Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Why Should We Educate Our Children About the World?

What’s the latest controversy about public education in your area?  In my state, the topic is “teaching about Islam” to elementary and middle school students.  Some parents (and outside instigators) are concerned that the state educational curriculum includes teaching about the history and beliefs of Islam at certain grade levels.

Of course, there are points in the curriculum where information about Christianity is provided.  The point is not to indoctrinate students or to convert them to the Christian faith, but to help them understand the various ways in which the church and Christian faith have impacted culture and the world we live in today. So I imagine students learn about the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, the economic structure supported by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the opposition of the church to scientific inquiry, the Crusades, the Reformation, the role of Christian missionaries in the conquest of the New World, and the charitable work done by Christian institutions such as hospitals, universities, and orphanages.

In a similar way, students need to learn how other faiths have contributed to the modern world in both positive and negative ways.  Why do they need this background?  Why wouldn’t they be better off being ignorant of this information?

First, if they are going to be able to interact with people of other cultures, this is vital.  When I go to any gathering at one of my grandchildren’s schools, I see people of various races and nationalities.  They may be Anglo, Hispanic, African-American, or Asian.  They bring with them their own heritage and culture.  Yes, we are all Americans, but our nation has been influenced by a number of cultures.  Only the Native Americans were here first and we pretty well have ignored what they have to offer.  Everything else is imported!  Our children need to know their histories in order to live in community.

Second, if they are to be involved in a global economy, this is important.  Even in the state of Tennessee, we have companies and industries that are based in Germany, Japan, Sweden, and many other nations.  We are tied to what happens in the global economy.  Whether we like it or not, we are playing on a global stage and our children must become global citizens who can function effectively in many cultures.

Third, if they are going to able to interpret and apply their faith, this is essential.  From the first century, Christianity has faced the challenge of presenting its faith claims in cultures that were very different from the Jewish setting in which it was birthed.  Gifted interpreters have found ways to enter into dialogue with other cultures and faith traditions, discovering ways to present the Christian faith so that it will receive a fair hearing.  This presupposes a willingness to have some understanding of what others hold dear.

We live in a complex world born of centuries of inquiry, exploration, discovery, and exploitation.  Every nation and culture has elements that cause both pride and shame.  Our children need to know these things.  They need to learn that we once practiced and accepted slavery, that communism was attempted and failed, and that National Socialism almost destroyed the world and was defeated.  They also need to know the role that faith played in this history.

If we fail to give them this background, we do them a disservice.

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Glimpse into the Future of Theological Education: A Fable

Bob Peterson is minister of Christian Formation at Crossroads Church in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland.  He has been in the position for two years.  Prior to this, Bob was an active member of the congregation and a marketing analyst for a financial firm.  At age 38, he felt God’s call to make a change in his life direction. With the support of his wife Kathy, a secondary education teacher, he accepted the invitation of his church to become its third staff member.

As part of his support package, Bob and the church’s Personnel Committee agreed that he would pursue a seminary degree.  Bob wanted to be the best minister he could be and both the pastor and the Personnel Committee supported this desire.  They knew that this would be good for the church.

The committed decided that tuition and expenses such as books (most available in a digital format) would be paid by the church with the understanding that Bob would continue to serve the church for at least five years after he completed his degree.  If he leaves before then, he will reimburse the church half of the cost of his education prorated to reflect the amount of time he has been on staff.

Bob found a seminary that could provide the degree program that works for him.  The main campus is located in a large Midwestern city, but that’s not a problem since all of the classes for the degree are offered in an online format.  Most weeks, Bob will sit down in front of his computer one or two nights and participate in synchronous class time with other students in eight other states and one foreign country.  There are always two or three students physically present with the professor who may be on the main campus or a satellite location of the seminary in two or three cities across the country.  Many of the class assignments can be completed at any time.  Bob can access video streaming lectures, podcasts, and other resources on the seminary’s online instructional platform.  In addition, many courses require group collaboration at other times and this takes place through videoconferencing or online forums. 

As a student at the seminary, Bob has full access to the online catalog of the seminary for research purposes.  He can access digital resources immediately and can request that print materials be sent by mail.  

In order to make sure that Bob is fully engaged, he has a mentor coach who meets with him a couple of times a month by videoconference.  His mentor lives in another state, but he and Bob have established a good rapport.  The mentor encourages Bob not only in his academic development but often spends time talking with him about Bob’s spiritual growth and the application of what he is learning in his classes to the church where he serves.  It doesn’t hurt that the mentor coach is a Ravens fan!

The mentor coach, Bob’s pastor, and a member of the church’s personnel committee compose a support team that meets with Bob by teleconference or video conference at the end of each academic term to help him evaluate his progress, suggest ways to use his ministry and study time more effectively, provide accountability to the church, and give feedback to the seminary to make Bob’s experience more productive.

Bob is welcome to travel to the main campus to take intensive courses in person or attend conferences, but the only time he will probably be on campus is when he graduates and receives his degree.  Even so, he has developed friendships with other students across the country and enjoys ready access to his professors.

