The Gift of a Long Legacy
If you had to describe Thomas G. Long’s career in two words, “grand slam” would be a good choice.
The baseball metaphor is appropriate for the Atlanta native and passionate Braves fan, who also happens to be a widely respected preacher, professor, author and mentor. Long, named in 1996 as “one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world,” arrived at Candler in 2000 in the midst of a distinguished career in academia, religious publishing, and the local church. He retires as Candler’s Bandy Professor of Preaching this spring.
During his fifteen years at Candler, Long has been popular with students and colleagues alike. In addition to university-wide honors such as the 2011 Emory Williams Teaching Award and the 2015 Scholar/Teacher Award, Long recently received the “On Eagle’s Wings” Excellence in Teaching Award, which is presented by Candler’s senior class in recognition of faithful and dedicated service. In the words of one student nominator, Long "does more than simply teach students; he prepares them for growth in ministry with helpful, critical feedback, and a spirit of encouragement, which creates stronger preachers and leaders."
The award is particularly meaningful for Long, as it speaks to what he calls the “heart” of his primary vocation.
“I was really honored,” he says. “The student is the whole object for a teacher. A teacher who doesn't keep the students in view is missing the objective.”
Long’s former students also laud his encouraging spirit and ability to coach developing preachers.
Daniel Ogle 08T, now an ordained United Methodist pastor serving in Tennessee, recalls that Long unfailingly found something good in every student sermon and worked to help each student improve.
“He is really an encourager of young pastors and young preachers,” notes Ogle, who also served as Long’s teaching assistant during his student days. “He has this unique gift and calling to help people see the gifts that God has given them for ministry even if they can't see it in themselves."
Ogle remembers well his mindset when he started classes at Candler.
“If there was one thing I knew, it was that I wasn't going to be preaching in the local church every week,” he says. “But I remember constantly being affirmed in his class. I was told that I could do it and bless people through preaching, which was the last thing I thought I would do. I think there are hundreds of stories like that.”
Ogle is right in saying that many students enter Introduction to Preaching with deep apprehension about preaching. While some students arrive with a strong call to preach, others aren’t as certain. "Some of them are quite tentative about a call to ministry, and are there in an exploratory mode," Long explains. To assist students who are discerning their callings, Long emphasizes the theological focus of preaching.
It’s one of the ways in which the professor and preacher also serves as coach and talent scout, always looking to help the next generation of leaders develop its gifts. Some students will become church leaders, while others will use their gifts in chaplaincy roles, in non-profits and in community development.
And some, like Kimberly Wagner 09T, may become professors themselves. Wagner, who is working on her PhD in homiletics at Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, will be Long’s last doctoral advisee. She feels the weight of that, but in a good way.
"I feel very blessed and very lucky," says Wagner, who is an ordained Presbyterian minister and served a church in Virginia prior to starting the PhD program.
Part of the blessing, she says, is that Long gently but steadily encouraged her for years to pursue her PhD. When she was an MDiv student, Long asked Wagner if she had considered doctoral work. She laughed, but the talent scout didn’t give up. He continued to encourage her to pursue teaching. Even after she earned her MDiv and left Candler, Long kept in touch with Wagner, calling her every few months during her pastoral ministry. He’d ask about her ministry and encourage her about doctoral work.
Wagner, who had been a middle and high school science teacher before coming to Candler, initially thought teaching was the last thing she wanted, but Long’s instincts were right on the mark.
"In his always quiet, steady way, he just kept approaching me," she recalls. “He said, ‘Have you thought about teaching? Have you thought about preaching?’"
During her third year as an MDiv student, Wagner served as Long’s research assistant on Accompany Them with Singing, one of Long’s many books that garnered praise in both the church and the academy. Today Wagner serves as Long’s teaching assistant, and she’s had the opportunity to learn from the way he interacts with his students.
What amazes her is Long’s generosity with his time. Because of his stature in the church and academy, he receives numerous requests to preach, teach, review books, critique articles, and the list goes on. In spite of all these demands, Long continues to unselfishly spend time with students in meaningful ways.
