor trustees, nor anything else in God’s creation will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Moments later, Hayner addressed the community. "The Lord be with you," he began.

"And also with you," responded the crowd.

"This is a ritual repeated dozens of times each day on the Columbia campus," he said. "We consciously invoke the presence of the trinity for our work and the way we treat each other.

"Everything we do in a place like this," Hayner continued, "has eternal consequences, so we claim the reality of God's work, the diversity of the Holy Spirit, and the reconciling work of the Savior. The Lord is with us — mysteriously and powerfully at work."

Hayner said he felt "called to read God’s compass in this place." The world," he said, "has not lived through a time of deeper anxiety in the church and the culture and around the globe. I am called to do what I can to read the compass and hold us to read and follow the living Word."

Noting that aid workers seek some response before feeding malnourished children, Hayner said, "The first sign of hope is a child crying in hunger. I am called to encourage discontent with the status quo and provoke hunger for Christ's Kingdom in all its fullness."

Hayner spoke of the call he feels "to sing the Spirit's song." Recounting the story of men trapped by a fallen tree in Africa, Hayner told of those who tried pull the tree and those who searched for a way to chop it up, to no avail. "Finally," he said, "an old man began singing a rhythmic working song and as all joined in and pushed in unison, the tree moved."

"I’m only one," said Hayner. "I'm not much of a traditional scholar or an expert at anything, but God has called me to listen to the church and the world and this community and sing the song of the Spirit."

One of the service's songs was a new hymn written by Hayner's wife, Sharol: "One Church, One Hope, One Lord." She wrote a previous version of the hymn 30 years ago for University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. The 2006 CTS graduate said she recently updated the text based on her growing understanding of God's work in the world.

Symbols of his new office were presented to Hayner by the Rev. Gradye Parsons, PC(USA) General Assembly stated clerk; Katie Owen, CTS class president for 2011; CTS trustee Stephen Montgomery; and Marcia Riggs, professor of Christian ethics.

The congregation roared as Montgomery handed Hayner a bright green stuffed frog, explaining that frogs see the world in terms of danger and food. "You are not called to insure that Columbia will survive. That's God's job!" Montgomery said.

"We hope you'll find that freeing. My hope is that you will remind us of another set of convictions that run contrary to the frog's perception and the world’s perception of what's true," Montgomery continued, "that you might help us have that mind that was in Christ Jesus so that rather than letting the world squeeze us into its mold … we might discern the will of God and the Kingdom of God's values."

At a luncheon after the service, the Rev. Ted Wardlaw, a former Atlanta pastor who is president of Austin Theological Seminary, said, "This is a glorious day. There's a palpable sense of joy and vision in what Steve said and in the whole gathered community.

"Being chosen to be a seminary president," Wardlaw continued, "is like being struck by lightning. It's so rare. You don’t prepare for it. Steve has a strong sense of vocational obedience which will carry him through the good days as well as the hard ones."

The afternoon found 200 Columbia constituents assembled for a symposium on "The Future of Christ’s Church and Columbia's Mission in the 21st Century," moderated by Lane Alderman (D.Min., 1980), chair of the CTS Mission/Vision Task Force. Panelists included Nishioka, Joanna Adams ('79) and Penn Peery (’03).
The group addressed such questions as: "In preparing leaders for ministry, what should our priorities be? What shifts are taking place in the role of pastoral leadership? What does it take to lead God's people in the twenty-first century? How do we recruit people to this ministry?"