Mar  2017 21
The Boundaries of Being Inclusive

Within the school I serve, I may hear any of these comments in a given week:

  • Student: “You claim to be inclusive, but my theological perspective is not welcome here.”
  • Student from a community of color: “You claim to be inclusive, but your liberal, white understandings of Christianity require a lot of translation to make sense in my community.”
  • White student from a rural or small-town community: “Issues of diversity and inclusion are not important to the relatively homogeneous community I serve. Time spent on those issues in class is not relevant for my ministry.”
  • A faculty member or a student: “If the seminary were as committed to justice as it claims to be, then persons with (this point of view that I take to be unacceptable and which the institution should think is unacceptable, too) would not be here, and the seminary would not do (this action).”
  • “Don’t invite persons into the community who are determined to undermine the foundational commitments of the community.”

All of these statements point to the limitations of the language of inclusion. All communities draw boundaries. There is no absolutely inclusive community, inside or outside a religious tradition. Communities are only more or less inclusive.

By definition, an inclusive community will not be a welcoming place for someone who needs a community that excludes “those people” or “that point of view.”

A perception and a confession. The perception is that you will hear the thoughts expressed in the first four bullet points at most progressively-oriented Protestant seminaries.

Seminaries that deliberate on what is good and right using conversation and argument (rather than claims to special revelation and hierarchy) all struggle, in different ways and in our own contexts, with what inclusion, diversity, and justice mean.

The confession in that the last bulleted statement is mine. That is a rule by which I operate: don’t invite persons into the community who are determined to undermine the foundational commitments of the community.

It is fruitless to attempt ecumenical conversations with persons who believe their way is the one true way and who participate in ecumenical conversations only to try to convert others to their way.

If my school admits (as we do) persons of all sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities who are capable of doing graduate study in programs we offer, I would not invite a speaker to campus who is opposed to the ministry of these persons.

It would be counter-productive to elect someone to office in a democracy who prefers a form of government other than representative democracy, or to appoint someone as a regulatory agency head who did not believe in the mission of the agency.

Someone who cannot accept the humanity and treat with respect persons different from themselves will contribute to a hostile learning environment, and a community of learning cannot do its work in a consistently hostile environment.

Faculty members at my school practice biblical interpretation in a way that fundamentalists do not. Hiring a fundamentalist faculty member (or a liberal on the faculty in a fundamentalist seminary) is not a way of embracing theologically diversity; it is a way to plant an explosive charge that threatens the school’s work, and that work is NOT to provide a boxing ring for the faculty.

Theological diversity in a faculty is a worthy proximate goal, but diversity needs boundaries in order that a community can do its primary work, which is to fulfill its vocation.

The reason for being of any community is not to include all points of view. The reason for being of a community is to fulfill its vocation.

Of course, saying “the point of a community is to fulfill its vocation” begs the question “Who determines its vocation?”

In my context, the trustees, by the authority of the by-laws, determine the seminary’s mission. But all the following categories of persons (listed in no particular order, and not meant to be an exhaustive list) have stakes in Phillips’ vocation:

  • The denominations and currently existing congregations that trust Phillips with educating persons for ministry.
  • Future participants in ministries that will be started by Phillips graduates.
  • Predominantly white denominations that want to do and be church in ways relevant to the “no majority” culture that is already arriving and that do not want to remain a predominantly white, shrinking enclave.
  • Congregations predominantly of persons of color that want theologically-educated leaders who understand “how things are done” in their contexts.
  • The trustees.
  • Current students.
  • Future students.
  • The faculty.
  • Administrators and staff.
  • Alumni/ae.
  • Laity in ministry with alumni/ae.
  • Religious and non-profit leaders in Oklahoma who look to the seminary for leadership in public theology, social ethics, and human rights work.

Part of what makes a place like Phillips interesting for me is this diversity of stakeholders. There is no way that such a variety of persons and perspectives will fully agree!

As you might imagine, there are conflicts, just a few of which are expressed in the opening bullet points above. Sometimes the conflicts deepen to the level of foundational commitments.

I’ll write more about the tension between stakeholders and foundational commitments next time.

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