August 29, 2016

The Changing Profile of Christian Leadership

            Faculty retreat provides time to look ahead at what is next in theological education and what the seminary needs to do to prepare creative leaders for the church and community.  During our recent time at Conception Abbey—a wonderful context for prayer and reflection—faculty members explored how demographic trends for churches, and consequently seminaries, call us to new approaches in recruitment and formation.

            We considered the implications of America’s changing religious landscape, especially the decline of Christians as a predominant share of population.  According to the Pew Research Center, the “unaffiliated” and other faiths continue to grow.  Where will we find students interested in ministry?  The usual feeder systems for seminary—churches and college religion departments—are not as robust in our time.   Many congregations do not think sufficiently about the next generation of ministers and thus do not practice the discernment processes of noticing, naming, and nurturing giftedness among their members.

            Younger adults in the 20’s and 30’s are particularly prone to move toward an unaffiliated status, and the reasons are varied.  Many are suspicious of institutions, preferring to lessen the overhead in order to use resources for more direct impact.  Many perceive the church to be judgmental and intolerant; some perceive its “doctrine” as fixed and irrelevant to urgent contemporary concerns.  The necessity of frequent moving for jobs also contributes to a lack of connection with a community of faith.
            One of the most striking reasons for younger adults to avoid affiliation is the perception that churches believe arcane, scientifically vacuous notions about the origin of the earth, environmental issues, human identity, and Christian triumphalism.  Others contend that faith and reason are in opposition, which is a gross over-simplification, in my judgment.
            Yet, God continues to beckon these to devote their lives to bringing about horizons of transformation in this broken, upside-down world.  Their yearnings to put the world to rights, as N. T. Wright says, is an echo of a voice that summons their very lives.  God is still speaking, but the world makes it hard to hear.  Habits of distraction, especially, contribute to neglect of the true self and its holy aspirations.

            I am grateful for wise faculty members who seriously engage this religious terrain.  They continue to adapt pedagogical approaches and even how they articulate their theological grounding in order to make their wonderful expertise and ministry practice more accessible and attractive.

Central's newly revised M.Div. curriculum pillars and threads.

            Central continues to innovate in order to provide the creative leaders churches and society need.  We believe our mission is more important than ever, and we eagerly seek to engage what is occurring now and what may come next.

            Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

August 22, 2016

Who is Welcome in Christ’s New Community?

            The simple answer is everyone.  I am returning from a groundbreaking conference on human sexuality that was held at our sister school in Yangon, Myanmar.  Co-sponsored by Central and Myanmar Institute of Theology, the robust gathering of faculty, students, police officers, and medical and legal specialists examined a key social justice issue in our day, which is: will the church find ways to include sexual minorities?  Many lives depend on find ways to welcome.

            We explored biblical texts, human rights documents, social practices, and scientific arguments over whether it is “nature” or “nurture” that produces persons who do not fit the heterosexual norm believed to be God’s plan.  Yet, in every culture there are 4-6 % of persons who do not “fit” this category, and the best scientific research concludes that being a sexual minority is something one is born with, not a sinful perversion of their innate identity. 
            A young transgender male poignantly ask people to raise their hands if he was really welcome at the gathering.  He said his mother was very affirming of the range of human sexuality—until he was born.  She could not welcome him, and he was banished from his home and family.  He was grateful to find a respectful community who was receptive to hearing his painful life story.
            As a Baptist seminary president I am aware of the level of discomfort conferences about human sexuality evoke—especially focusing on LGBT concerns.  Yet, I think it would be irresponsible for our school to ignore the suffering of the sexual “other.”  We are not a one-issue school, as some have insisted.  We stand against all forms of oppression as we follow the prophet’s exhortation to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

            I preached in the seminary chapel on Friday morning, reflecting on the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Early in the Jesus movement, a sexual minority is made welcome.  This remarkable story underscores how God creates space for those thought to be outside God’s covenant.  When he asks: “What is to hinder me from being baptized?” he is really asking: “Is there a place for me?” (I am inspired by Brian McLaren’s wonderful treatment of Acts 8:26-40).  Receiving the inclusive sign of belonging, baptism, the Ethiopian eunuch becomes an early witness to the grace of the gospel as he returns to his African home.
            The future of the church depends upon many things, not least of which is finding ways to welcome those we have previously shunned. It seems that God is much more inclusive than is our practice.  It is time we listen anew to this story of glad welcome for the sexually “other.”  It is right there in the Bible for all to see.

            Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares creative leaders for diverse ministry contexts.