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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


Capacity for Empathy

February 10, 2014
Lallene Rector

A few weeks ago, I began the process of meeting individually with each employee of the seminary. I still have many meetings yet to go, but it is my conviction that at this time of transition in leadership it is important to understand how persons who work at the school are experiencing their jobs and to understand their concerns. I have also invited discussion about the ideas and hopes our employees have for the school as we move forward into the future. I began these meetings with the staff, those whom I have known in the comings and goings of our work together over so many years, but with whom I have never really sat and discussed their experience of being here. My own knowledge is more limited to the experience of faculty members and administrators.

I can see more clearly how Garrett-Evangelical is a slightly different school from each of these various vantage points. This is obvious, but the difference now is that I am experiencing these slightly different schools as a result of the initial meetings with the staff.  Of course, the school means different things to different people. I have not yet encountered anyone for whom this is “just a job.” Job it is, to be sure, but there are larger and more personal meanings than that for most of us working here.

These conversations have reminded me, once again, of how critically important the capacity for empathy is in our relating to each other. It requires an interest in, concern for, and/or at least a curiosity about the other. Most of us walk fairly easily through our days encased in our own perspectives, concerned with our own interests and how things affect us. I do not criticize this natural inclination for I believe it is the basic orientation we have as human beings. I don’t think it’s possible to entirely escape our own perspectives, nor do I think we are called to do that. How would we be able to love our neighbors as our selves if we had no awareness of our own captivating self-interest and concern?

A Chinese depiction, Beijing, 1879 

One of the most compelling phrases in the New Testament for me has been, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him” (Mark 10:21 CEB). It jumped off the page at me when I was 20 and engaged in a piece of research at Texas Christian University, a study of the synoptic gospels and the analysis of every instance someone approached Jesus with a request. Do you recognize it? It immediately precedes the account of Jesus talking with a young man who has asked what he must do to obtain eternal life. We know the story more commonly as “The Rich Young Ruler” or “The Rich Young Man.”

I have pondered many times the meaning of this phrase. It tells us that before Jesus gave the young man the hard word to go and sell his possessions (for he had many), to give the proceeds to the poor, and, then to follow him, Jesus looked at him intentionally and loved him – first. Jesus must have known that what he was about to ask would be very, very difficult and I like to believe that Jesus considered the young man’s perspective before he offered this devastating directive. I like to believe that it was this act of empathy that led Jesus to love him.

In order for us to actually engage in an empathic understanding of what others are experiencing, from their perspective, we first have to be interested in that information. We have to care about the other person. We have to be curious. We have to open ourselves to something potentially different than ourselves. And, we have to risk experiencing the direct impact of others not seeing the world as we do. We are challenged to consider that others’ perspectives have as much experiential validity as our own. Surely, this must be one of the meanings of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Value your neighbor’s perspective – at least enough to try and understand it – as much as you value your own understanding. I am not saying that understanding means agreement, but deep understanding has great potential to change our own perspectives and, as a result, to change the decisions we make. Perhaps we already know this intuitively and that’s why we hesitate to really enter into the effort to understand another’s experience.

I have learned important things in the last couple of weeks only because I sat down to listen, truly interested in what I would hear. In a similar vein, this past Thursday we had our first  “all employee” meeting.  It was another opportunity to get to know each other better across our various work responsibilities  - to have a space in which we can come together as one G-ETS with all our gifts differing. Can we really afford as Christians to be uninterested in the experience of our neighbor and its implications for how we are to live justly?

I am committed to this work. And, I am pleased to report to you that even in the midst of emerging legitimate concerns, we are blessed to work with each other in the divisions of labor among us, committed to helping Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary be the best that it can be – together! Beyond the school, I encourage us to look around to those who are part of our ministry and life contexts, especially those who are less visible in their work and further back from the front lines. I am confident that these are often the persons without whom our work and our lives simply could not proceed well. I encourage us to cultivate our empathic interest in these neighbors and co-workers, for we are all part of the Body, together. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, CEB).

