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Defining "Public Theologian"

President’s Blog
April 10, 2014

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Philippians 2:1-4 (Common English Bible)

Breanna HQ
Garrett-Evangelical alumna, Breanna Dahl (G-ETS 2013)

At the school, we have been recently thinking about what it means to be public theologians, about the implications for our curriculum revision, and about the questions of how we might teach in ways that would better prepare our graduates to be public theologians. I am becoming more familiar with the related literature and with some of the academic complexity in defining the term. And, I am learning about the wide range of definitions that can be attributed to the term, from public theology being an improper pursuit at all to definitions so broad the term ceases to have any useful specific meaning.

In the midst of these intellectual considerations, it seems obvious to me that Jesus was a “public theologian” as were the prophets before him. At least this is the case if we understand “public” to mean a reference to concern for the wellbeing of all. Jesus’ directive to love our neighbors as ourselves (which follows as a necessity if we are loving God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul), also ensures that we must look beyond ourselves and beyond our comfort zones. Much of our work and many of our efforts can be insidiously self-serving in ways that are blinding.

For me, being a public theologian means being able to bring the resources of our faith to the public square with concern for “the common good.” It means being mindful about where God is at work - or not - in certain circumstances. It means explicitly using the language of our faith -  sometimes. And, sometimes it means simply caring enough, across the otherness we encounter in the public square, to participate with those of different faiths, or no faith, in a set of shared ethics and the actions that ensue from these commitments. This kind of collaboration with others for the wellbeing of all increases our impact on issues of homelessness, violence in our communities, poverty, hunger, unemployment, immigration justice, health care, sustainability of our environment, access to quality education, etc.  

Recently, I was in Indianapolis visiting with an extraordinary group of highly accomplished women leaders.  Our Board of Trustee member, Rev. Kevin Armstrong, President of the Methodist Health Foundation, and our friend, Judge Sara Evans Barker hosted a lunch meeting for the purpose of introducing these women of faith (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Quaker) to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, as well as providing an opportunity for me to learn something from them about leadership. 

The visit was lively and full of good humor. As I began to hear something from each woman about her work and the extent of her public involvement, I was stunned, absolutely stunned, by the cumulative contribution for good in the public square represented in the room. To a person, some form of “giving back” and community service was definitively present. For example:

  • leadership of and for the United Way
  • Big Sisters
  • illustration of Jewish children’s books that teach inclusivity
  • directing exploration of vocation and faith with undergraduates
  • working for public safety
  • pastoral leadership in denomination and faith community
  • chairing and participating in community foundations and philanthropy that supports many forms of education and assistance to women
  • serving boards that support the prevention of child abuse
  • working in legal aid
  • leadership supporting music in the community
  • elected representation in local and state politics
  • health care policy work
  • activism
  • journalism
  • chamber of commerce service
  • service on higher education boards
  • architectural work
  • supervision of a hospital chaplaincy training program 

I was compelled to seriously reconsider, in a new light, some of the recent invitations I have received to join community-focused boards. As a result, I decided to accept an invitation to join the Evanston Health Ministries Board as a way of helping our school gain more visibility in the community and as a way of exploring how we might contribute to this new work.

The lunch meeting was a wake up call to the ways in which we can live fairly insular lives, in our own little comfortable spheres of influence (as important as these are) taking care of our own loved ones and not venturing too much further out. Garrett-Evangelical has not in recent times been systematically intentional about the role of public theology in our educational mission, or, about what I believe we intended in our institutional emphasis formed almost 20 years ago on “prophetic interaction in society.” To be sure, there is much good service and public theology going on all across our community. It is in our institutional DNA and I have made a call for us to be more explicit and intentional about how a commitment to public theology will support the formation of bold, spiritual leaders, leaders who are willing to take the necessary risks.    

We will continue to clarify for ourselves what we mean by the term, but for now, we can look to Philippians and harken to the admonition of St. Paul when he says, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others." 


