I went into my study of Systematic Theology thinking it would be the least mind-opening series of classes I would have to take at seminary. My prejudice stemmed mostly from one word in the department's title: "Systematic." I assumed this would mean I would be expected to construct an all-encompassing theology that hung together on the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed. I had taken a class already on "Early Christian Doctrines and Creeds" with one of our more conservative professors on campus. I was fascinated by all I learned and consider the class to be one of the best taught and most interesting in my seminary career - but it was far from contemporary and left little room for post-Enlightenment questioning. I expected to encounter more of that same reasoning, with a bit of Karl Barth thrown in.
How wrong I was! While we did read plenty of Barth, we also read James Cone, Sallie McFague, John B. Cobb, Jr., and Kathryn Tanner among others. Our task was not to construct one universal and static worldview, but to engage a diversity of voices within the Christian tradition and evaluate them critically. Rather than close my mind, my theological imagination was enormously enhanced as I considered who God is and what Good News means in an African American, Feminist, Womanist, Mujerista, Liberationist, Modern, Postmodern, etc. context. I learned how to listen deeply to the diversity of encounters people have with God and the care that we all must take in how to apply language to those experiences in ways that empower and do not limit others.
At the same time, I have had the opportunity to read and study the works of Frederick Schleiermacher who pushed me to think critically about whether all theology must or should be contextualized. In a post-Enlightenment world, science proves each day that while no conclusion can be presupposed, trusting the universal truths of rigorously tested hypothesis leads to human advancement and flourishing. Schleiermacher thought deeply about how theology can stay relevant in the broadest sense to all humans who experience that "sense and taste of the infinite," which we call the Divine. To this day, I'm not sure I have a single answer to how to best approach theology: holistically or contextually. But I hope that communities of faith continue to wrestle deeply with these questions and above all - listen wholeheartedly to both individual and collective wisdom.
Theology aside, I am also committed to listening deeply to the stories and narratives people tell about themselves and their opinions. I have had the most experience with this through my relationship with my in-laws. Whereas I grew up in an extremely liberal and mostly secular Unitarian Universalist setting in New England, my husband's family are conservative Southern Evangelicals with a fundamentalist history. While the first few years of my relationship with the Flowers family were marked with my constant shock at the things that came out of their mouths, I later began to understand and listen to the deep cultural subtext surrounding their opinions and personal narratives. I could see the clash between my mother-in-law's dirt-poor Appalachian Catholic background and the judgment of my father-in-law's family that still clung to a lost ideal of their Presbyterian Southern gentility. I saw the stress and pain of food insecurity and cycles of poverty as it affected their habits and threatened their dignity. I began to see that "right believing" in this context was a way of preserving personal and familial pride in a world that always seemed to be kicking them to the curb. I also saw the still-smoldering anger over the Civil War that colored how they viewed politics, economics, and race relations. None of this made me any more inclined to agree with them, but I could now see the roots that we kept tripping over on the path of our relationship. Learning to listen in this way, I believe, will be immensely helpful in my ministry and pastoral care to individuals and congregations.
When I first started dating my husband in college, I became aware of how little I knew about his field of study: economics. I had fallen in love with the English department, dabbled in documentary film making, studied Swahili and Spanish, gone to lectures on theories of the cosmos, but economics? Nope. I wasn't much versed in the field beyond the basic idea that correlation does not equal causation.
So I started reading. First I read Charles Wheelan's Naked Economics. I was fascinated! Next I picked up Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and was amazed at how easily my basic intuition about things - like car seats on airplanes (why not? more safety never hurts) - could backfire when put under the pressure cooker of complex social systems (when parents have to buy another expensive ticket for their baby they're more likely to scrap the plane and just drive, which is always more dangerous). I learned so much about how complex society is and how there is rarely such a thing as an intuitive, easy answer. I am now a devoted reader of layman's economics and jump at the chance to read the next Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Levitt book.
Having this experience of realizing where my formal education had holes and taking it upon myself to learn from new disciplines has stood me in good stead. I realize now how complex human nature is and how important it is as a minister to be an intellectual generalist. I am not an economist, a psychologist, a biologist, a sociologist, an anthropologist etc. But all of these disciplines have much to teach me and much to offer my ministry if I have the eyes to see and the ears to hear them.
