Passion, Authenticity, and Commitment: A Reflection on Theological Education

By Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook

If we believe all are called to use their agency for the good of the world, we must vigorously advocate for theological education.

One of my formative influences was the late Marianne Micks, a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, who published widely on ministry when few women were on theological school faculties. She believed that one of the limitations of theological education, and by extension the Christian church, was that we ascribe to a God “who is too small and too tame.”

In my experience, much of the focus of theological education is too small and too tame. Theological education focused on educating pastors the way we did a generation ago is inadequate. Theological education today is in-between times, and as some would say, has lost its prophetic voice. That is, many of the old operating assumptions have slipped away, but we have yet to reach a new equilibrium. The smaller, freestanding schools are the most vulnerable, but even large institutions with large endowments are dealing with shifting resources.

A recent study on “pastoral imagination” funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., suggests that capacities for pastoral leadership are sparked early in life, and take years of daily practice before they come to fruition. If we truly believe that all are called to use their agency for the good of the world, we must then vigorously advocate for theological education that transforms both individuals and communities through evoking giftedness, healing painful pasts, practicing peace with justice, and serving all creation—the kind of theological education relevant to all who minister: preachers, teachers, workers, parents, children, youth, elders, citizens, activists, and yes, even professors!

The theological education that is needed is a dynamic and embodied process whereby our hearts and minds are turned toward God in the expectation of transformation on every level of our being. Theological education is about both theory and practice: the integration of academic content, practical skills, and ritual practice, along with a deepening knowledge of the self, relationships, contexts, and commitment to peace with justice.

Such theological education integrates intersectional identities into theology and ministry; race, gender identity and expression, sexual identity, social class, ability, language, immigration status, addiction status, etc. While it is not always comfortable, it is sacred space, and for many a rare opportunity to be part of a community that welcomes differences, while always continuing to push the boundaries, and re-examine systemic biases. This capacity to claim intersectional identities as integral to ministry is at the core of discipleship today.

Interestingly, very little of Jesus’ public ministry took place within traditional religious spaces, except for a few instances that did not turn out very well. Mostly, Jesus taught on the road, among the people. His focus was on expanding the boundaries of his community to include those most feared—Samaritans, Gentiles, sex workers, tax collectors, sinners in general—rather than teaching about who should be excluded. There is a school of opinion in the Christian world that argues the church is going down because we continue to bring up controversial issues and hang out with the wrong people. But the idea that moderation contributes to growing membership is reminiscent of a time in the mid-20th century when the church was much more accepted as part of the dominant culture. Today what is attractive in religious movements is not conformity but passion, authenticity, and commitment, and the ability to form community across differences with our neighbors from other religions (and no religion) who share in a vision of the common good. In a climate of growing intolerance, we should not forget that genuine welcome fills a deep human need these days. Perhaps we need to begin to see the church in expansive terms inclusive of the many ways we live together and work with our neighbors for peace with justice?

A spirituality of resistance is embedded deep within the Christian faith, for those of us who choose to recognize it. Just as Jesus of Nazareth called out those in his own tradition who were too comfortable with the empire, so too, his followers in this age are challenged to resist. Scripture is filled with stories when humanity fails to resist the forces of domination and death. On the one hand, our failure to resist could result in death by irrelevance. On the other hand, and a more deeply troubling scenario, is to become identified as a people comfortable with the status quo, thereby losing our moral agency and connection with our prophetic past.

It is integral to theological education today to teach theology in ways that acknowledge the value of context and individual stories; appreciate that there is not one truth, but multiple centers of truth; and, to cultivate activist-theologians who thrive on pluralism, while standing deeply within their own traditions. This style of leadership is found in the prophets, who both loved and challenged their own traditions.

In my experience, part of what theological education gives to the world is a framework within which we practice formation from the perspective of the transformation of whole persons in community. Ironically, the best way we can witness to the importance of theological education, is to give the world more than churches.

The cultivation of wisdom depends upon theological education that prioritizes integration over fragmentation and stratification. We need to invent ways going forward to cultivate opportunities for the kind of theological education where the boundaries between the classroom and “real life” are porous and where the gifts and life experiences of students are highly valued in the educational process. We need to cultivate “courageous spaces” where we can build solidarity across divisions.

In a world where the majority are in some way marginalized, religion easily becomes a tool of oppression when limited to correct belief, or focused on internal squabbles, when most people are deprived of basic human needs, and the fate of the planet is in jeopardy. Those of us who are teachers, preachers, activists, citizens, parents, workers, must be equipped to engage in prophetic responses to injustice for the rest of our lives.

In my own formation, I learned if I first transformed my understanding of myself as powerless, then everything changed, and I was then empowered to expand my vision of how I am called to live in the world, as a theological educator, as a priest, as a partner, parent, citizen. Open and relational formation builds agency and moral integrity. All around us, we have examples of negative formation, whereby religious identities are formed in opposition to others, rather than in the spirit of the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. My ongoing formation at home, church, and school have shaped my vision of the reign of God in a palpable way. As a theological educator, not only am I concerned with my own formation, and my students’, but that of the communities we serve now and in the future.

The Prophet Mohammed, pbh, says that those who search for wisdom walk in the path of God. I first came to theological education in my early-20s and the experience was transformative. I learned that theology is an academic discipline, but also that it is about embodied practice, and about the lives of people who suffer, and hope, and search for meaning. There is always a need to re-imagine how best to theologically educate emergent generations. Religion is not considered the only source of meaning anymore. Many ethical humanists live fulfilling and generous lives. If, however, we believe that spirituality is a source for liberation, we need to reveal that truth through the quality of our communities, and how we embody our values every day.

One of the great Talmudic sages, Maimonides, taught that while it is not our responsibility to complete the task of healing the world, we cannot refrain from engaged participation. In Christian contexts, we have been talking about the need to re-imagine theological education for the last generation. Yet true learning is not limited to schooling, after all, but a recognition of the truths revealed most plainly in relationship. What lies ahead is the ongoing work of the transformation of humanity (and our planet) in which each one of us shares a part. Theological education is about strengthening hearts and challenging minds. At its most basic, it is about creating intentional communities of transformation.

This work is yet to be fully realized; there is much ahead to do.

Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook is vice president for academic affairs, dean of the faculty, and professor of practical theology at Claremont School of Theology. She has gratefully been active in theological education for 40 years!

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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