Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/30 2019

The Power of Empty Hands

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The temptation is strong and will grow as your mission trip departure date approaches.

The mere thought of traveling to and working in Third World communities is enough to get our anxiety working overtime: Will I be safe? Can I drink the water? Will I be able to handle the poverty? What will it be like to be the wealthiest person the community may have ever met (I, who have never considered myself wealthy in the least!)? How will I respond to people in need—to hungry children? How will the trip change me—in my understanding of how God works . . . in relationship with my modest “wealth”?

This internal anxiety, though uncomfortable, can be a God-given instrument of deep learning and personal change (precisely why I signed up for this trip anyway!). It signals I’m crossing over, stepping onto that holy ground of encounter with people whose life assumptions are quite different from mine. And a faith which I hope to understand. It prepares my heart to receive the unexpected. And, it reminds me that God is in charge of the trip from start to finish.

But as the anxiety grows, most short-term missionaries begin to stock up on “gifts”—pens, candy, spiral notebooks, toothbrushes, etc. Well, maybe “gift” is the wrong word if a gift is meant to symbolize the relationship between two people. In fact, the items many groups leave behind in the community tell the receivers little about who we are, and clearly reveals that we know precious little about them. Often, all it communicates is that I assume that the receiver needs it. (If I give a friend a toothbrush, I’m bound to get a strange look.)


Meeting New Friends

To truly meet a new friend, I have to set aside previously-held assumptions, my degrees and status, and my power, and receive the person for who they are. For a long, uncomfortable moment, my complete ignorance of the local language reduces me from a respected professional to a mere toddler, babbling phrase-book greetings to the raucous delight of the host community’s children. In a flash, I realize how accustomed I have become to my personal “accessories”—my status and specialized knowledge about all kinds of things that, suddenly, don’t seem very important. In a way, these are the things that make me who I am. Or do they? I blush, bowing my head under the weight of the revelation. Tears well up in my eyes. I smile. And the host community’s Welcome Committee somehow senses the moment, surges forward, and embraces me. All 34 adults and all 52 children—the little ones, repeatedly. (“I’ve never been hugged by 86 people in a row in my entire life!”, I complain later, beaming). The awkward yet powerful initial encounter set the stage for the whole week of work and transformed us into the impossible: friends.

Embracing with Empty Hands

This is why the mission pastor told us not to load ourselves down with “gift” items—we would have transformed the moment of powerful encounter into a “give-me” circus with kids yelling and grabbing to get more. Unknowingly, we would have flaunted our wealth and left powerful expectations for the next church group coming to this community. A proverb from western Ethiopia puts is this way: “We only embrace with empty hands.”

Don’t get me wrong. To take a simple gift or two on a mission trip is a beautiful act. To give something that speaks of where I come from to that special new friend who teaches me something surprising about myself and about God. And we can set aside the rest of the clutter which really serves only to make us feel better about returning to our comfortable homes and hot showers.


I have to empty my hands to be able to receive from my new friends.

For our calling is to engage in “mission in the way of Jesus Christ”, following the One who embodied a deep commitment to solidarity. Jesus stands in solidarity with people caught in the line of fire, those trapped under the weight of systemic oppression, people at their wits’ end due to hunger or police violence or injustice. Though we can’t change the world in a day (and sometimes I use that as an excuse to avoid taking the first step!), we can choose to stand with those who are hurting. In a time of discouragement and frustration, how might you join with Jesus Christ who is today standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed?


The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell is the director of the Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. Additionally he teaches mission courses at the Seminary including the M.Div. required class Intercultural Experiential Learning. During the 2019 January-Term, groups traveled to Cuba and studied mission in context at Evangelical Theological Seminary as well as the Philippines where they learned about the Churches’ response to the environmental crises with Silliman University.  


1/18 2019

In Support of Pastors

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supporting pastors

When I was coming through seminary, I heard a few distinct messages loud and clear:

  • “There won’t be a church job for you when you graduate, so don’t expect to find one.”
  • “Don’t worry too much about understanding budgets, your church will have a financial secretary to help you with that.”
  • “Taking on some education debt is very common.”

