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May  2015 21
Nurturing Leaders: Nurturing Liberal and Generous Leaders?

Scripture: Romans 12.2

At the seminary last week, we had the privilege of hosting a gathering of three Phillips graduate seminary alumni from the 1950s. The time with them was delightful. They asked well-informed questions!

One of them reflected on a sermon he heard a professor give during his seminary years. The title of the sermon was “Why I Am an Unreconstructed Liberal,” referring to why that professor did not follow Karl Barth and others in neo-orthodoxy.

The alum asked me, “What do you say when people tell you that the seminary is too liberal?” (which I am occasionally asked, or told as an accusation). In essence, this was my response.

Here is what liberal means to me:

The root of the word “liberal” is the same root as in the word “liberty.”

The words liberal and free are connected. Sometime in my first years as a seminary president, a local church pastor and several laity from that church wrote me to tell me I ought to dismiss some of our faculty because of the research in which they were involved (associated with the Jesus Seminar).

Yes, there are seminaries where trustees, faculty, and staff must sign doctrinal statements. There are seminaries where argumentation must be kept within the bounds of an agreed-upon creed. There are seminaries where the faculty serve as guardians of orthodoxy when the denomination gathers for official meetings.

I respect these understandings and roles for graduate theological work but these are not the practices of any Disciples of Christ seminary. In comparison to this other type of seminary, all Disciples graduate theological programs are liberal.

Phillips is liberal in the sense carried in the phrase “liberal arts.”

In undergraduate education, and based on an ancient curriculum, studying languages, history, ethics, philosophy, and arts and the sciences all contribute to a freer mind.

In contrast to some expressions of Christianity today, in which science and the fullness of history (warts and all) are understood as disloyal to faithful belief and practice, at Phillips we are friends with science and history; we can’t imagine good and faithful practice apart from ongoing conversation with the sciences and critical readings of history.

Retired Dean Don Pittman and I often talked about the difference between being liberal in doctrine and liberal in method (read what Don wrote on the subject).

We agreed that Phillips should not be known for the former but should be known for the latter. A liberal method of seeking truth and understanding may not necessarily lead to liberal doctrinal conclusions. A liberal method means understanding is advanced through public conversation and arguments, bringing all the disciplines associated with the liberal arts to the table.

We each come to the table with pieties and prejudgments but no one may hide behind a piety or prejudgment. In conversation and argument, each claim may be tested.

At the end of the testing, one may or may not have changed one’s mind or adopted a more “liberal” doctrinal position. But the potential testing of any claim around a table of informed peers is a hallmark of a liberal method (and, I would add, democracy when practiced properly).

When Phillips is practicing the education we offer correctly, we are using a liberal method rather than expecting students to come to liberal conclusions.

Finally, and this is the most aspirational claim of the ones I’m advancing, I want Phillips to be known as a generous place.

I think the word “liberal” has become a toxic word because of several factors, including an inadequate definition of sin and too little attention to individual behavior, a reputation for wanting to be liberal with someone else’s money, and serves as a rallying cry for those who need to create an enemy against which to fight and raise funds.

But liberal is a word akin to generous. A few years ago, several of us proposed identity language for the seminary using the phrase “generously minded.” We dropped the idea when we found too many people associated generosity only with money!

But what about developing leaders who have generous spirits, generous souls, generous minds, and who are generous listeners? I want Phillips to model and advance developing generously-minded, bigger-souled listeners. Liberal in how one treats others. We certainly know a great deal in our culture as to how to listen in the stingy ways. Let’s contribute to fostering more generous, liberal communities in how we listen and interact with one another.

All the above is what I mean by “liberal.” I make no apologies for this kind of liberalism. In fact, I’m proud of the liberal tradition as expressed above, and hope and pray for more leaders who are liberal in these ways. I’d be thrilled to see more of both generous orthodox leaders and generous liberal leaders.

What about you?

Prayer: Create in us, O God, generous minds and generous spirits. Encourage us to share liberally with all who have need, from whichever kinds of treasures you have gifted us.


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