Tag Archives: seminary

When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.
An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

We’re All Theologians: A Response to Donald Miller

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I count myself a fan of Donald Miller. I am particularly evangelical about Blue Like Jazz. I think the church needs his voice: a Christian able to laugh at Christianity, who is non-ideological, and yet deeply committed to Jesus. But he lost me in a recent column which concluded:

“Let me ask you this: Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?

Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the church. I’m not kidding; you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.”

His basic premise: the church is led by scholars, and would be better off led by plumbers.

In some ways, this is patently false. Most church leadership, as I have experienced it, is held by people who have shown themselves to be effective leaders. Often times, these folks are not the most scholarly, but (hopefully) the most effective.

This is also indicative of something I thought Miller would have rejected from his fundamentalist background: anti-intellectualism. Granted, his is a more friendly, postmodern form, but at least here he seems to have an anti-scholarly bent with which fundamentalists of the early 20th century would be sympathetic.

In another sense, he is correct: “professional” church people and new Christians, clergy and laity, both have roles to play in church leadership. In fact, one of the most important, and oft neglected roles of the scholar-pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”  (Eph. 4:12) These saints would include plumbers and lawyers and housewives and grandfathers.

Donald Miller may not care much for fights about doctrine, but there will be doctrine regardless of whether or not it is discussed or named as such. This is one of the fundamental lies of the “non-denominational” church movement: there’s no such thing as untraditioned (Miller might prefer un-storied) Christianity. It never has been “just the Bible and God’s people” and never will be. The fact that most Christians don’t know the megachurch they are attending is functionally baptist (most practice believer’s baptism and local church autonomy), and these churches can get away with the claim, is evidence not of too much scholarship but of too little.

All Christians are theologians. In the Christian East, there’s an old saying: “the one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is one who prays.” Not all Christians are professional scholars (thanks be to God), but we are called both to think through and practice the faith. To pit these against each other is a false dichotomy, for they are mutually reinforcing.

So study theology. There is a good case to be made that even atheists should study theology; how much more should God’s people! Dig into the doctrine. Don’t accept just whatever your pastor or parents or “Christian” bookstore claim. Dig deep. Think. Pray. Wrestle.

Every Christian is a theologian; the question is, are we good theologians?

A friendly P.S.:

My own UMC denomination was not formed by an “academic” over doctrine, but over practice. Wesley began an evangelical order within the Anglican Church to reach those that were not being reached, through methods that were being successful in other parts of the Body of Christ. Was he doctrinal? You bet. But this fed his missional drive to all the people that the Anglicans seemed content to leave in the dust. This story brought to you by…scholars. :)

 

P.P.S.:

The Miller article is not as new as I initially thought. My bad! But better late than never.

Thoughts Upon Ordination

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United Methodists don’t do this as part of the Ordination rite, but I kind of wish we did…

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

Paul, 2 Timothy 1:6

As I went through last week’s Annual Conference (the yearly gathering of United Methodists from a particular geographic area, in my case Western North Carolina – aka the best Annual Conference), I was continually reminded of the many people, places, and experiences that were important during my journey towards ordained ministry.

I was reminded especially of:

  • Karen, who invited me to Youth Disciple;
  • Gloria, my youth pastor, who made sure I felt welcomed even though I didn’t know a lot of the kids in the group; she tried to tell me I was going to be a pastor years before I even began to study matters of faith and theology;
  • Marc, who showed me the importance of living the faithfulness and trust that we proclaim as pastors;
  • Phillip, who introduced me to “the process,” and walked with me when I stumbled;
  • College professors like Warlick and Norwood and Akinade, who helped me learn that there were other ways to be Christian than being a narrow-minded fundamentalist;
  • Dr. Stoneking, who was wise enough to advise me to pursue an M.Div at a place that taught me to think with the Church rather than outside of or against her;
  • Seminary faculty like Smith and Campbell, who taught me to think deeply about the Christian faith while not treating their students like machines on an assembly line;
  • Drew and Kirk and Mike, who taught me the day-to-day of work of ministry in its pure, unvarnished beauty.  They taught me to love the local church, in/through/with/despite its failures;
  • Mike, who told me I could be a pastor when I wasn’t remotely convinced;
  • Dr. Phillips, a professor who played a pastor when necessary;
  • My parents, who have been my cheerleaders the whole way, and told me from a young age – with no evidence to speak of – that I was a leader;
  • Brittany, who has supported me more kindly than I deserve, even though she often loses out to the vocation. She has carried me through the valleys and kept me from being conceited on the mountaintops.

Most of all, I found myself continually marveling at the Triune God for his bounteous, unending, surprising grace.  His strange, unmerited call is the chief reason I now find myself as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. That grace was mediated to me through various means – worship, prayer, sacrament, service – and the people and places that have graced my journey.  Thanks be to God.

Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

-Sirach 2:1

Taking on UMC ordination practices is all the rage.  I appreciated my pal John Meunier’s thoughts about the ordination process, and I’ve been following Jeremy Smith’s investigative blogging about young clergy falling out of the ordination track with interest.

All this has me wondering: Jim Collins has argued that great organizations are Great By Choice.  I wonder if our ordination system is Cumbersome By Design?

There was much discussion last General Conference about simplifying the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in the UMC.  Not long ago, the Book of Discipline was changed so that Annual Conferences could choose to ordain after a two-year full-time ministry “residency” rather than the previously required three years.  My own AC is one of the few that stuck with three years (though, to be fair, neighboring conferences seem to have found other ways to gum up the process that more than make up for the change).

But the infamy of ‘The Process’ (as many of us affectionately refer to the ordination gauntlet) is not only due to the time involved. Yes, a minimum 9 years of training (undergrad, seminary, ministry “residency”) before one is fully accredited is daunting.  But in the meantime, there are a plethora of smaller steps: mental health evaluations, local church and district gatekeeping, required coursework (sometimes seminary curricula and conference requirements clash), reams of paperwork, vetting, District Superintendent and SPRC evaluations, culminating in a two-stage paper-writing & (usually) interview process where one is judged on criteria that are anything but objective. Think about it: How do you define effective preaching? Which forms of Wesleyan theology are acceptable?

Needless to say, I’m glad to be (almost) done.

But does that mean all of this should be made easier streamlined to encourage more young people to enter ordained ministry?  I’m not so sure.  Pastors’ work is often ambiguous and difficult, the relational and organizational systems of our churches and communities are highly complex, and being agents for change and growth means fighting rudeness, apathy, and roadblocks at every turn.  Welcome to leadership.

In that sense, then, ‘The Process’ just might perfectly prepare ordinands for the world of the church: a world where good deeds are punished, where everything is not simple, fast, or fair, and which requires a surprising level of personal fortitude.

Does that mean everything is perfect? No.

‘The Process’ too often becomes a forum for personal vendettas and agendas.  Many people are dangerous with a little bit of power and unfortunately they know how to gain it.  Too often, as I have experienced, upper-echelon clergy in these settings are unwilling to police their own and put a stop to borderline-abuse of ordination candidates.  Stories abound; if you don’t believe me, ask around.  Ordination should not be an easy thing, but it should not be hazing either. There must be systems in place that guard against such maltreatment.

Does an extensive and laborious process guarantee the quality of those who get through it? No.

Like any other method of vetting, there are people who get through who are quite gifted and talented, and some who aren’t.  There are brilliant young clergy who are held up needlessly (and some drop out), and people who get through who should never be in any kind of leadership position.  I know PHDs in theology who have been held up by theology committees, and theological n00bs who have sailed through.  Systems are made of people, and as such no system will be perfect.  I have friends who absolutely should be on stage with me this year, and their absence makes my presence a near-farce.  That probably happens every year in every conference.

I have no illusions that everything is right in the world of ‘The Process’.  But just maybe the difficulty does us a favor.  Perhaps we are not well-prepared for church leadership by administrative pats on the back.  Perhaps the proper response to a “crisis” or “exodus” of young clergy is not to make ordination as simple as starting a Pinterest account.  ‘The Process’ as currently arranged in many parts of the denomination will prepare us well for a future that is difficult but promising, ministry settings that are often unfair but sometimes grace-filled, and systems that are complex and flawed but also full of people doing their best for God.

“Systems are designed to give you the results you are getting right now,” we are often told.  Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.

ImageP.S. I understand that, at its best, the ordination process is designed to be a holistic formation for effective ministry, and not merely a series of “hoops” through which to jump.  In that sense, it is not entirely satisfying to speak of the transition to set-apart ministry merely as a “process” or something to get “through.”  While I appreciate that sentiment and welcome efforts to change those tendencies, I have described it as I experienced it, and not as it exists ideally.  Please share with me places where your own experience is either similar to or divergent from my own.  May God bless his church, whom “the gates of hell will not overcome.” (Matthew 16:18)

Thought for the Day: How the 1% Have Helped Me

Short and sweet (or bitter, depending on which side of the Marx/Smith divide you fall on):

My seminary education would not have been possible without the 1%.  I went to Duke Divinity School, a part of Duke University, which of course was built on a tobacco fortune.  There is still massive wealth associated with the University; like it or not, such institutions, no matter how high their purpose or how much their professors despise the accumulation of wealth, rely on the highest wage-earners and their philanthropy.  As Dave Ramsey recently pointed out, the top 1% also give a vast majority of the charitable donations in America.

