Sunday, June 29, 2008

Abbey, Academy, and Apostolate

Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) has written an apology (used in the theological meaning as a “defense”) entitled Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools. His approach is that of “appreciative inquiry,” describing what the schools do best when they are doing that for which they were designed.

One of his most helpful chapters is entitled “The Future of Theological Schools: The Church and Higher Education.” The presentation in this chapter is based on a paradigm articulated by David Tiede, former president of Lutheran Seminary. Tiede argued that theological schools in North America have developed in three phases—abbey, academy, and apostolate. Each is an important part of contemporary theological education. Theological schools were originally founded by denominations as an extension of the church—a place of prayer, study, and preparation for ministry. Over time, theological schools were increasingly influenced by secular education and adopted the attitudes of the academy. They were also concerned about research, learning, and credentialing. The third phase is necessary if the theological schools are to survive and prosper in the present and future. They must embrace an apostolic mission, taking responsibility for helping churches articulate a proactive witness in a secular society.

As the theological schools embrace the third aspect of the paradigm, they have the opportunity to develop new models of formation for Christian ministry. One of these new models involves non-residential programs that offer students the opportunity to prepare for ministry without uprooting their families and turning their lives upside down. Somewhat cautiously Aleshire comments, “There may be patterns of sustained peer and mentor relationships that address the formational goal of residency, but such programs would need to be thoughtfully developed and carefully administered” (page 150) Non-residential programs provide opportunities for students to engage their culture without changing their ministry context, but they must intentionally maintain high standards of accountability, scholarship, and theological reflection. Visionary theological schools will embrace this challenge.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Defining Reality and Saying "Thank You"

The remarks made by Cecil Sherman, former CBF coordinator, at the General Assembly in Memphis have elicited response from two groups. First, there are those who feel that his use of the term Holocaust in referring to the “former unpleasantness” within the Southern Baptist Convention was an overstatement that offends our Jewish friends and diminishes their suffering under the Third Reich. Second, there are those who are tired of hearing about that “former unpleasantness” and want to move on. Whatever I say about Dr. Sherman's remarks will offend someone, but here goes.

I agree with my friend and fellow blogger Danny Chisholm that although “no one was injured or killed” in the SBC turmoil, people did suffer. I personally knew (and know) people who were emotionally hurt, psychologically damaged, and economically harmed as a result of this conflict. Because of them, a new generation of leaders can hope for something better. We have to honor and respect the sacrifice of our founders in some way. If it means giving them a few minutes on the platform from time to time, I can live with it.

On the other hand, I do not voluntarily choose to dwell on the past. As the CBF movement, we should be past the point of defining ourselves in relationship to some other group. I believe we have something valid and viable to offer the Kingdom, so we should be looking forward and not back. The people who concern me most are not elder statesmen like Cecil Sherman, but current leaders who seem to think that we must continue to scratch the scab off an old wound in an effort to justify our existence. If we are depending for the growth of the CBF movement on churches and individuals who are “comparison shopping” between SBC and CBF, we are heading for a fall. As someone said, “When the horse is dead, get off.” We should be more interested in those young leaders who are giving up on Baptists entirely and moving on to other faith communities (many of them non-denominational). How are going to provide vital, creative ministries in which they can be involved? How are we going to encourage them in the ministries that they have discovered on their own?

Should a letter have been sent to Cecil Sherman about his remarks? Yes. Should it have been a press release by CBF communications? No. I think that Matthew 18:15-17 provides a healthy pattern for dealing with conflict in an ecclesial setting. To the best of my knowledge, this pattern was not followed. If I am wrong, please correct me. And since I know everyone who signed the letter, they WILL feel free to let me know if I am wrong!

Max De Pree said that the first job of a leader is to name reality. The second job is to say “Thank you.” When Cecil Sherman was asked to lead the fledgling CBF movement, he defined reality in that time and place and called moderate Baptists to act. Reality is not the same in 2008 as it was in 1990. Our new leaders and developing leaders are wise to define the reality we find ourselves in today, but we can still say “Thank you.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A New Approach to Theological Education

In the fall of 2005, Central Baptist Theological Seminary launched its “Teaching Church” initiative. This initiative is described on the seminary’s website in this way:

A new vision for making theological education more accessible is becoming a reality. Rather than requiring all learners to come to the historic campus in Kansas City for their ministry preparation, Central began offering classes toward degree and certificate programs at four sites - Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma;, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Central is using an apostolate model, which means that theological education will be more itinerant and more closely linked to congregational contexts.

Three years into this effort, two of those sites are alive and well—Milwaukee and Murfreesboro (and the seminary has relocated to a new site in Shawnee, a suburb of Kansas City). The way that these programs are administered and staffed continues to evolve, but the seminary is remaining true to the vision stated in the last sentence above. This vision has two key components.

First, theological education is brought to the students. Classes are taught by professors from the main campus in Shawnee or qualified adjunct professors from the area where the site is located.

