Monday, March 21, 2011

Preparing Leaders to Think Theologically

By Jay Marshall

In an increasingly diverse world, how can theological education prepare leaders to work spiritually and practically with people from different backgrounds and different faiths?

Theological education forms how one views God, self, others, and the world. Even more, it shapes how one understands the interactions between each of these participants within life’s sandbox. I think that may be the most powerful contribution theological education makes to the preparation of leaders. Skills are important, but framing how we perceive, critique, and reflect, informs one’s decisions and consequently, one’s actions.

At least four questions underlie this one about a leader’s work with diversity, and the answers given to the four will greatly determine how the one may be answered. Those four are: What is the purpose of theological education? What is a leader’s work? How does leadership intersect with spirituality and practicality? How do we conceive of relationships with the “other?”

There is no one, universal answer to the question of how to offer theological education. Some programs exist to promote the doctrine of a particular denomination. Others wrestle with theological questions with an academic thrust apart from connection to a living faith tradition. Of course, there are a myriad of positions between those two poles. Two key elements of theological education at ESR are rooted firmly within our accreditation standards: spiritual formation of the student, and development of an awareness of context. As those two intertwine, theological education invests much energy into helping students come to know themselves and to become clear on their place and stance within the culture. One facet of the process involves introducing students to people, classmates, readings, and practices that have or represent different points of view than that of the students. A valuable outcome of engaging with different viewpoints is, in addition to learning about a different tradition, we come to know ourselves more truly. As those knowledge bases are honed alongside one’s understanding of God, theological education ultimately helps those it forms to live with integrity of conviction.

Conviction, though, can be an unstable element in the equation. Perhaps it is usually or even always an unstable element. Conviction drives the one convicted. This can create volatility—not necessarily a bad thing, though when it seeks to convince by domination or suppression, conviction may cross the line of acceptable behavior if being respectful of divergent points of view is to be valued. While the expression of conviction can create tension, coming to the point of knowing one’s own convictions is a useful, even essential, process as part of theological education.  I am of the opinion that the better we understand our own reasons for being persons of faith and the truths we hold, the less troubled we are by lack of uniformity in the beliefs of others (unless we stake out an exclusivist position in which only one way, and of course by “one” we mean “our” way is holy enough gain Divine acceptance). When we can finally sit with the unanswerable questions without fear, fight, or flight, our need for neatly gift-wrapped answers decreases, as does the unease created when others’ beliefs do not match our own. Having reached a place of internal knowing, we can articulate our point of view while allowing space for others to do the same. This is a position of confidence and strength, but appropriately humble as well; even as we know why we think as we do and are convinced of the truth, we are deeply aware of the limits of our knowledge. Pride and arrogance simply aren’t options.

This leads us directly to the second question: “What is the leader’s work?” Simply stated, it is to live with integrity of conviction, according to the gifts given and the calls to ministry received. Good theological education accompanies students’ quests to discern those gifts and hear those calls. Particularly when those gifts take one outside of traditional ministry contexts where the work has a specific “religious” nature, the intersection of leadership with spirituality can become more complex. In conversations with students in classes on leadership, one hurdle to always be crossed is broadening the view of faith within leadership as something other than religious jargon or pietistic expressions that sometimes seem disingenuous. It is a conversation that typically moves the participants to consider issues of authority, communication, relationships, and values. Once those are considered as integral to formation and expression of faith--as lived spirituality--then spirituality and practicality are virtually inseparable. A leader’s work in the world is always, on the most basic level, an expression of his or her spirituality.

This connects with the fourth question: How do we conceive of relationships with the “other?” By other, I mean those of different faith backgrounds and faiths. The answer to this question connects tightly with the nature of the theological education one receives. Theological education, remember, considers spiritual formation of the student to be an essential part of the educational process. The assumptions held and transmitted by the educators will be extremely influential in shaping the minds, hearts, and ministries of its graduates. If the curriculum is rooted in an exclusivist point of view, it is entirely conceivable that theological education may not prepare persons to work with diverse backgrounds and faiths at all (allowing, of course, that in these contexts students might take a contrarian position and move to a dissenting position).

Exclusivist perspectives might refuse to work with those of differing points of view. Or, they may work with them; having in mind that the ultimate goal is to convert the other to their point of view (conviction running rampant!). A more inclusive outcome, and preferable given my own set of convictions, is that the theologically formed leader who offers her or his ministry with some degree of confidence and conviction is able to engage in God’s work alongside whomever is encountered along the way. With clarity of belief and truthfulness, with awareness of those points on the horizon where clouds of unknowing are most dense, well-formed leaders are capable of making their contribution alongside a variety of partners. They find common ground, staring simply with their humanity and their sharing of space in God’s creation. From there, in most cases, respectful conversation will divulge shared values that provide a place to stand in unity without compromising integrity. Except in the most extreme circumstances, that is usually sufficient to allow good, faithful, collaborative work to unfold without threatening diversity or undermining particularity.

6Jay Marshall is Dean of Earlham School of Religion and a native of North Carolina. Before beginning his service at ESR, he was a pastor in Western Yearly Meeting.

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