As the wife of an economic journalist who writes for a "new media" company, I am keenly aware of the questions surrounding the future of journalism, media, and the decentralization of knowledge around the world. As religious leaders, whose primary role is that of communicator - whose job it is to proclaim the Good News, or as one of my preaching professors once said, "to be the poet of a community," - we must be both partners and pioneers in the new methods our culture uses to communicate. This does not intimidate me, it excites me!
I served as the Communications Director for Kirkwood United Church of Christ for nearly two years, and was thrilled over that period to revamp the website, build a brand strategy around authenticity and brokenness (church brand strategies are frequently where the rubber hits the road on theology), and launch a social platform called The City that empowered each member of the community to engage each other and the ministers in two-way communication and grass roots event organization, as opposed to traditional one-way communication platforms like eblasts, bulletins, and handouts. Not everything happened exactly as I planned, but our congregation was energized by the additional opportunities to be the church for each other online. We also found that young adults began attending the church in greater numbers because of our increased web presence.
But at the end of the day, what you say is always more important than the platform you say it on. Mars Hill's pastor Mark Driscoll is famous for his ability to communicate. He is a concise and clever writer and speaker and adept at using all the latest media platforms (his church created The City online platform that Kirkwood UCC adopted). But he has found himself in hot water many times for preaching a false gospel of bitterness, anger, and intimidation. Our faith in God's triumph tells us that love wins in the end, and that those who are tongue-tied can still be great prophets and leaders, that the weak and meek shall inherit the earth. So while our pastors should continue to experiment and find new ways to preach God's love to God's people, we have to trust that the Good News will always get there in the end.
One of the things I love about the Christian Bible is that it is an eclectic anthology. There are questions about who wrote what. There are questions about when pieces were written. There are questions about why some bits made it in and some bits were left out. There are questions about why some manuscripts say 'x' and others say 'y' and which is more authoritative. In short - our Holy Scripture is not a monolith. It's as messy as we are. But it's what binds us together as a community both today and across generations. Without the witness of Scripture we would be in the dark, unable to see the illumination of the Jesus event.
There are some scholars I have read, such as Daphne Hampson and Mary Daly, who lament that Christianity is so bound-up in history. It is a religion that requires us to be in constant relationship with - often tension with - cultures and contexts of the past. It's a religion that says you cannot fully understand God and God's nature without putting a great amount of faith in the experiences, and transmission thereof, of people you will never meet and know little about. Your own faith will have to submit in some way to the authority of history. This is sometimes called the scandal of particularity.
I understand this lamentation. It is why we must be very careful readers of the Bible. We must be able to read out of the historical particularity of our Scriptural witness a universal and timeless God in Christ. This is not easy to do. I am grateful for the training I have received at Candler School of Theology in the process of hermeneutics. I am also committed to constantly reading and rereading Biblical scholarship in order to minimize the scandal of our particular faith and open up a congregation's hearts and minds to the God who is Still Speaking today...
One of the best classes I have taken at seminary is Global Feminist Theology with Dr. Joy McDougall. We focused our attention on two contexts, Korea and Latin America, in order to read deeply from the feminist theology written by women there. Our exploration of Korean Feminist theology was particularly enlightening to me in the ways that it opened my eyes to a people and history I was unfamiliar with beyond the broadest generalities. We studied four unique religions (Shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Japanese Shintoism), a morally ambiguous Christian missionary history, and a theological perspective that grappled with all of these factors. After the first day of class I told my husband, "I never knew how much I didn't know about any other subject!"
More than anything I learned in particular about Korea, I learned just how amazingly diverse the world is. Before, I had unwittingly presumed that religious syncretism was a modern trend among western postmodern "spiritual but not religious" folks. I never imagined how much I could learn about globalization and spirituality from reading the history of early 20th century Korean Christian women who nurtured their own Christianity within a pan-spiritual Buddhist worldview heavily influenced by Confucian morality. I now have a much deeper intellectual and spiritual curiosity for global religious expressions - not just because they are foreign and interesting - but because they can teach us so much about how to be religious people today.
