At the Office with Dr. Keith Whitfield
Lauren Pratt | June 01, 2021
Keith Whitfield’s office is filled with symbols of the journey that has brought him to Southeastern and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Whitfield also has a number of items in his office that remind him of the urgency of the Great Commission and the role he plays in leading others to see this urgency in the classroom and on the field. A carving from Israel of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet reminds Whitfield of servant leadership. Framed portraits of past theologians and preachers remind him of the importance to remain pastoral in his disposition. An hourglass that sits on his shelf reminds him of the urgency of the mission to reach all people with the gospel.
Whether he’s leading Southeastern faculty, teaching his theology students or mentoring PhD candidates, Whitfield seeks to do everything with a pastoral disposition and a missional heart.
What are things that you and your family like to do for fun?
A few years ago, our family took our first RV trip with two other families who are close friends. It felt like we were in the amazing race. It was a big “out west” trip. 7 national parks. 1700 miles . In 10 days. We were hooked after that. The next summer, we took another trip, which was a little slower. We camped in a provincial park in Canada for a week. We’ve found a pastime, and recently purchased a RV for our family. The best thing about an RV vacation is that the party starts when you leave home. You don’t have to wait until you get to the destination. The other great thing about RV’ing is that everything slows down. You travel slower. Your schedule slows down. This adventure has been a happy medium for me and Amy, my wife. She grew up staying in four-star hotels. I grew up sleeping under tarps off the side of hiking trails. With an RV, she does not have to sleep outside and I get to spend as much time outside as I want to spend.
What have you enjoyed most about so far about your role as Provost?
What I like the most about it is the opportunity it gives me to serve the mission of Southeastern through leading and supporting others. Central to my calling is to help people to pursue what God has called them to do. This responsibility gives me a unique opportunity to pursue my calling.
What has been a helpful lesson or resource that impacted the way you pastor and minister to others?
I think the most important lesson was learning what the role of a pastor is. The primary function of a pastor is to inspire, to provoke and to nurture people’s faith in God. People need their faith to grow stronger to navigate difficult times, to follow God in obedience and to step out into what God’s calling them to do. The primary responsibility is to point people’s eyes to Jesus, to help them believe in the gospel, to help them listen to what God is saying and to guide them to respond in obedience and faith.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned that has influenced your teaching in the classroom?
In my first year at Southeastern, I learned that people may have the same ministry assignment but do it differently in accordance with their own calling. I learned this while walking across campus. I was thinking, “Why am I here?” I understood my role as a pastor, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I understood my role as a professor. Also, in conversations with my colleagues, many of them taught for seemingly different reasons than I was teaching. I realized that while we had the same job, we did the job for slightly different reasons. I started to understand that while my calling is still pastoral, what I feel called to do is to provoke people to believe, to help people discover who God’s called them to do be and to find a place to serve God in that way. I was walking across campus and I thought, “What does it look like to do that in the context of teaching theology?” The transition for me was when I realized that: I’m not just trying to give information or to give clarity of thinking; I’m trying to connect life and belief. That, for me, was the answer to the question, “What am I doing here?”
Who is one of your favorite theologians?
This is a tough question. I think I have to say John Calvin because I realized what theology was reading him years ago. He wrote to help Christians understand what they believed and how to live it out. And he seemed to do this with a lot of ease. I was captivated by that. He helped me see that the purpose of theology was to live the Christian life.
What is your favorite doctrine to study?
The doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of the Christian life. These doctrines revolve around the two questions that got me into studying theology in the first place: What does it mean to be biblical, and how do we change? Central to the Christian faith is that God came to transform us. He didn’t come to leave us the same. The doctrine of sanctification is where a lot of our understanding of the Christian faith comes together to understand how God is at work in and through us by his Word.
What has God specifically been teaching you this year?
COVID has been disruptive and has introduced a lot of uncertainties for everyone. What God has been teaching me through this season is a simple reminder that “he is holding us all up.” Schedules and routines and ways that we do things are different. In the process God has sustained us, and he’s held us up. The other one is just how important where he has us is. We’re not able to travel as much or have the freedom to think beyond our local community. It’s important where he’s got me, and it’s important for me to renew my commitment to making a difference where I am. Where he has me is where I need to be investing.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Southeastern Magazine. Read more at sebts.edu/magazine.