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Vision, Execution, and Integrity

Introduction: Eleven is a Good Number

Víctor Aloyo’s inauguration as the 11th President of Columbia Seminary marks a very special occasion for theological higher education in the USA and Canada. Dr. Aloyo is one of only a few Hispanic/Latinx leaders in a presidential role in a time of significant transition in theological and ministerial formation. Columbia Seminary, currently experiencing and seriously wrestling with the challenges of a shifting landscape in the context of theological education, calls Aloyo to dream, ground, and execute visions for theological education that will guide Christian leaders in times of tectonic ecclesial, social and cultural changes. I never dreamed I would witness Columbia take such a risk and invest in a visionary whose pastoral heart and deep Reformed Latinx identity could be a source of hope in perplexing yet exciting times of theological and ministerial exploration.  On the celebration of his inauguration, I am proud and enthusiastic for my friend and colleague, the first Hispanic/Latinx and 11th President of Columbia Seminary.

Our Caribbean religious roots suggest that the number eleven is a good number. In one of our Afro-diaspora religions eleven is the number of Ibeji, the sacred female spirit twins. Ibeji blesses with gozo y abundancia—joy and abundance. A Cuban version of their stories refers to their power through the beating of drums. With rhythmic sounds of drums, these twin female spirits drove away the devil and brought happiness and abundance to slave communities in the Caribbean.

Our Caribbean and Latinx Reformed roots wrestle with a colonial legacy that excludes our rich and diverse world of spirits. As we wrestle, we re-discover in the Scriptures a possibility to recover and integrate our Caribbean roots with our Christian faith. The psalmist proclaimed, «¡Cuántas cosas has hecho, Señor! Todas las hiciste con sabiduría; ¡la tierra está llena de todo lo que has creado… allí está el Leviatán, el monstruo que hiciste para jugar con él» (Salmo 104:24; 26b).[1]   Our spirits, once considered as evil as the Leviathan, now can be included in God’s wise and beautiful creation. Moreover, God plays with our spirits! Ibeji’s power, their ashe, is a manifestation of God’s grace creating joy and an abundance of hope during both good and difficult times. Hence, President Aloyo, in our Caribbean/Latinx traditions, eleven is a good number!

What characteristics distinguish a Christian leader in pandemic times?

I teach in a department of religion. Teaching undergraduate students has been refreshing and joyful. At Baylor, we have over 150 students completing a major in religion and almost the same number doing minors. Our student population is quite diverse. In every undergraduate course I have taught, the majority of students are females and a little more than 15 per cent are minoritized students—Asian-American, Latinx, and African-American. International students are also part of the demographics in my courses. In my years as a theological educator in the US, Baylor has provided me the most diverse teaching context—including the unique experience of having non-Christian students (Hindu and Muslim) in one of my courses. Such diversity, while a challenge, is a unique pedagogical laboratory where inter-cultural and inter-religious leadership skills are put to the test.

Given the topic of this essay, I decided to do an informal survey by emailing some my undergraduate and graduate students—those students who will continue graduate theological and ministerial formation and who might be future teachers and administrators in theological schools. I asked them to write a short statement describing one or two characteristics of an “impactful leader(s) who can address the challenges of our time effectively” and what kind of training they should receive “in order to develop a robust and truth-telling skills for engagement with faith communities and the public square.”

With one exception, I received replies from my female students, and more than half were young women of color. What follows are some of their insightful contributions to our conversation about Christian leadership.

  1. Can “theological institutions exchange instructors or [have] more frequent guest lectures from global south theological institutions so that students can get a first-hand experience of what is going on in the world today? How can theological educators inform and connect their students to global problems?”
  2. “Even though we live in the same world and experience the same events, each group has a different world of interpretation.  Do theological schools prepare leaders who are sensitive to other people’s worlds of interpretation?”
  3. “Leaders need to respond to controversial and polarizing issues with respect yet grounded in religious personal truth and convictions.”
  4. Leaders need to be trained in “a long view of Christian history and spiritual disciplines that will help them resist the temptation to bend their knees ‘to the tyrant of the urgent.’ They need to learn from ‘the wisdom of Christian history and develop skills for shepherding over against church growth based on corporate profit.’”
  5. Leaders need to “recognize that communities do not fit the ‘black/white’ binary typical of the USA. Communities are complex and such complexities requires special training.”
  6. Leaders who “avoid discussion, while offering prayer and empathy, create isolation; inaction speaks loudly of indifference, and our generation needs to see action from the church.”[2]

These contributions, from deeply committed young undergraduate and graduate Christians, set an agenda for graduate and professional theological education and formation. Students seek for dreamers who implement visions and embody integrity; students seek for theologically grounded and transparent Christian leaders who are not afraid of wrestling with the difficult and challenging issues in our communities. They also seek for alternative leadership models that go against the current trends of capitalistic and ego-centered ministries. This is what a group of mostly female and minoritized undergraduate and graduate students long for in theological and ministerial formation.

