The number one goal at summer camp for my teenage son, Garrison, was to skipper a Lightning, a 19-foot-long fully rigged sailing sloop. One of the many requirements to prove his proficiency, but possibly the most difficult, was to demonstrate a rudderless “man overboard,” a maneuver when a sailing crew rescues a person who has fallen off the boat while sailing without a rudder. Rudders normally serve as the primary steering device for sailboats. This rotating slat attached to the stern/back of the boat works with the sails that propel the boat and the centerboard or keel that sinks deep enough in the water to serve as a lever and boat tipping prevention tool. Making any progress toward a destination without a rudder in a sailboat requires planning, skill and content adjustments. Rescuing a person drifting in the water without a rudder is exponentially more difficult and demanding.
Garrison loved the challenge and was able to accomplish the rescue without a rudder and with crewmates that followed his lead. An unprepared crew could be asking what to do next, where they must go, how they will get there, when it will happen and how the skipper will react. To an untrained crew, the question of why it happened is immobilizing at worst and highly distracting at best. However, a practiced and prepared skipper and crew are ready for situations like these.
What’s next? Where are we going? How do we get there? When will we arrive? Why do you think this is the best way forward? These are the kind of questions people ask in times of uncertainty and anxiety as well as times of tremendous opportunity and transformative change. These questions are what I hear most often being asked in congregations, governing bodies and seminaries today.
“Do not be afraid, lead or skipper, instead,” is how I would paraphrase Daniel O. Aleshire’s June 2014 executive director biennial address to the Association of Theological Schools. Distilling and describing the state of theological education broadly, Aleshire says, “One can hardly talk about theological education in North America without the word ‘change.’ … Arguments abound about the nature and magnitude of the change, [but]few perceive the community of theological schools will look in 20 years essentially the way it does now.” In summary, Aleshire says finding “a way forward” is the primary goal for theological schools today as he posits “all the future has a history, [but] not all the history has a future.”
Aleshire thinks congregations that have survived and thrived by adapting will teach theological schools how to chart a course for a more fruitful future as they navigate “substantive, if not, transformative change.” Pittsburgh offers an example after having “negotiated more fundamental change in the last 40 years than many American cities … .” Aleshire draws ethnographic sketches of four congregations and four seminaries in Pittsburgh. Growing institutions tap into their rich tradition and reimagine core beliefs and practices to address the social, economic, cultural and racial shifts all around them. He notes that they felt afraid at times, but when they were at their best, they believed. Specifically, they believed they were “participants in the mission of God,” a much richer resource than any other. They led into a future even when they ran deficits in other resources.
Have you noticed how change colors so many conversations in the Presbyterian Church? No matter what the ministry context, many are dealing with or wondering how the winds of change will impact their mission. Theological schools are a part of our ecclesial ecosystem as they cope with these changing winds. Those scary changes include, but are not limited to, a decade of falling enrollment, fewer traditional full-time pastoral positions advertised, volatile markets that impact endowment income, campus maintenance that impacts recruitment and effectiveness, technological expansion and the demand for well-appointed campuses, specialized programs and leading scholars as faculty who also care about the church.
What is happening in North American theological education is part of international change. Over 1,600 theological educators and other church leaders were surveyed in the 2011-13 Global Survey on Theological Education. This joint research and directory project conducted by McCormick Theological Seminary, the World Council of Churches and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary found, among other things, that “issues of theological education are seen as having strategic significance and are ‘most important’ for the future world Christianity.” The “‘integrity of senior leaders’ is seen as the most important element in determining quality in theological education.” Eighty-six percent of respondents indicated that in the midst of a variety of economic and social stressors, issues of theological education likely have the most important strategic significance for the future of world Christianity. Who do we want to lead us through in this critical moment? Senior leaders with integrity and dedication are needed. Almost all respondents (97 percent) indicated that these senior leaders are the key factor determining the quality of theological education. Leaders who do not fear make a critical difference in the quality of seminaries and, possibly, the future of world Christianity.
God is providing amazing leaders of our congregations, governing bodies and seminaries to lead us into the future God has promised. These leaders are, in my mind, not unlike sailors who are skilled, practiced and accomplished at rudderless sailing.
There may be fewer people in the pew or in seminary classrooms, but now is not the time to abandon ship. It is time to listen carefully to “skippers” in seminaries and congregations and adjust our sails to the rich resource that is the mission of God. We can trust that we will be propelled forward by in the wind of the Spirit. God knows, there is more ministry to do than ever and fewer hands on deck.
What’s next? How do we get there? When will we arrive? How confident is the skipper? Why do you think this is the best way forward? What is it that will get us there? Skilled leaders called by God have led people of faith generation after generation through changing times since the exodus, the Roman Empire and every major crisis in the history of time. Even when they find themselves without the convenience of a rudder on a sailboat, they find a way to adjust to the changing times. They find the energy and focus to do it successfully with an able and willing crew to assist them in allowing the wind of God’s Spirit to power a new way forward. May this be our common goal, our set course.
LEE HINSON-HASTY is coordinator of theological education and seminary relations for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the PC(USA) Committee on Theological Education. A teaching elder member of the presbytery of Coastal Carolina and acting chair of the Forum for Theological Exploration, Lee writes the blog “A more expansive view: Encounters with Presbyterians and our seminaries.”
[GARRISON HINSON-HASTY is a freshman at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky, and is in Lightening Skipper training at Camp Sea Gull (YMCA) in North Carolina.]