I also love studying contemporary church ministry and mission practices and theories. One of the best books I have read on mission is The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. Alan himself has a unique voice for American Christianity since he writes from the perspective of a South African Jewish man who converted to Christianity and practices ministry in Australia. Hirsch's theology is more conservative than my own, but I find this to be of little importance given how profound and prophetic his vision for the church in the 21st century is. I read this book within the context of an Evangelism class taught by one of our Brazilian instructors who led a very racially, nationally and theologically diverse class in some of the best discussion on mission and evangelism I have ever had. Together, we explored Hirsch's ideas of reigniting the apostolic "DNA" of early Christian communities to build up communities of self-sufficient and committed disciples. We began to rethink the narrative of "the church is dying" that gets told in lamentation by denominations struggling with change, and we began to see instead the opportunity for counter-cultural communities to flourish without the mission drift that can happen in large institutions and majority cultures.
One of my biggest goals in ministry is to continue to cultivate the deep and abiding curiosity I have about how God moves and works within different religious contexts around the world. In the end, our own question about the "future of 21st century Christianity" is just one of many global questions about how the Spirit is Still Speaking to each of us today. We'll need to be radically open, with ears to hear and eyes to see, in order to find the Christ in one another.
Christ alone is head of the church and each and every one of us are called to be ministers and evangelists of the gospel. But remembering our baptismal covenants is not easy. We can be so easily distracted by sin and aimlessness. The Good Shepherd is sometimes in need of a helpful sheepdog. That's how I like to see authorized ministry. It's a metaphor that Rev. Susannah Davis first introduced me to and I was happy to see it appear in a recent UCC Daily Devotional. A sheepdog rounds up the flock under the guidance of the Shepherd. A good sheepdog is obedient but also clever and wise in her own right. She knows the sheep and isn't afraid to nip at their heels from time to time. But a good sheepdog loves the flock and the flock appreciates the hard work of the sheepdog, which is always helping them - as a group - make it home to the Good Shepherd. That is how I understand authorized ministry.
I have always found it easier to enter worship with the sound of a Djembe, or a banjo, or a great Appalachian vocal harmony than that of a booming pipe organ. Which is why I should have seen it coming when God circumstantially led me to be a student for my final year of seminary at The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York. Here at General, we worship in a monastic style which is referred to as Anglo-Catholic. We use no less than five books each worship: 3 hymnals, 1 psalm book, and the Book of Common Prayer. Every part of the liturgy is sung - mostly in Medieval chant. The only spoken word comes in the reading of Scripture and the sermon. The organ never ceases to boom.
When I first learned about this I thought, "This will be so cool! What an amazing experience to get to live in a quasi-monastic style for a year. What a time for liturgical and spiritual growth and exploration!"
Then I started actually doing it. 2-3 times a day. 7 days a week. The exoticism began to wear off quickly.
And that's when I learned what actual engagement and balance really is. It means being willing to worship not in the way we always want to - but in the way a community discerns is best. It means sometimes finding yourself in cross-cultural ministry with people you thought shared the same culture. Fundamentally, it means learning to be O.K. with not getting spiritually fed in exactly the way you want.
The experience I am getting through my time here at The General Seminary is a valuable one that I hope I can bring into a congregational setting where there are frequently issues of worship style, expected and unexpected cross-cultural barriers, and ecclesial introverts as well as extroverts. Balancing diversity within communities is a challenge I will not shy away from.
Update: Since writing this piece The General Theological Seminary has experienced an enormous and extremely destructive conflict. While the sentiments I have expressed here remain the same, I would only add that my experience living through this trauma within and alongside the community of GTS has, if nothing else, heightened my sensitivity and awareness to exactly these issues on balancing the local and global, the traditional and contemporary, and the ecclesiastical and ecumenical conflicts within communities of faith.
Today, it is no secret that the church is struggling in its Western context. We are no longer part of a culture that trusts in what I call "Grand Narratives," like Capitalism, or Socialism, or even Democracy and Modernism. Instead people look to pragmatic solutions that solve smaller problems. Most people seen to distrust the idea that there is one narrative that explains the whole world and can fix all its problems. People do not ask "Is this true?" theoretically, they wonder "Does this work?"
This poses a problem for religious communities whose goal it is to tell the Grand Narrative of Jesus Christ and orthodox Christian theology. How do we preach the Gospel to a culture that questions the validity of there even being a gospel? One option is to hold fast to universalized doctrine and retrench ourselves into fundamentalism. Another is to sideline religion into a private sphere of influence were it speaks truth on an individual level, or only in very small ways, but has nothing to offer society or the world in general. I believe there is a third way.
