Communicating with Care:
Janet Weathers Finds Her Place at PTS

by Hope Andersen
Photos by Chrissie Knight

You can tell a lot about people by looking at the spaces in which they live. This seems particularly true in the case of Janet Weathers, assistant professor of speech communication in ministry, who joined the Princeton Seminary faculty in 1994. Her dining room is occupied by a shiny black baby grand piano; her windows are framed in soft, translucent drapes; and everywhere books and fragile momentos co-exist. Beauty matters to her.

"Beauty is spiritually powerful," she explains. "It is one of the ways that God feeds us. I am always inspired and humbled by creation. Flowers, art, music, light-they are all lifegiving."

Weathers is the fortunate occupant of 102 Mercer Street, also known as the Carriage House, which was recently renovated by the Seminary and which received a Princeton Historical Society Award for "adaptive use of a historical space."

For Weathers, who has been on sabbatical since September 1996, the house has provided her not only with a sanctuary but also with a space for many phases of her life to be on display.

And Weathers has had many phases in her life. Born and raised in Oklahoma and Kansas, she attended Oklahoma State University and began exploring her interest in the dynamics of human communication. Having earned her B.A., she then went on to Ohio State University to pursue her master's degree in literature.

It was during her college years that she experienced her first spiritual upheaval. Active on the university debate team, she often took her spiritual questions to her debate coach, Dale Stockton, who was also a pastor. He helped her wrestle with the challenges of analytic philosophy and atheistic existentialism. The year after she graduated from Oklahoma State, Stockton, a young man dedicated to causes of justice and peace and a father of two small children and another one on the way, was randomly and brutally murdered. For Weathers, who was only twenty-one at the time, the trauma of this event shattered the still fragile scaffolding he had been helping her build to sustain her faith in the face of intellectual challenges and the reality of immense evil in the world.

For most of the next decade, Weathers was estranged from the church, yet many of her close friends were deeply religious people. "I never wanted to talk about God," she recalls, "but I always kept them close."

One of these friends was Dr. Francis Hayward, the pastor who had baptized her in the First Presbyterian Church in Winfield, KS, when she was a child. He took a pastorate in another state when she was in the fourth grade, and her family returned to Oklahoma, yet they have maintained contact ever since. He remains for her a powerful model of faithful ministry. Although she was just a child when he was her pastor, she knew that he deeply loved, enjoyed, and respected the children in the church.

Weathers learned during a recent visit with Hayward that while in Winfield in the '50s, he started a local chapter of the NAACP. She believes that many of her deepest theological convictions about the power of God's love for all and God's demand that we live just lives comes from hearing him preach during those early years. "Children stayed in church for the sermon in those years," she says, "and I never remember wanting to be excused." She credits him with giving her strong roots in the faith that never quit influencing her, even during the years she turned her back on God.

After completing an M.A. at Ohio State, she began teaching in 1970, first at the National College of Education in Evanston, IL, and then at a junior high school in Arcadia, CA. During this period, she explored secular humanism and existentialism and tried, as she says, to live a constructive life within that mindset. But always there was a deeper yearning, and as she neared thirty, she began to re-explore her faith life, though not without an unusual prod.

A pivotal event occurred on Weathers's thirtieth birthday. She recalls that she went to see a secular psychologist to help her work through the residue of the trauma of her mentor's death. The woman observed that Weathers didn't seem to have her relationship with God right, to which Weathers replied, "I'm not sure there is a God." "Ah," remarked the psychologist, "so there's the problem."

At first shocked by the therapist's comment, Weathers found herself sitting in church again on Christmas Sunday a few weeks later and joining the church on Easter. She chose a non-denominational church that provided her with wide-ranging, open discussions of Christianity. "I was not yet ready to tackle the confessional statements of the church of my youth," she reflects. A couple of years later she began to study with a Christian yogi, Graham Ledgerwood. It was through his guidance that she began to return to an understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of God rather than thinking of him only as a good model for human life. It was also from Ledgerwood that she learned to approach the Bible through contemplation and meditation rather than only with the critical tools of analysis.

"I did not start studying with him because of the depth and devotion of his commitment to Christ, but as I look back on that time seventeen years ago, it seems to me that God used this man to teach me many things about God and about Jesus Christ that I would not have been willing to hear from the pulpit of a Presbyterian church," she says. "I marvel at the wonderful and diverse ways God works with our pain and confusion to offer us the loving truth of the Gospel."

Over the next ten years Ledgerwood contributed significantly to Weathers's spiritual development and strongly encouraged her to respond to the call to ministry and enter seminary. "I might never have been able to return to the Presby-terian church without his guidance and teaching," she says.

Despite the skepticism of many of her academic colleagues, Weathers enrolled in Claremont School of Theology. "My initial years of study culminated in the realization that to do what I felt called to do, I would need to complete a second Ph.D.," she recalls. Weathers earned her first Ph.D. in speech communication from the University of Southern California in 1979 and then taught at a variety of institutions, including ten years at the University of California, Los Angeles, and several years at the University of Southern California. She is currently finishing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in theology and personality from Claremont where, in 1992, she received an M.A. in theology.

Weathers's work at Princeton is concerned with bringing the disciplines of communication, education, and theology together. How can she help people to better communicate the Word? How can she help people to appreciate the theological significance of their daily interactions? How can she help people to better communicate with one another and avoid creating unnecessary problems through their communication?

"It is not that we can eliminate problems and conflicts if we communicate effectively," Weathers observes. "We will always have the pain of real conflict to challenge us, but there is so much unnecessary pain and suffering created because of communication problems that could have been avoided. Such problems erode trust and eat away at the fabric of our communities, in our churches, in our seminaries, and throughout our society."

In reflecting on her situation at Princeton, Weathers acknowledges that she is being presented with an extraordinary opportunity. "PTS is special," she says, "because no other seminary has a communication area as fully developed as this. No other seminary could provide this growing edge."

She is finding that she is able to integrate her love of music, poetry, and art not only into her teaching, where she uses poetry to help students to understand the experiences of others and to instruct students in reflecting on and communicating Scripture, but also in her personal life. An accomplished pianist who has played since she was five years old, Weathers has recently started taking lessons again. "I love music," she says. "I find it relaxing and inspiring. I also think we can gain insights into life by experiencing the ways composers explore and share harmony, dissonance, and rhythm in their music."

She loves, too, the yellow color on the walls in the Carriage House, a color that she feels is both comforting and energizing. "I would never have known to choose it," she says. "I would have settled for white." But Weathers, who gives careful thought to all aspects of her life, whether she is working on her dissertation or deciding which perennials to plant in her backyard, doesn't seem like someone who settles for anything. Rather, she seems to bring to life a grace that enables her to thrive on whatever life gives her.

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