PANAAWTM and the "Politics of Solidarity"

President’s Blog
March 26, 2014

PANAAWTM Banner designed by
PhD student, Rev. AHyun Lee


The PANAAWTM Conference (Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry) was held on the campus of Garrett-Evangelical last week for a second consecutive year.  Its focus was the “Politics of Solidarity: Women of Color in Ministry and Academy.”  Under the direction of Dr. Anne Joh, our staff and students engaged “works of supererogation” to provide hospitality for our guests. We were privileged to be able to host this event and grateful to each of the sponsors.*  We are also very excited about celebrating the 30-year anniversary of PANAAWTM next year again, at Garrett-Evangelical. 

For those with eyes to see, the campus was abuzz with a kind of energy and s/Spirit that was enlivening and that I believe brings hope for the future of our human relating.  I’ll tell you why!  The work of PANAAWTM is leading – and I do mean leading - by modeling a broader inclusion and concern for other sisters of color, as well as by including attention to practical theology.  The conference attracts not only religion and theology scholars, but also women in ministry (e.g., chaplaincy, pastoral psychotherapy, and advocacy work) and women in other fields of study who value PANAAWTM’s commitments, who are inspired, and who, I am suspecting, are renewed by the time together.

Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock gave the pre-conference lecture about her work on “soul repair “and the concept of moral injury as distinctive from PTSD (Post Traumatic Shock Disorder).  It was a compelling consideration of the moral injuries sustained during war by soldiers trained to become killers, and who, sooner or later will become aware of the profound moral dilemma that results from “doing their job.”  I commend her book, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (co-authored with Gabirella Lettini, 2013). 

The conference proper began Thursday evening with a panel (including our own Drs. Nancy Bedford and Gennifer Brooks) addressing the main topic of the conference and there was great appreciation for the inclusion of non-Asian women.  I also attended a panel presentation (including our pastoral theology doctoral student, Rev. Ahyun Lee) on Saturday morning, entitled, “Building Solidarity by Sharing Pains and Struggle.”  All this is to say, that the conference focus, the breadth of inclusion on all fronts, the hospitality rendered, and the attentiveness to aesthetic beauty, artistically, musically, and visually, throughout the conference and into its closing worship on Saturday morning could not help but cause one to reflect on the new thing that God is doing in the midst of us.  Do we not perceive it (Isaiah 43:19)?

I say that PANAAWTM is leading because I see it’s effort to first and foremost honor a space for Asian women to gather for a few days in the comfort of solidarity within the group.  They gather in a safe space to share their own scholarly efforts and to reflect upon ministry experiences without also having the distraction of “taking care” of others who do not belong in the same way and who cannot easily understand the variety of experiences among these women.  However, I also see in this conference PANAAWTM”S modeling of how one group can broaden its circle of inclusion to other women of color without losing its primary purpose to serve Asian women.  These are complex and difficult waters to navigate, but the commitment to do so was not to be missed last week.  Thank you, Dr. Joh, and all those around you who helped bring the conference to fruition.  Thank you, for helping us to get yet another glimpse of the eschatological vision of God’s kin-dom and the expansive welcome of God’s banquet table.

* Sponsors of the 29th Annual PANAAWTM Conference:

  • The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church
  • The Foundation for Theological Education in South East Asia
  • The Asian/Asian-American Center for Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical
  • The Styberg Preaching Institute at Garrett-Evangelical
  • The Gladys Crane Endowed Lecture Series at Garrett-Evangelical

Sustained by the Work of God

President’s Blog
March 19, 2014

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work (John 4:34 NRSV, from the gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent). This is the response of Jesus to his disciples, just following his encounter with the woman at the well and their conversation about living water.  The disciples have returned from town bringing food with them and they have encouraged Jesus to eat something.  I am captured by this response and its implication for Christians, especially for those of us who have public leadership responsibilities.  What would it mean to really feel that we are sustained, that we actually survive, by doing the will of God and by working toward or participating in the completion of God’s work?

Rector and DyckLast week, a few of us at the school had the privilege of visiting with our Northern Illinois Conference Bishop, Sally Dyck.  The purpose of our time together was to consider some of her thoughts about the kind of skills necessary for effective ministry and how that might translate into formational and educational goals for our graduates – a timely conversation since the faculty are just beginning the earliest stages of a curriculum revision process! 