Proverbs 29:18 states, “where there is no vision, the people perish…” Yet, the above contributions give witness to a vision… young students, who will be our future Christian leaders, are demanding theological formation that is grounded in the needs, dreams, and visions that emerge from the interaction of the gospel with their contexts. It seems to me that the challenge is not a lack of vision but rather the incoherent action and execution of theological institutions grappling with today’s demographic and theological shifts. While significant work focuses on curricula and programmatic revisions, the ethos of the institution remains intact. Old patterns that served well a particular time and constituency continue to be subtlety preserved. Old patterns seem to be embedded in the revisions creating dissonant frustration and ultimately falling trap to a system that has run its course. It is not a problem of vision; it is a problem of execution and coherence at the institutional level.


An Example not to Follow

Allow me to share an example of this incoherent action, execution, and lack of integrity. A mainline affluent congregation in an urban center was moved to engage with its immediate community. The leaders of the congregation wisely organized townhall meetings and paid for a professional sociological study to explore the needs and dreams of the community. There were concerns about the outcomes of the assessment given that the congregation had been quite isolated from its immediate context. Yet surprisingly, the community responded to the townhall surveys and named its need and dream: a job training center for youth.

To make the story short, the congregation decided to invest in the creation of a counseling center which did not last more than three years. Why would a congregation invest so much money and resources to discover the needs and dreams of a community and then take a different direction? Theologically, why would a congregation ignore the vision and execute a project totally different from the needs of its immediate community? Is it because the congregation, which has been isolated from its community, “knows better?” Is it because the congregation’s old patterns of being and doing are stronger than the needs and visions of their immediate community?  God led the congregation on an unexpected missional journey, but not only did they ultimately deny the need and the vision, but they dismissed the unique opportunity of re-discovering the gospel in this new venture. Why the incoherent action?

Seeking Coherence and Integrity in our Vocation for Christian Leadership Formation

In our theological institutions, we need to explore the whys of incoherent actions and executions when serving our diverse Christian communities. Empathy is meaningless when our communities experience our incoherence and imposed agenda for their contexts. I never thought that CTS would be in such a unique position: with a rich Reformed ecumenical grounding, this institution is challenged to coherently address the formation of Christian students who are very different from the students I used to teach 12 years ago. Moreover, in the last few years as I have been invited to serve as a trustee, I am glad to hear leaders of CTS strongly declare that we need to “open the table;” we need to invite others to the table of theological formation. I want to encourage us not only to invite others to the table but also ask them to bring their food to the table… let’s have some tacos and enchiladas… let’s have some Kimchi Red Rice Cakes… let’s have some soul food, let’s have some crab and callaloo…

Coherent execution based on wholeness and integrity are key components for future Christian leaders. Mencius, a Confucian sage of the 4th century BCE, declared,

“The ancients who wished to manifest their clear character to the world would first bring order to their states. Those who wished to bring order to their states would first regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their personal lives. Those who wished to cultivate their personal lives would first rectify their minds. Those who wished to rectify their minds would first make their wills sincere. Those who wished to make their wills sincere would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere; when the will is sincere, the mind is rectified; when the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world.”

Mencius’ words remind me of Peter’s and Cornelius’ encounter in Acts 10. Both receive visions from the Holy Spirit and act upon them. Peter, like many theological institutions, is puzzled yet offers hospitality to Cornelius’ men. Perhaps we are familiar with a favorite verse from the narrative when Peter states, “…but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean (Acts 10: 28b, NRSVUE). Yet, we tend to dismiss Peter’s critical missional question: “…I came without objection [though deeply puzzled]. Now may I ask WHY you sent for me?” (Acts 10:29b, NRSVUE).  Cornelius’ response is simple: He tells the story of his vision and while Peter is executing (preaching), “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word (Acts 10:44a, NRSVUE). The Holy Spirit signals the turning by having these gentiles be included in the mystery of speaking in tongues. Gentiles are given agency, and the church will never be the same, just as Columbia will never be the same.

As I indicated above, Columbia Seminary is a very different institution. It continues to have a first-class faculty, dedicated administrators, and committed donors. Yet, its students are very different. What a unique opportunity to continue shaping leaders, including Presbyterian leaders, in an inter-cultural and ecumenical environment. Perhaps Columbia faces a new challenge: To move from hospitality to coherent action and integrity responding to the needs of its student population which resemble the rich diversity that Paul communicated in his metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ.   

[1] Spanish version, Dios Habla Hoy. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures… and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” (New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). Commentators suggest that the Hebrew construct of the last phrase suggests that God plays with Leviathan, as the Spanish version declares. For an example of the use of the Psalm for preaching, see Jerome Creach, Working Preacher, “Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/day-of-pentecost-3/commentary-on-psalm-10424-34-35b-6 (Accessed Wednesday, December7, 2022).

2 I have slightly modified the submitted statements for the purpose of flow and clarity of ideas.