“Most seminaries are invisible on the social landscape.” That statement by Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Seminary, continues to haunt me. The public is not sure what a seminary is, what it does and why it matters. When asked what I do, usually on a plane, I seek to clarify the importance of a school that prepares leaders to serve congregations and the public square. My interlocutors usually agree that more reasonable and thoughtful voices are needed these days.
At the Association of Theological Schools biennium last week, I participated in a panel with Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, and Corey D.B. Walker, dean of the Proctor School of Theology. Our assigned topic was “The Seminary’s Public Voice: The Role of a Senior Leader in Responding to Current Events.” That the event was well-attended signals how anxious we are to not be silent in the face of an increasingly fractious and violent society that challenges our most deeply held Christian convictions.
“Christians have forfeited the right of pontification in our time. We have been too narrow, too self-protective, and too inured to the pain of our world.”
Multiple voices compete for attention as social media, digital newsletters, op-ed pieces, blogs and venerable newspapers seek to articulate clarifying perspectives. Frankly, it is a lot to take in, and leaders cannot abdicate their positions of influence. The inundation of information challenges us to sift and respond and, if possible, be proactive in framing a constructive narrative.
Here is how we – a white man, a black man and a white woman – approached the topic:
- Respond selectively. It is important to acknowledge that we cannot respond to everything. We must know what our core values are and speak out of faithful practice. For instance, Central Seminary, where I serve, can speak about pastoral formation; women in ministry; multicultural concerns; economics of ministry; urban mission; and, with some awareness, about issues in Myanmar and the wider Burma diaspora. Consistency matters, and we should resist “piling on” just to insert ourselves into a conversation where thoughtful voices are already heard.
- Find key outlets. The web presence that a school maintains matters in our digital age, yet we cannot be confined only to internal constituencies. That is why I write for Baptist News Global, Christian Citizen, Center for Congregational Ethics, and Baptist Center for Ethics. Sometimes Duke’s “Leadership & Ideas” e-newsletter will link to something I have written, expanding the readership. An open letter to our governor has been an avenue of choice in the past.
- Choose the optimal time. Right now, many are speaking about immigration issues, especially the plight of children separated from parents. It is an urgent moral issue, and I am grateful for those who are engaging governing officials. Recently, I was compelled to speak about clergy sexual abuse among Baptists that arises from a theology that diminishes women. Timeliness matters, but coherence matters more.
- Frame a theological perspective. Persons of faith need to offer analysis and reflection on the dignity of all persons, their human rights and religious liberty for all. This is the charism of a seminary leader or a pastor: to help persons think theologically about current events. (Indeed, it is the primary task of this regular column I write for BNG.) Although we inhabit a groaning world, we also participate in the reign of God already breaking in. The values we see in Christ, the head of the church, guide our vision and ethical praxis.
- Give language for non-specialist interpretation. It is very important that we lay down academic and church jargon when offering public engagement. If we cannot speak clearly our perspective, we probably don’t understand it fully ourselves. Honoring the spiritual quest of all persons is essential in our time when the morality of many ecclesial expressions is suspect.
- Shape a new narrative. There are some really dire narratives in our time, and part of our role as Christians is to craft a hopeful future story. After all, we cling to an eschatological faith. My colleague and co-panelist, Corey Walker, observed: “If I did not have hope, I could not make it as an African American man.” Hope is that thing with feathers that “perches in the soul,” as Emily Dickinson put it. The Spirit pours hope into our hearts, and we persist for the sake of a better story for the larger good.
- Realize provisionality of perspective. Humility matters when offering our voice in the public square. We all have perspectival bias, and when we give evidence of identifying that, we will get a better hearing. Christians have forfeited the right of pontification in our time. We have been too narrow, too self-protective, and too inured to the pain of our world. Carrying a deep sense of pathos will allow us to enter the paschal mystery through which Jesus brings new life out of suffering, which always includes us.
Of course, speaking that is accompanied by faithful action tunes our voice to an authentic timbre. Jesus did exhort us not to be “hearers only,” but to speak and act redemptively. When we embody our conviction, Christians can help mend this world.