JH: Steve, you were introduced as president, then you went on two weeks’ vacation, and now you’re in your new desk. What’s the view look like from here?
SH: It’s a very exciting time. We have new classes of students coming for Greek school, getting ready for brand new year, changes in staff that are happening in the natural course of things. I’m having a wonderful time as I interact with alumni and church leaders and congregations in various places that have called me to offer their encouragement, so it’s great. There’s a lot to learn. Even though I have been at Columbia for six years as a faculty member, it’s a big difference to look at institutional life as a leader of the institution. Since ours is such a well-run seminary, I haven’t paid attention to a lot of what has been going on, but now I have to pay attention to all that goes on.
JH: How has this announcement been received by the faculty and staff?
SH: One of the things that had been so encouraging has been the positive response from everyone. I was most concerned about how my faculty colleagues would respond. Not that I haven’t had a great relationship with them; I have. But it’s a different thing when you move into a whole new role like this. After the announcement had been made in a faculty meeting about my appointment, and I wasn’t in the room, the faculty invited me in and not only gave me an extremely warm reception but spontaneously surrounded me, laid hands on me, prayed for me. And I’ve been very encouraged. Those faculty members who were not on campus have now all responded in one way or another and given me wonderful encouragement, so I’ve felt embraced and really cared about in the middle of this transition. The students have been absolutely fantastic, and I’ve received probably well over 400 letters and e-mails and various kinds of things from people around the country. It has been very encouraging.
JH: Your past associations with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (as president), World Vision (board member), International Justice Mission (present board chair) and Presbyterian Global Fellowship (founding board member) all give evidence to the friendships and partnerships you have made across a broad spectrum of significant para-church organizations. Given that so many para-church ministries have been developed by disaffected Presbyterians, this raises red flags for some of us. What about the PC(USA) itself? Are you with us, a part of us, or is our denomination simply the place that gave your ordination credentials?
SH: I’ve been very committed to the Presbyterian Church for a long time, ordained 36 years. But in addition to that I’ve been a part of Presbyterian congregations for a whole lot longer than that. I didn’t grow up in the Presbyterian Church, but I’ve been Presbyterian ever since I went to college. And because the Presbyterian Church has been my denomination of choice rather than one that I inherited from my family, I have had in some sense a higher degree of appreciation for what it means to be a Presbyterian. I love our church. And I love what it stands for. And honestly, it is definitely true that many of the organizations that have been involved with all kinds of ministries – para-church mission organizations that have not been a part of the Presbyterian Church, but they certainly have been related to the Presbyterian Church and partnered with Presbyterians. And on virtually every board I’ve served, the majority of board members have been Presbyterian. And I wouldn’t say these are disaffected Presbyterians. Rather they are Presbyterians who have a broad kingdom and world concern, and have seen these organizations as other opportunities to serve the cause of Christ globally.
JH: In the first meeting of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, the PC(USA) mission leadership was repeatedly compared to a rotary telephone – so stated by the pastor on whose staff you were serving. What did that mean to you then, and how do you reflect on that now?
SH: Organizational structures always have to serve the mission of the organization. What the speaker was trying to suggest was that sometimes organizational structures become outdated. That’s not to say that the mission is outdated, or the concerns are outdated. I think one of the things I’m concerned about in every institution in its life is that we continue to make sure that the institution serves the mission and not the other way around. I have been absolutely thrilled with the continuing steps of the General Assembly and the mission agencies of our denomination to become more and more responsive to the needs and concerns of the church both here and abroad. I would say personally that in the last four years my relationship with denominational leaders has been strengthened many-fold, as I have enjoyed working with various ministries of our denomination.
JH: Acknowledging the limitations upon seminary presidents to change their school’s directions, if you COULD turn your dreams into reality at CTS, what would change there?