Second, theological education is linked to congregational contexts. The second part is developing as the programs gain confidence and experience. Speaking on behalf of the site at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, all of our students are involved in congregational settings either as pastors, church staff members, or volunteer leaders in the local church. Practitioners from local churches have been guests in various classes addressing subjects such as new church starting, the emergent church, pastoral counseling, and worship. This will be even more evident as we begin offering our first Ministry Praxis (field education) class in the fall.

This “apostolate model” offers “just in time” training for called individuals who are already part of a local congregation. Although some students will seek out special assignments for the ministry praxis course, most will continue to work in settings where they are already invested in ministry. Isn’t this better than having to start from scratch in a setting where one has to learn the culture as well as the “family system” of a new congregation?

The model also offers expanded opportunities for lifelong learners. Several individuals at First Baptist, Murfreesboro, and other congregations have signed up to audit some classes for their own personal edification and Christian formation. This is good not only for them but their congregations as well.

I hope that we will take even more advantage of the congregational resources in Murfreesboro in the coming days as we work together to develop a new model of theological education for the 21st century.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Great State(s )of Tennessee

We have just completed the 18th General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Memphis. This assembly was publicized as the first CBF General Assembly held in Tennessee but that does not really tell the whole story.

To put things in perspective, let me provide a little excursion into Tennessee history, culture, and economics. When our family first moved to Tennessee in 1970, Winfield Dunn (from Memphis) had just been elected governor. The state had long promoted tourism with the slogan “Welcome to the three states of Tennessee.” It was the message one saw when first driving into the state. One of Dunn’s campaign initiatives (if not a promise) was to do away with the slogan and promote the unity of the state. So, the theme became “Welcome to the GREAT state of Tennessee.” Dunn’s motives may have been pure, but the initiative was doomed to failure.

There are three distinct parts of Tennessee; they are usually called “grand divisions.” Moving from west to east, the west portion is from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. The middle (not “central) division is from the Tennessee River to the time zone line marking the divide between central and Eastern Time zones. The eastern part of the state is from the time line to the North Carolina state line. Tennesseans have recognized this fact of life for years and organized accordingly. There were three Baptist conventions (one for each grand division) before there was a state-wide Baptist convention. Tennessee Baptist once had a college in each grand division and a hospital system in each. The coordinating council of the Tennessee CBF takes these divisions (along with clergy/laity, male/female) into account in recommending council members.

To oversimplify, west Tennessee is Memphis, the blues, cotton plantations, flat Delta land and now Fed Ex (oh, and I can't forget Elvis--although he came from Tupelo, Mississippi). Middle Tennessee is Nashville, country music, insurance companies, rolling hills, horses, and (more recently) Nissan and Saturn. East Tennessee is Knoxville and Chattanooga, tobacco, Oak Ridge, the Smoky Mountains, Appalachia and THE University of Tennessee (I told you it was an oversimplification). The point is that if you have been in Memphis, you have only experienced one part of the state. The same can be said for the middle and eastern portions as well. (Such divisions are undoubtedly true in other states as well, but I know Tennessee best.)

All of this is background to make the point that this General Assembly was not just a Tennessee meeting. It was a Mid-South meeting. Historically, Memphis has been a cultural and economic center not just for west Tennesseans, but for the citizens of north Mississippi and east Arkansas as well. The meeting this week would not have been possible without the leadership and participation of churches in Arkansas and Mississippi. CBF of Arkansas, CBF of Mississippi, and Tennessee CBF were all involved. The number of churches in Memphis that choose to identify in some way with the CBF movement are few and far between, so this cooperation across state lines was essential.

Even so, I have to point out that leaders from middle and east Tennessee took on significant leadership roles as well. Michael Smith of Murfreesboro headed up the worship team. Naomi Brown of Oak Ridge and Brian Johnson of Knoxville led the youth track. Phillip Moody of Tullahoma, along with a number of volunteers from middle Tennessee, Memphis, north Mississippi, and other locations, took on the arduous task of the children’s track.

The primary thesis of this little discourse is that old political and geographic realities often define our perspective and limit our opportunities. It should be clear that the interests and concerns of Baptists in the Mid-South—west Tennessee, east Arkansas, and north Mississippi—tend to be more alike than those of Baptists in east Tennessee (who may be somewhat more attuned to western Virginia, west North Carolina, or north Georgia concerns—depending on exactly where they live in east Tennessee).

If we took these common interests seriously and could overcome some prejudices, we might recognize and act on a new paradigm built on common interests rather than being divided by state lines. Is it possible that moderate Baptists in the Mid-South—who gravitate toward Memphis for their work, shopping, information and health care—might find ways to work together for Kingdom causes? (Maybe the fact that Elvis was born in Mississippi but found fame and fortune in Memphis could valid my argument in some way; but I digress.)

One concrete example of this type of cooperative is Olive Branch Baptist Fellowship in Olive Branch, Mississippi, just across the state line from Shelby County, Tennessee. This new church start has benefited from the support of CBF of Mississippi, Tennessee CBF and churches in Memphis. Trinity, Cordova; Second, Memphis; and First, Memphis, have all helped Chuck and Martha Strong and this growing congregation in north Mississippi. Both state CBF organizations receive mission contributions form the Olive Branch church.

