Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Myth of Being Indispensable

While waiting for a flight at the airport, I used  my phone to send a message to  my wife, respond to a request to serve as a reference for a friend, and check the weather at my destination.  As I made a necessary visit before boarding, I noted a Bathroom attendant who was multitasking--cleaning up and taking what appeared to be a personal call at the same time.

I started thinking, "What did we do when we did not have cell phones to keep us connected 24/7?"  In reality, we did rather well.  

It's nice to be connected but this availability may well perpetuate the myth that somehow I am  indispensable.  If the world can't get in touch with me instantaneously, will things grind to a halt? I doubt it.

In the past, we might be out of touch with family and friends for days at a time.  Few of us have had the experience of founding father John Adams  who spent years in Europe separated from his beloved Abigal, but their experience shows us that marriage and family can survive separation.  Life went on.

I spent a year in Vietnam and communication with my wife was provided only by letter and a couple of phone calls.  This was not a happy situation, but each of us found we could make the necessary decisions of daily life without hourly communication. I hate to say it, but she got along without me very well!

What's my point?  Perhaps it would better if family, friends, and colleagues could not get in touch with us instantaneously.  They would make decisions for themselves and we would learn that we are not as important as we think we are.

In the meantime, I have a call to make.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Tales of exploration have always been exciting reading for me.  Whether the focus is on the discovery of new lands or surviving dangerous terrain, new challenges and trials bring out both the best and the worst in us.  We learn a lot about our humanity when we try something new.

In Call to Commitment, Elizabeth O’Connor writes,

“When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.”

Exploration and experimentation are things we ask clients to do in coaching.  Too often, we are burdened down not only by the cares of everyday life but the baggage we have accumulated over the years.  We have accepted what people have told us about our limitations, we have failed to learn positive lessons from both the successes and failures of life, and we spend more time looking at the cracks in the sidewalk than the expanse of the horizon. 

In exploration, all bets are off.  In the initial coaching conversation, I often encourage my coaching clients to “think blue sky”-- “If money were no problem, you had all the time you needed, and there were no health limitations or other obstacles, what would you do?”  As we begin to think about the various ways that they can address their growth area, a similar mindset helps.  What would you like to try that you haven’t before?  What are some new paths to consider?

Too often as individuals and as groups, we limit our options too quickly. We need both the opportunity and the sense of freedom to consider all of the possibilities out there.  In so doing, we make exciting discoveries.

Preparing a Few Good Women and Men for Ministry

We hear a lot these days that seminary graduates do not want to serve in the local church.  In its recent State of the Industry webinar, the Association of Theological Schools reported on the vocational intent of students following graduation.  Contrary to much anecdotal reporting, the report showed a large number of recent graduates who intend to serve in a congregation.

      According to the presenters, “More than 70 percent of all Master of Divinity graduates and almost 50 percent of professional Master of Arts indicated that they would be seeking or have already attained positions in local congregations. More than half of the MDiv students and 20 percent of the professional MA students intend to serve as pastors or associate pastors in local congregations.”

ATS saw an overall decline in head count enrollment last year of just over 11 percent.  Of course, this is across the board and differs by denomination, school, ethnicity, and other factors.  Despite this decline, perhaps those in seminary have become more intentional about church ministry.

 In past years, a number of students may have entered theological education seeking to “find their path.”  It may well be that present students have already found that path, especially since many are already in congregational ministry roles, and have a clearer vision of their vocation.  Again, the increasing age of seminary students and the accessibility of online education may factor into this.

While recognizing that theological education can provide preparation for a number of vocations including but not limited to community and social work settings, teaching, institutional chaplaincies, further graduate study, counseling, and a number of entrepreneurial ministries, seminaries must continue to focus on the formation of students for congregational ministry.

This will be more challenging as the cost of theological education grows and many traditional funders such as denominations and other judicatories are becoming less engaged.  Even so, the churches need the seminaries to provide their future leaders.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Online Education is Here to Stay

The Association of Theological Schools is made up of over 270 graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada.  It provides accreditation for these schools based on very strict criteria.  ATS recently presented a State of the Industry webinar that provided an overview of enrollment, students, faculty, and finances at member schools.

There were a few surprises in the report but there was validation of some ideas that have been circulating based primarily on observation and anecdotes.  One of the more interesting findings related to a comparison of student satisfaction between “main campus or traditional daytime students” and “majority online students.”

In recent years, many theological schools have been moving more of the content of their degree programs online.  This has certainly been the case with Central Baptist Theological Seminary, the institution that provides me the opportunity to teach online, at the Nashville site, and at the main campus in Shawnee.

The ATS staff member making the report noted, “When students were asked how effective their education had been, they rated many areas highly—but then they were graduating when they completed the questionnaire, and may have been a bit euphoric!” The presenter went on the compare residential and online learners:

      “When asked about areas of personal growth . . . graduates who had completed most or all of their work online rated their personal growth in several areas slightly higher than graduates who had completed most of their work on campus. These ratings are not significantly different, but the difference is nonetheless interesting. Was it because online students were older? Was it because they had wanted to go to seminary for a long time and finally were able to? Was it because they had a better educational experience? We don’t yet know.”

Online students evaluated several factors of their education slightly higher than residential students did--enthusiasm for learning, respect for my own religious tradition, self-knowledge, self-confidence, self-discipline and focus, and trust in God.  Perhaps the most important finding was that there was little difference between residential students and online students in their evaluation of their educational experiences.

Certainly, differences in the age, level of motivation, and ministry involvement of those taking online classes may make a factor.  Even so, the findings would seem to validate the decision of the ATS Commission on Accrediting’s recent decision to increase the amount of study students can complete primarily online.

As Central Seminary begins a new curriculum that offers students a great deal of flexibility about when and where they take classes, we are acknowledging that online education—or “technologically enhanced education”--will play a major role in forming future leaders for the churches,  judicatories, and parachurch ministries.  This new approach certainly seems to be filling a need in an effective way.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Gathered and Scattered

“Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.  He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach  and to have authority to drive out demons.”—Mark 3:13-15, NIV

When my pastor Noel Schoonmaker preached on this passage about Jesus calling the disciples, he pointed out, “This roster did not have a single all-star on it.” They were picked not because of who they were but because of whom they were called to serve.  Despite their limitations, Jesus selected this diverse and sometimes clueless group to be in the vanguard of the Kingdom of God.

Noel also emphasized the complementary nature of the relationship to which these men were called.  They were called to be with Christ and to be his disciples, but they were also called to be on mission for Christ and be apostles or “sent ones.”  What they learned from Jesus was not to be kept to themselves but shared with others.

This is a pattern that contemporary disciples often forget.  We gather to learn, worship, and encourage one another, but then we are to go out into world and carry the message of Christ wherever we happen to be during the week.

This is one of those “both/and” situations we find often in the scriptures.  Unless both actions are taken—being gathered and being scattered—something is missing. When I was campus minister at Mississippi State University, we adopted this mission phrase:  “To know Him and to make Him known.”  This is what the church is all about.