When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.
Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.
Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.
In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.
In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and clichéd hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.
In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurture leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.
That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.
As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.
Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.