Let Your Light Shine Before Others

Light Shine

February 3, 2014
Lallene Rector

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership and the call that God places upon our lives to be leaders.  Being a “leader” was not part of an identity I could connect with for the better part of my adult life. Sometimes, however, the realization of a leadership dimension in one’s life just sneaks up on you. For a long time, it was other people who were leaders. They had the power to inspire and to speak well publicly. Leading meant people expected something of you. It meant accepting responsibility and the consequences of mistakes that can become very public, never mind the possibility of outright failing. It made me anxious and worried me about whether or not I could deliver. 

Many persons have had these feelings about leadership. We also know well the initial responses to God’s call of some of the great leaders in our biblical narrative. I think of Moses and his objection about not speaking well enough to influence Pharaoh (Exodus 6:30).  Jeremiah also protested he could not speak well because he was too young (Jeremiah 1:6-7). 

It’s easy to turn away from these biblical examples thinking that “leadership” is only for men or for those with big public jobs. Actually, the developmental processes of growing up mean taking increasing responsibility for one’s own life and the various roles we will come to play in our communities (parent, partner, worker, volunteer, friend, and/or as baptized Christians). We will inevitably become persons to whom someone will look for guidance, example, inspiration, expertise, and/or decision- making. 

The text from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” tells us not to hide our light under a bushel, but rather, “Let your light shine before others . . .” (Matthew 5:15-16). As Christians, we lead not by hiding our light, but by letting our light shine and by being a witness to the faith we hold.

I am just returning from the annual Association of Theological Schools’ seminar for presidents. Each morning for three days, devotions were lead by Father Ronald Rollheiser. Many of you know of him through his numerous publications on Christian spirituality. He is a theologian and the President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.  My fellow seminar participants and I received his daily homilies with great appreciation. Briefly, I share the leadership insights he presented to us:

  1. As Christians, we are called to a greater righteousness than the Scribes and the Pharisees. It is not enough to keep the commandments and to love those who love us. We must also love our enemies. In leadership, this means absorbing the tension in the system around us and not giving it back. We absorb, and we turn the other cheek.

  2. Part of our role as leaders is to bring life and light in order to keep our work together in the community from going flat – something like the way in which Jesus provided wine when it had run out at the Cana wedding lest the party go flat. It was a gathering that served the heart of the community’s life (and, let’s not get sidetracked by any suggestion that alcohol is the way to bring light and life).

  3. Leaders are called to be compassionate just as Christians are called to be “perfect” – not without flaw (a Greek understanding), but rather with compassion (an Hebraic understanding). We are to be “non-selectively compassionate” in the way that God brings the sunshine to all. We strive to love all persons and to treat equally those for whom we function as leaders. No favorites. No “less-thans.”

We learned at the end of our seminar, after Father Rollheiser had departed, that two days earlier his brother had died. He requested our leaders not reveal this information until he had taken leave of us. He was concerned we would be distracted from more fully receiving his devotions. I suspect he was correct about this. While there is no inherent right or wrong in his request, it does strike me that yet another part of leadership is the call to consider first the well-being of others, and sometimes at our own personal expense.

I close with one caveat. There are all kinds of leadership. Some forms are public in what appear to be those big important jobs. But, some of the most powerful and profound leadership we see takes place in the quiet, day-in and day-out servant leadership of devoted parents, dedicated school teachers, persevering small church pastors, faithful Christians, and all persons in the trenches of life who let their light shine in small acts of kindness.  

Where is the leadership in your life and how are you letting your light shine through it?


