Six Observations about Presbyterian Theological Education: The View from My Window

This address was delivered on Oct. 6, 2021, at the second theology conference sponsored by Theology Matters at Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

I would like to thank Richard Burnett, as well as the other organizers of this Theology Matters conference, for the invitation to share a little time with you today. Sharing time is truly a gift and not a throwaway phrase imbedded in a speaker’s introduction. Time matters to all of us and, most certainly, the older I get the more I have come to realize that time is one of my most precious of possessions if, in fact, we can possess time. How I use it. Why I use it. How I choose to invest it is a matter of theological stewardship in ways that I clearly didn’t comprehend when I began my ordained ministry in 1985. So, I choose to spend my time with you today, as you choose to spend time with each other, because the matters of which we are thinking and discussing are worth our stewardship of time.

The second point I would like to make in my introduction is this: I am no John Leith. I am no Tom Gillespie. I am not an accomplished theologian or biblical scholar. In fact, I am not a child of the church; that is, I was not raised in a Christian family. I stumbled into church one day as a kind of last resort for my mother who wanted me out of the house and enrolled me in a neighborhood Vacation Bible School (VBS), in Omaha, Nebraska. And much to my surprise and, I suspect, even more of a surprise to my mother was that I actually enjoyed it––immensely so. I wanted to go back the next
day, and the next. And when the next year rolled around, I was one of the first to sign up to attend. Something about that experience grabbed me––and never really let me go––at that early age.

Several years later, we moved to a different community in a different state where middle school students were released from public school one hour a week to attend confirmation classes. When given the choice between attending algebra or leaving school for an hour to go to confirmation, I chose confirmation. The only problem was that I hadn’t attended a church in that community.

So when it came time to fill out the attendance form I scribbled in “Presbyterian” for my denomination, as that was the church in which I was first enrolled in VBS. And a funny thing happened on that three-block walk to confirmation. Indeed, I missed a lot of algebra and never acquired an aptitude to work any of the equations, but I loved confirmation. I loved the class. I loved the homework. I loved the study. And I loved learning. Once again, that experience grabbed me––and never let me go. Both are moments in my life in which I now see the activity of the Holy Spirit alive and at work.

So, you see, it’s important to me that you understand that I’m not a John Leith or a Tom Gillespie; a Donald Bloesch or a Timothy Keller. My point-of-view is that of the grown-up kid whose DNA never really belonged to the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the way that a lot of you have experienced belonging. There was no Montreat in my ecclesial experience, no Ghost Ranch or Synod Schools. Very few of my kin were Christians and those that were, were Methodists, I later discovered. My experience and intellectual assent were neither familial nor generational. In fact, I’m a bit of a loner; an ecclesial orphan who to this day still loves and gives thanks for the church people that nurtured me in the faith. But, importantly and distinctively, that love and thanksgiving found its expression through congregations and not General Assemblies; men like Reuben Lewis and women like Anna Mae Handevidt, not the Moderator or the Stated Clerk. And, of course, that formation is who I am and, I suspect in some important ways, has greatly informed how I have tried to lead the College and Theological Seminary known as the University of Dubuque for the last twenty-five years.

The View from My Window

On a December day twenty years ago, I received a call from one of our trustees; a high school dropout by the name of Charlie Myers. Charlie and his spouse, Romona, had just completed funding an $8 million library which, at the time, was the largest single commitment to the University of Dubuque. Charlie was calling to tell me that my office didn’t much look like a president’s office, and he wanted to do something about that. He told me that he wanted to build an administration building to which I politely declined. “Charlie,” I said, “we don’t need an administration building. What we need is a classroom building. So, if you’re willing to build a classroom building with some of the administration in it, I think we can talk.” “Well,” he said, “let’s do that.”

And, if you were to come to visit UDTS, you would see that, because of Charlie and Romona, the view from the Office of the President is really quite spectacular. And, given that I spend a good portion of each day looking out that window and wondering how we’re going to make our way through this, that, or the other mess, it’s a good thing that the view is expansive––rather than, say, a view of a brick wall. That would be a rather unfortunate metaphor for what I do!

Near the end of his career, Hasidic existentialist, Martin Buber, was encouraged to publish his philosophy in the way that Heidegger published Being and Time or Gadamer eventually wrote Truth and Method. Of course, Buber was best known for I and Thou and, to a lesser extent, The Way of Man. But instead of his own systematic, as was expected of him, Buber pulled together a collection of short stories written at very different periods of his life. Today, we know those collections as a book titled Meetings. On the celebration of his eightieth birthday, Buber, in trying to explain his intent in Meetings, said something like this: “I’m not a philosopher, prophet, or theologian, but a man who has seen something and who goes to a window and points to what he has seen.” Meetings is Buber’s way of pointing to that which he has seen. It’s an observation out of the window; a pointing; a glance.

