Redeeming Suffering: A Profile of Elizabeth Sendek

Elizabeth Sendek, ScholarLeader of the Year

“God defeats Satan, evil, and sin through suffering. Is that not the case in Jesus’s acceptance of the most shaming and cruel death of his day? He triumphed over the ultimate enemy precisely by surrendering to it,” Elizabeth Sendek writes in Christianity Today (2010). Rather than conquer suffering by escaping it, Christians conquer suffering by serving others in and from it.

Elizabeth’s leadership of the Biblical Seminary of Colombia (FUSBC) incarnates this theology. As FUSBC’s president, she has redeemed suffering by turning it into an opportunity to build a community marked by sacrificial welcome, invitational communication, integrity-driven decisions, and Spirit-led responsiveness. SCHOLARLEADERS honors her as 2021 ScholarLeader of the Year.

Violent Context

“My generation hasn’t known one day of peace,” Elizabeth told Faith and Leadership (2020). Guerrilla violence has shaped Colombia since the 1960s; FUSBC is not immune. Founded in the 1940s on land that was, at the time, a rural oasis in the mountains above Medellín, FUSBC is now surrounded by city. David Baer, a SCHOLARLEADERS board member and FUSBC faculty, notes, “For decades, FUSBC’s neighborhood has been ruled by one armed group or another.” On one occasion, guerrillas brought the pastor of a nearby church to FUSBC, “murdered him, and threw his body against the gates to say, ‘This is what happens to uppity pastors who speak to their flock other than, “Obey this gang”.’ They lost their point because his son is now one of our students.”

Sacrificial Welcome

Violence has touched Elizabeth and her husband Don as well. In 1993, the year that Pablo Escobar was killed, they returned to Colombia from the U.S., where Elizabeth had earned her Master’s in New Testament. Elizabeth remembers, “We had a pyrotechnical arrival to Medellín. The moving van was burned by leftist guerillas. So we had an apartment – where we still live – and nothing to put in it. When we heard the news, people asked, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘I need a mattress, a pot, two spoons, and two plates.’ In less than 24 hours, we had a washing machine, chairs, a bed…. Things even matched although they came from different homes. One student, a newlywed, had this brand-new skillet still in its wrapping. She said, ‘This is one of my wedding gifts. I want you to have it.’ So we experienced community from the moment we arrived.”

For some Christians, “community” is a nice abstraction, but for Elizabeth, “community” is as concrete as that wedding present re-gifted to a complete stranger: “We have this co-responsibility for each other,” she says. (For more on FUSBC’s community, see Diana Lucía Peñuela’s November 2018 InSights Journal article.)

FUSBC’s faculty and students guide others to practice this sacrificial welcome. Nationally, they facilitated a massive research study of how local churches can minister to the internally displaced. After decades of paramilitary violence, drug trafficking, and gang wars, Colombia has one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations (over 7 million, nearly 15% of the population). As Elizabeth told Faith and Leadership, “We started reflecting on what does it mean to be a citizen of the kingdom of God in the midst of violence,” a pressing question for those who are aliens in their own country. Rather than emphasizing political change, the curriculum FUSBC developed from its research guides ordinary Christians – teachers, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, psychologists – to minister to those who “camp out on your property [or] sleep on a bench inside your sanctuary.”

Medellín, Colombia. Credit: Milo Miloezger, Unsplash

Invitational Communication

While others might concentrate on these kinds of social actions, Elizabeth also emphasizes invitational communication as an essential response to suffering – a practice she developed when she became FUSBC’s president. She was an unlikely new leader, as David describes: “FUSBC had reached a point at which the board had a meeting with a single item on the agenda – should we close. Everything had fallen to pieces. They decided not to close, and someone must’ve said, ‘Who’s going to be our president?’ (They’d just exhausted another president, unfortunately not for the first time.) I think the air must’ve been sucked out of that room when someone said, ‘What about Elizabeth Sendek?’ For about fifteen years, she had been a Greek teacher…. And yet, she really has been a transformative leader.”