Some of you may be shaking your heads and dismissing this as speculative fiction. Think again.  All of this is available right now to those who wish to pursue a theological education.  Churches can partner with seminaries to help staff members obtain an affordable, accessible, and applicable education while they are immersed in ministry.  Formation for ministry has changed for present and prospective ministers.  Welcome to a new day!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Facing Reality

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Economics of Ministry Summit at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking,  and all the students are above average”  (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor).  The topic addressed was far from humorous, however.  The key question voiced by President Molly Marshall was, “Can ministers and churches afford each other?”

Many churches are not supporting theological education as they once did, but theological education is expensive, so students are burdened with debt.  At the same time churches are struggling with declining finances but still want full-time ministers but can’t provide appropriate salaries.

 If churches cannot provide a wage that helps students to pay their indebtedness, can students continue to pursue theological education?  If students don’t prepare for ministry, where will churches find competent ministers?  Certainly, the problem is much more complex than that, but you get the idea.

Here are some thoughts that came to mind as a result of my participating in that meeting.

First, God is still calling men and women to serve in local congregations, but they find it hard to make a living wage there.  Although Jesus said, “for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10:10, NRSV) with the implication that those who serve the Lord should be provided for by those to whom they minister, churches often fail to supply the basic needs of ministers.  

When one panelist at the event was asked about health care, she said she was grateful that the Affordable Care Act (often called ObamaCare) provided her health insurance. If it were not for this government program, she would not be able to have this coverage.

Ministers deserve a living wage. If we don't care for those in the household of God, how will we care for outsiders? (See Galatians 6:10)

Second, we as church members tend to underestimate and not take advantage of all of our resources including property and people.  One summit presenter did a great job of pointing out that churches fail to see their physical resources—such as their buildings—as venues for ministry, service to the community, and potential income.  She even said, “If your building is a burden rather than a resource, get rid of it.” Others pointed out that restructuring staff responsibilities, partnering with other churches to share ministerial staff, and creating innovative ministries would help churches make better use of their resources. 

There are a number of creative alternatives available to churches, but the truth is that congregations will only try them when they become desperate and there is no alternative.  They have to be at the point of death to try something different.  Why?  One reason is pride.  If our church has always had a full-time minister, going to a part-time pastor may be considered embarrassing.  Even if   a church is willing to adopt this approach, the members may be unrealistic and still expect the same number of hours a week from a bivocational pastor. 

If a church cannot afford a full-time pastor, members of the congregation must come to understand that they—as the people of God—are one of the most important resources available to the church.  There is much that they ask the pastor to do—pastoral care, administration, and supervision—that church members are well equipped to do (if they are willing to).

The summit pointed out that there is a crisis and it will not abate.  If we hold on to our old paradigms about economics and the use of the gifts that God has given us, we will fail to fulfill the mission to which God has called us.  Mission is not about pride but about servanthood.  If we can get rid of the first, maybe we can practice the second more effectively.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Myth of Being Indispensable

While waiting for a flight at the airport, I used  my phone to send a message to  my wife, respond to a request to serve as a reference for a friend, and check the weather at my destination.  As I made a necessary visit before boarding, I noted a Bathroom attendant who was multitasking--cleaning up and taking what appeared to be a personal call at the same time.

I started thinking, "What did we do when we did not have cell phones to keep us connected 24/7?"  In reality, we did rather well.  

It's nice to be connected but this availability may well perpetuate the myth that somehow I am  indispensable.  If the world can't get in touch with me instantaneously, will things grind to a halt? I doubt it.

In the past, we might be out of touch with family and friends for days at a time.  Few of us have had the experience of founding father John Adams  who spent years in Europe separated from his beloved Abigal, but their experience shows us that marriage and family can survive separation.  Life went on.

I spent a year in Vietnam and communication with my wife was provided only by letter and a couple of phone calls.  This was not a happy situation, but each of us found we could make the necessary decisions of daily life without hourly communication. I hate to say it, but she got along without me very well!

What's my point?  Perhaps it would better if family, friends, and colleagues could not get in touch with us instantaneously.  They would make decisions for themselves and we would learn that we are not as important as we think we are.

In the meantime, I have a call to make.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Tales of exploration have always been exciting reading for me.  Whether the focus is on the discovery of new lands or surviving dangerous terrain, new challenges and trials bring out both the best and the worst in us.  We learn a lot about our humanity when we try something new.

In Call to Commitment, Elizabeth O’Connor writes,

“When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.”

Exploration and experimentation are things we ask clients to do in coaching.  Too often, we are burdened down not only by the cares of everyday life but the baggage we have accumulated over the years.  We have accepted what people have told us about our limitations, we have failed to learn positive lessons from both the successes and failures of life, and we spend more time looking at the cracks in the sidewalk than the expanse of the horizon. 

In exploration, all bets are off.  In the initial coaching conversation, I often encourage my coaching clients to “think blue sky”-- “If money were no problem, you had all the time you needed, and there were no health limitations or other obstacles, what would you do?”  As we begin to think about the various ways that they can address their growth area, a similar mindset helps.  What would you like to try that you haven’t before?  What are some new paths to consider?

Too often as individuals and as groups, we limit our options too quickly. We need both the opportunity and the sense of freedom to consider all of the possibilities out there.  In so doing, we make exciting discoveries.