LOUISVILLE (PNS) Several weeks ago I spoke to the Presbyterian Mission Agency about nine areas where I was observing interest, concerns, joys, or activity in our denomination. It was an “in-house” speech that was ultimately shared more broadly when placed on the Presbyterian News Service. The response has been heartening and I am grateful that a number of these matters hit home to some of you in the church. One church has told me that they intend to use the list as a study guide for the next year—focusing on each area, and seeing how they relate to their individual congregation as well as to the denomination. They asked if I had three more so they could fill the year!
Actually, I did have two more that were not included in my presentation due to the constraint of time. So I offer my other two insights concerning what I am seeing and hearing across the church, with a follow-up question as to what might be some next steps.
First… (or number 10)—This issue relates to education. For decades, education has been the hallmark of Presbyterians. I remember a dear little devoted Southern Baptist woman from North Carolina telling me years ago, “I love my church, and I love my preacher. He is a good Christian and a good man. But whenever I want to hear a good sermon I go to the Presbyterian church because they are so much better educated to preach.” Well, we all know wonderful Baptist preachers these days. But our denomination still has a reputation of being educated, and providing education for others.
- Our Christian education efforts are legend. We have historically provided outstanding resources and materials for our church members and attendees to explore and study. But in recent years, we have not been as committed to this effort. Fortunately our “Grace and Gratitude” materials for children are emerging, and they look promising. But as a denomination in which many of us cut our teeth on the Covenant Life Curriculum, or other such efforts, we are not providing a training ground for future members of the church.
- Our emphasis on providing basic education in the USA resulted in us forming the first kindergartens, and building schools in Appalachia and beyond. We provided teachers. We built colleges. We did this not only here but around the world. I have visited schools in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as in South Sudan and Mexico, that were begun by Presbyterians. We have now begun a new initiative called “EDUCATE A CHILD.” Some folks in our denomination consider this to be a new thought or idea. I propose that it is a part of our DNA. We must be intentional as we look at ways to help provide educational opportunities for those who are without them.
- Theological education is also crucial. Our ten seminaries are remarkable gifts to the PC(USA), but there is concern that we may not be using them as wisely nor as effectively as we could. Fortunately there is a subcommittee of the Committee on Theological Education that is exploring options for increased effectiveness in coming years. Here are some of the questions that I have been asked:
- Should our seminaries stop being “generalists” and focus on specific areas of theological education in the future. In other words, should global missions be a focus of one, Christian education another, the local church pastor another, specialized ministries in others, etc.? Might this be a way to stop duplication and competition and to focus in new ways on these ministries? Do we need ten of them? Are they located where the needs are?
- How might the denomination use the seminaries more effectively? Could their faculties be called on to write curriculum? Could the training of commissioned ruling elders be moved under the seminaries oversight? Might a renewed emphasis on education of the laity be incorporated into the curricula of these schools in ways that could incite enthusiasm throughout our denomination in new ways?
- What should our relationship be with seminaries who are not part of our PC(USA) heritage and stream of education? Should we continue to have ministers ordained from other seminaries into our fellowship? This issue is particularly sensitive, since we have many wonderful ministers who have been trained in institutions other than our “ten.” But if we continue to welcome graduates into our denominational leadership, are there additional accountability matters that must be explored? A study done at Austin Theological Seminary this past year focused on issues related to churches that pulled out of the PC(USA) to join other denominations. One question asked was which seminaries did the pastors of the churches who left the denomination attend. We must be careful when we look at the answer to that question, because the object of this is not to demonize nor criticize any institution. Instead, it is intended to see if there are issues related to these schools that need to be focused upon more directly in order to affirm the relationship between our pastors and our denomination. Two of the seminaries graduated 58 percent of the pastors whose churches had left. They are Fuller, with 38 percent, and Gordon Conwell with 20 percent. Let it be known that a number of very faithful and loyal PC(USA) pastors are graduates of these schools—including our Stated Clerk and our director of Global Missions. Yet the question I am being asked is if all graduates of these schools are being grounded adequately in PC(USA) polity, theological positions, etc. There are numerous factors that might impact these, for instance the large number of graduates of Fuller could make the number of pastors in this category appear inflated. Princeton is next in line, and again, their large size could have an impact on this factor. But I am being asked about this often, and it does need to be addressed.
So my question is—What should we do in the PC(USA) to restore our role of leadership in church education? I admit to a bias, since I am a certified Christian educator, and also was president of one of our theological schools (and now am honored to have honorary degrees from two of our Presbyterian colleges/universities). Yet our efforts to educate both the Presbyterians in ways of the faith, as well as the masses, in areas that may help to assure their quality of life and affirm issues of justice, are crucial.
And number 2 (or 11). This item has an indirect relationship to a number of the others, but it is important enough that it needs to be raised up for consideration. In a day when secularization and lack of affirmation for mainline denominations seem to be increasing, how do we maintain our historical, and even more so, our Christian responsibility to work for justice. What has been happening in Fulton, in Charleston, in Baltimore, and other places isn’t just a civic issue. Discrimination and prejudice continues to be a horrendous scar on our society. What are we going to do about black and white relations? How about Christians and Muslims or Jews? What about human trafficking, and abusive relations in families? How about economic discrimination when it goes beyond mere capitalism and becomes totally self-serving? Are our migrant workers treated fairly?
Well the list is long, and I have just started. But my dear fellow members of the PC(USA), when we join the church we profess to caring for one another. When we witness a baptism we offer to be there for that child—no matter his race, or gender preference, or economic position. We as a denomination have immense power. Even with the church on the “decline,” do you know how many of our lawmakers are Presbyterians? Should more of us run for office? Do we know how to utilize the resources of our church to speak up for Jesus’ sake?
This is not a Democratic or Republican debate. This is a call for us to be the Christians we profess and were called to be.
So my question is, what should your local church do to make life better for the people who live in your community? What should your presbytery do to help bring about changes, and to help provide resources to those whom we are called to serve? How do we tell the story of love and acceptance to people so that we might all see one another as God’s children, not as members of different tribes? And how do we organize at our denominational level to transform the world? Yes, that’s an idea that seems idealistic. But if it isn’t what we are called to do, then I believe we are missing the message.