| Called to the Classroom
Professor of Biblical Interpretation Mickey Efird
A student summed up the experience as well as anyone:
When we walk into the divinity school halls for the first day of classes, we are in Eden: everyone loves us, the prayers of the saints are palpable in the air. Then comes Efird’s midterm, and we are lovingly expelled from the Garden.
He’s been called the smiling assassin, the Andy Griffith of the chalkboard. He is a man whose passion for the Bible is rivaled only by his love of the classroom. James Michael “Mickey” Efird has taught biblical interpretation to students at Duke Divinity School since 1962. Thanks to gifts from loyal students and friends in recognition of Efird’s many years of service, his name will grace a classroom in Duke Divinity School’s new building addition.
The honor affects Efird, whose voice tightens as he says he wishes his parents could be alive to share it. Neither of them had an advanced education, but they were determined their only child would. During Efird’s youth in Kannapolis, N.C., the local mill provided the best job in town. Both his parents spent years in the textile industry and were able to help Efird get his undergraduate degree at Davidson College and his seminary degree at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Entering the ministry did not occur to Efird until his senior year of high school. For as long as he could remember, he had wanted to be a teacher. Then, sitting in the pew of his Presbyterian church during a Sunday morning service, he felt God’s call to commit to Christian ministry. “I couldn’t very well tell God ‘No,’ ” he says. So he made his commitment and began college pursuing that calling.
Throughout college and seminary, Efird worked—J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth; even a stint in Davidson, N.C., as a landlord, when he leased a house, lived in one room himself and took on four renters. As he was completing coursework at Louisville, Efird’s dean encouraged him to consider further study at Duke.
That advice set Efird on a path linking teaching and ministry in ways the young seminary student had never considered. Shelton Smith, the director of graduate students at Duke University, was looking for students interested in advanced graduate degrees in Bible and hoped to expand Duke’s own Bible department. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a shortage of faculty for upper level classes in Old and New Testament. Duke was offering financial aid to promising seminary students with an interest in doctoral studies.
Presbyterian students were particularly attractive because, unlike Methodist students, they had to pass Greek and Hebrew courses to be ordained. The Ph.D. program would not have to provide remedial language training for a Presbyterian.
Efird’s first visit to Duke yielded a lasting friendship. As he walked to his interview, William Stinespring, chair of the biblical studies division, stepped out of an office and said, “I know who you are; you look just like your picture.”
The interview took place in the hall while a student in Stinespring’s office completed a make-up exam. Sitting on a bench in the hallway with Stinespring, Efird began his long association with Duke Divinity School.
After Efird had taught Greek and Hebrew for a year, Dean Robert E. Cushman offered him a three-year contract. Duke, said Cushman, needed more instructors like Efird. During the next year he taught 10 classes—eight of which were different courses; the following year his load dropped to nine classes, seven of which were different courses. “I had a load-and-a-half and a half-salary,” says Efird. “I enjoyed it. I like teaching.”
Although he preferred teaching to publishing, Efird has published 13 books and countless articles. His best known books, New Testament Writings and Old Testament Writings, are still in print and widely used for college-level Bible courses. They reflect his intense desire for making the Bible accessible to the community of saints. They are not massive, obscure tomes, but solid, sensible tools that scholars and pastors find helpful in interpreting the Bible.
Course of Study
Since 1966, Efird has taught in the United Methodist Church’s summer Course of Study (COS) for local pastors. The only summer he has missed was 1995, when a heart attack and quadruple by-pass surgery kept him out of the classroom. Wes Brown, associate dean for external relations, coordinated Course of Study at that time and found a way to help Efird preserve his streak. He arranged for Efird, who was convalescing, to give one lecture to the fifth-year students that summer in the Alumni Memorial Common Room.
“I’ve always admired these folks because they serve churches that might go unserved otherwise,” says Efird of the COS students. “And they serve a lot of people.” In the four-week summer sessions, Efird has about 20 class hours to teach material covered in 38 class hours in regular divinity school courses.
He admits to having to sacrifice some depth in the shorter format. Instead of the 20-30 page final paper required of regular divinity students, COS students take a final exam—an exam much like the midterm that expels new students from the Garden of the divinity school.
Lay Academy of Religion
Over the past 20 years, Efird’s gifts as a teacher have gained even wider appreciation. In 1984, Dean Dennis Campbell and Joe Mann, who was director of continuing education, approached him about developing a program to give laity a more thorough knowledge of the Bible. The ground was laid for what is now the Duke Divinity School Lay Academy of Religion.
It was also the beginning of what, for all intents and purposes, became a second career for Efird.
In churches across North Carolina, Efird has established himself as a challenging, though entertaining, instructor.
“Efird is widely known and appreciated for his commitment to the church, to lay people, and to the task of theological education,” says Campbell, who is currently headmaster of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. “His vision and commitment to lay men and women is remarkable. He has the gift of sharing complex ideas in such a way that helps people understand the issues intellectually and also to grow spiritually.”
Groups of loyal adult learners from a variety of denominations have followed Efird over the years. That popularity has led to a series of videos, complete with study guides, featuring Efird’s entire Bible series. (For more information, go to http://www.mickeyefird.com.)
Fresh from the Pulpit
Efird also has served numerous congregations as an interim pastor. What he learns in those churches, he shares with the future pastors in his classroom.
While he doesn’t consider himself a “frontline” minister in the day-to-day struggle of leading a congregation, Efird has a sense of what laity ask, and what they expect, and tailors his coursework to reflect these realities.
“Mickey Efird is an excellent teacher and communicator,” says Dean L. Gregory Jones. “He has made a significance difference for generations of people—divinity and Course of Study students and lay people. He continues to be a blessing in extraordinary ways.” Efird has taught many who have gone on to be United Methodist bishops and district superintendents.
Asked what might be on the plaque that will one day grace the Efird classroom, he joked: “You pays your money and you makes your choice.”
But he then offered a passage from the Wisdom of Ben Sira, “As long as there is breath in you, do not allow anyone to take your place.”
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