And that’s how I invite you to understand my remarks today. I’m not a philosopher, prophet, or theologian but a person who has seen something over these last twenty-five years, and now I simply want to point to what I have seen, what I have glanced or observed. Rather than a systematic, I’m offering seven observations about mainline theological education from my third floor window.

Observation One: Congregations are needless-ly closing

The congregation in which I was confirmed forty-nine years ago closed on April 25, 2021. After concluding a meeting with our Trustees, I stepped into my car and drove the five hours to that final service of worship. And it was a surreal experience.

Had any one of you walked into that sanctuary or church building prior to that final service of worship, you would have immediately thought to yourself, “Something good is happening here.” It’s a beautiful setting, having been located in that little town for over 150 years. The building and grounds are well maintained. The community is rural but is certainly healthy. There are plenty of children and many families still to be reached.

In fact, this congregation had an endowment of nearly $1 million, the legacy of people like Maylon Muir, Dr. Maitland, and Dorothy Fittus. Some earnings from that endowment were used to support the five or six of us from that congregation who were called into the ministry, as well as to support mission work around the world and within the community. And on April 25, 2021, an interim Lutheran pastor read from some pre-printed Presbytery manual and closed the doors to that sanctuary for the final time. There wasn’t even a coffee hour afterwards. In fact, I was the last person out of the door.

Here’s what I observed from my metaphorical window:

  1. The elders were tired of propping up worn out structures but by then knew of no other way to be church. Ironically, a Methodist Bell Choir played music, and a Lutheran Choir helped to lead worship, but all the Presbyterians did in the service was introduce the Presbytery’s Commission and record official minutes of the service.
  2. Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Bible Studies had long ago ceased to operate within that church building. But minutes were taken at every session meeting, shrinking rolls were well-documented, and a point of order was declared during the worship service to make sure that, you guessed it, minutes were being taken to document the end.
  3. And, of course, you can’t help but think of Proverbs 29:18 here: “Without a vision, the people perish.” And perish, it did.

Observation Two: Leaders of congregations must be theologically and emotionally––steady

From the best of my recollection, the last time that congregation had a pastor that was ably equipped to lead, build a vibrant worshipping community, and reach out into the community was about 1978. Yes, yes, I know: within our Presbyterian system, ministers and laypeople––together––lead congregations. But let’s not deceive ourselves: within our system, ministers are set aside, by virtue of our ordination, to preach, teach, exercise care, and administer the sacraments. Over time––in this case, over 40 years––and without consistently strong ministerial leadership, congregations will wither on the vine and eventually die.

And what was unique about that ministerial epoch that lasted from 1967 to 1978? Together, the pastor and elders invested in youth. In fact, that investment was written into that pastor’s terms of call. They led mission trips, held members accountable when they were absent from the church’s life, and they were distinctively engaged in the community. And they consistently reached out to those within the community that didn’t have a church home by making home visits, engagement through the education system, and by being active within the community.

Interestingly, every pastor that served that congregation from 1978 on, attended one of our PC(USA) seminaries for their formal theological preparation. However, the person who led that congregation from 1967 to 1978 never acquired a formal theological education from a seminary accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. After years of serving congregations in a lay capacity, he was examined by his presbytery and deemed worthy and qualified for Ordination into a Ministry of Word and Sacrament. We need to pay attention to that fact. Leaders would do well to read and understand Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology here and to be well-aware of the emotional “why?” as it relates to their calling.

Observation Three: The Academy is not the Church

The Academy is not the Church, and the true Church does not belong within the formal Academy; at least the Academy as is understood within the context of most of our PC(USA) seminaries or the Association of Theological Schools. In the time of Leith and Gillespie, the American Academy of Religion or the Society of Biblical Literature were still somewhat grounded in the Christian faith, particularly the Reformed Christian faith. There are today, perhaps a few remnant faith communities within the larger Academy, but they are few and far between. And the fact of the matter is that it is sometimes the case that the loyalty of many seminary professors is to the Academy more so than to a vibrant worshipping community. Though there are exceptions, healthy pastors are not formed by theological faculties or the Presbytery’s Committee on Vocation. Healthy pastors are formed and nurtured best within healthy worshipping communities. In this way, ministry is more “caught” than “taught,” and it is in this way that the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary was founded.