Bishop Dyck spoke of four things in particular:

  1. The capacity to be a spiritual director (including engagement in personal spiritual disciplines and the skill to lead others in their own spiritual growth and development);

  2. The ability to utilize community organizing skills (to lead in way that actually gets things done);

  3. The capacity for improvisation (to creatively respond to what is given based on a solid theological/biblical/ethical/historical foundation), and,

  4. Cultural competence (the ability to do contextual analysis, to seek resources for understanding where necessary, and to communicate and relate in ways that are culturally sensitive, appreciative, and informed).

She told us that pastors do not often get into trouble in the ministry because of theology, but more typically because they are ineffective leaders.  Essentially, the Bishop is asking for leaders who are spiritually grounded, who can get things done, who can respond creatively to given situations, and who understand the inescapable cultural dimensions of every ministry context.  It made great sense to us.  Our conversation was lively, full of good humor, and inspired as we considered how the seminary might partner in meaningful ways.  I believe we all felt a renewed sense of the potential for our alliance together between church and seminary, work that could make a real impact in the world.

And, so this week may we reflect upon being sustained by engaging the work of God by being leaders who love God with all their mind, soul, and strength (spiritually grounded); leaders who accomplish something, who get things done (“Faith without works is dead” James 2:26); leaders who are led by the Holy Spirit and who can participate in the new thing that God is doing (“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19); and leaders who understand and care about those with whom they are in ministry (who love their neighbors as they love themselves).  This kind of work is sustaining and does help accomplish God’s purpose.  As we think on these things, I believe we are called to consider a reorientation of consciousness and intentionality about how we are “fed,” nourished, and sustained in doing the work of the One who has sent us – a most proper focus for our continuing Lenten devotions.


How can such things be?

President’s Blog
March 12, 2014

Last weekend I attended a meeting in Dallas sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry – specifically a training event for the Ministerial Assessment Specialists who do psychological evaluations for candidates and clergy in ordination processes. For quite a number of years, I’ve been a member of the Advisory Committee that supports this work. We knew that one of our members had been in a serious car accident a year ago and very nearly died. We learned during our meeting that though there has been major progress in his recovery, he suffered devastating injuries that have resulted in a future with severe physical and emotional challenges. The information all but silenced us as our committee acknowledged the news, but immediately recognized we were helpless to make what felt like any meaningful response. Flowers? A card? We were experiencing our own profound challenges in how to process this painful reality and our helplessness in the face of it. The subject was changed and we went on to discuss the business at hand.

The unspoken question for me, and I suspect for some of the rest of us, was, “How can such things be?” We had been faced with something about which we really just had no gratifying way to make sense. “Accidents happen” was not adequate. And yet, as Christians and as persons who have pastoral leadership responsibilities, we are obligated to struggle with these ambiguous realms of life experience and of our faith - experiences that we simply cannot take in, either because they strain our credulity, - they are not logical, or because they are emotionally overwhelming, for good and/or for ill.

Christ Instructing Nicodemus Crijn HendrickszI think this is essentially the realm of experience that Nicodemus found himself in as he met Jesus under the cover of night (we know that as a Pharisee he had to be careful about being seen with this controversial Jesus). Nicodemus was seeking further understanding about some of what Jesus had been teaching. There were questions about being born again by water and by spirit. And, I would add that we could be asking further questions about this passage and the meaning of God giving God’s only Son for the sake of the world, questions about the meaning of eternal life, and questions about how the world could be saved through this gift of God’s son. 

The story in John 3:1-17 is the gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday. As I have prepared to preach the text this week, I have struggled with those aspects of our faith that do not readily make human sense to us – hence the questions, “How can these things be? How are such things possible?” And then the experiences of life that lead us to similar questions – experiences in which something is too good to be true, or something so painful and tragic that we plead, “Dear God, let it not be so."

To be perfectly honest, when I discovered the text for the week I squirmed around with it, wondering how I could find some other angle or focus in the story. I thought about changing the title, or choosing another text. I wanted to resist resorting to easy answers or the platitudes of faith to which we sometimes appeal hoping that if we say them loud enough and repeat them enough, that maybe our listeners will feel the spirit, get whipped up, and not really be thinking about what they are hearing.  So much of our spiritual language makes no real logical, human sense.

