Re-thinking Theological Study and Leadership Formation for Our World Today (2)
By G. Sujin Pak
Reimagine the Vocations of Theological Institutions
A new vision of leadership toward belonging, mutuality, interdependence, and character already starts to lay the groundwork for a reimagined vocation of theological and ecclesial institutions, particularly insofar as these are in the business of forming future pastoral, community, and academic leaders. But, the call is to more than that.
In this precise moment of heightened awareness of the racism that plagues these United States of America, its governance structures, educational structures, economics, and, yes, also churches, churches and educational institutions are being asked about how they will respond. It is not enough, as Ibram Kendi has so strikingly challenged, for institutions merely to choose not to be racist. Kendi points to the dangerous and false claim of neutrality and basic passivity that lies therein. On the contrary, he clarifies, “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’” To be antiracist is a proactive stance that recognizes that “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify it and describe it—and then dismantle it” (How to be an Antiracist, 9). Kendi ardently calls for the hard work of change and identifies the false assumption of seeing people as the problem rather than recognizing the power structures and policies that shape imaginations and practices toward systematic and institutionally endorsed racism (11).
The struggle to dismantle racist structures and policies is a struggle for any institution, certainly including ecclesial institutions. The good news is that Christian churches and theological institutions have a theological vocabulary and set of theological practices available to them that can offer fruitful insights. Churches and theological institutions must be willing to let go of the familiar and step forward in profound faith, inhabit humility, and be riveted by the radical vision of Jesus that so frequently transgressed human-created power structures to draw others to profound belonging, to the love of God. Theological institutions offer words like “shalom” that stretches toward a vision of human wholeness in which peace and justice are not at odds and the pursuit of justice and reconciliation are inseparably two sides of the same coin. Churches must be in the business of the hard work of dismantling racism in their own spaces and practices. Indeed, it is a work profoundly aligned with their call to “hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection, and outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:9-10).
The Work of Dismantling and Rebuilding
I have thus far described a call for churches and theological institutions to re-envision their work of leadership formation by reimagining what faithful leadership looks like. Building on this, I have pointed to the need for churches and theological institutions to refocus their vocations toward fostering belonging, celebrating mutual interdependence, and privileging character—character shaped by humility, integrity, and a passion for righteousness that longs equally for justice and restoration. Moreover, I have tried to argue that the dismantling of racism in our ecclesial institutions is exactly the work before churches and seminaries in this precise historical moment.
Dismantling involves interrogating practices and assumptions in the way we structure the leadership of our churches. Dismantling racism entails questioning our assumptions of what we identify as the “true subject matter” of Christianity, particularly when such assumptions do not adequately account for biblical visions of social justice.
The work of dismantling is hard, sometimes frightening and disorienting work. Such work cannot be that of just deconstruction; it equally requires a constructive response. It demands of us to build—to build anew—and to make certain that those who are doing the building embody a multiplicity of diverse voices, embodiments, perspectives, practices, and intelligences, lest we reinstate old structures in seemingly new wineskins.
To echo the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream.” I have a dream that churches and theological institutions can lead the way in dismantling racist, sexist, and capitalist structures and policies. They can and should do this, for such work is central to their call as disciples of Jesus Christ, who “is our peace and has broken down (dismantled!) the dividing wall, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14).
Dr. G. Sujin Pak is dean of Boston University School of Theology (STH) and Professor of the History of Christianity.