SH: Honestly, I don’t know yet what would change. What I have in my heart these days is not so much the specifics of a dream, as I have a holy discontent with the way seminary education is presently preparing pastors for the realities of parish ministry. I share that discontent with not only the majority of our faculty but other seminary faculties, as well. What pastors and congregations report to us is that we’re not doing as good a job as we once did in preparing young men and women to address the current realities in the church. Culture and the church-in-culture are drastically changing. Seminary education needs to change in order to keep in step. But I don’t know what will need changing and what we’ll do to work with these changes. What I do know is that our 40 trustees, faculty, alumni, and many donors are saying to us that we need to continue the process of changing. Our God is a God who is doing new things in the world and we need to join God in that process. So we’ll look back in five or 10 years and we’ll see those changes, but they won’t be my changes but the ones a wonderful community of people have done to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
JH: Leaders of impact inevitably run into resistance. As you move forward into the fulfillment of your dreams for CTS, what constituents will most likely become disgruntled or anxious?
SH: There are many folks in our denomination and every denomination who would love for the church these days to have the same kind of impact that it had in our culture 50 years ago or 30 years ago. But our world is changing. So the people who are likely to be most resistant are the folks who want to engage in some kind of culture war or cultural resistance and move back to a time that is now gone. In my experience the problem is not that people don’t recognize that there are great changes afoot. The problem is that there is very little agreement on how we should face those challenges and what changes ought to be made. I don’t think that many of us really know what needs to be done. We need to be comfortable with a great deal of ambiguity. So my sense is that some of the folks who will be most resistant will be those who want to nail down solutions or tuck in all the loose edges faster than any of us will be able to do that work. I anticipate that anyone who has a strong sense of what THE solution should be, whether those people come from more conservative or more progressive parts of the church, will probably be disappointed in the actual working out of a vision for the future.
JH: Unrelated to your call to the seminary’s presidency, just a few months ago your fellow CTS faculty members voted you into full professor status. That affirmation from colleagues sounds great, but from the outside you don’t look like someone who would fit into this faculty context. Tell us more.
SH: I am a little bit surprised by the question, because I have never had a single moment at CTS when I’ve felt marginalized by faculty colleagues. Columbia is a place where we have a very high view of the Scriptures, a very high view of the church, and where we are a very Christ-centered perspective on our life together. There are many places where we have great differences. We are a diverse faculty culturally, politically, and in some sense ecclesiastically, but we are also people who are committed to focusing on the things that really matter as we pursue Christ’s mission in the world, and are willing to continue the important dialogue with people with whom we do not totally agree. I sense from the affirmation of the faculty that … their experience of me is that I am a colleague in the best sense of the word. And that’s what I long to be. Honestly, while we are diverse, I think we agree about more things than we disagree about. I don’t find our institution a place where there are strong divisions in the faculty over issues of orthodox Christian faith or the importance of fundamental Christian formation concerns.
While I’m fully appreciative of the role of the president, presidents have less power than is often suspected. In Columbia’s situation, we have 40 trustees from all parts of the church who are charged with guarding the vision, and the preservation and mission of the institution. So it’s highly unlikely that I could do something inappropriate in changing the institution, except in so far as the board, the faculty, the alumni and others would have to agree to do that. My job as president is to be a good steward of the culture of the seminary, of the tradition of the seminary. But I’m not the soul source of any of them.
JH: Let’s talk about missional theology. Most systematic theologies speak little of this topic. Mission has typically been the term used of work being done overseas or, at least, outside the local church. In the 1920s a common expression arose: “Theology divides, but mission unites.” Hence they were seen as two separate disciplines. Leslie Newbigin, David Bosch, Darrell Guder and others following them have insisted that that’s a false dichotomy, and indeed, that mission is the foundation and heart of theology. Is the whole theological enterprise being transformed, or is this merely a new academic fad that soon will be displaced by another?
SH: Missional, and I would say Missional/Incarnational, theology is not new, nor is it a fad. It does recognize that we haven’t given appropriate attention in recent years to the definition of what constitutes the purpose of the church. If you go back to the great ends of the church in our own polity, you discover that our denomination over the years is essentially missional in its understanding of the church’s purpose. However, in its practice the church often gets very focused on the internal life of the church. So we focus much more on the maintenance of the institution than we do upon following Christ in to Christ’s mission wherever that leads us. Missional theology basically asks, as its first question, “What is God doing in the world?” And then as its second question, “How can we join God in that work?” All other questions regarding institutional life are seen as secondary to those great ends. So the current emphasis upon missional theology is reclaiming a biblical and historical theme, rather than creating a new fad.