This new edition explores the changing shape of theological education in the 21st century.
@ This Point
Perhaps you’ve noticed a pretty lengthy temporal gap between this edition of @ this point and the previous one. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the editorial board recognized how many of us were feeling especially burdened by the emotional costs of the pandemic and decided that we needed to simplify our lives and so put the journal on a bit of a hiatus. We took that time to do some re-thinking about the shape and purposes of @ this point going forward. Part of what we realized during that hiatus is that the traditional format of the journal may be overly restrictive during a time when more and more people are looking at more and more websites to gather wisdom for living. While we’re still in process of discerning the shape of the journal, we have at least discerned enough to feel like this new edition and its format is appropriate for this moment.
Indeed, perhaps this new edition and its format are especially appropriate because its very topic has to do with the changing shape of theological education in the 21st century. We’re all trying to imagine what the future looks like during times of rapid change and the increased pressures of political, social, technological, and environmental upheaval. Partly in light of those pressures, Columbia Theological Seminary’s 11th president, Victor Aloyo, hosted a “Presidential Symposium” at the occasion of his inauguration and brought scholars from a range of schools and backgrounds to reflect on the question of, “Shaping Christian Leaders for an Endemic Age.” The wisdom of those scholars was on full display at that symposium and we now bring it to you for your more deliberate and reflective engagement.
The editorial board is grateful to Pres. Aloyo and the Presidential Inauguration Steering Committee for allowing us to publish these presentations in this edition of @ this point. We trust that these presentations will be as nourishing and enriching now as they were electrifying when they were given during that symposium.
Thank you for your patience during our hiatus. We look forward to revealing new directions forward with the journal as we continue to discern how the Spirit is moving during this endemic age.
Mark Douglas and the editorial board of @ this point
Currents of Change
I identify three currents of change that will impact how Christian leaders are formed after the COVID-19 global pandemic. Theological schools are currently undergoing dramatic changes to their business/organizational models, their educational models, and in terms of the students that theological schools serve. I will explore how the pandemic has affected these areas of change, but let me make one over-arching statement that applies to all three areas.
Theological schools were already undergoing significant changes before the pandemic. The global pandemic did not initiate the changes that we are currently seeing among theological schools. The pandemic has accelerated many of them. For example, the use of online delivery in schools was already on the rise; but in 2020, one hundred percent of ATS schools were in some form of distance learning, with the vast majority of schools doing online instruction. The pandemic also provided a short-term window of opportunity in enrollments. In other ways, the pandemic has altered the way that we think about work and community.
Current 1: Return of Pre-Pandemic Trends in Enrollment
The first current of change is a reversion to pre-pandemic trends. During the last three major financial disruptions in the United States—the Dot-Com bubble (2000–01), the 2008–09 Great Recession, and the most recent financial disruption, the COVID-19 global pandemic—ATS schools experienced short-term, one- to two-year bubbles of enrollment growth. In 2020, the first year of the global pandemic, ATS schools reversed an almost decade-long trend. Since 2011, about 45% of ATS schools were stable or growing, while 55% of schools were declining in students. That is, for about a decade a majority of ATS schools saw declines in enrollments. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, 55% of ATS schools saw growth or were stable in head count enrollment, while 45% of schools saw declines.
The reason for these short-term bubbles of enrollment growth are likely tied to the re-evaluation of vocational aspirations among people during financial disruptions (for example, because of the loss or changes of a job). During what some scholars are calling the great resignation or the great retirement, as in other times of financial stress, many people went back to school. However, also similar to developments during the two earlier financial disruptions, enrollments reverted back to previous trends. Early reports from ATS schools on 2021–22 enrollments are already bearing this out. With just over 80% of schools reporting, 44% of schools have shown enrollment increases or enrollment stability while 56% of schools have seen enrollment declines. Thus, enrollment patterns are reverting back to the trend of the previous decade in which the majority of ATS schools were not growing but declining.
What are the implications for Presbyterian Church U.S.A. schools like Columbia Theological Seminary? Mainline Protestant (MLP) seminaries have seen significant enrollment declines since 2005, whereas Evangelical Protestant schools have been relatively stable during the last decade. This trend probably explains why we continue to see an increase in mergers and schools becoming embedded in universities/colleges at the rate of one merger every three to four months. While MLPs continue to have the largest endowments in ATS schools—about 75-80% of the top 20 endowed schools are MLP—their enrollments have been declining at a much higher rate than the average ATS school.
One take away for Forming Christian Leaders for an Endemic Era related to this first current of change, especially for PCUSA schools, which have the largest endowments of any denominational family, is that Mainline Protestant, free-standing seminaries need to rethink their business / organizational models while also thinking about which communities of faith they will serve. We are not in an era, any longer, where the eight PCUSA seminaries are vying for a deep and rich national pool of Presbyterian candidates for ministry. Seminary student populations have become increasingly local. Seminary students are often more influenced by things like theological fit and proximity than by whether or not a seminary is from their sponsoring denomination. What does it mean for PCUSA seminaries to form and educate leaders given that enrollment trends are reverting back to what they were in the several years prior to the pandemic? With large endowments, the PCUSA schools will have longer runways than most schools. However, steeper enrollment declines also suggest that PCUSA seminaries will have to rethink their business model, which is driven by assumptions of a mostly residential, MDiv, full-time student population.
Current 2: the Impact of Online/Hybrid Delivery on Teaching
The second current of change that emerged from the global pandemic was the adoption of online teaching and learning. ATS schools, like many institutions of higher education, responded to the pandemic through online teaching or various forms of distance education. During the first year and half of the pandemic, the United States Department of Education (USDE) temporarily loosened requirements for online education. Those schools that had already been approved to do comprehensive distance education were in a better position to continue their educational missions. Some of these schools experienced little disruption to their teaching and learning. Other schools responded with emergency online delivery as opposed to planned or designed online learning.