You can’t love the milk and hate the cow: they are connected.  Inextricably.  I’ve found it troubling that so many of my fellow pastors – whose seminaries, churches attended and churches served relied heavily on the generosity of those who made enough to give a lot – have bought into the OWS ideology utterly hook, line, and sinker.  You can hate the system all you want to, but many of you, like me, have benefited from it in innumerable ways.  To pretend otherwise in fits of pious grandstanding is nothing short of dangerously naive.

“Don’t let them take your Jesus…”: Education and Fundamentalism

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…a good illustration of what many fundamentalists think happens to young Christians who go off to “dangerous” non-Christian schools...

I keep meeting more and more pastors with the same story.  It goes something like this:

-Narrow, fundamentalist upringing

-Little exposure to the outside world and/or culture(s)

-Strongly defensive of values received from family of origin and/or church community

-Goes off to college or seminary, and gets “the speech”…

Here is “the speech”:

“You gotta watch out.  Don’t go off to school and let these liberal professors question your faith.  They are all just a bunch of atheists, and they’ll try to make you doubt the Lord.  Remember what WE taught you and hold fast.  Don’t let them take your Jesus!” (1)

I think speeches like this precipitate a lot of young people going off to fundamentalist-oriented colleges and seminaries instead of risking exposure to ideas and people different than those with whom they are raised.  Not that I see no value in Christian education.  I am the product of a great deal of such (pricey) education.

For me, the scary thought is being born into, raised, and educated solely within a fundamentalist environment.  I have dear friends – great people – who spent all of their childhood and adolescence within a fundamentalist Baptist milieu and then went off to a college that would do nothing but reinforce all of their stereotypes.  I find this sad.

As for education “taking your Jesus”…well, there is probably an element of truth to that.  I think it is a vastly overblown narrative in evangelical circles, but there is a kernel of real experience there.  Many secular departments of religion are filled with people for whom Christianity is a mere intellectual excercise, a field of study devoid of personal content or value.  Or, even worse, you find people like Bart Ehrman: ex-fundamentalists who seem to relish challenging the fragile worldviews of undergrads who strongly believe in a faith that they do not know is a house of cards.  This is the equivalent of Dan Gable wrestling 8th-graders.

Consider this an extension of my previous piece on picking a seminary: a Christian environment is a good thing, if done well.  By ‘well’, we mean Christian in the CS Lewis sense: “mere” Christianity.  Christianity defined broadly, orthodox and ecumenical, in touch with the deepest streams of the Church tradition and yet interested in living out that tradition in the present.  Such a place will not “take your Jesus,” but it should enliven your faith, deepen it,  and broaden.  Challenge it? Yes, but in the sense of “iron sharpening iron.”  No faith is true unless tested and refined.  ‘

The difference between a Bart Ehrman doing that and a Christian mentor doing so is analogous to the difference between a stabbing and a surgery: one uses a knife, the other a scalpel.  One’s intent is to destroy, the other is to help.  It makes all the difference in the world.  I am continually thankful to my own mentors who guided me, sometimes kicking and screaming, from fundamentalism to Christianity.

1. Adapted from a version of “the speech” that I received from various folks upon learning that I was going to seminary at Duke.  None of them, of course, had the theological acumen to realize the irony of this.  Now I can go back and tell them, proudly, “I am so anti-liberal that I am postliberal!”  Of course, this is funny only to a bookish elite.  Props to George Lindbeck!

Duke & Notre Dame Ranked #1

…places to study theology according to Creighton University professor R.R. Reno.  Hurray!  More reason for Dukies like me to be less than humble.  (I’m seeking help, I promise).

He is open about his own biases, mind you.  It’s worth pointing out that he studied at Yale under many of the founders of the postliberal school that is so strong at Duke.  Nevertheless, according to his criteria, these choices make sense.  The tying of spiritual formation (and, more broadly,  a sense of the Church’s vocation) to academic rigor disqualifies many schools off the bat.  Places like Harvard may have a major name, but their Christian identity went out the window years ago.  Thus,

A program in theology is worth undertaking only if it includes the possibility of a spiritual formation that complements intellectual formation. That spiritual formation may, perhaps, be only latent, perhaps only partial, perhaps emerging from fellow students rather than from official goals. But it must be a real possibility.

Duke, he says, has a stronger degree of faculty unity and a sense of group identity, whereas Notre Dame has a better relationship with the larger university. (This strikes me as fair; during my time at Duke I was not once encouraged to take courses outside the seminary, which is common at many other schools of theology).  And the winners are:

And what about specific programs? Here is my crib sheet—a necessarily imperfect and idiosyncratic ranking of graduate programs. I’ll begin by cheating. I’ve ranked two schools in the number-one spot: Duke and Notre Dame. They have different strengths. Duke projects a stronger corporate personality, while Notre Dame offers an overall academic environment more profoundly and extensively sympathetic to the intellectual significance of Christian faith.