Practicing Radical Inclusion and Hospitality

January 27, 2014
Lallene J. Rector

Jewish-Reconstructionist-CongregationThis past weekend I attended a bar mitzvah at the Jewish Recontructionist Congregation here in Evanston (pictured on the left). As you may know, this is the ritual Jewish children go through at age 13 (bat mitzvah for girls) when they are elevated to adult standing in the congregation and judged responsible for thinking ethically about their lives, about right and wrong. There is an intensive and lengthy preparation for this rite of passage in which the young person learns to read Hebrew, studies the Torah, and learns more about what it means to be Jewish and to be part of the congregation.

During the service, the young man or woman is called to the bema to help lead the worship service, to read from the Torah (in Hebrew), and to offer reflections on the reading. In some ways, the bar or bat mitzvah service is very similar to our own Christian confirmation services, except that our confirmations are typically less intensive in preparation and do not include this level of participation in assisting with the service itself.

At one point in the service, on Saturday, the rabbi addressed this particular young man praising his relatively new-found ability to be in better control of his emotions, especially his anger when others annoyed him or when he could not have his own way. The rabbi spoke of how important this self-regulation capacity is (my psychological language, not his) when we are faced with people who are different from us. He emphasized the role of community and that though our young bar mitzvah now has more adult responsibilities for himself and his behavior toward others, he is not alone. All those who surrounded him in the congregation, his family and friends were there to love and support him. None of us really goes it alone.

As I sat during this service, I appreciated the hard work that made it possible for this young man to assist in leading worship, to read and speak in Hebrew and to offer an interpretation of the scripture at the tender age of 13 before the whole congregation. I was also quite moved by the love the congregation, his family, and the rabbi extended to him. I was impressed by the welcome offered to those of us who were visitors and by the rabbi’s emphasis on the important ability to accept and deal with difference. 

Let me not over read the degree of openness that may or may not have been present in this setting or generally, in reconstructionist theology. I do not know about this. It would require more study and more wisdom. But, this very positive experience on Saturday morning made me wonder again just how serious as Christians we really are about dealing with difference.

I attended a number of worship services last week some of which included the Eucharist. I have long paid close attention to the invitation to the table, always curious to see just how open that invitation will be, to see what, if any, qualifications will be placed upon it. It’s usually along the lines of “All are invited – if . . . and if . . . and if . . .” Or to be more specific for the United Methodist community, “those who love . . . who repent . . . who seek.” All excellent things to which we are called, but perhaps that invitation really isn’t to all. Last week, I heard a radically open invitation to the table, one that really got my attention: “All are invited; everyone in this room is invited: those who are outside of this room are invited . . .” and so it went. There were no qualifications. 

DoorI was aware there must have been those in the sanctuary who were probably shuddering at the absence of the “if’s” or the “who’s.” I was thinking, “Do we know that Jesus said anything at the last supper about having to believe in him, or having to repent of one’s sin, or intending to live a better life in peace with one’s neighbor, before one could eat and drink in remembrance of him?” Those qualifications were added later and they have been a source of much debate over the years.

Well, you will know I am not a liturgical scholar. I’m just reporting what went through my mind. I thought of the Seder meal, an extra glass of wine, and an open door for Elijah, who could arrive as an unknown guest and who was to be welcomed.  

St. BenedictI thought of the Rule of St. Benedict and unexpected visitors who show up at the monastery: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, 
for He is going to say, 
"I came as a guest, and you received Me" (Matt. 25:35).”[1]

I’m not sure that we as human beings, in our fallen state, are much inclined toward this kind of radical inclusion or radical hospitality, but I do believe we are called to it in the commandment to love our neighbor. Jesus taught it in so many ways: by those with whom he ate; those with whom he spent time and with whom he talked; by those whom he healed; and through his parables, especially “The Good Samaritan.” I continue to consider what practicing radical inclusion and radical hospitality might mean for the world and I am convinced that if we want positive transformation and we want to participate in bringing in God’s realm, then this is surely the way to begin.

[1] The Rule of Benedict, Book 53, “On the Reception of Guests.”

