Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

9/22 2017

The Master of Divinity Will Challenge You

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master of divinity (mdiv) degree studentGetting my Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a lot like the video for Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”.

No, really, stay with me here.

If you’ve not seen the video, it features Talking Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne, wearing an ill-fitting suit with a bowtie and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that would make George McFly jealous. He is visibly uncomfortable, sweating, seemingly out of breath, engaging in what could charitably be called dancing against a wavy turquoise background. Byrne spasms arrhythmically, epileptically, twitching and lurching like a marionette trying to avoid enemy fire, all the while talk-singing in a cadence reminiscent of a televangelist. The third verse is the one that always sticks with me long after the song itself has faded:
“And you may ask yourself, ‘What is that beautiful house?’

And you may ask yourself, ‘Where does that highway go to?’

And you may ask yourself, ‘Am I right? Am I wrong?’

And you may say to yourself, ‘My God! What have I done?’”

Insecurity in Answering Your Call

Offhand, that probably doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of the seminary experience. It’s fraught with imagery of the unknown and the ambiguous, vacillation and doubt, strangers and the strange. Those are hardly the creature comforts we seek out.

In this I am heartened by just how few of our biblical role models seemed to have any idea what they were doing when they answered their call. Abraham leaves his country and kindred and father’s house on a wing and a prayer, trusting in a vague promise in which God doesn’t even specify where Abraham and Lot will end up (Gen 12:1-5). He even laughs when God promises he and Sarah a child, a true heir, in their advanced age (Gen 17:15-18). Yet through all this turbulence, Abraham plows forward and believes, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Moses, of course, doesn’t see himself fit to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He asks God what he shall tell the Israelites when they ask for the name of the God who sent him, and God replies, “‘I Am who I Am’”—which to me has always sounded remarkably like, “Mind your own business, Moses.” (Ex 3:14) It’s not hard to empathize with the uncertainty Moses must have carried with him, and yet, though he considers himself “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex 4:10), he leaves the lap of luxury to liberate his people into the unknown.

That’s not even to mention the prophets. Before Isaiah says, “‘Here I am; send me!’” (Isa 6:8) he proclaims, “‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Jeremiah protests, “‘Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’” (Jer 1:6). Gideon opines, “‘My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judg 6:15). The young Samuel receives a vision from God but is afraid to tell it to Eli. (1 Sam 3:15) Jonah, of course, lets his boots and boat speak for him. All of them are filled with insecurity and doubt that would make David Byrne dash his bowtie to the ground and slink off in defeat. Nevertheless, in the midst of their reservations, they struggle to their feet and deliver God’s word.

Seminary Will Challenge You

See, here’s the thing. Even though “Once in a Lifetime” conjures up all these uncomfortable, even jarring existential questions, it sticks in your head. The sum total of those troublesome parts is much less than the effect of its magnificent whole. That’s been my experience in the Master of Divinity program at Pittsburgh Seminary. I make no bones about this when talking to prospective students. You will be stretched. You will be challenged. You will hurt. And when you somehow garner the briefest moment of spare time, you will realize that, even though our seminary education might call us into indifferent or hostile parts of the world; even though we might be asked to go down unfamiliar highways into twisted alleyways and sneering cul-de-sacs; even though we might encounter new traditions and ideas and ways of seeing God that force us to reevaluate what we once pigeonholed as right and wrong; even though we might well, in the course of ministry to a world that increasingly needs and yet does not want ministry, whisper to ourselves, “My God, what have I done?”—that very same God is there with us through trial and travail. It is only when we occasionally step back from our dimly-lit mirrors that we can see the grace of God transforming our uncertainties into something beautiful, something marvelous, something glorious.

Same as it ever was.

Michael Ondrick is a second-year Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, originally from Belmont, Ohio. He is currently discerning a call to international mission, specifically that dealing with the addicted and mentally ill. A graduate of The Ohio State University, his hobbies include performing and writing improv and sketch comedy, professional wrestling, music both worshipful and secular, and cryptozoology. His favorite parts of the Bible are the weird parts.

