Monday, September 30, 2013

Theological Education and Diversity

Last year I was part of a discussion around the book Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination prepared by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  This in-depth study addressed the formation of clergy from the standpoint of the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant (including Evangelical) traditions.  The book raises some challenging questions, but since it was written in 2006 based on field research in the years before, its picture of theological education is already dated in many ways.

One of the issues addressed which is still relevant and has become even more critical in recent years is diversity. The authors comment, “The increasing diversity of students in programs of clergy education has significantly challenged the ethos and mission of seminary education during the past forty years.” (p. 54) This diversity includes the greater involvement of women (both as students and faculty), historically marginalized (ethnically and racially) students, older students, and the variety of religious traditions (or lack thereof) within a student body.

If a seminary professor really wants to connect the subject matter with the student, then he or she   must consider how to provide spaces for dialogue while not abdicating teaching goals. Communication is a two way enterprise.  Just because I say something does not mean that you understand me, especially if we come from widely divergent cultural, racial, social, or ethnic perspectives. 

I have experienced this challenge myself as an adjunct professor.  I have particularly enjoyed the dialogue with African-American clergy in class.  They bring a rich, layered, and alternative point of view to many discussions.  Often when have I talked about the way that things are done in the church, I have heard the response, “That’s not how it’s done in our church.”  This has taught me a great deal, including some humility.

I have learned much about sensitivity from the women in my classes.  While some are young adults, most women that I have taught are mid-career people who grew up in a church culture where their gifts and insights were not greatly valued.  With the hope for a new way of doing things comes a great deal of frustration if not anger.

Another challenge is dealing with the various vocational expectations of students. In addition to the varied types of ministry goals represented in a classroom (pastor, youth minister, Christian formation minister, etc.), there are those who are not seeking ministry preparation but plan to pursue an academic career.  Others are committed to starting new ministries that will be faith-based but not necessarily church-sponsored.  Some are lay people who have no plans to be ordained but simply want to deepen their spiritual lives.

The authors of Educating Clergy ask, “[T]o what extent do seminaries accommodate—in the institutional culture, public mission, and teaching practices—the presence of differences among students?” (p. 58) There are no easy answers to this question but it is a wonderful opportunity for mutual learning.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Blogging as a Discipline

Like you, I sometimes don’t know when to say “No.”  As a result my calendar for September has been pretty packed.  All of the scheduled activities have been good things, but they have required a lot of my time and attention. The thing that has suffered most is my regular posting of blogs.

There some things that can be done in small blocks of time that become available in one’s daily schedule.  For me, blogging is not one of those.  Whether it appears so or not, blogging is a creative exercise for me and I like the time I spend writing to be as open-ended and unstructured as possible.  I have lacked some of those big blocks of time recently, so my blogging this month has been erratic.

I have learned several things from this “dry spell.”

First, I not only enjoy writing but it is almost a spiritual discipline like contemplative prayer.  To practice both one must be intentional, open, and unhurried.  Both provide a sense of refreshment and being centered.

Second, if I don’t blog about an idea immediately, it becomes stale. Certainly, I make notes about ideas or situations that intrigue me, but if I don’t reflect on those things and write about them within a day, they have lost their spontaneity and freshness.

Third, although others are kind enough to both read my blogs and pass them on to others, I write primarily for myself and not for a particular constituency. This is a way for me to process ideas and opportunities.  Writing is a mental exercise that keeps me reflecting, critiquing and playing with words and ideas.

I hope to get back on track during the next couple of weeks.  I need the discipline.

Book Review: “Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World”

Until recent years, Dwight D. Eisenhower was not held in high regard as a President of the United States.  Sandwiched between the colorful Harry S. Truman and the charismatic John F. Kennedy, “Ike” was often dismissed as an affable grandfather who spent more time playing golf than governing.  In "Ike's Bluff", historian Evan Thomas pursues the revisionist view of the Eisenhower administration disclosing that a lot more was going on under the surface than the public realized.

Those who did not live during the fifties cannot really grasp the fear and paranoia that were part of that era.  While the economy was booming as WWII veterans established their families, found good jobs, and bought homes in suburbia, the world lived under the threat of nuclear warfare and possible annihilation.  Americans feared the Soviets and demagogues (such as Joseph McCarthy) fed this fear with the idea that there were Communists in every government agency.  At the same time, Thomas argues that the Soviets were just as fearful of the United States and any Western military, economic, or political advantage.
Thomas presents a good case that the United States was never really in any great danger from the Soviet Union.   America always had more nuclear bombs and strike capability than the Russians and, due to the U-2 spy plane flights, Eisenhower knew this but could not disclose it the public.  On the other hand, the Russians got an early jump in heavy lift missile capability in the mid-50s, and this caused Ike to continually seek nuclear disarmament negotiations to diminish a possible nuclear war.

