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Public Theologians and the City Gate

President’s Blog
February 18, 2014

“Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate.” Amos 5:15 (CEB)

On Monday, the “President’s Assessment Task Force” (PATF) had its final meeting.  The Task Force is a representative group I called together last November for the purpose of doing an environmental scan of the seminary.  The members have interviewed internal and external constituencies (faculty, students, trustees, friends, alumni, and religious leaders), including business and corporate leaders who have had no relationship with the seminary.  The PATF has worked hard and has produced much valuable information for our consideration.   

Yesterday, we discussed the findings and began to identity initial themes and recommendations for the school as we move forward.  More to come on that in a few weeks, but for now, let me share with you one of the major themes that was reported over and over: Garrett-Evangelical and its graduates need to have more visibility in the outside world.  We need to have more of a voice in the public square speaking to concerns for the common good.  Essentially, we need to be explicitly functioning as public theologians for the well being of the community of which we are a part, and we need to be educating and forming bold spiritual leaders who are public theologians. 

What do I mean by “public theologian”?  I mean persons who can think theologically and ethically about the broader contexts in which they find themselves, who can not only ask the questions, but who can also offer some discerning response to them: “Where is God in this place?  Where is God not in this place?  What is God doing here?  How can we partner with God’s purpose?” More and more graduates are going into ministries that are not located within the church proper, but within the wider community, e.g., ministries in social service agencies, in journalism and the media, in work on environmental sustainability, in efforts to assist the homeless, to mention only a few.

The seminary has three historic emphases: Evangelical Commitment; Creative and Critical Reasoning; and Prophetic Interaction in Society.  With so many new faculty members joining us in the last 10 years, clarity about these emphases and the centrality of their place in our identity has eroded a bit.  I hope to revisit each of these with the faculty and the PATF findings actually support the continuation of these emphases newly appropriated and clearly defined.

The front page of the New York times yesterday reported news about bombings in Syria; about a retired hedge fund manager dedicating $100 million dollars to support climate change measures through pressuring politicians; and about the dilemma of thousands and thousands of abandoned, dilapidated buildings in Detroit.  There is no end to the need for Christians to participate with others who are concerned about the common good.  The challenges of gun violence, discrimination against all kinds of minorities (racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, etc.), access to health care, the challenges of poverty, immigration injustice – it goes on and on.

We have a strong history of already being public theologians who engage prophetic interaction in society.  In the latter part of the 19th c., Lucy Rider Meyer founded the Chicago Training School (1885) and with the work of the teacher/nurse/social worker deaconesses, the school served the urban poor of Chicago.  Our alums and faculty marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. to demand basic Civil Rights for the oppressed Black population to protest violent racism.

TrimbleAnd, most recently on President’s Day just passed, Bishop Julius Trimble (Iowa Conference), one of our alums and a member of the Board of Trustees protested at the White House on the occasion of the 2 millionth deportation under current Obama immigration policy. He was joined by other United Methodists and by Bishop Minerva Carcaño (California-Pacific Conference) with whom he co-chairs the UM Interagency Task Force on Immigration. Both were arrested at the White House. 

This act of civil disobedience was a witness against injustice and an act of solidarity with all those who suffer the devastating effects of deportation.  We are proud of the Garrett-Evangelical family who join with others in the world to make not only a difference, but to make an impact.  Thank you, Bishop Trimble and thank you, Bishop Carcaño.

I believe one of the challenges of the PATF findings is a clarion call to Garrett-Evangelical to be a servant seminary to the church and to the world and to do this, at least in part by preparing bold, spiritual leaders who are public theologians dedicated to accomplishing the common good.  It is the very claim God puts upon us through the proclamation of the prophets and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Let’s do it together!

Photo Credit: UMNS



# Al Caldwell 2014-02-20 17:30
Thank you, President Rector for your continuing challenge to Be The Church.
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# Frederick Morris 2014-02-22 21:55
As a UMC pastor for more than 50 years, (and a graduate of Drew, though both my father and brother graduated from Garrett) I heartily affirm what President Rector is saying and doing.

At the same time, students must be made aware that there will be great resistance from many of the "good folks" in the pews and in the public at large. If we really become engaged with the world, we are likely to be rejected by our own (recall Jesus' first disciples) and attacked by the world at large. But that's what it means to be a disciple.

A very great Methodist preacher from Sri Lanka, Dr. D.T. Niles, one of my mentors, said: We are not called to succeed; we are called to be obedient to our Lord.
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# Janet Horman 2014-02-23 11:19
When I was a student at G-ETS in 1984, another student and I were arrested prayerfully protesting US involvement in covert actions in Central America. President Neal Fisher and Bishop Marjorie Matthews attended our trial and Prof. Bob Jewett and his talented daughter held a fundraiser to help raise money. The seminary provided a tremendous education in both faith and practice then as it does now. Thanks for continuing the tradition.
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