Think of a small Presbyterian congregation — there are so many — being served by a part-time pastor or a commissioned ruling elder.
Or by no pastoral staff at all.
Because of its mission outreach and relationships built in the community, the congregation has folks wanting to join. Who’s going to teach the new members class? And what do some fundamental Christian teachings actually mean?
What is grace?
What is sin?
What does it mean to name Jesus as Lord and Savior, as new members are asked to do?
Thanks to a collaboration led by Landon Whitsitt, executive and stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America, congregations now have a new, free, online resource to use for new member classes to answer questions such as these — and as of July 1 will have modules to use for training ruling elders and deacons as well. Known as Theocademy (theocademy.com), these video resources and accompanying study guides are available at no cost online and feature Presbyterian pastors and seminary professors speaking in segments running roughly 10 to 13 minutes long.
“Theocademy is a way for Presbyterians to form their faith anytime, anywhere,” the Theocademy website states. “Drawing on the vast gifts of our denomination, Theocademy wants to provide members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with the finest theological education they can get short of attending one of our 10 seminaries.”
Already, the response has been “unreal,” with about 10,000 visits to the website in the first week, Whitsitt said in an interview. “This is moving faster than I ever thought it would. People are so very excited,” and they are saying, “This is so needed in our church.” Whitsitt has already been approached about expanding Theocademy — with the idea of offering modules on stewardship and generosity; the Heidelberg Catechism; an introduction to the Old and New Testaments; the gospel of Mark; and more.
Whitsitt wants to “get back to the space where the members of our churches knew what they were talking about in a really deep way” theologically. And seminary professors “are always looking for ways to take what they’re teaching and get it into the hands of the women and men who populate our pews. They’ve been called to teach pastors primarily … But they so badly want that joy to be communicated to the church.”
The idea for Theocademy converged from a number of sources — including the insistence of Cynthia Bolbach, the late General Assembly moderator, that the PC(USA) needs a cadre of strong, well-trained ruling elders. The Committee on Theological Education, on which Whitsitt formerly served, had also discussed the need for both consistency and quality in training commissioned ruling elders.
On his own, Whitsitt had begun exploring ways for using the internet as an aggregating force for knowledge — writing a book called “Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All.”
And models for sharing ideas and wisdom were popping up everywhere — from the popular TED talks (“talks to stir your curiosity”) to Khan Academy, which provides free online lessons for students on everything from physics to art history.
Theocademy so far has three additional financial sponsors in addition to the Synod of Mid- America — the Synod of Lincoln Trails; the Synod of Lakes and Prairies; and Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation, Whitsitt said.
The lessons for ruling elders and deacons, which should be available in July, are built around the ordination and installation questions used for those offices. Already available are five sessions for training new members, with the content based on the three questions that those joining Presbyterian churches are asked to affirm.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from the second video, “Wicked Bad,” in which Whitsitt and James Ayers, renewal pastor of Bethlehem Presbyterian church in Wichita, Kansas, discuss what’s meant when new members are asked: “Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?”
Whitsitt spoke of the “nagging feeling” he often has that he didn’t do what he knew he should do. “Every day I wish that I could go back and do some things better.”
Most people don’t grow up announcing, “I want to be evil,” Ayers said. But “the way you live your days is the way you live your life” — the cumulative impact of those small decisions can take people in directions that surprise them, both personally and as a society.
Often, “it’s me versus me,” Ayers said. “It’s me saying ‘I want to do what’s right,’ and it’s me saying ‘I want to do this thing that time and again I’ve acknowledged, ‘This is not the right way to talk to people. This is not the goal of your life. This is not the kind of person you want to be.’ Yet again and again and again, I find myself in that same situation where I just want to squash that person and I know it’s wrong, but I want to do it. And so I do. And I love it in that moment. And not very long afterwards I recognize ‘This is not right. This was not right.’ ”
Laura Frazey, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas, described in the third video her discussions with a woman who was struggling with what it meant to say that Jesus Christ was her Lord and Savior.
“What I shared with her is that saying that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, renouncing sin and its power, says we live in a new world because of this person who came to us,” Frazey said. “We live in a world where we are still afraid, but it doesn’t have to take over our lives. Because someone came for us. And not just someone, but God came for us, in this person we call Jesus, to change everything for us.”
Theresa Cho, co-pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, spoke in the fourth video of the importance of people using Bible study and worship to update their faith lives. Some find the Bible hard to understand and find it hard to connect this ancient book with their lives today, Whitsitt says in the video.
“I feel like my job sometimes is to make the disconnect closer, to give them space to be curious about (the Bible), permission to be curious,” Cho said, “to the point where I’ll say, `This is what don’t get about the Scripture. I don’t get it. Why did this happen? Do you guys ever wonder about that?’ ”
Many communities are so much more diverse, so when people from differing perspectives gather around a table and share their thoughts on the Bible, the seminary-educated Cho tries not to interfere with the flow of the discussion. “Maybe the most I can give is to throw in a Greek word every now and then, to maybe impart ‘this is probably the context of what they meant by that,’ but let them be curious about each other’s lives and how the Word intersects that. That right there is Bible study. That’s life study right there. And that’s where I think we need to nurture curiosity more. That there is a deep intersection between the Word and our own lives.”
Whitsitt himself credits an open-source approach to theology and ministry to breathing life into Theocademy.
When he first began massaging the idea, his synod colleague James Gale, knowing of Whitsitt’s background in theatre, responded with this
challenge: “I dare you to do it.”
That kind of mutual encouragement of new ideas and talents is vital, Whitsitt said. “We always like to identify with Jesus in the gospels,” he said. “We always think we’re like Jesus. But quite frankly, a lot of the times we’re John the Baptist — we’re saying, ‘That’s the guy,’ ” pointing to someone else’s gifts.
Whitsitt said he’s been supported by colleagues who told him: “You can do this, we want you to do this, we need you to do this.” Now, through the videos, he wants to say to others: “We dare you to be good Presbyterians, to be great Presbyterians. Hopefully, Theocademy is John the Baptist for all those little Jesuses sitting in the pews.