Mar  2017 28
Finding Common Ground to Do the Hard Work

Last week, I wrote about the necessary boundary for any community, even the most “inclusive” ones: don’t invite to the table persons who are driven to destroy the table. At the end of that blog, I reflected on the stakeholders at, or who might be at, a seminary’s table.

Then I mentioned there are tensions between the stakeholders. For this week, I decided to write about the needs brought by three stakeholders. I apologize in advance that the examples I give are suggestive rather than all-inclusive.

It is hard to be a regional church official today. They contend with such conflicting demands.

While Christian congregations are facing an asteroid-strike of culture change coming at them, regional officials are importuned to address picayune conflicts, clergy boundary-crossing, financial mismanagement, figuring out the ACA (clergy health coverage is a HUGE issue) or whatever the Party of No might eventually say “yes” to, and a host of problems of varying sizes and urgencies.

There are congregations on hospice, others well past their lifecycle peak that are headed toward hospice, others that are making courageous efforts to connect to residential communities that differ demographically from the faithful remnant, and a few congregations “making the way by walking” that have a long future in front of them.

In addition, regional leaders know the stats on the death tsunami mounting toward formerly mainline congregations. They know the demographic trends that point toward a minority majority nation, while (except in historically African-American denominations and congregations) they see the yawning gap between who is in their pews today and who needs to be a vital congregation by 2040.

Starting new communities, experimenting with new ways of being church, reaching out and engaging a greater diversity of persons than was the case throughout the 20th century, searching for/raising up/recruiting leaders for this movement work, while also fittingly matching gifts and needs with currently existing churches—that is what regional ministers who care about their tradition’s DNA are trying to do.

It is hard to be a graduate seminary faculty member today. Maybe they were raised in a church, maybe not.

By the time they arrived in graduate school, a topic in the theological curriculum quickened a place deep within. Because of the lengthy, time-consuming, understandably cautious requirements denominations have layered onto the ordination process, today’s seminary faculty candidates are less likely than 30 years ago to be ordained and (I’d need to see stats on this to be sure) to have served a congregation before teaching in a seminary.

Their formation is primarily academic, not ecclesial and not clerical. Except in those schools serving doctrinally tightly-bounded denominations, their professor-mentors were educated at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Vanderbilt, Duke, or a handful of other university divinity school programs that differ significantly in culture, student body, and mission from freestanding denominational seminaries.

Their teaching experience in their doctoral programs, and educational theory regarding adult learners per se, were thin. They are looking for jobs at a time when oodles of colleges and universities have cut positions, and seminaries are downsizing, merging, reducing tenure-track positions, and otherwise rebuilding a sustainable economic model.

They come from programs in which critical studies concerning gender, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, and post-colonial approaches cut across and are incorporated in every subject in the theological curriculum.

They then get a job in a part of the country where a large cohort of the students are from and serve in areas where nearly every study area I name in the first part of this sentence is alien. (I am far from the first to notice the gap in worldviews. See Tex Sample, U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches.) And, they must learn to teach each of their courses online and in both weekly and weeklong versions.

It is hard to be a graduate seminary student today.

If you are younger, you may have graduated from college with $25,000 or more in debt. If you’re older, you’ve left a decent living for an uncertain one.

Seminary students may already be serving in ministry and have come to seminary for the credential, the education, or both. They may not be at all sure what they want to do after seminary (although Phillips students have for a long time been more congregationally oriented than the average accredited school).

Some want the theological and ethical frameworks to take into the workaday world. Some want to wrestle deeply with the Bible, wrestling to defeat personal demons (residues from a fundamentalist upbringing) and wrestling for the blessings the texts might yield. They want skills to accompany the knowledge, the “how tos” along with the “what” and “why.”

Younger students from urban areas or who took relevant university courses are formed in and are fierce advocates of diversity-inclusion-justice in the classroom, and eager to enrich their theological frameworks to become even better allies and activists. The same goes for some students from town and country areas.

For other students, who serve in the churches I mentioned above when reflecting on regional ministers, they are doing what many students do: they are gleaning from the curriculum, picking what makes sense to them, what seems useful in their places of service.

Today’s students cannot project a career in ministry.

The times are too turbulent, old-line congregations are dying as the World War II generation that built them passes, the future for Christianity in the U.S. will not resemble the past, old-line institutions are fragmenting, and new institutions are precipitating out of chaos.

The conditions in which today’s students will minister require them to be smart, flexible, emotionally-mature, spiritually-disciplined, hungry for learning, resilient, innovative, risk-tolerant—and I’m going to stop there because the attribute list is already overwhelming.

Finally, it is tough to be the U.S. society today. We have no idea what our social glue is going to be.

The so-called social covenant or contract is far more broken today than when Robert Bellah wrote his classic work in 1967. We talk different moral languages, when we talk in moral imperatives at all, and increasing a non-religious, non-moral, nationalist and classist language. “Christianities” rather than “Christianity” is definitely the more accurate way to speak.

Christianities have been infected with the same divisive spirit that diseases our age. While there are numerous admirable counter-examples to fragmentation, of compassion from religious groups, at the present, the compassion virus is not multiplying—although there are signs that circumstance may be changing, because the Current Administration has been scrubbing compassion from the lexicon of government and people with heart are saying “enough.”

Within Christianity (and many other faiths, but I’m writing about the one I know best), we have great writings and practices regarding love, compassion, justice, equity, confession, penance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity and diversity in communities.

At the present moment, rather than highlighting the different needs and social locations of regional ministers, faculties, and students, maybe what they/we (along with the other seminary stakeholders I mentioned last week) could best contribute to advancing the Leaven of Jesus in U.S. society is to focus on how to define and foster this set of practices—and everything else, apart from the fundamental rule above—are adiaphora (matters of lesser or no consequence).

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