To heal a collapsing seminary in a volatile neighborhood in a war-torn country, Elizabeth focused on communication, not sweeping programs. She remembers, “Trust was broken between faculty, staff, and board” because the board hadn’t communicated during FUSBC’s crisis. Elizabeth determined that her communication would be invitational – clear, timely, targeted, and open to conflict. Her communication models conflict resolution for students who will minister “in a country at war for more than 6 decades. Otherwise, people will serve in churches and communities skirting conflict and never solving it, but that in itself is very aggressive, because it nurtures more resentment.”

Invitational communication happens faithfully, as part of normal work, as David attests: “I’ll be working in my office, and I can tell for 60 or 90 minutes that Elizabeth is making her rounds. She has this infectious, raucous laugh, so you hear her coming. My office door is exactly to my right. I’ll sense this movement out of the corner of my eye, and I’ll look over, and here’s this dwarfish little lady just showing her left eye around the corner of my door. When I look up and smile, she’ll say, ‘May I come in?’ She’ll sit down, and we’ll talk. Usually there’s nothing on our agenda. Her understanding of leadership goes to the human component.”

Integrity-Driven Decisions

For someone focused on human hearts, so much suffering could easily become a distraction or a path to burnout. (David speculates that, in addition to local and national issues, nearly every female student at FUSBC has suffered sexual violence.) Instead, integrity shapes Elizabeth’s leadership. The faculty senate might receive a request for an exemption from a student: “‘This is my situation; you should bend the rules for me’.” Elizabeth says, “If the person is very much loved, the temptation is ‘Oh, let’s take care of the person’.” But she redirects the conversation: “What are we shaping in terms of the welfare of all the community, of integrity? If we don’t like the rules, let’s change them for the benefit of everyone but not for one person.”

David notes that Elizabeth’s integrity enables people to trust her: “The question [she asks] is never, ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s, ‘Where do our values take us in light of these new circumstances?’”

More broadly, Elizabeth calls for integrity related to a delicate subject in the church: discipline. She says, “When we deal with disciplinary issues, the way of the evangelical church is that you tend to make your disciplinary actions public. Is that what we really want to communicate? How do we make decisions as far as disciplinary actions that are redemptive, that encourage people to grow, that make us commit to walk alongside that person? Instead of making a public statement so that we can prove that we are not liberals who put up with everything.”

Spirit-Led Responsiveness

Elizabeth meets with the VSI team.

In 2019, the SCHOLARLEADERS Vital SustainAbility Initiative helped FUSBC plan for Elizabeth’s retirement. She exclaims, “We started [2020], and we were delighted because we had this strategic plan that you helped us put together through VSI, so we knew where we were going. Then late February/early March came [with COVID], and we didn’t know where we were going!”

Partly thanks to VSI, FUSBC found a way through the crisis. For example, online chapel services connected faculty on four continents, students, and alumni; students invited neighbors, reaching people who would not normally attend church. On the pandemic’s overall effect on the Colombian Church, Elizabeth reflects, “I think the Spirit of God has posed the question, ‘What is the church?’ If the church is not buildings, if it’s not loud music and entertaining, if it’s not multiplicity of activities, what is the church?” Because of the pandemic, and because guerrilla violence has not stopped, “People are becoming more and more hungry for learning how to read the Bible.”

FUSBC is meeting this hunger with expanded online classes; Elizabeth mentions one pastor from a “very remote” region “sitting under a mango tree with three of his church members following a class through a cell phone. Normally, they would never be able to attend because they would have to travel at least an hour-and-a-half to a small town because that’s where our faculty could go. So this hunger for understanding the times, this questioning of how to be the church, that’s a great movement of the Spirit of God.”

This movement of the Spirit has happened because of pandemic-driven suffering – and FUSBC, under Elizabeth’s leadership, has taken it as yet another opportunity to redeem pain and grief by blessing its community. As Elizabeth says, “Suffering is the setting in which the true nature of our faith, hopes, and loyalties is demonstrated” (CT, 2010).

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