After indulging these escapist fantasies, I realized that I could not avoid the number of challenges I found at every turn. I resigned/committed myself to struggle with the text as an obligation of leadership. This doesn’t mean the results are worthy, but the process of “leaning in” to the work could not be turned away from. I know this struggle is a common experience for those of you who have to preach every Sunday, and from my teenage years on, I have always admired the weekly preachers for this dedication.

Working on the sermon brought me to the mysteries of our faith and the necessity to engage what Paul Ricoeur called the second naivete, that condition we may find ourselves in when after studying, learning, and coming to grips with the limitations of how much we really do not know and cannot not know in ways that will satisfy our human longing for certainty and understanding – after all this, we take that leap of faith that Kierkegaard described and we decide to believe anyway, as a child believes and trusts. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

We “see through a glass darkly” now, but as Christians we are called to believe anyway and to take responsibility, as did Nicodemus, for seeking understanding, and for living faithfully, trusting that even as we have to ask, “How can these things be?” that God is God and we are not. Let us have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts that trust God with these spiritual mysteries of the faith so that we might offer witness to God’s extravagant gift of love to the world in Jesus Christ.

The Irony of "Giving Up" for Lent

Ash-Wednesday-Bulletin-CoverPresident’s Blog
March 5, 2014

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”     

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten Season preceding Easter.  Many of us engage various forms of self-denial, penitence, abstinence, and/or fasting as a way to become more aware of God’s presence and as a way to prepare for the remembrance of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is sometimes an irony in our decision about what it is we will be “giving up” each Lenten season.  The thing we choose, while it may be a real sacrifice of something we normally enjoy, is often given up in relation to a vain self-interest. The sacrifice is not necessarily conceived of as that which will enhance our relationship with God or help us to be more conscious of God’s presence, or lead us to real repentance for our shortcomings.   We give up things like certain foods, smoking, or the avoidance of exercise.  These sacrifices are positive steps toward better health and better stewardship of our bodies.  But, I sometimes wonder if we take a ride on Lent to get something done we have not been able to accomplish otherwise.  As well intentioned and important as these efforts are, do these sacrifices connect consciously enough to a spirit of repentance or to more sensitivity for God’s presence in our lives?  Or, are these efforts at self-denial only ennobled ways of accomplishing, under religious censure, something we would not otherwise have undertaken?

I know I have drawn too clean a distinction here, for there is always ambiguity in our human motivations:  “ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV).  Along with St. Paul, we need all the help we can get to do the things that we know we ought to do.  And, we can always appeal to an ethic of at least doing the right thing, if for not exactly the right reasons – oh, so human of us!  The lectionary texts for today speak to this complexity.  From Isaiah 58, I note verses 5-7:

“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? 
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
 and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, 
to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

God challenges us about parading our humility and self-righteousness, when what God really desires is that we would respond to the needs of our neighbors.  And in Matthew, from the “Sermon on the Mount,” we find a similar concern, with a focus on our prayer lives:

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (MT 6:5-6).

I am troubled by public prayers before a meal in which we/I regularly, in the midst of our/my own gratitude for the gift of food before me remember those who will not be eating today.  And, then I proceed to actually do little or nothing about it, except for the occasional money given to a stranger begging on the streets, or the occasional donation to a food pantry, or the occasional service in a soup kitchen.  It is all pretty comfortable for me.  I do not worry about whether or not I will be able to eat today.  I know I will have a warm bed to sleep in and a roof over my head tonight.  I also know that what I have done is not enough, even as I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of an economic system that does not support equitable distribution of our resources.

There is certainly no one right way to go about observing Lent.  My Lenten discipline will include times of self-assessment, reflection and prayer.  I will repent for how I have failed to live more fully into my Christian vocation and into the commandments to love God with all my mind, heart, and soul, and to love my neighbor as myself.  But, I am not yet clear about what it is I will give up for Lent.  Perhaps, I will give up the easy prayers that do not result in significant action.  At the very least, I encourage all of us to spend time in our prayer closets, honestly considering how we have fallen short, listening to what God may be saying to us, and seeking discernment for the meaningful expression of real change in our lives that moves us closer to the prophet’s admonition to “loose the bonds of injustice.”  May this Lenten season be a period of deep reflection and renewal for our seminary community and friends, and a time of blessing as we seek to more fully know God’s presence in our lives.  


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