Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

WHAT I'VE LEARNED

Thomas D. Stegman, SJ

Reflections from the outgoing dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. 

In keeping with the advice of his medical team, Stegman stepped down this summer from his position as dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Stegman, who is 59, was diagnosed in 2019 with glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer. The school flourished during his six years as dean, ascending to the upper echelons of world rankings while maintaining its warm and welcoming culture. Following a year-long sabbatical, Stegman plans to rejoin the school’s faculty.

I’m not the God of my life. I know that I’m a creature. I didn’t give myself life. But when we are able to accomplish certain things, when we’re able to feel like we’re in control, it’s easy to forget that I’m not God. With my illness, and remembering that I’m not in control, I’m appreciating that all there is about life really is a gift. I’m appreciating bird song in the morning, and I’m noticing the gentle breezes, which are a reminder to me of God’s presence, of God’s Spirit re-creating the face of the earth every day and God’s pouring his love into our hearts, refreshing us.

Open yourself to others. I’ve kind of operated by, You want something done right? Well, do it yourself. That way you don’t have to be dependent on others. That works for a lot of things in life. Certainly in the area of scholarship and studies—nobody can do it for you, right? But there’s a shadow side to that. I can wall myself off from others, and wall myself off from what has always been true, which is that we really do need one another. I have benefited from so much love and support from people here at Boston College and beyond. I find myself very grateful for others in ways that I haven’t been before. I teach these things, but I think I have become better at living them.

Greatness is measured in many ways. The BCSTM has been very productive. Pedagogy is taken seriously here, as is the formation of students in the classroom. The faculty produces publishing-wise, and the rankings are fine. But I’m more concerned with striving for greatness as it’s set forth in the Gospels. Jesus reverses the calculus, so to speak: Tobe truly great is to serve, to give of yourselfin loving service to others, to become more generous and more magnanimous.

Being a dean is a lot like coaching a team. You try to put people in a position to succeed, play to their strengths, give them help and support. But don’t ask them to do things they’re not good at or passionate about. You learn what their strengths are, you play to that.

Take risks and push yourself. The other side of just playing to your strengths is that it’s easy to get into a comfort zone in life, to do only the things that I like and am good at. While training people for the ministry, I encourage them to try things they haven’t done before. Have you ever done chaplaincy work? Have you ever done hospice work? We grow by allowing ourselves to be challenged, and by looking at those areas of our lives thatwe can improve upon.

Make use of all the time that’s given to you. It took me about three weeks from the time of my diagnosis to Google “glioblastoma.” It took me a long time because I knew it was pretty dire. And then I read the statistics. The median lifespan after the diagnosis and first treatment is fourteen months. And here I am at thirty-five months. About 5 percent make it to five years. So, it’s like there’s two minutes left in the game. What can we get done? What needs to get done? And that’s really a sharper focus that I actually find very helpful.

Recognize your blessings. A student who learned of my illness asked me if I ever get angry with God. I told her no, not for one second. I have lived a blessed life. I have received so many blessings through the Society of Jesus in terms of the education I’ve been given, the health care I’ve received through our benefactors. I’ve been able to travel as a Jesuit. I have so much to be grateful for. I can go back to many times where I can see God was leading me through circumstances, through people. If I had to go tomorrow, I wouldn’t be happy or thrilled about it, but I would also be able to look back at a very rich, full life. So it didn’t take me long to answer the student’s question: No, I’m not angry with God because God has been so good to me. 


There’s much more to this conversation. To listen to the entire Boston College Magazine podcast, click here. 


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