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The Frontline of Changing Religious Practices

President’s Blog
July 5, 2014

During the last several weeks, I have continued to find myself thinking about the seminary’s relationship to the church – to The United Methodist Church for sure, but also to the church at large.  I am thinking about this in the context of Garrett-Evangelical becoming more of a servant seminary. How can we be of service to the church and to the community around us?  How may we be of service to our alums who are faithfully engaging their ministries? And, how might we embody a servant attitude toward each other within our own Garrett-Evangelical community? The general answer is to be true to our mission to prepare excellent leaders. But, there is a deeper current to be considered, as well – one that lies in the fundamental attitude with which we approach our task. Specifically, I have in mind a kind of “epistemological humility,” that is, a kind of humility about how we know what we know and about the places and persons from whence our learning may come.

I repeat myself here by saying that sometimes we at the seminary tend to assume a prophetic stance toward the church, as if we know better what the church needs than the church knows for itself.  Do not misunderstand me. I am absolutely clear the seminary brings many gifts to the church, an extremely important one of which is the gift of learning and research. We can and do offer up our intellectual efforts for the benefit of the church (though sometimes we could be more user friendly in making the necessary translation from academy to church). And, there are many other gifts, too.  But for the moment, I’d like to focus on the gifts of the church to us at the seminary.

You will soon see in the president’s column for the next issue of AWARE an observation made by the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, Dan Aleshire, at our Biennial meeting in Pittsburgh last week. He emphasized that congregations are on the frontline of changing religious practices and that as such, there are definitely some things we could learn from the church’s experience. I think we could begin by being open to a prophetic word from the church to the seminary, rather than proceeding immediately with a critical analysis about how those practices are somehow not “correct.” These new practices may be meeting the spiritual needs of persons in those communities. They may have emerged from the Spirit moving in those places. And, the Wisdom of “many gifts; one spirit” may well be at work. Since we are committing ourselves to a renewed collaboration with the church, (not to mention a curriculum revision), why not begin our servant leadership by taking a position of listening with an expectation that we might actually learn something from the church? Why not begin with openness to being changed by what we hear and by what we may come to know in a new way? 

The fact is that many of our own students are coming out of these churches and college ministry programs with substantive experience, for example, in creative worship. As reported to you earlier here, I unexpectedly happened upon an expression of this with a “flash mob” worship moment in the front lobby of the seminary a couple of months ago – the power of its simplicity and surprise still amazes me: singing, praying, and listening to the Word of God.  

Maple Park UMC Chicago Crop 




Maple Park United Methodist Church
in Chicago, Illinois. Maple Park UMC
is one of our newest SBC21 partners.

And, we are already learning a lot from a recent survey of our community regarding current religious life practices at the school. More to come on the results of that in the fall, but first and foremost, there is a strong desire for Garrett-Evangelical to be a more of worshipping community. An initial read also produces a clear call for more student leadership, for more contemporary music and worship style, for great guest and student preaching and for an integration of global/cultural diversity in music and style across the board. Perhaps, we really could learn something from the church about what constitutes compelling worship – even in the midst of the complexities we have to deal with in providing formational education. Congregations engaged in multicultural and contemporary worship surround us in the Chicago area. And, we are grateful for the teaching and research that Dr. Ruth Duck has engaged in these congregations over the years. What more might we learn from these worshiping communities?

We are excited about our partnership with the Northern Illinois Conference in Field Education assignments, in urban ministry initiatives, in educating and training Hispanic/Latino/a persons for ministry leadership, and in the “Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century” (SBC21) program. The reciprocal interaction of gifts given from the church to the seminary and gifts given from the seminary to the church is the beginning of true collaboration in which both communities grow in faith and develop a deeper understanding of God’s call to service. I believe we are well on the road to renewing lively work together, and not a moment too soon!



# George White 2014-07-08 13:03
Your words about the seminary being "open to a prophetic word from the church to the seminary, rather than proceeding immediately with a critical analysis" were welcome words! I hope that what you said about prophetic can also include being welcome to evangelistic and disciple making words from the church.

At the commencement services in May, I was impressed by the creativity and varied expressions of worship services. As a long-time advocate for contemporary music and visuals in worship, it was very encouraging.

Thanks for your leadership.7320
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# lallene rector 2014-07-11 09:57
Dear George,

Thanks so much for this response - yes, indeed to your query about the seminary being open to the church's work in evangelism and disciple-making . The "evangelical" part of our historic legacy needs more attention. I understand the EUB reference, but I am also aware of the wisdom in John Wesley's call for us to hold in balance/tension our participation in social holiness and personal piety. Let me know what you might have in mind for the church's contribution and insight to our efforts in this arena.
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# Kyungsu Park 2014-07-08 14:32
Dr. Rector,
Thank you for following the vision God has placed before you. Deep listening is such a vital part of ministry. May God bless you with many fruitful years of ministry at Garrett-Evangel ical Theological Seminary and beyond.
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# lallene rector 2014-07-11 10:01
Dear Kyungsu, Thank you for your response and for your appreciation of the power of listening. We don't do enough careful listening. In our pastoral care classes we often read a book on listening by Randall Nichols. Every time I review that book, I am newly reminded of the many improvements I need to make in my own efforts. Without attention to this, I believe we are really just passing by each other never knowing much about another's experience and wisdom. And good listening requires us to put ourselves and our own self interest aside for a bit - something that is often difficult!
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# Char Heeg 2014-07-08 15:35
At our church we have been working hard for the last five years to try to integrate advanced scholarly work with devotional practice in our Bible studies. As we struggle to witness to the importance of scholarly work in our mission of being Christians in the world, we often wish the seminaries could pay more attention to our realities and difficulties. We know we could definitely use some help out here on the front lines of public theology!
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# lallene rector 2014-07-11 10:07
Dear Char, Thanks for your comments above, I believe I can speak for our Bible faculty (as well as for myself!) in saying how much we appreciate your effort to do the difficult work of letting scholarship inform some our devotional practices, especially our interaction with the scriptures. I am also hoping that we might become more attentive to producing knowledge that is more immediately accessible and useful to the church - or at least that we would find ways to assist you in making use of the implications of it for your work in the trenches.

I am currently trying to make some plans for special lectures this next year on public theology - perhaps we can find a way to also directly connection with congregations around this Is there something specific you might suggest for next steps?
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