At the time, my youth, general ignorance about that world, and low economic expectations (it was, after all, 2008 when I started seminary) protected me from the naturally frightened and conflicted response one might have to that combination of statements. As Ezra Pound wrote in Cantos, “I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere.” I didn’t particularly try to.


Supporting Pastors

But what happens when church leaders who were taught this way come of age in the 60 hour work weeks of ministry? What happens when general ignorance becomes particular knowledge—of human suffering, economic inequity, savior complexes, untenable expectations, impossible working structures, loneliness and lack of support? Well, that brings us to the fourth message I remember loud and clear from my seminary days, “Remember, 50 percent of pastors burn out in the first five years.” Ouch.

Now, I can’t say if the conversation at my alma mater has changed, but I can say that since that time the General Assembly of the PCUSA, their Board of Pensions, and certainly at Pittsburgh Seminary, that conversation has been taken up with urgency, and quite a bit has changed at those levels to support pastors, particularly new pastors, better. Not only that, but as our mean pastoral age in the PCUSA (and across the mainline church) is rising and pastors are retiring, we are moving from a surplus of pastors to a potential shortage, which while not particularly good news, does shift things a bit.


Pastor Burnout

Here’s the rub—in my anecdotal experience—though national structures and educational institutions have been pivoting to reconcile some of the issues that lead to clergy burnout, local congregations, amidst slowing attendance, rural/urban divides, political battles, and financial struggles, have generally been acting in a way that exacerbates clergy health and sustainability issues. In short, their anxiety sometimes seems to be delivered upon their pastors, who are working 60 hours a week for 20 hours a week pay, as though there is an endless supply of such pastors to absorb their disappointment. However, because changing policy is so much easier than changing culture, we as a church and a denomination have been avoiding a conversation about what causes clergy burnout locally in favor of system and policy changes nationally.

Perhaps this is because, very simply, there is a lot we cannot change if our church has 20 hours a week worth of salary to offer. That is what we have to offer. If we have an aging building that needs increased care in a community where selling the asset is unlikely, that is a pretty unavoidable reality. If we are in a rural county with struggling schools and abandoned industry, we can’t offer you a “transitioning” neighborhood with big city amenities. But this negative self-assessment pattern of churches often leads us away from our natural gifts and assets. We stop thinking about all we have to offer and how we might care for and lead with our pastors in new and creative ways and instead get stuck in a spiral thinking that our pastor is going to leave us anyway.


Caring for Pastors

Last year I visited a congregation looking for a pastor in a small town five hours from the closest international airport. They took me out to dinner at the town’s new restaurant, told me about the downtown renaissance, introduced me to the mothers of the church, offered me a manse to live in—furnished or unfurnished, as I preferred—and I hadn’t even applied for the position! They talked about their love and hope for the community, the community’s DNA as hard working and family oriented. They spoke about the virtues of their business district and mentioned that in a small town it is easier to get things done. If a potential pastor or her spouse was interested in starting a business locally, working remotely, or being active in civic organizations, the church had the connections to make it happen and they would deploy them. They were clear about the community’s struggles, but even clearer about their care for and investment in any pastor they might welcome. More than that, they were clear that there was more on the table than a salary.

They wanted a pastor who would plan not on making a job there, but a life there. The church was ready to consider full or part time, negotiate with family/parental leave and vacation, and make sure that the quality of life was such that their pastor would not miss the amenities one needs to cope with other challenges and contexts—like overworking in a city that never sleeps. There was no sense that this community would back bite their pastor’s choice to actually use her continuing education time or take the vacation in her contract. There was no hint that they would be offended by a pastor mothering children while leading the church or coaching little league as a part of their ministry. There was no expectation that ministry only happened in certain outfits or to certain people. Generally speaking, these people wanted to invite a human pastor to minister with them, because they didn’t just want to be served by their pastor, they wanted to love and share life with their pastor.

