Advice for Seminarians

I consider the following some sage advice from Telford Work, one of my undergraduate theology professors. I think it’s worth sharing in full. The emphases are my own. You can find the original published here.

Q: My theological education exposed me to ideas I find refreshing and powerful, and I want to put them to use. However, when I expose my youth group to some of them, people get suspicious — especially parents. They only seem to want me to teach “the party line” that they already believe. What do I do?

A: Your use of the phrase ‘party line’ is revealing. Many institutions do have one — not just about ‘essentials’ but about practically everything. You’re safe as long as you defend it. As soon as you question any part of it, or even admit that people have good reasons for believing otherwise, the trust can evaporate.

When something happens that jeopardizes that trust — say, something you have said or taught — I suggest you do the following:

  • First, resist the impulse to buy into the myth of self-righteous dissent. This has a long tradition in both our culture and its Christian circles. With both Jesus Christ and Martin Luther as handy patron saints, self-righteous dissenters imagine themselves the glorious would-be saviors of a rotten and God-forsaken establishment. Though this is sometimes the case, it is rarely so (in fact, it is less the case with even Jesus and Luther than many think). This mentality is responsible for a lot more broken institutions and abused individuals than revivals and redemptions. It feeds pessimism and cynicism among the dissenters and fear and intimidation among the institutions. This is, not least, because it assumes that God is behind you and has abandoned them. Don’t go there — not yet, anyway, not as long as there is even a remote chance that (a) the Spirit still dwells and works there and (b) you might need some correction. If you and your institution really aren’t a ‘fit,’ then at some point you may discover that you need to go somewhere else to be fruitful. Until you make that discovery, search for the signs that the institution is a fit, even if neither you nor others can see it yet. Don’t think Luther v. Leo X; think Peter and Cornelius.
  • Now, honestly ask yourself whether others should trust you. Are you above reproach? Do you support your institution’s fundamental mission? Are you working in good faith? Are you acting with integrity? The fact is that over the years many Christian leaders (as well as leaders in the wider culture) have abused their positions of authority. When a leader says something surprising, others naturally try to figure out what it signifies. Is this a sign of hidden inconsistency or hypocrisy? Is it a sign of a major change in belief you had kept quiet? It is worth asking yourself these questions. In fact, it is worth asking them regularly. On the one hand, we often deceive ourselves, compartmentalize our faith, and rationalize our compromises. Self-examination can convict you of changes you need to make. On the other hand, regularly examining how your faith relates to the mission of the whole community can help strengthen your support of the whole and deepen your insight into how you fit. You don’t have to rely on your own judgment here; others can help. This is especially true when you’re new. But I suggest you choose the kind of person who thinks widely rather than narrowly, is inviting rather than suspicious of challenges and new things, really understands the institution, and is good at translating between parties who speak and act in ways that may appear more different than they really are.
  • If you pass that test, then ask yourself whether your institution’s leadership is also trustworthy. Are they above reproach too? Do they seek and follow the Holy Spirit, or do they play power politics and force ‘consensus’? Do they lead by example, or command by intimidation? Are they open to faithful and appropriate correction? Will they be good to you even if you cannot resolve the problem, or will they just look to their own interests without regard to yours? If you work at a dysfunctional institution (and, sadly, many Christian organizations are), then you have a bigger problem than just this. The most important matters are the health of the whole and the protection of its people
  • If your leaders and you both pass the trustworthiness test, then schedule a time to meet with some or all of them about the matter. When you meet, explain the situation. If they don’t already understand how you support the institution and its mission, help them. Don’t just make the claim that you support them; help them understand how. Then show how this particular episode arose (if it did) out of the pursuit of that mission. If you caused a ruckus because your group needed to see how other churches see an issue or interpret a biblical passage, then make your case that it was the right thing to do. You can also ask how you might have handled it better. Are you putting these people on the defensive? Do you need to be? Some teachers have a confrontational style that generates more heat than light. Some choose divisive ways to make points that could be made more constructively in other ways. Some take risks before they have really won their people’s trust. Some make claims that are easily misinterpreted out of context or second-hand. All of these tactics may be necessary or even useful at times (Jesus adopted all of them now and then), but you need to be both wise, and ready to accept the consequences. For instance, if you want a group of conservative students to appreciate that the Bible isn’t always to be taken literally, choosing a text like “The Lord is my shepherd” will probably generate less controversy than “there was evening and morning, the second day.” I guarantee that whatever nuances and qualifications you offer in class will be stripped away when your kids tell their parents afterward. The parents will then hear that some new staff member is denying that the Bible is true and teaching evolution! You should hear the things I have been alleged to teach in my doctrine classes! I have a friend whose philosophy repeatedly caused trouble with his home church. He had many a meeting with the elders. He never convinced them that his philosophy was right, but he did reassure them that he really loved Jesus, really believed the faith of their church, and really belonged there. They were a good elder board; they wanted to be convinced, and wanted what was best for everyone. The outcome was happy — as it was between Peter and Cornelius.

Now so far this answer has been about damage control. An even better strategy is to work proactively, before trust is jeopardized, to keep the trust level high and misunderstandings at a minimum:

  • Win the trust of the whole community by learning how to speak your faith in their language. Maintain good relationships with your leaders and fellow workers and fill them in on what you’re doing so they aren’t blindsided by distorted allegations against you.
  • Let your life shine with confidence in the gospel. Show in your conduct and teaching that the things you believe that others are tempted to worry about grow out of healthy faith rather than signs of hypocrisy or compromise, steps down slippery slopes (a favorite among paranoid fundamentalists), tips of heretical icebergs, and so on.
  • Don’t just be prophetic; be affirming too. Aren’t your students and their parents good people? And hasn’t your institution helped make them that way? All their redeemed and redeeming qualities are gifts from God. They deserve recognition, thanksgiving, and reinforcement. These people also have as least as much to teach you as you have to teach them. You won’t learn much as long as you concentrate on their faults.
  • Make time during teaching for answering people’s questions. Let them see you think on your feet. Cultivate an atmosphere where people feel safe to ask questions and raise criticisms. If you don’t make it safe for them to do it in your presence, they’ll just do it in your absence instead.
  • Take correction when it is deserved, and do it gratefully.
  • Likewise, counter the trend toward gossip that afflicts so many Christian communities. Stress that if people have an issue with you, they need to take it up with you before they spread it to others. Make sure they understand and respect Matthew 18 on church discipline.
  • Don’t indulge in too much conspiratorial, cynical, or isolationist theology. Its pneumatology is skewed.
  • A lot of friction comes down to sociology: Are you or aren’t you “one of us”? I have found that the best antidote to groupthink is not learning to respect your church’s theological or social shibboleths, but standing on the good news. The question is not whether you belong to them, but whether you all belong to Christ. Ephesians shows the church is a place where barriers are abolished and differences are opened up. Train your institution away from tribalism and point to faithfulness, and whether you win or lose you will have conquered.
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