NE elder named BU School of Theology 'Distinguished Alum'
July 08, 2019
The Rev. Patricia J. Thompson has been named by Boston University School of Theology (BUSTH), as one of its three Distinguished Alums for 2019. Rev. Thompson, retired, serves the Wolcott (VT) UMC.
Rev. Thompson earned her MDiv from BUSTH in 1986, and will be honored this September along with the Rev. Dr. William Alberts and Bishop Ian Douglas (read more about them).
“I must say it was a big surprise. I was pleased, but I was really surprised,” Rev. Thompson said of her nomination. “I don’t know who nominated me and don’t
exactly know why.”
Jaclyn Jones, BUSTH Assistant Director of Alumni and Donor Relations, offered some insight into the selection process. She said the Distinguished Alums are chosen by a committee made up of faculty, alumni, and members of the dean’s advisory board.
“We seek nominees whose life work and values correspond to the values of the school’s mission statement: ‘To pursue knowledge of God, to cultivate leaders for communities of faith, to enrich the academy, and to seek peace with justice in a diverse and interconnected world,’” Jones said.
Rev. Thompson serves as the historian for the New England Conference, and said it is likely her historical work is what earned her this nomination.
While she always loved history, Rev. Thompson was unsure how to pursue it as a career, because she didn’t think she’d make a good teacher (though she’s changed her mind about that since).
Ultimately, she felt a call to ministry, and that was how she found her way to becoming a historian.
Her first major history project came when she was asked to serve on the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) in the former Maine Conference.
At one of Rev. Thompson’s first COSROW meetings in the early 1980s, the group was reviewing tasks to assign to members – none of which appealed to her, she said, “until we got down to the women's history project.”
“One of the things that they wanted to do at that point was to start recovering women's history, because most of the histories were written from the point of view of the males,” Rev. Thompson said. “I said, ‘wow, that sounds interesting,’ and so I said ‘okay, I'll do that.’”
Rev. Thompson began by developing a questionnaire that she to every Maine UMC asking them to share stories about the women in their church. “Amazingly, I got back a large number of questionnaires and a lot of information,” she said.
But Rev. Thompson was also about to enter seminary at BUSTH, and feared she wouldn’t have time to pursue the project and the information would be lost.
On the first day of classes, as Dr. Kent Brown, professor of American history, described the project required for his class, Rev. Thompson saw an opportunity.
“I caught him on the elevator,” she said, and described her research on women in Maine. His response was not encouraging:
“I don't doubt that you'll get enough information to write a paper from my class, but if you get enough information to publish a book, I am going to be very surprised.”
“We did publish,” Rev. Thompson said with satisfaction. “And that was really my beginning.”
More recently, Rev. Thompson worked on recovering and preserving stained glass windows honoring the UMW founders from the Tremont Street Church, where the UMW began. Those windows are now on display at BUSTH (see photos). She also created presentations for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of United Methodist Women that took place at BUSTH in March 2019.
“If you read local churches histories, they're mostly always written from the point of view of the ministers and up until recently those are all males,” she said. “You read them and you think that the only thing that women ever did was get together and raise money. But as people begin sharing stories, you begin to see how women have influenced Methodism – how they supported the young men that went into the ministry or held churches together … you begin to see that women had, in fact, taken a lot of leadership.”
And that knowledge is empowering, she said.
In 2000, when the Northeastern Jurisdiction Commission on Archives and History held its meeting in Hartford, CT, Rev. Thompson was inspired to expand her work.
In then-resident Bishop Susan Hassinger’s sermon during the opening worship, she challenged the historians gathered to look at the lenses through which they examined and wrote about history.
“I had one of those ‘aha moments’ when I realized that virtually all of [what] had been published about Methodist history in New England was through a white male Methodist Episcopal lens,” Rev. Thompson said, “and that’s when I started recovering the history of people of color” including African American and Koreans in New England.
“I just love doing research and writing, so I really found my passion,” she said.
Rev. Thompson offered some advice for others who share that passion and want to discover or record the history of their local churches.
“What I would say to people is do oral histories; talk to the older people in your church and ask them about the people they remember when they were growing up that were influential in their lives
or in the life of the church – then you’ll get the stories,” she said.
While male pastors dominate history, Rev. Thompson said, lay men are under-represented is local church history.
“I think it's important to talk to the older people in the church, because we lose those stories,” she said.
The Distinguished Alums will be honored Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, at BUSTH. The three will participate in a panel discussion around the question “What are the three greatest challenges facing us in the next decade?” followed by a dinner celebration. Learn more at bu.edu/alumniweekend