I was shocked by how moved I was. Why isn’t this always how it works? What have we let our anxiety make of us, that we chew our pastors up out of our own self-doubt? That we speak of ourselves as forsaken? Do we not believe that God is working and present in our midst, loving us and making us lovable?


The Beloved and Chosen of God


Those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult.

Churches large and small, full-time and part-time, rural and urban, are beloved of God. Each has gifts and love to share. Their leadership needs will look different, and their life together will offer different joys and struggles. If a community is called to have pastoral leadership, then the community is called to lead with, care for, and share life with their pastor. We recently celebrated the wonder of the birth of Jesus. I invite you to consider what it meant for the small city of Bethlehem, for the humble shed Jesus was born in, for the small nation and poor people he came to that they were chosen in this way, as the viable space for the vocation of our God. Could our churches be viable in the same way?

Friends, we were chosen as those to whom God might come. Let us treat each other as the beloved and chosen of God and let us remember that those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult. Our pastors remind us what God is calling us to and also that God is not calling us or them to be everything to everyone. And that is okay. This Christmas may not have been perfect at your church or in your life or with your pastor. That is okay. My guess is Mary might have said the same thing about the first one. But God’s grace for us and God’s belovedness of us persists, so we are called to love each other.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


1/15 2019

Inside the PTS Curriculum: American Religious Biography

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The “Inside the PTS Curriculum” series gives you an inside look at what students are learning in their courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Each article focuses on one class, its subject matter, what students can expect to learn, the required texts, and the kinds of assignments students can expect. We’ll let you know whether the course is required or available for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), or Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Each article will include the professors’ bio.

This week’s course is “American Religious Biography.”

Heather Vacek teaching MDiv, MAPS, and MTS program students in PittsburghAbout American Religious Biography

In the Fall Semester, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students learned about Church history with the Rev. Dr. Heather Vacek in the class “American Religious Biography.” An upper level elective, this class is open to students in the Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Theological Studies (MTS), or Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry (MAPS) programs.

This course offers an investigation of the history of Christianity in America through the study of religious biography. The course explores the interaction of theology, context, and religious practice in the lives of Christians from the colonial era to the 20th century. Rather than an abstract study of published theologies, institutions, and movements, this course acknowledges that a wide variety of individuals have asserted those theologies and shaped movements and organizations and have done so from unique social locations.

In this course, Dr. Vacek invited students to explore how Christian belief and practices have shaped one another in concrete historical settings. Reading biographical monographs of religious figures and reflecting on those narratives in writing and in conversation, students gained an appreciation for what it means to live, worship, and serve in particular historical contexts. Through writing assignments, Dr. Vacek invites students to make connections between the past and present in order to shape current and future life and ministry. Upon completion of this course students were able to: 1) describe the historical relationship between context and the shape of Christian practice and 2) narrate the value of historical study to current lives of faith.

As to required texts, students read Margaret Bendroth’s The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Catherine Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World, Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, and Barry Hankins’ Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. Brief additional readings were posted throughout the course.

As a hybrid class, this course met online on odd weeks and face-to-face on even weeks. Students in this class completed historical context summaries, reading responses, discussion board contributions, weekly tweets, and a final project or sermon. In addition, students were expected to not only participate regularly in class, but to undertake leadership of a class discussion.


About the Instructor

The professor for this course the Rev. Dr. Heather Hartung Vacek is ordained in the Moravian tradition. Dr. Vacek joined the faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2012 and in 2016 became vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty / associate professor of church history. Her research focuses on the historical relationship between Christian belief and practice in the American context, particularly as it relates to suffering. Her book, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness (Baylor University Press, 2015), explores Protestant reactions to mental illnesses from the colonial era through the 21st century. Her research interests also include American religious history, practical theology, and theologies of disability and suffering. After working for a decade in corporate positions, Vacek earned an M.Div. and Th.D. from Duke University, Duke Divinity School.

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