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Aug  2016 03
Confessions of a Seminary President

I’ve been involved in graduate theological education most of my adult life. I spent four years as a seminary student (graduated 1981), then four and one-half years working on a PhD at a university divinity school (graduated 1991), and have been employed by one seminary or another for the past 23 years.

The following reflections represent a portion of what I think I’ve learned, as I look back over the years since I began seminary in 1977:

  • The middle is gone. When I was in seminary as a student (1977-81), there was most definitely a theological middle. The 1980s and the creation of The Christian Right had not happened yet. Professors could call themselves “evangelical liberals” and that was not an oxymoronic appellation. Even when I came to Phillips in 1993, there was something of a theological middle. Today, not so much. The culture has divided out like wars within religions (the churches have drunk the same Kool-Aid), with orthodoxies being re-asserted or invented in order to create a boundary and sometimes division between Us and Them.
  • Assumptions about the core curriculum have changed. Neither church leaders nor seminaries have adequately wrestled with two effects of the postmodern world where “foundations” can't be found regarding “the Christian tradition.” We are living with what theologian David Tracy calls plurality and ambiguity, meaning that all traditions are plural and ambiguous. Some students, committed and intelligent, come into graduate seminary barely knowing whole swaths of scripture and knowing almost no church history or formal theology. Newly minted PhDs are often shaped in programs where "the classics" were more deconstructed than read, largely because reading the classics and dealing with contemporary constructive needs requires too many years for a single program. We in seminaries have not sufficiently wrestled with these “angels” in order to receive their blessings.
  • It is attention-intensive to keep first things first. Not all of the seminary’s stakeholders have the seminary's interests front-of-mind all the time. Personal interests intrude. Sometimes what is good for the seminary does not align with each person (sorry, you organizational romantics who think perfect alignment is possible, or that the institution should adjust to meet every person’s individual needs). A consultant once told me it was my job as president to be kind to Phillips first. That has been a rather hard lesson to learn, and practice.
  • The gifts of the millennials are essential but will not save churches. We in the World War II through boomer generations look took much to millennials for salvation. I say this for two reasons. First, the over-reliance on a younger generation devalues wisdom. Yes, the church needs an entrepreneurial spirit in its leaders. There is, and there is going to be, a whole lot more need for starting or renewing than maintaining Christian communities. And yes, the models of community building and weaving are very, very different today from when I was a young pastor. But there is wisdom among solid, seasoned pastors regarding persons, systems, and sustenance that should be valued more highly by judicatory leaders, search committees, and younger pastors. Second, for the most part, millennials are not motivated by a desire to sustain someone else’s institutions. They don't want to save or maintain their grandparents’ churches. They would rather change the world than change the church.
  • It is difficult to be hopeful and realistic at the same time. A few years back, I let the faculty know about a budget hole that the seminary was facing. After that meeting, a senior faculty member complimented me on dealing with difficult realities head on, and then said, “But you need to find a way to deliver that news without scaring everyone.” Message received.
  • The seminary’s business has a different aim than a profit-making business but also requires solid business practices. A consultant friend likes to say, “Non profit is an IRS status, not a business model.”
  • Being smart is important but highly inadequate. At least through my seminary schooling, I was thought of and thought of myself as “smart.” (My dad would sometimes question whether I had any sense, but that is a different matter.) I felt far less smart at the University of Chicago. And, since the time I first took on a leadership role in seminary, I’ve used everything I have, intellectually and physically and emotionally, and the task is yet bigger and more complex than I can do. Much more listening, humility, and learning is required.
  • The congregational context for predominantly white, mainline churches has changed enormously. My seminary professors liked to admonish, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” with the assumption that a middle-class white congregation is comfortable. But “afflicting” a congregation with 300 in worship in the 1980s and “afflicting” the same congregation of 50-60 persons mostly in their 70s and above are quite different matters. I’m not sure the “wisdom” of the adage holds.
  • No one cares to hear the president complain, including the president. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey say that every complaint contains a commitment. The language of complaint blames someone else. The language of commitment begs the question of what I am doing or need to do in order to honor the commitment. I have to model how to honor commitments rather than stew in complaints. I sometimes don’t like that the buck stops with me.
  • Seminary education is gift-driven education. Donors must be real partners. Not all donors want to be partners, but in order for theological education to thrive, seminaries need partners, and we in seminaries need to treat donors as partners.
  • My greatest opponent is tiredness.
  • We in theological education don’t talk about everyday courage often enough. It takes courage to say, “No,” to a prospective student who should be doing something else. It takes courage to face budget realities. It takes courage to ask for a gift. It takes courage to deal with an employee’s unhelpful behavior. It takes courage to initiate and sustain change, and to walk with the community as they find the courage to make the necessary mental and material transitions. 

Next time, I’ll reflect on the opportunities that have opened largely because of the changes I related above.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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