In response to the westward migration of German-speaking immigrants, Adrian Van Vliet, pastor of what is now the First Presbyterian Church in Dubuque, consistently gathered together cadres of young men and, in the basement of that congregation, began a process of theological education and formation that included worship, Bible study, and the reading of classical theology that was available to him at the time, but primarily Calvin’s Institutes. These young men were discipled into the Christian faith and mentored into the artful ways of pastoral leadership. There were no accrediting bodies. There was no ATS and I’m still unclear what, if any, role was played by the national church in their ordination. But, over a period of decades, these young men went on to found congregations in out-of-the-way places throughout the upper Midwest in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri. They invested in those places. Made disciples in those places. And they exercised spiritual nurture and care in those places––that is, to a population of dispossessed, lonely, and sometimes bewildered new immigrant communities.

Observation Four: The project of the Mainline has ended, and its Progressive Christianity replacement is not a faithful or sustainable substitute

In the words of Timothy Keller in the first of his four-part series titled, “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church,” the overall project of mainline Protestantism has failed or, perhaps less critically, that mission has ended. Keller’s work is not new here; rather, he integrates into his thesis the work of scholars like George Marsden and our Bradley Longfield. In effect, his point and the conclusion of their research is that mainline Protestantism, once the unofficial religion of America, achieved what it set out to accomplish; that is, it became the culture. And in the process of becoming the culture, mainline Protestantism lost any sense of distinctive identity or prophetic voice which could instruct that culture––our society––about the basics of human nature, or what genuine human flourishing looks like. Paraphrasing Donald Bloesch, progressive Christianity may use the vocabulary of a grounded evangelical faith, but it does not use its dictionary.

The truth is, I like Keller a lot. Though I’ve never met him, he offers a lot of insight, and his congregation happens to have been founded in the living room of one of our alums, a person by the name of B.J. Weber. B.J. was an avowed Communist and came to Christ because of the Trappist monk who discipled him and the Trappistine nun that mentored him. He wanted to become a Presbyterian minister, but the Presbyterians wouldn’t have him, like we Presbyterians, forty years later, wouldn’t have one of our more recent graduates who, like B.J. in New York city, went on to plant a ministry in Louisiana. You see, neither one of our alums fit the accepted Presbyterian mold. Yes––both of them are theologically and biblically sound; frankly, too orthodox or conservative for our present denomination. Their ministries are a distinctive outreach to the cultures in which they are embedded; in B.J.’s case, a counterpoint to the dominant progressive Protestant Christianity that many experience in New York city today. His is a ministry of friendship for the friendless. Whether that friendless one be a Wall Street banker through ministries known as the New York Fellowship or the New Canaan Society, the homeless couple down the street, or the addict son of the Hollywood icon, B.J. unapologetically announces the love, forgiveness, and opportunity to fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ day in and day out. His ministry, along with that of our most recent alumnus in Louisiana, is not supported by the Presbyterian Mission Agency, but by the $100 monthly investments of people from all over the country––congregations and individuals. And that was just a bridge too far for our Presbyterian ecclesial structure.

Observation Five: Theologically grounded non-conformist ministries of discipling are the future

So, what do the ministries of B.J. Weber, and Brian and Amanda Beverly have to teach the tired elders of the former First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Minnesota, that is, my home congregation that closed? The fact is: those elders were just plain old tired of propping up rusting church structures. Over the years, as John reminds us in Revelation, “… they had forgotten the love they had at first” and, instead, replaced that love, that passion, that zeal of engagement and service with a safer, far less risky kind of church; a kind of church where, in the process of closing down a 150+ year-old congregation an elder interrupted that last service of worship––not to offer a rebuttal or an emphatic “No, there is a better way!” to the action that was about to be taken, but to inquire about whether minutes were being taken to accurately account for that sad act. Observers of the faith rather than participants in the faith is what they had become. They had forgotten the love that they had at first and replaced that love with a safer, less engaging commitment to upholding the establishment, the denominational bureaucracy.

Our alums B.J., Brian, Amanda, and others like them remind us that the true joy and purpose of ministry is not serving on a church committee, being moderator of a General Assembly, or being president of one of our theological seminaries. The true joy and purpose of ministry exists only insomuch as we are living into the Great Commission; that is, making disciples, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (not the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer), and teaching them to both know and observe what human flourishing really looks like. And, finally;

Observation Six: Commissioning—that is Great—is a verb

Forming disciples to exercise leadership within a Great Commissioning movement requires a different kind of theological education than that which has been in existence in our mainline and PC(USA) seminaries for the last 100+ years. It must be an education that is grounded in a distinctive evangelical vocabulary and theological structure. So long as there are denominations, there will be formalized structures and policies for preparation and ordination. In fact, it could be argued that it’s our most important ecclesial responsibility and deserves more attention and oversight than it currently gets. And it is true that there are students in preparation who will do just fine within our current denominational structures of preparation.