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8/14 2017

When Faith Gets Political

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Image Source: Getty / Chip Somodevilla

 

Years ago, I was serving as a short-term supply pastor for a very small congregation in rural Virginia. My third Sunday there fell on the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, so I decided to weave a couple of sentences from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech into my sermon. It seemed appropriate, especially since I was preaching from the book of Amos that day.

The following Sunday, after worship, the head deacon pulled me aside and apologetically informed me that “some” people in the congregation were upset about my sermon from the previous week. When I asked him why, he explained that these congregants felt the sermon was “too political.” I was stunned, because I didn’t think my sermon was “political” at all. To me, it was simply a sermon about justice, a prominent theme in Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

They’re getting “too political”.

As I watched events unfold in Charlottesville over the weekend, I wondered: on Sunday, will preachers who speak out against hatred and violence, and who publicly denounce the sin of white supremacy, be told they’re getting “too political”? I imagine many of them heard just such criticisms from their congregations.

But as my colleague Roger Owens has articulated so well (see “The Church—Political, Yes. Partisan, No.“), there’s a big difference between standing up for what we believe is right and pushing a partisan political agenda. I’ve spent the last decade of my life studying and writing about conflict in congregations, so I know that every community of faith contains a plurality of political ideas. I’m not suggesting that we try to force uniformity on every political issue. Faithful people often disagree on how we should order our common life, and that is to be expected.

Every person is created in the image of God.

Yet, over time, the church has actually reached widespread consensus on some things – and one of those is that racism, or any form of bigotry, is fundamentally wrong. It hasn’t always been this way, of course. In fact, for centuries many Christians justified the mistreatment and even enslavement of other human beings, often using the words of Scripture as their rationale. Gradually, though, we have come to see the truth that was there all along: that every person is created in the image of God and is worthy of respect, love, and care.

From this perspective, it is quite clear that any attempt to claim that some people are superior to others is a lie. It is a lie designed to sow division, to set God’s children against one another – and as such, it must be rebuked and resisted. This weekend I saw many courageous people rebuking and resisting the lie of white supremacy: the clergy members who peacefully stood their ground against armed white nationalists; the pastors and teachers who spoke out in their congregations; the citizens who used their voices to say, clearly and firmly, “this is not acceptable.”

And yet, in another sense, rebuking and resisting white supremacy feels like an awfully low bar – but it’s a bar that many white Christians (myself included) are often hesitant to cross. Maybe we’d rather not invite confrontations with our friends, neighbors, or family members. Maybe saying nothing feels a lot safer than speaking out. Maybe we’re afraid of being criticized for getting “too political.”

But the truth is: saying nothing is both a mark of privilege and a sign of complicity. Even if, deep inside, we believe that white supremacy is wrong and has no place in our churches or our society, no one can possibly know that is what we believe unless we say it clearly and show it plainly through our actions. As author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It is our job to work for justice.

As Christians, it is not our job to push a partisan political agenda in our communities of faith. Our faith is founded on the lordship of Jesus Christ, not on membership in a particular political party. But as Christians, no matter what our political affiliation may be, it is our job to work for justice, to raise our voices and speak the truth in Christian love – even when it may be uncomfortable. As Christians, it is our job to call sin by its name and to engage in confession and repentance. As Christians, it is our job to affirm that every single person is a beloved child of God.

To be clear: this is not always easy to do. It takes courage to get up in the pulpit of a white congregation and preach against the evils of racism. But it also takes courage to call out offensive remarks or racist jokes at home or in the workplace. It takes courage to look carefully at our institutions and identify systemic patterns of racism embedded within them. It takes courage to name our own privilege and use the power we have to try to make things better for everyone, not just ourselves.

This is a time for moral courage. This is a time for telling others what we believe, for standing up for what we know is right. It is a time for proving that our beliefs aren’t just empty words, but rather deep convictions that move us to action. Some might call this “getting political.” I’d call it discipleship.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is associate professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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7/21 2017

What a Church Planter Needs

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church planting for new communities

This morning I had breakfast with a church-planter. Starting a new worshiping community is a different beast from pastoring an established congregation. To quote The Wizard of Oz, “Now that’s a horse of a different color.”

