Re-thinking Theological Study and Leadership Formation for Our World Today (1)
By G. Sujin Pak
The world today—and churches in particular—more than ever need what theological institutions have to offer it. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the world today, and churches in particular, are in even more desperate need of what theological institutions can offer it but may be falling short in various ways in actually doing that.
Daniel Aleshire, former executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), succinctly asserts that theological institutions at their best “prepare leaders for religious vocation” (Earthen Vessels, 23). As the important study of Charles Foster and others describe in Educating Clergy, theological schools’ visions for such leadership preparation typically focus upon four key areas: the interpretation of texts, formation (spiritual, academic, vocational), contextualization, and performance (competency in a set of ministerial and/or scholarly practices).
Such foci make perfect sense and can provide a beautiful course of study and formation, except that they too often fail to ask the deeper questions. Church leaders and institutions too often fail to interrogate the systems, structures, and policies that shape their understanding and implementation of their institutional mission and goals. More specifically, they fail to recognize and then neglect to take concrete actions toward dismantling the ways certain cultures—particularly white, western and male cultures—have been privileged for centuries in shaping large swathes of churches’ and society’s assumptions and imaginations about these matters.
In a world rocked by the pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, church leaders and institutions have a calling and an opportunity perhaps like never before. They have the opportunity to re-envision what faithful leadership looks like and foster and support new embodiments of such re-envisioned leadership. They have the opportunity to re-imagine the vocations of theological and ecclesial institutions. They have the opportunity to do the good work of dismantling racist, sexist, and capitalist structures and policies, in their own institutions and the leadership formation they follow and offer. This, in turn, enables a legacy of shaping the next generation of Christian pastoral and educational leaders toward more faithful embodiment of God’s command to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Equally important, then, to this work of dismantling is also the work of rebuilding, for a vacuum always demands to be filled.
Re-envision Faithful Leadership
What might it look like for churches and theological institutions to re-envision what faithful leadership looks like? In a recent book After Whiteness, Willie Jennings eloquently articulates a vision of leadership that calls persons to belonging and community, rather than isolation, and to recognition and celebration of mutual interdependence rather than self-sufficiency. Jennings describes the myth of the white self-sufficient man, whose self-sufficiency is signaled by “possession, control, and mastery” (6). Too often theological education has knowingly or unknowingly pursued this myth as its telos. Yet, urges Jennings, the real work of theological education—its true calling—should be something quite different: to form people “in the art of cultivating belonging” (10).
It strikes me that on this matter, the Korean church has much to offer. In contrast to western emphases on individualism, Korean and other Eastern cultures prioritize the community. This is just one space in which greater openness and learning from other cultures could enhance understandings of the purposes and goals of church and leadership.
When I look at the state of the world today, the state of this nation of the United States, the state of Christian churches and particularly the United Methodist Church of which I am a member, the need for leaders who cultivate an invitational spirit of belonging and mutual interdependence is so glaring that it is sobering. Too many church leaders are drowning in the cold waters promoting isolation, often in the name of truth. Too many theological leaders are caught up in the pursuit of mastery and performance that they have forgotten about character. Too many are so certain of their grasp of truth that they no longer truly see, hear, feel, touch, and allow themselves truly to be impacted by the multiple and various lives, experiences, and voices of the very people and communities to whom they have committed themselves in service.
Re-envisioning faithful leadership includes broadening and sometimes redefining the set of qualities and goals that one identifies with “strong leadership”—ones that move away from isolation to a focus on belonging, away from self-sufficiency to a celebration of interdependence, away from mastery of a subject to privileging integrity of character. Yet, it equally calls for a new vision of who is called and equipped for such leadership, thereby deliberately creating broader spaces for other embodiments of good leadership and bolstering our ability to imagine these (beyond primarily the white, western man). This is not to say that there is no space any longer for white men to lead, but it is to say that it also offers the opportunity to any white man who recognizes in himself a desire to be free from the myth of self-sufficiency in which he might find himself trapped. Indeed, it is a call for all of us to start to recognize how we might be trapped in such patterns and assumptions.
Dr. G. Sujin Pak is dean of Boston University School of Theology (STH) and Professor of the History of Christianity.