But it is also true that a new day has dawned, and that the mainline has been moved to the sideline, and it is unequipped to exercise leadership in this epoch of Great Commissioning. Instead, in this time, theological preparation must be both/and. That is, utilizing both the elements of formality and tradition, such that exists in faithful pockets within our PC(USA) seminaries, and beyond the conventional reach of those institutions into vibrant and healthy congregations and non-conformist ministries of commissioning. In this new day of Great Commissioning, Christian leaders must primarily be formed in the unconventional places where discipling can actually happen; where it can be learned, and modeled; where it can be “caught” using a language and a practice that is distinctive and consistent.

On our campus, that kind of discipleship most often takes place in undergraduate campus ministry within an undergraduate student demographic where there are more Muslims than there are Presbyterians; and this is at a faith-based university of teaching and learning. That is the complexity of our mission field today and, candidly, that type of student is an unfamiliar audience within the teaching experience of many of our more conventional theological faculty.

Pastors and church leaders today must be formed, primarily, within healthy congregations and non-conformist ministries that are what? That are practicing the Great Commissioning; that is, are identifying youth within their communities that are unattached, drifting, or unchurched. That are getting their hands dirty with addicts of all stripes. That are introducing people into the ways of human flourishing, which means that they actually have a sense of what human flourishing looks like, feels like, and is. The days of de facto discipling are done; that is, when people come to our congregations because that’s where the movers and shakers of the community reside. It is done.

In retrospect, that was its own kind of lazy discipleship; a way of doing church that was certainly faithful in its intent and purposes, but bureaucratically resistant to the now more difficult and much dirtier work of Great Commissioning. And if truth be told, I was prepared––well prepared for the former and woefully unprepared to do the work that I believe needs to be accomplished now. With the exception of one professor who, amongst his peers was considered an intellectual lightweight, nobody in my formalized theological education talked about making disciples––as a verb.

Conclusion

So where do we go from here? I believe that faithful Christian leaders today must be formed in a focused collaboration between seminaries with an evangelical spirit (doctrine and experience) and specialized congregations and non-conformist ministries. The way we attempt to do that at Dubuque––and we are far from perfect––is through our online hybrid model of content delivery where we have students from three countries and twenty-seven states. Students are on campus, sometimes multiple times throughout the year but, importantly, they are often embedded in congregations and non-conformist ministry sites, applying in real time what they have learned in their physical and virtual classrooms. In this way, ecclesial leaders are formed within the real context of ministry––every day; not as a nine-month required internship. In healthy congregations and non-conformist sites, and with healthy mentors, students learn the spiritual art that is required to practice ministry and discipleship in a landscape where worshipping communities must be nurtured and built, often from scratch.

I am reluctantly convinced that most of my predecessors could hardly envision such an ecclesial landscape as that which we live in today. And, yet, it is a landscape, to me at least, that seems strangely familiar; likely because it is from that place of human brokenness that I was first introduced so many years ago to an elementary vocabulary of human flourishing in a tiny little congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. It was there, as a child, and later in two other congregations, where a new language was inculcated into my life and life-story where I actually came to believe that the Great Commission was both a mandate and an invitation; a verb or active participle.

Were I to pastor a congregation today, we would regularly talk about Jesus; the Jesus who lived and died, and who lives again. We would try to live, together, in the way that Jesus modeled, and in the way that Scripture invites and at times commands us to live. Nearly all of my energy and enthusiasm would be invested in discipling youth and teens, and reaching out to young adults to inculcate within them a different kind of vocabulary for living, and tending to the poor and broken within the community I serve. That very simple and focused approach to pastoring will eventually lead to a renewal of that congregation––that worshipping community. Paraphrasing John Leith, with clarity it is a way of Christian formation of identity, in contrast to the smorgasbord of competing identities that so many pastors are trying to represent in today’s environment. Indeed, there is a way that reinforces an identity grounded in human flourishing, and it has been with us all along. And the practicing of that kind of ministry does not require the taking of minutes, or the closing of missional outposts known as congregations. But it does require leaders that have been formed within an alternative educational culture that is seldom available through most mainline theological seminaries today, but is possible with innovative strategic partnerships that authentically recognize that the way to human flourishing remains an ever-present need and our calling as participants in a Great Commissioning.

Jeffery Bullock
Jeffery Bullockhttps://www.jeffbullock.com/
Jeffrey F. Bullock, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dubuque and its Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.

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