by | Aug 17, 2020

BListen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
     you that seek the Lord.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
    and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Isaiah 51:1

It has been a full month since we received any new orders from the LA County Department of Health. It actually does not feel like that long, but that last big new order (to close worship indoors) was dated July 17, 2020.

Since then, many of us have adjusted our thinking from “when will this end” to “this is the new normal.” Most of our churches seem to be planning to worship online at least until Christmas; one person asked what was so special about December, and I said it’s just a marker far enough into the future that we don’t have to keep wondering whether everything will be turned upside down on a moment’s notice.

In other ways I’ve noticed how life is adjusting to the new normal. Last week, PPC called their head of staff in a well-attended and well-considered congregational meeting via Zoom and landline phone, in three languages. The Presbytery Executive Commission has decided that at least the next two Presbytery meetings, on September 26 and November 17, will be on Zoom. People are making life decisions and contemplating moves, including pastors.

This last weekend was to be my first meeting as a new member of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. The meeting happened, though with a few twists. There was a business meeting, and then a hearing, all via Zoom—and the hearing could be viewed via livestream. But since the hearing was on the dispute with SFTS that was raised during this last GA, I recused myself due to my complicated feelings about SFTS. As it turns out, the Synod of the Pacific commissioner is Scott Clark, one of my successors in my position as Associate Dean of SFTS. So we spent the weekend watching and commenting on the hearing, along with almost 500 other observers.

I am guessing that people who have not attended seminary might wonder why there was so much furor over the status of SFTS as a PCUSA seminary. Even I find it remarkable how much stronger is my attachment to SFTS over my other schools, whether undergraduate or my other graduate degree.

I remember going to interim ministry training many years ago, near the height of the controversy over human sexuality. Two other attendees happened to be national leaders on opposite sides of the controversy, and they were known for speaking forcefully in opposite directions. However, upon seeing each other at the training, they hugged each other with joy and asked about their families by name. I asked them about this surprising affection they had for each other, and they explained that they had gone to seminary together, some 40 years prior.

In my years in ministry, I have noticed the indelible impression one’s seminary experience has on their theology, collegial relationships, and views on the PCUSA. One church leader asserted that the vast majority of churches seeking dismissal from the PCUSA were pastored by graduates of non-PCUSA seminaries. I know many pastors, as effective and loyal as any, who graduated from non-PCUSA seminaries. On the other hand, I had a visceral negative reaction to the claim that SFTS was “not a PCUSA seminary.”

Of the many concerns I have about SFTS, one thing I would never imagine is that SFTS is not PCUSA. In fact, after beginning seminary at Fuller and transferring to SFTS, my first reaction was frustration that SFTS functioned as an arm of the PCUSA, which limited its understanding of ministry. I have since learned how much the seminary experience is one of enculturation to the identity and ethos of minister, and how our CPMs count on the seminary to help shape them as pastors consistent with our understanding of Presbyterian ministry.  This also impacts the intangible understandings of the pastoral role that need to be taught to commissioned ruling elders, especially in the power dynamics and boundary responsibilities that pastors must acknowledge and uphold, even in awkward circumstances.

You may not think any of this is important. But I have been burdened lately by the struggles of another seminary that is dear to us, Fuller Theological Seminary. They have sustained severe financial difficulties that were made all the more painful when their move to Pomona fell through. There are members of our own Presbytery whose ministries are being changed or curtailed due to Fuller’s need to cut back their staff, so if nothing else some of our friends and colleagues are facing difficult life decisions. (By the way, the same is happening at the national level of the PCUSA, with 35% cuts being made in Louisville, as a result of severe cuts in shared mission giving, which reflect financial constraints at the local level.

Thank God we have not been experienced this as critically as other presbyteries.)

I have never been strong in the area of Christian Education, but I do see how our families, our churches, and our seminaries have great responsibility to form our members as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. This does not mean forcing them to fit into one rigid mold, but to help each of us to realize God’s will for us, and to nurture and strengthen the diverse gifts that God gives to us, to be used for the glory of God and in the service of Christ’s church. Like the sculpture that is already complete in Michelangelo’s marble block, we all contain the spark of the Holy Spirit within us; the job of our seminaries and all of the church is to chip away the constraints (like sin and prejudice) that keep us from being all that God wants us to be.

I ask you to pray for our seminaries, who are going through a very painful season of transformation, that they may find new ways to form and nurture our future pastors. And I ask that you consider how your churches are intentionally training and developing your members, as you are the seminaries that form and nurture our future church leaders. Together, we are all parts of Christ’s one church.

In Christ’s peace,