“There has been vocational confusion, dark times,” my church-planting friend told me, now four years into this endeavor.

Of course, I thought, there has to be vocational confusion and dark times.

After all this pastor has had to wear more hats than I can imagine: visionary leader, construction foreman, preacher, worship leader, volunteer organizer, community developer, grant writer, meal planner, non-profit director, fundraiser, coffee-shop barista, spiritual director, cheerleader, landlord, entrepreneur, marketer, community events organizer, theologian, evangelist, custodian, ad exhaustium.

And all that to help birth a community the vision for which is still taking shape.

One wonders how pastors of new church plants survive the beginning years. What allows those who sustain this kind of ministry to do it? What keeps them from hanging up their stoles and dawning the barista’s apron full time?

I suspect that though this work is a horse of a different color, the practices that have sustained pastors throughout the centuries in the widest variety of ministry settings haven’t changed. They are the practices that keep us most open and available to God, the practices that help us discover and honor our truest selves, the practices that help us stay true to the voice of vocation speaking to us from deep within.

There are many, but three strike me as particularly relevant: having a soul friend, keeping a sabbath, and practicing silence.

Have a Soul Friend

I pastored churches for eight years, and I don’t think I would have survived without my soul friend—a spiritual director. My spiritual director created the space once a month for me to do nothing but look at my life to discern how the Holy Spirit might be at work. His office was a space where I could cry, yell, laugh, and think. His office was a space where I could do the work of remembering who I truly am and why I was in this work.

When the demands of ministry begin to overwhelm us, our soul friends can create the space for us to remember our deepest center in the heart of God.

These friendships can take different shapes. A pastor can see a trained spiritual director, have a mutual friendship with another clergy person, or meet with a group of clergy friends to practice soul friendship for one another. (One warning about clergy groups: The minute they begin to become gripe sessions or mutual advice-giving sessions, run away fast. That’s not what soul friendship is about.)

Keep a Sabbath

Second, a church-planter should consider keeping a sabbath. Sociologist Judy Wajcam has argued that we live in an era of “temporal disorganization.” Because of technology, there are fewer boundaries on our time. Work spills into family and play in a way it never has before. And this is truer, I suspect, for church-planters than for other pastors. Church-planters often have no office to go to, no staff to meet with—they lack the structures of an institution to order their time. And without those structures, the work of ministry bleeds in to every second of every day.

We then can forget that it’s not our frantic agency that brings in the tides and holds the stars in the sky. There is Another at work.

And that’s why God gave us a day of rest, so that we could cease from work long enough, not just to rejuvenate (a good day off can do that), but remember that it’s not our initiative that matters in ministry, but it’s discerning and joining God’s initiative that makes the difference.

The work of getting things started is so close to the heart of church planting there’s all the more reason to stop once a week to remember: it doesn’t all depend on us.

Practice Silence

Finally, practice silence. In silence we get to know the voices that drive us—and often they are not the voice of God. We are driven by the need to succeed, to prove ourselves, to “get this ship off the ground” or “turn this ship around.” Many of those voices aren’t the gentle, wooing spirit of God, but are the voices of our own frail egos (and of our judicatory leaders). In silence, we can see them for what they are: smoke screens, concealing the real voice we need to listen to—the voice of God and the voice or own vocations, which, if we listen carefully enough, we might discover are one and the same.

We chatted for an hour, then my friend had to hurry away. He had another appointment at nine o’clock. And I knew he had another meeting that afternoon, because it was with a friend of mine to talk about small group ministry. Then back to the worship space tonight for the weekly community meal. Such is the life of the church-planter.

A life that can be sustained—and even flourish—when soul friends, sabbath rest, and silence give us the space to discern the voice of God, remember who we are, and rest in a Love that will not let us go.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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