Sunday, May 10, 2009

Seminary Dilemma, Part Deux

Loyal readers of koinonia might recall something I wrote a few days ago about my Seminary Dilemma. The article was a personal reflection on my own "call journey" and also included a reference to Matt Cleaver's piece about the relevancy of seminary for church leaders.

It seems that seminary and ordination are hot topics this week.

Adam Walker-Cleveland is a leader in the Presbyterian / Emergent realm. He was recently told by the Presbytery of San Fransisco PC(USA) that, upon receipt of his Masters in Divinity from Princeton, he needs to complete several more courses prior to ordination. Read the rest of the story here.

Within minutes of this announcement, Tony Jones (former national coordinator of Emergent Village) posted a petition for the "body of Christ" to ordain Adam as a pastor. Thinking this was a creative way of supporting someone who appeared to have done everything by-the-book, I clicked on the link to Tony's blog. I even thought of signing the petition for this young man I've never met. Seemed like a very post-modern way to go about this.

Then I read a few things (posted by Tony) that frustrated and confused me.
Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity. When rules and regulations trump common sense, then the shark has officially been jumped.

But what gets to me even more is that bright, competent, and pastorally experienced persons like Adam continue to submit themselves to these sinful systems.

And comment he posted on Adam's blog:
What will it take for you to get the message that denominationalism and ordination are bruising, sinful institutions? What will it take for you to hear the message that God is sending you?

Then, the opening line of the petition:
Adam Walker-Cleaveland, having watched you be ritually abused by the ordination process in the Presbyterian Church (USA), we beseech you to forsake ordination in said bureaucracy.

This seemed a bit harsh, but not unexpected. I hearkened back to my short conversation with Tony in front of the drinking fountain at Jacob's Well in October after his provocative comments in his seminar I had just attended. He had some strong words about the "sinful, inefficient, and heretical" ways Christian denominations function. However, his comments regarding Adam's ordination process were even stronger.

I sent a few messages to my friends in emerging church circles (including Tony) asking them to help me understand this idea of ordination by petition. Perhaps they could enlighten me on Part of me really wanted to like this, but I wasn't quite sure what the petition accomplished. Sadly, none of these people deigned to respond to my questions. No worries. We're all busy.

I started trolling the comments of Adam's and Tony's blog, as well as checking to see who all was signing the ordination petition. There was a vibrant and (mostly) civil discourse by over 100 people in total. One comment in particular caught my attention:

Tony, I’m writing as a guy who loves you and admires your work, as a fellow seminary student from almost 20 years ago, and also as a PCUSA minister. Incidentally, given the context of your posting, I’m also the guy who preached at your own ordination service back in 1997.

It’s through all that history and affection that I need to tell you publicly that you’re wrong.

Not about the injustice surrounding your friend’s ordination. Allowing that you’ve communicated all the relevant facts, it doesn’t seem fair that he couldn’t invite a friend of faith to participate in his ordination service. You attended my ordination five years before yours, and you saw that I had the freedom to include a broad range of people who were significant in my development as a minister. You did the same in yours.

On the other hand, your friend may have erred in being unwilling to demonstrate that he could take direction and counsel from a governing body—something that I believe has a place in the context of the American religious free market. In the PCUSA, the process of becoming ordained is partly an exercise in learning healthy submission to peer authority (I can see the eyes rolling back in your head). Now setting aside the not-nearly-rare-enough instances where the submission required is unhealthy, it’s not a bad lesson to learn. More importantly, once candidates have completed (survived?) that process, we have enormous freedom to live and serve as our own calling leads us. It’s OK with me that we disagree on this point. That’s not the problem.

What gets me is that you have demonstrated a rash and bitter level of dismissiveness to those of us who choose this path. In your anger at the bureaucracy of large denominations and institutions, you’ve lashed out not only at them but also at the men and women of faith and calling who participate freely in the opportunities for ministry that they offer.

You sneer at it as simply being loyal to the tribe, and you rarely pass up a chance to mention the availability of health insurance or pensions. Shame on you for not being able—or worse, willing—to understand another person’s experience. You grew up in a very wealthy family and your financial security has never been a hindrance or worry to you—not through Dartmouth, Fuller, Princeton or beyond. What if there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a good steward of a family’s health, whether physical or financial? What if, for example, serving Christ in a denomination that provides a health plan isn’t a sin or a ‘sell-out’ at all, but rather a prudent way to be a good steward?

If I might paraphrase the sense of Jesus’ teaching about the splinter and the log, I suggest this: Swear off or return everything you’ve received from your family before saying another word about how the rest of us provide for ours.

But setting aside the pension issue, what keeps me, and possibly your friend Adam, in the PCUSA isn’t blind servitude or tribalism or even the paltry retirement plan it offers. What keeps me loyal—and I use that term as a virtue, not a punch line—has little to do with whether I think my tradition is best (I don’t). It’s simply that it was in a Presbyterian church that I met Jesus in a life-changing way. And when I felt Christ’s call to ministry in his church, it was that same congregation who helped train me, who prayed for me, and who gave me the chance to test my call in service. I love those people, and yes, I do feel loyal to them.

Tony, the biggest problem I see is that your hatred of denominations gets in the way of the truly important, truly inspired work that you do. It seems to me that rather than attack the weaknesses of denominations (which, frankly, is too easy a target for a man of your intellect), you should be proposing new agendas (as you do) and helping the rest of us reform existing structures from within. As a minister in a radically secular city with enormous ethnic and religious diversity, I don’t have time to re-invent many wheels. But I have learned from the things you’ve written and taught, once I get past the discordant attack on my choice of employer, and I’ve applied them in my teaching, preaching and leadership.

The truest thing I’ve said in this piece is in the first line. I love you and I honestly admire the work that you do within and among a new generation of Christian disciples. What I’m asking is this: get off my back and the backs of the rest of us who do it differently than you. The real problem in the world isn’t the church—it’s the sin and brokenness and injustice that clouds our chance to get a glimpse of Jesus. Help us—help me—to communicate that message in fresher, more authentic ways. Leave the ‘fixing’ of the denominations to those of us who care about them.

John D’Elia
Senior Minister of the American Church in London

I posted his comment in its entirety because it echos many of my own reflections on the issue (aside from John's personal experiences with Tony). The debate continues; both on the blogosphere and in my own mind. I encourage you to plow through the other blog comments if you're so inclined. I really appreciate how much I am learning through these "virtual" communities (though I would argue they are very real in many ways). It helps me wrestle with my ongoing consternation about seminary...and reminds me of the importance of healthy conversation throughout the entire church!

Which is why this site is called koinonia