One of the things I love most about what the Christian faith teaches us is that God speaks to us through narratives, stories, and parables. When you think about it, it's pretty wild that the Son of God was born in flesh to save us and spent most of his time yammering on about mustard seeds, fisherman, daily wages, dinner parties, and really good mensches from the wrong sides of the tracks. But it was from these stories that we continue to draw wisdom and faith that can move mountains. Jesus didn't spring from Mary's womb in order to lay out for us the meaning and purpose of the universe in a 3-point sermon. He invited us to see the big picture - the Grand Narrative - the Good News of the Gospel - that is all around us in every moment of every day, if only we had the eyes to see it and ears to hear it.
I believe that proclaiming the Good News in the contemporary church is less about finding the right theological message to deliver once a week, and more about training our congregations to refocus their eyes and retune their ears to perceive the world around them as God perceives it. Only then can we be sure we are delivering news that never gets old.
Through my work at Kirkwood United Church of Christ, I have had the opportunity to provide pastoral care to a few individuals which has been a very valuable and humbling experience. I have visited members and families in crisis in the hospital and done follow-up visits at rehabilitation centers. One member who was suffering from a cognitive dissociative disorder even asked the pastor if she could meet with me for spiritual direction because she felt she could connect with me. In each of these experiences I have been humbled at what I have not been able to provide - a fix or a cure for their troubles - and equally humbled at what I have been able to provide - a listening ear, an open heart, and a willingness to pray.
I am also currently studying Group Spiritual Guidance, a class offered through the Center for Christian Spirituality at The General Theological Seminary in New York. This class has opened my eyes to the way Spiritual Direction both individually and in groups can provide the deep connection to God that so many people crave in today's world. Here is an excerpt from a recent reflection paper I wrote for the class:
So often in the mainline church, our congregations have lost their way. We lament the endless institution-building meetings that exhaust our parishioners, but we cannot imagine any other way to be the church together. We denigrate the self-help theology of evangelical preachers, but we cannot deny that we have little to offer people who are actually looking for help – ourselves included. We exalt the connectional qualities of small churches, but ignore the fact that many megachurches with active cell ministries often have small groups of parishioners who are more intimately connected than our see-you-in-coffee-hour-for-a-“Hi”-and-“Hello” congregations do. How do we get back on track and improve the spiritual health of our congregations? It seems to me that Spiritual Direction and Group Spiritual Guidance is, if not the Holy Grail we’ve been looking for – pretty close to it.
I admit that when I signed up for this class, I had my doubts about Spiritual Direction. I was nervous that it was a consumerist model of spirituality that was in competition with the church. But taking this class, meeting with a Spiritual Director for the first time myself, and reading Fryling’s book has shown me that this worry was unfounded. The emphasis Fryling places on spiritual humility, the important of listening, and the discernment of God’s will and presence that is possible in a group have opened my eyes to the way that Spiritual Direction – far from being in competition with the church, is actually a necessary component of the church. Fryling’s model for Group Spiritual Direction comes from her own experience starting groups within a church. In those groups, all of God’s children - no matter who they are and where they come from - have a place to enter into holy relationship with God and with each other.
In terms of more traditional religious education, I had the opportunity last winter to write my own curriculum and teach a course on Christian doctrines and creeds which I had recently studied at a deep level at Candler. I find that whenever we bring people into covenantal conversation - whether individually or in groups - we are opening ourselves up to God on a much deeper level than we can alone.
One of the most interesting and impactful books I have read on leadership was Edwin H. Friedman's A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Chapters of this book were assigned to us in one of my Candler School of Theology classes, but this is one of those books that so resonated with me that I went back this summer to read it again in its entirety.
Friedman was an ordained rabbi, family therapist, and expert in family systems theory. While there are aspects of this book that I disagreed with, his overall message is one that both convicted and convinced me. The book centers on the premise that real leadership is defined by individuals who are able to emotionally differentiate themselves from dysfunctional systems in order to maintain a calm presence and a rational rather than reactionary response system. So often entire systems can be derailed and organizations screech to a halt when conflict arises (as it always does and always will) and leaders become reactionary. The way that leaders manage conflict is what allows an organization to flourish or not. Leaders must be capable of not giving in to the emotionally disruptive forces at work, and put their energy into remaining calm and keeping the organization moving forward.
I found this to be a hugely helpful frame of reference for me as I thought about how I have witnessed church conflict in the past. It gave me pause to think about the ways that I myself have been drawn into cycles of reactionary dysfunction.