Leadership and Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 20, 2014
Lallene J. Rector

MLK Jr"In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."  Martin Luther King, Jr., 1958[1]

On this anniversary of what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 85th birthday, it is a “good and right” thing to pause and reflect upon leadership and its relationship to who we understand ourselves to be. 

For many years, there has been an explosion of publication on leadership - both monographs and journals dedicated to it. Our neighbors at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management contribute excellent thinking, research, and teaching on the topic. They are “leaders” of leaders. And thanks to the support of Mr. Jerre Stead, the Chair of our Board of Trustees, our newest elected United Methodist Bishops benefited from studying with this premier faculty last January. The business world, however, does not have the last or most exclusive word on leadership. The world of theological concerns has also recognized the explicit importance of studying leadership. In 2002, the Academy of Religious Leadership launched its Journal of Religious Leadership, peer reviewed and published semi-annually ( The journal focuses on leadership, administration, and finance. I commend it to you.

Even more powerful than books and journals is the opportunity to learn from the actual lives of great leaders. This past week, I convened our Leadership Team at the school for a half-day retreat to consider how we each came to the seminary and what keeps us here; to identify our concerns and hopes going forward in our service together; and, to share our goals for the coming months. As we reflected upon the quotation above, we thought about the incredible leadership Martin Luther King, Jr. provided in helping to initiate the Civil Rights Movement and in helping this country begin to move out of at least some of its long-standing racial injustice against black persons. The photo here is of MLK's, age 29, visit to the historic black women’s college, Bennett College in 1958, the same year as the quotation above.

Letter from Martin Luther King, Jr.
to Dwight Loder, President of
Garrett Biblical Institute

The Leadership Team also discussed a precious letter MLK sent in 1958 to Dr. Dwight Loder, the then president of Garrett Biblical Institute (you can read the entire letter in the link to the right). President Loder, later elected a Bishop of the United Methodist Church and for whom our “Loder” Hall is named, had invited MLK to become a faculty member at the seminary. MLK was struggling at that time with his vocational call and the particular manifestation of leadership it would take. Though he felt a strong inclination toward teaching, MLK discerned as best he could and without absolute assurance he had made “the right” decision, that his pastoral leadership necessitated he remain at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

As you know, I am deeply entrenched in the rising tide of racial conflict here in the deep South. My congregation and members of the community are also involved.  And they look to me to guide them spiritually and otherwise, as they move with uncertainty through this maze of racial tension.  I have a deep sense of responsibility . . . doing all in my power to alleviate the tensions that exist between Negro and white citizens.

MLK, of course, paid for this dedication with his life.  He was not a perfect man and we are not perfect people, but his life and his leadership show that we do not have to be perfect to effect truly transformative change for the wellbeing of all persons.  As Christians, we belong to and join in the strength of a committed community, together responding to God’s call to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). 

The invitation, alone, from Dwight Loder to Martin Luther King, Jr. to join our faculty makes me so very proud to be part of Garrett-Evangelical. This kind of leadership made it possible to establish the Center for the Church and the Black Experience. For more than 40 years, Garrett-Evangelical and the community beyond us have benefited from CBE’s leadership. The legacy continues now under the guidance of Dr. Angela Cowser, Director of CBE and Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion. We stand on the shoulders of visionary leadership at the seminary and we are inspired by the public theology of Dr. King – a kind of public theology that changed the world.

"In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."  MLK knew who he was and to whom he belonged. 

Who do you understand yourself to be “in the quiet recesses of your heart”? How does this inform your identity as a leader and inform the shape of your leadership?  Whatever you may discern for your own life at this time, I believe our mission to “prepare bold, spiritual leaders for the church, the academy, and the world” meaningfully participates in the broader call of God to do justice, kindness, and humility wherever our leadership takes us.  I encourage you to spend some time with God in the “quiet recesses of your heart” so that you may, with confidence, claim the leadership to which you are called.

[1] The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 1.  Edited by Clayborne Carson and Ralph Luker, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 19921, p. 1.

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