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Columbia president affirms faith despite spreading cancer

Steve Hayner
Steve Hayner

The news was not what anyone wanted to hear: despite aggressive treatment, the pancreatic cancer has spread in the body of Steve Hayner, the beloved, gifted president of Columbia Theological Seminary.

The board of Columbia seminary will meet Aug. 7 to determine whether Deborah Flemister Mullen, the executive vice-president and dean of faculty, will remain as acting president as she has been since early June while Hayner received treatment, or whether other arrangements need to be made as the start of the fall semester approaches. The board also is expected to appoint a search committee to consider candidates for an interim president, said Bill Scheu, a lawyer who is chair of the seminary’s board.

Hayner, 66, became Columbia’s 9th president in 2009 and previously served as a pastor, professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia, and president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

“People are grieving,” Scheu said. “They love Steve.”

In the days since receiving the results of the most recent round of medical tests, Hayner and his wife, Sharol, have used that bitter reality to continue to speak of their ongoing faith – and to confront directly the kinds of questions that many struggle with when someone they love faces a crisis.

“It’s a moment when we learn from each other,” said Laura Mendenhall, who preceded Hayner as president of Columbia seminary. “He is in the midst of it and he is dying, and he is saying, ‘Prayers are being answered. I know I’m not alone. God is giving me peace’ . . . It’s a moment to think again about why we pray and how prayers are answered.”

On his CaringBridge site, Hayner wrote that he was in excellent physical shape when diagnosed last spring, and “I have been able to handle the most intensive prescribed regimen of chemotherapy.” Despite that, recent tests revealed that “the cancer has spread further throughout my liver and that over all the treatments have been only marginally effective,” he wrote. “The cancer continues to have the upper hand. What now seems clear from a purely physical perspective is that in all probability the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months.”

Hayner described his efforts to decide how much treatment to continue to seek as an effort to balance medical intervention with an effort to maintain as much quality of life as possible – and as a “walk of faith and careful discernment.” His immediate family – including his wife and three adult children – gathered “to weep together, to laugh and lament, and to pray.”

And Hayner spoke directly to the many people who have prayed for him and his family – some, knowing how aggressive the cancer was, praying specifically for a miracle of healing.

“There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part,” he wrote. “And it is God’s story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God.  We’ve been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced. There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.

“Many are praying for one of God’s ‘big’ miracles. We are as well.  But it is not how God answers prayer that determines our response to God. God is committed to my ultimate healing. But being cured of my cancer may or may not be a part of that healing work.”

Before he got the results of the medical tests, Hayner wrote this about prayer:

“Of course, what we would love to see is significant healing. So many people are praying and hoping/expecting that God is going to intervene in a really spectacular way.  With God, nothing is impossible, and I would certainly welcome a miraculous intervention.

“One person told me how disturbing it is to her to watch so many thousands of prayers on my behalf and yet (so far) to see a minimal of physical evidence of healing. Does God really heal? Are the ‘prayers of the righteous’ effective?  Does God listen to the desires of our hearts? Does the amount of prayer have any special impact?

“Honestly, while I understand the importance and logic of questions like this–and many others–most of these questions are not ones that are important to me.

“I truly don’t know what God has planned. None of us really know what the physical symptoms of my cancer will be over time. I could receive ‘healing’ through whatever means, or I could continue to deteriorate.

“But life is about a lot more than physical health. It is measured by a lot more than medical tests and vital signs. More important than the more particular aspects of God’s work with us (in the physical, social, psychological, spiritual, mental realms of life) is God’s overall presence with us, nourishing, equipping, transforming, empowering, and sustaining us for whatever might be God’s call to my life today.  TODAY, my call might be to learn something new about rest.  TODAY, my call might be to encourage another person in some very tangible way. TODAY, my call might be to learn something new about patience, endurance, and the identification with those who suffer.  TODAY, my call might be to mull through a new insight about God’s truth or character.

“The prayers and support of people along the way are also about God’s call to each of them (and me!) TODAY. As people pray, we are all changed, and we are all called to focus in a new way. We are all changed as individuals and as a community.

“Yes, I’m really eager to know what is happening in my body to this cancer. I’m hopeful that the report about my tumor will be a ‘good’ one and that it might portend a more physically healthy future. But whatever we find out over the next days, I am more eager that it would help me to be more attentive, more grateful, more loving, more joyful and more gracious.

“I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that I loved: ‘More wagging; less barking!’ At that moment I was grumbling inside because it was so hard just to complete my short walk in the neighborhood. But almost immediately my perspective changed. Grumbling was changing nothing, but a fresh infusion of joy could color the world.”

In his most recent post, Hayner wrote that he was beginning a new chemotherapy regimen on July 30, with the hope that it would slow the spread of the cancer without too many side effects or robbing him of energy. “We’ll see,” he wrote adding that he and Sharol are focusing on projects including the remodeling of the house they own in Decatur (the Hayners currently live in the Columbia seminary president’s house), which “will be a great place for Sharol to live in the years ahead.”

He also wrote that he’s not taking on projects that some others may be expecting of him – including writing a book, which several people have suggested to him (“and they have a lot of opinions on what they would like me to write about”). Hayner said the idea of writing does not bring him joy – he wants to focus on other tasks instead, such as the remodeling; seeing friends and colleagues from the Columbia community; and “giving away my library in creative and productive ways.”

He remains committed to “a number of deep human and global concerns for which I want to do my part in helping with the healing. As I have indicated before, there is a kind of daily ‘calling’ to which I want to be attentive. Some days this will include more active options, while other days I will likely only have energy for quieter possibilities.”

He closed by quoting the poet e. e. cummings: “I thank you God for most this amazing day . . . ”