Still, Friedman's theory can sometimes lend itself to autocratic interpretations. If I feel myself leaning too far in that direction, I always try to keep in mind the balance that is required of Christian leaders - especially in the United Church of Christ. The foundation of any Christian leader is the heart of a servant. In the Formation area of the portfolio, I wrote about Listening Skills and Servant Leadership, which is a large part of my overall leadership style. I do not think that Friedman's theories on leadership differentiation are necessarily in conflict with consensus-building styles, but are a healthy compliment to the process.
With this knowledge in hand, and with a willingness to continue to learn and work on my leadership development, I hope that I can help congregations to always keep moving forward in order to accomplish the shared vision of the church.
The mission of the church should infuse every aspect of its life together. I like to think of the mission of the church as a cycle, people are drawn to enter into the cycle at various point not because one area is better than the other but because we all need different things at different times. But once in the cycle, then a highly functional church should be moving people through all the stages simultaneously. It looks something like this:
Worship: Orienting us towards God and our neighbor, centering us in God's peaceful and loving disposition.
Evangelism: Realizing that God's love is not ours alone, we invite everyone to join us in the feast. We do this through conscientiously and explicitly opening our doors in various ways, and by being changed people whose presence in the world causes those we meet to be drawn to the Light they see reflected through us.
Service: Feeling how much God loves all Her/His children through our connection with God in worship, we find greater joy and peace in giving that love to others by directly serving our neighbors. Opening our homes, bringing food, giving people rides, or working in service ministries - our direct engagement and loving presence with others is something we are called to do. Similarly, when we ourselves are in need we find no shame in asking for help. We all need each other and the prayers, presence, and outreach of our neighbors can both strengthen and humble us. Balancing the help we seek with the help we give eliminates distorting power dynamics and knits the beloved community tighter together.
Social Transformation: Seeing the discrepancy between our world and the Kingdom of God Jesus imagines for us, we work together to change systems of injustice that get in the way of our love for God and neighbor. Social Transformation is work that we can and should do in partnership with other faiths and other secular organizations and individuals. But the way that we spiritually orient ourselves in the work of social transformation is strengthened by our worship, evangelism, and direct service to and from our neighbor.
As someone who was a nonprofit fundraiser before getting a call to ministry, I am familiar with the importance of financial stability for the health of an organization. I take stewardship very seriously - not because I think church is "all about the money," but because I believe that people who make a serious financial commitment to their faith community become more emotionally and spiritually committed to the church. It is something that I have experienced myself. When my husband and I first joined a church, before we were married, we gave a comfortable bit of money each month. But after we got married we merged our finances together and made decisions about where our priorities lay as a couple. That is when we began tithing. I was amazed at how much more I found myself caring about the life of the congregation after I began making such a serious investment in it each month. Money does not always follow our hearts, sometimes our hearts follow our money.
Because giving is such a commitment of faith, people are hesitant to give to organizations that they don't trust. Churches need to be trustworthy places for individuals to commit their hearts and their dollars. This is the number one mistake that I see churches and small nonprofits make in stewardship. It is not that churches do not know that they need to have good accounting principles, most know that much. But the idea of being trustworthy does not only apply to an accounting standpoint - churches need to show that they are a solid investment. Churches and small nonprofits often try to solicit donations by highlighting their need for money. This is almost always the wrong move. Professional fundraising has taught me that the best way to solicit donations is not to highlight what your organization is lacking (in fact, you usually try to minimize that), but to highlight how successful your organization is.
People want their money to go towards solid investments. They want to give to thriving and growing and successful ministries - no matter how small those ministries currently are. You can have a budget of only $100 but if you show that with $100 you are creating change in the world, people will give you $200, or $300, or $3,000 to keep up and expand the good work. But if you have a budget of $100 and say, "we can't do anything, we need more" people will be hesitant to give. Because no matter how unfair this seems in reality, the #1 principle in fundraising is that throwing money at desperation always feels like throwing money at dysfunction.
Of course, fundraising and stewardship are only one part of the financial management of a church. This semester, a 3-day intensive course at our seminary on Financial Management for Episcopal Parishes was offered. While my course schedule did not allow me to take the course, I kept the syllabus and reading list for future reference. Financial management and good stewardship of shared resources is an important part of church life and something I am committed to learning more about.