Speaking at a recent meeting of the PC(USA)’s Committee on Theological Education (COTE), Irizarry said that group is passionate about providing the leadership needed for a church lacking a common vision and mission.
“Even when seminaries are identified as progressive, there are students and graduates who are conservative and vice versa,” he said. “So there is something about theological education and institutions that makes space for conversation regardless of the ideological or theological identity of the institution.”
COTE consists of 13 pastors and laypersons elected by the General Assembly, the presidents or deans of the 10 PC(USA) seminaries and five other corresponding member school representatives.
When COTE met in Austin March 21-23, these advocates for theological education brainstormed ideas for their beleaguered church. On the agenda were two initiatives: to look at ways to connect financially struggling churches and ministry ideas with new seminary graduates; and to begin formulating a strategic vision for church leadership.
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On the challenge of matching graduates with ministries, Cynthia Campbell, task force chair and president of McCormick Seminary, said there are many mission fields “within the existing Presbyterian family” and the larger U.S. population.
“There are communities that need vibrant and effective congregations and some that need new places for people to be invited into the Gospel,” she said. “On the other hand, there is a cadre of recently graduated and in-seminary people who represent a significant amount of intellectual, spiritual and emotional talent; people who we, as a church, have called to seminary.
“We have educated them and they are now ready and available for service in the life of this church … Somehow as a denomination, we ought to be able to figure out what to do with this opportunity.”
Campbell said she hoped “the amazing people that are graduating from our seminaries are soon unleashed to help transform this church.”
Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and chair of COTE, echoed Campbell’s assessment.
“At the same moment when there is a lot of rhetoric of despair in the denomination,” he said, “I venture to suggest that maybe the finest, most highly qualified young pastors are being launched into the church — from all of our seminaries — that I have seen in a couple of generations.
“So there’s this kind of disconnect: you have these people who are edgy and well grounded and smart and able to navigate this culture stepping into the church at the same time that the church is just in another place.”
The task force discussed raising “investment innovation capital” to award to seminary graduates with creative ideas for ministry.
Already, mission opportunities are arising as presbyteries help congregations leave a legacy for new ministries when a closed-church property is sold. Some congregations are hosting new seminary graduates as pastoral residents and others are launching new ministries in multiple locations.
Landon Whitsitt, a Missouri pastor, COTE member and vice moderator of the 219th General Assembly called the conversation “thrilling.” To the question “Why does the church matter,” he said, it provides an answer: “Because we are willing to take risks for the betterment of people’s lives.”
Searching for a data-based strategy
COTE also convened a research and development task force, chaired by Auburn Seminary’s Katharine Rhodes Henderson, to mine research data for insights into ways theological schools can relate more effectively to the life of the church.
Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, ticked off present-day challenges revealed in the data: changing demographics and the impact of multiculturalism, the growing national category of “nones” (with respect to religious preference), relating to and engaging with “millenials,” “brand fatigue” and the church’s struggle with identity.
Blount suggested COTE could serve as aggregator, inviting and “listening to the constituencies within the church, organizing a process and helping the church itself look at a strategic vision for thinking about leadership.”
Carol Lytch, assistant executive director for the Association of Theological Schools, added, “We want to educate leaders for the future church.” The data compels COTE to listen to the church’s needs, then to help seminaries accordingly.
“We’re acknowledging how different the church is now,” she said.
RANDAL WHITTINGTON is director of communications at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.