The “bluff” that Thomas uses in his title refers to the way that Eisenhower used the nuclear capability of the United States to avoid war.   Policy makers went back and forth on whether the nuclear option was too horrible to contemplate or a strategic advantage which should be used if necessary.  Ike’s bluff was that he never indicated which option he embraced.  Like the poker player that he was, he did not show anyone, even his closest advisors, the cards he was prepared to play.  Thomas argues that Eisenhower’s strategy kept the possible use of nuclear weapons in play and the Russians at bay (and the Americans as the preeminent world power).
Thomas gives us a total picture of Eisenhower as a man and a leader.  He had a terrible temper despite his affable public face, he internalized much of his stress leading to a number of medical crises, and he thought a great deal of his own leadership ability.  Ike was a loyal friend, but he tolerated some associates who got him and the nation in difficult situations. 

The greatest insight into the character of Eisenhower that Thomas provides was Ike’s fear of a “garrison state” which devoted all of its resources to war or preparation for war.  As a military leader, he realized that more is never enough for the generals and admirals!

Late in his Presidency, Ike delivered a speech in which he warned of the growth of the “military-industrial complex” devoted to building bigger and more expensive weapons.  One friend noted that the President really wanted to warn of the “congressional-military-industrial complex” but he feared alienating members of his own party.  The greatest failure of the Eisenhower Presidency was an inability to rein in excessive expenditures for military projects.

Although Eisenhower had all the vices and virtues that come with a military career, he was committed to providing a positive public example for the nation.  From reading Thomas, I perceive a man who believed first in his country, second in himself, and only then in God.
Like all Presidents, Ike had his successes and his failures, but the public often misunderstood which were which!  Thomas attempts to clarify the reality.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

One Generation Away from Extinction

When I was a college student, I heard someone say, “The church is always one generation away from extinction.”  As I remember this was intended to encourage us to be evangelistic in sharing our faith.  The idea is that God has no grandchildren, only children who have personally chosen to follow God.  If new children or believers are not birthed in each generation, then there will not be a “people of God.”

The challenge came to mind as I have read (and contributed to) some recent blogs related to reaching millennials for the church.  These discussions cover the spectrum: how do we engage young adults in the church, what is negotiable and what is not in the tenets of our faith, what type of worship attracts millennials, and does a church’s stance on social issues impact the involvement of this coveted group?

Although most see this discussion in a positive light, I have heard some comments that run along this theme:  “Why should we adapt in order to reach these people? Why can’t they accept the church and the Christian faith as it is?  Why should we accommodate our practices and beliefs for them?”

I  respond to this in several ways.

First, the church has always been in the process of framing its mission and message to reach those on the outside.  Paul used his education to engage the Greco-Roman culture with the truth of the Gospel.  Francis and Benedict developed movements within the church that called everyone, but especially young people, to a higher level of commitment.  John and Charles Wesley launched a reform movement within the Anglican Church that used innovative methods such as small groups and music to reach the unchurched.  If we do not find ways to communicate the Gospel in our culture, the church will stagnate and falter.

Second, the church takes on the role of the servant or, in the words of D. T. Niles, “One beggar telling another where he found bread,” because this is what Jesus did.  He humbled himself, accommodating himself to a hostile, hurting world in order to share the message of redemption.  We reach out to millennials, even those who are disinterested or antagonistic, because this is what Christians do.

Third, the church is willing to engage millennials—both churched and unchurched—because we believe in the mission Dei, the mission in which God has invited us to become a part.  The task is bigger than our abilities, therefore we trust in God for the wisdom and ability to pursue it.  By doing so, we follow Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church].” (Matthew 16:18, KJV)
What a challenge for those who call ourselves God’s people!

Monday, September 02, 2013

Strength in Community

This past week, our local newspaper posted a question on Facebook related to defunding Obamacare.  On Saturday, they printed some of the responses.  This one (unedited) got my attention:

“I don’t use any government ‘services’ anyway.  I found this wonderful thing I call self-responsibility.  I highly suggest it.”

How remarkable!  Here is a person who does not drive on streets and highways paid for by tax dollars, will let his house burn to the ground rather than call the government-run fire department, and would not call the tax-paid police force if he were the victim of crime.  Probably did not attend the “government schools,” either.   Must be a very lonely and difficult life.

Sarcasm aside, the reality is that surviving in any society without both helping others and depending upon others would be very difficult if not impossible.  By living in a nation state, we enter into a social contract with our fellow citizens and share the responsibility of maintaining a reasonably civilized society for everyone.

Within that society, people have the freedom to organize.  You might think that I am going to apply this to churches, but on this Labor Day I am reflecting on the labor movement in the United States.  Labor unions have been guilty of abuse and deceit (like any other human entity) but the ability to organize and negotiate (and sometimes demand) benefits from employers has shaped our nation and improved conditions for millions of people.

Unions are not as significant or influential as they once were, but they made a difference in the lives of many workers and their families.  My father was a member of a union.  When I was growing up, the union would sometimes choose to strike—stop work--to get a better “deal” from the company.  Those were not pleasant times in our home, but we understood that it was necessary in order to improve our circumstances.

On this Labor Day, I am grateful that we have the freedom to work alongside others, share the burdens of life, and make a better place for everyone.  It is not always easy but it is not lonely.