A Methodist institution, Duke features some of the bright lights of Protestant theology: Stanley Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, Jeremy Begbie, Amy Laura Hall, and J. Cameron Carter. Reinhard Hütter is a Lutheran turned Catholic, and his work moves in a strongly Scholastic direction. Paul Griffiths, another Catholic professor, is a polymath who combines a remarkable plasticity of mind with a vigorous defense of orthodoxy.

Out of defense, I must point out that my favorite Duke professors were left off his list!  Warren Smith is an amazing lecturer and brilliant scholar on all things related to the Church Fathers.  Likewise, I greatly enjoyed my courses with Douglas Campbell, a controversial and cutting edge Paul scholar who takes himself more lightly than most scholars at places like Duke.  These were my two favorites.  Of course, Hauerwas, Hays, and Wainwright are better known – and rightly so.  I loved the one course I got to have with Wainwright.

As for Notre Dame?  Well, let’s just say the Catholics have their #1 and we Protestants can have Duke.  Fair enough?

Postscript 1:

What about Orthodox seminaries?  I daresay they are probably more rigorous about spiritual formation that any of the schools mentioned above.  But I don’t know enough Orthodox theologians to even begin to think about where good Orthodox scholarship is done.

Postscript 2:

R.R. Reno’s Heroism and the Christian Life is a wonderful book worth your time, especially for anyone who claims nonchalantly that Christianity “isn’t heroic” in the classical sense.

Postscript 3:

Is Duke really a Methodist seminary?  As a Methodist pastor and graduate of Duke Divinity, I think this is a debatable question.

Fail of the day: theologians and the economy

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My generation coined a great phrase: the “epic fail.” Though it is not intellectual enough, I can think of no better way to put a theological affirmation by NC Triangle-area theologians relating to recent economic trends; link to statement here - link to Christian Century story here.

This won’t be an exhaustive examination of the statement, but just a run down of what annoys me the most.  There is a particular focus on what they see as “unbiblical” usury practices.  Is America now Israel?  I can see how the norms of Mosaic law *may* be important for contemporary Christians and Jews, but do they really think Bank of America is going to care about the year of Jubilee?

Most interestingly, the statement wastes a lot of ink telling us that usury is condemned left, right, and sideways in the Bible, and then go on to say it should only be limited to 10 percent! If usury is an affront to God, why allow it at all?  Of course, the same logic says “abortion is horrible, but a million a year is acceptable.”  (To be precise, it is 45 million legal abortions since 1973)

I had classes with several of the signatories.  I only bring this up because the writing in this statement is so basic, so insufferably banal that I shutter to think what grade it would have garnered in one of their seminars.  Here’s an example:

To get out of the current mess, we will need an economic reform which acknowledges our mutual dependence and obligations and turns aside from the way of selfish individualism and competition for status and conspicuous wealth. What kind of an economic recovery leaves giant banks standing while the average worker’s life gets harder and harder? It is not an economic recovery when billions can bail out executive jobs but nothing can bail out the rest of the jobs. There is not justice when everyone’s tax dollars can pay off banks’ bad debts, but the average taxpaying citizens are left on their own to drown in their debts. Debt relief for millionaires and homelessness for working people—that’s not the kind of economy we believe in.

Ugh.  This is the result of dozens of of PHDs working together? Not encouraging.  Bad writing; bad economics; bad theology.

Further questions: What do professional theologians know about the “average worker” (if there is such a thing)?  How much debt are the students at their respective seminaries going to incur getting their education??

Oh, and economic justice?  Whose justice?

As economist Thomas Sowell writes,


One of the few subjects on which we all seem to agree is the need for justice.  But our agreement is only seeming because we mean such different things by the same word.  Whatever moral principle each of us believes in, we call justice.  This is especially so today, when so many advocate what they call “social justice” [or "economic justice"]  – often with great passion, but with no definition. (The Quest for Cosmic Justice, p. 3)

Jesus also told us that the poor will always be with us.  Some no doubt due to systemic injustices; some to misfortune; some to prodigality and/or laziness.  Yes, some interest rates are remarkably high.  But no one forces you to take out a loan.  I’ve torn up many credit cards over the years, especially during college.  Yes, Christians should be concerned for the poor.  Is the best way to do this picketing huge multinational banks? Doubtful.  Should theologians be writing our economic policies?

Perhaps – but not until Christ returns in glory.