Some of the resulting stories are funny, like the time Ogle met Long at Turner Field to take in a Braves game. Ogle carried with him an image of Tom Long the distinguished preacher regally watching a baseball game. He could only laugh when Long showed up to the game casually carrying a bucket of Church’s fried chicken.
Other stories are touching. Wagner witnessed Long’s generosity firsthand when he preached her ordination service in Virginia several years ago. His mother had died days earlier, but he didn’t tell Wagner. He simply arrived for the dinner party the evening before, preached the service the next day and skipped the luncheon following so that he could return home for the visitation.
"That's the kind of commitment he has to his students and those he takes under his mentorship and his wing," Wagner explains.
Long garners similar respect among his faculty colleagues as well.
Ted A. Smith, associate professor of preaching and ethics, joined Candler’s faculty in 2012, but he’s known Long for decades, starting when he was an undergraduate. He later took two of Long’s courses at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Even though Smith had significant preaching experience prior to seminary, his first course under Long changed the way he preached. “My whole preaching style, which I still carry with me, came out of that class,” he says.
Smith later served as Long’s teaching assistant, and today calls him a colleague and friend.
“I think that's pretty rare in the academy,” Smith notes. “The real mark of friendship is steadiness over time. I see that in Tom’s friendships.”
Smith also appreciates Long’s gift for writing and his prolific body of work, which includes 21 books and scores of articles in both professional journals and popular periodicals.
“Tom’s ability to combine writing for the academy and writing for a broader public is truly remarkable,” Smith says. “The thinking is original and insightful, and it's informed by a huge body of research.”
Smith isn’t alone in praising Long’s work. Long’s 1989 book The Witness of Preaching—now in its second edition—is one of the most widely used texts on preaching, appearing on class reading lists in seminaries throughout the world. In 2010, Preaching magazine named The Witness of Preaching one of the 25 most influential books on preaching from the last 25 years. The Academy of Parish Clergy named his Preaching from Memory to Hope as one of the “top ten books for parish ministry published in 2009” and What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith as the 2011 Book of the Year.
Yet Long is as quick to offer praise as he is to receive it, especially where Candler is concerned.
"Candler is the best place I know that blends not just academy and church, but a love for scholarship with kindness and compassion,” Long says. “Candler is a deeply compassionate and kind place, faculty to faculty and in the entire community."
Long laughs as he recalls his first day at Candler and launches into a delightful story, a gift that has served him well in both preaching and teaching. He admits he was already nervous because he was filling the position first held by legendary preacher and teacher Fred Craddock. Then he was shown to his office in Cannon Chapel. The most recent inhabitant of the office had been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was a visiting professor the previous year.
“I turned to Steve Kraftchick, who was then the academic dean, and said: ‘Is it not enough that I have to follow Fred Craddock? You’re giving me Bishop Tutu’s office?’”
Smith notes that Long’s retirement will leave a tremendous gap in the academy, both as a scholar and teacher of seminary and doctoral students, adding that Long trained a large percentage of the current crop of homiletics scholars.
“He's been at the top of his field for 20 or more years,” Smith says. “That’s very rare.” But Smith knows that Long’s work isn’t finished. “I'm not ready to talk about the field without him yet.”
And that’s good, because Long isn’t finished yet. Even though he is officially retiring, it would be incorrect to say that he is giving up work or even working at Candler. For the next five years, Long will direct a new Candler initiative aimed at helping recent alumni become leaders in their communities. The program, which is made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, will offer two cohorts of alumni a two-year program of leadership education and pastoral formation incorporating important community issues like transportation, immigration and education. The goal is to prepare adaptive leaders who are able to exercise theological discernment and articulation regarding public issues.
In addition, he has a full slate of dates to preach and teach, including a gig as a visiting professor at Yale University in the spring of 2016.
Somewhere in all of that, Long hopes to spend more time with his wife at their home on the Chesapeake Bay, where he enjoys sailing. He also wants to see more of his grandchildren, who range in age from seven months to a sophomore in college.
And, of course, there will be lots of Braves baseball. Some things don’t change.