I applaud the effort of Governor Dunn to provide a new vision for “the great state of Tennessee,” but his efforts collided with reality. Perhaps we need to recognize that it is time for moderate Baptists to face the reality of the Mid-South and organize accordingly.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The State of Women

At the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Baptist Women in Ministry will officially release its annual State of Women in Baptist Life Report. I have only scanned the report, but the message is clear: moderate Baptists talk a better game regarding women in ministry than we practice.

In recent days, I have personally observed one young woman, a recent seminary graduate, turn to a not-for-profit agency rather that work in a Baptist church. Another seasoned woman minister left Baptist life to serve in a church staff position in another denomination. I hear the pain of women seeking to justify their calls to ministry and struggling to overcome old stereotypes.

The report may say that things are better, but we still haven't caught the vision that God calls both women and men to serve the church by exercising their God-given gifts. The limitation on this calling are man-made not God-imposed. Certainly, we have a hard time imagining women in certain roles, such as the pastorate, because we haven't seen women in that role. We don't see women in that role because they aren't often given that opportunity. Who will break the cycle?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Table Fellowship Revisited

Isn’t it interesting that one of the key charges that Jesus’ detractors brought was, “This man received sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2)?

Table fellowship was a key part of Jesus’ ministry. He enjoyed the give and take of a dinner party, and he opened his table to all who would come. This was a radical statement in his day, and it often still is in ours.

As we stand at a point in history where we will see an African-American nominated for President of the United States, how many of us can think back to a time of “colored” water fountains, separate waiting rooms for black and white at the bus or train stations, and so-called “separate but equal” schools? There was a point in the South when blacks and whites would never sit down at a table together for a meal. It was unthinkable.

Since table fellowship was so central to the ministry of Jesus, perhaps it is in fellowship around the table in Emmaus that the two disciples who unknowingly been been walking with Jesus finally recognized the Lord. It is fitting that we end our state and national CBF meetings with the observance of communion. In that act, we are reminded that the table doesn’t belong to any particular group of Baptists or any particular type of Christian—it is the Lord’s Table. He invites all of us to it and that fellowship is blessed by the Spirit of God.

When we sit down across the table from someone in a church basement, a Starbucks, an Olive Garden, or a soup kitchen, we recognize a brother or sister made in the image of God. In such situations, the Spirit speaks.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

So long, farewell . . .

About three years ago, I submitted a proposal to the Great Commission Council (missions committee) of First Baptist, Murfreesboro, to undertake a new church start in a growing area on the west side of town. Today the bank account was closed, the website went dark, the insurance was cancelled, and a letter of appreciation was sent to those who were supportive of this effort by their participation and/or prayers.
I could spend a lot of time in analysis of why Trinity Baptist Church did not happen (and I have written a final evaluation of the effort). Today I celebrate one of the good things that came out of that effort--the home Bible study fellowship groups that were formed.
Three groups were functioning at one time or another. Each were hosted in homes and drew a respectable number of people. As you would expect, those who attended were like those who hosted. Older adults participated in a group hosted by a retired couple; young adults came to the group hosted by a young adult couple.
Real ministry took place in those groups. People prayed for and encouraged one another. Individual members were ministered to in various ways. In a real way, they were "church" to some people, if only for a short time.

If I were on a church staff, I would take a hard look at the potential for outreach and ministry through small Bible study groups, either in homes or in facilities away from the church campus. Some church leaders are afraid of such groups. The primary reason expressed is the difficulty of maintaining "quality" in the groups, but the operational word may really be "control." I think those folks ought to take a look at what is going on in the Sunday school classes within the walls of the church. The variety of teaching approaches is remarkable! Once a person is elected to the role of teacher, we place our trust in them and pray for the best!
Good things happen in small groups. We would do well to think of ways to encourage the development of such groups for community, ministry, and growth.

Friday, June 06, 2008

What is the Spirit Saying to the Churches?

I have spent this week in Richmond, Virginia, in a training conference sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health. Our teachers and facilitators, Beth Kennett and Chris Gambill, are committed professional church consultants, but they are also ministers who love the church (despite everything).

As we have talked this week about conflict, staff development, visioning and other topics, I have been reminded more than once that most issues in the life of a church are ultimately resolved by the Spirit of God. Several years ago, I heard Alan Roxburgh say, “The Spirit of God is among the people of God; therefore, the wisdom to address the challenges of witness and mission in a discontinuous environment exists among the people and needs to be called forth within each and every community.”

Most congregations have more resources available to them than they realize. These include gifted people, space, time, finances, and the Spirit of God. The challenge is to take the time to discern these resources before taking action.

The process we are learning emphasizes developing a climate that will encourage people to listen, hear, and attempt to understand each other and the Spirit. That is harder than it sounds! Such an approach takes commitment, patience, and openness. When it happens, one has stepped into a holy place where the unthinkable can happen.

(This is my 101st post. Where has the time gone? Thanks for your comments on these reflections that have encouraged and informed me.)