Divinity School speaker challenges graduates to use wise, kind, life-giving words

36 earn master, doctoral degrees from Campbell Divinity School in spring commencement

Are you words wise? Are your words kind? And are they life-giving? 

The three questions are succinct, but they should act as the foundation to anybody who has the privilege to speak with authority to God’s people. Those three questions were also the foundation of the commencement speech delivered to Campbell University Divinity School graduates Friday by Dr. Lydia Huffman Hoyle — the School’s former associate professor of church history and Baptist heritage. 

Hoyle returned to Buies Creek to offer advice and encouragement to the Divinity School’s 36 graduates inside a full Hobson Performance Center. The 2023 recipient of the Dean’s Excellence in Teaching Award before her retirement had the tall task of presenting a powerful message to a group who — for many — sharing the word of God publicly is or will be part of their life’s work. 

Her 20-minute address/sermon delivered, offering both professional and life advice to the graduates and their family and friends on hand.

“No matter why you come to Divinity School, when you leave, you’re likely to have more opportunities to speak and write in the name of Christ for the good of the kingdom of God,” Hoyle said. “Many of you will have the audacious responsibility of preaching and bringing the word of hope and help to small and large gatherings of people, all of whom are loved by God. 

“All of whom need a good word.”

Brian Lockamy captured a rare “Northern Lights” sighting on campus the night of Campbell’s Divinity School’s graduation ceremony. Photo: Facebook/Brian Lockamy

Back to those questions. Hoyle asked the graduates to ask themselves three things before taking on that “audacious responsibility.” 

Are the words wise? 

“This question is so crucial to ask, because pulpits and [social media] posts today are filled with words that should have never been uttered at all,” Hoyle said. “I’ve taught for 32 years and over these years, one of my biggest deliberations has concerned when and how to help a former student think more carefully about their words.”

Hoyle offered a story of a friend whose sermon covered all the reasons “God hated them,” from those who didn’t keep wedding vows to those who found themselves outside of traditionally accepted understandings of gender or sexuality. 

“By the time the sermon was over, I’m pretty sure every adult in the room and probably most of the children felt condemned and afraid,” she said. “It turned people away from the One who created all people and loves them as they are.”

Are the words kind? 

“Our broken polarized world is absolutely infused with the inverse of kindness. Gentle tongues are more rare than phone booths,” Hoyle said. “Loud strident, harsh, hurtful voices are everywhere, and those voices are being amplified today. Sometimes even those of us who follow Christ convince ourselves that we need to be loud to be relevant — speak our truth, no matter who gets hurt. But the truth of the Spirit isn’t found in such things. The fruit of the Spirit is described in Galatian and confirmed in our hearts. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. 

“Kindness is believing the best in others. It’s offering at least a tiny bit of the grace of God we have received to others.”

Are the words life-giving?

“We are evangelists,” Hoyle said. “We are bringers of good news; life-giving news.

“Our words need to be words that sustain and nurture the people of God. Graduates, this is your work. To speak words that nourish our people. Days will come in the life of every believer and every minister when they have to speak hard words. Perhaps they’ll be words of correction or motivation. Perhaps someone will need a wake-up call or a kick in the pants. But the only way these difficult words can be heard and received without harm is if they’re surrounded by a sea of words that are wise, kind and life-giving.” 

Hoyle ended her address with this: “If your words don’t pass these tests, don’t let them pass your lips.”

Of the 36 graduates Friday night, eight received a Master of Arts in Faith and Leadership Formation, three earned a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry, 19 received their Master of Divinity and six earned a Doctor of Ministry degree. 

Among the latter was Miriam Phillips-Stephens, who became the first African-American woman to earn both a Master of Divinity (2020) and a Doctor of Ministry from Campbell University. A 1991 graduate of Jameson Christian College, Phillips-Stevens is the minister of Christian education and assistant to the pastor at Mount Level Baptist Church near Richmond, Virginia. 

She said her two Campbell experiences have expanded her thoughts on ministry and gave her a better understanding of herself as a minister, scholar and theologian. 

“It’s allowed me to better understand the depth of theology in the church,” she said. 

As for being a trailblazer in the program, Phillips-Stephens said she hopes to inspire others. 

“To know I’m the first means I’m not going to be the last,” she said. 

Jared Fries earned his Master of Faith and Leadership Formation degree on the 20th anniversary of the day he earned his undergraduate degree from Campbell in 2004 (he also earned a master’s degree from the University of Florida in 2006). 

Fries, who is the associate athletics director for student athlete support for Campbell Athletics, said he enrolled in the Divinity School more for personal growth than professional purposes. 

“I learned a lot about myself, my faith and the Christian faith in general,” he said. “And I received some better understanding of how this relates to my work — a lot of what we studied focused on vocation and calling.”