The impact that the dramatic move to online learning had on ATS schools was profound. Even after many schools reopened their campuses, most continued to offer courses online. During the pandemic, 100% of ATS schools did some form of remote/distance learning. Currently, of the two hundred sixty-two accredited schools in the Commission on Accrediting of ATS, two hundred forty-three are now approved for distance education—two hundred twenty-five for comprehensive distance education and eighteen for limited distance education. Almost 93% of schools are approved for distance education, and 86% are approved for comprehensive distance education.
This current trend among ATS schools is raising questions around, at least a couple of areas:
A related question is being asked about those who work at theological schools. With the emergence of the possibility of remote work, how can schools create and sustain a mission-oriented work culture?
What are some of the implications of this massive migration of theological education to online spaces? Communities of faith are wrestling with these same issues that theological schools are facing. A similar question is being asked in churches and for church leaders: “How do we create vibrant Christian communities given the increasingly hybrid nature of faith communities?” The Hartford Institute of Religion Research just released a study of the impact of COVID-19 on congregations. 80% of churches now have a hybrid worship offering with persons both in-person and online, while only 15% are worshipping exclusively in-person. It is clear that the pandemic has affected American congregating. How will theological schools equip leaders to empower congregations to lean into these significant changes that are affecting communities of faith?
Current 3: the Move Toward 2040 Diversity Among ATS Schools
The third current relates to the students that ATS schools are currently serving and will be serving increasingly in the near future. ATS schools have been becoming more diverse in terms of their students for three decades. Since the early 1990s until now, racial/ethnic and visa students have grown from 25% of all ATS student to 45% in 2021. Since 1992:
It is also clear that this increase in racial/ethnic students will not be an enrollment “boom” for all theological schools. Schools have been adapting their curricula and faculty composition to better serve these populations, though faculty diversity has lagged way behind student demographic shifts.
In January of 2021, the Lilly Endowment launched the Pathways for Tomorrow initiative, which was designed to “help theological schools strengthen and sustain their capacities to prepare and support pastoral leaders for Christian churches.” This initiative had three phases:
In total, since 2021, the Lilly Endowment has made an unprecedented $209 million investment in theological schools and supporting organizations. Most of the Phase Two projects have focused on future streams of enrollment. 70% of the Pathways schools are focusing on enhancing future enrollments. Two-thirds of the schools are focusing on underrepresented students of color communities. These new streams of enrollment will require schools to do adaptive work if they are to serve student of color populations effectively. Schools are partnering with local communities, denominational judicatories, and supporting organizations more intentionally so that these students can be formed well for the leadership that communities of faith need.
These are shifts for which we have been waiting a long time in theological education. However, this is a significant adaptive challenge for schools that have not historically served communities of color. Moreover, I don’t think we are going to see an overall increase in enrollments that will sustain North American theological schools for the long-term. These are absolutely where the mid-twenty-first century student trends are heading in North America, but it will be a crowded educational space with many offerings from an increasing number of schools.
Here are some additional concluding thoughts about which theological schools can think theologically, since theological thinking is what theological schools do best.
How do we understand Christian community in an endemic world when communities of faith are increasingly hybrid and yet most of us are wired to be in-person? Are there ways for us to think about hybrid embodiment within our theologies of incarnation? This is something for which people of faith are not always adequately formed; and yet, people of faith have an increasing expectation and demand for community offerings to be more flexible and online?
How do we understand diversity within Christian community in an endemic world as we shift to a time when theological students and communities reflect better the diversity for which many of us hoped at the turn of the millennia, a time when there will no longer be a racial-ethnic majority (ATS schools will reflect these realities well before 2040)? However, current society continues to demonstrate that racism and American/Euro-centrism persist in our institutional structures, curricula, and ways of being community. How can schools form faithful and adaptive leaders who can lead congregations into these systemic and demographic changes faithfully? How can communities of faith be faithful witnesses in an increasingly polarized U.S. context around issues of race and racism?
All of these currents of change are happening during a tsunami of leadership transitions. At the end of every summer, ATS has an article in its online newsletter, Colloquy Online, on new chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief academic officers (CAOs) in ATS member schools. In a typical year, this article will include maybe a dozen or two-dozen new leaders. In 2021, there were one hundred new CEOs and CAOs at eighty-four ATS schools. In the 2022 article, it listed eighty-three new CEOs and CAOs at seventy-four ATS schools. We are in the middle of the highest number of transitions in the top two positions at ATS schools in the Association’s one hundred and four-year history.
To say that the COVID-19 global pandemic has accelerated change in theological schools is an understatement. Within these currents of change, there are several opportunities and challenges for theological schools; but that is part of our church’s history and tradition, indeed it is a theme of our very faith. It is in times of crisis and change, when God’s church and theological schools are often the most creative. Transformation often happens in the midst of significant challenge. Our faith traditions teach us that God’s creation happens within the midst of chaos not in the absence of crisis (e.g., Genesis 1). May it be so for this season of transformation in theological schools.
We have been asked to discuss the matters before us, each one of us from the perspective of her or his own disciplines. I must confess that I find this rather restrictive, for I am not a very disciplined person! But I shall try to be good and follow instructions. As a historian I shall construct my comments with reference to two great leaders in the history of the church, and their path in theological education and reflection: first, the well-known Augustine, and then Ambrose, who was instrumental in Augustine’s conversion, and baptized him.
Augustine was called – actually, forced – to become a minister after he had devoted years to theological reflection. Ambrose too was forced to become a minister; but at the time we was unwillingly made a pastor he was a civil official, and had not paid much attention to theology. This meant that Augustine suddenly found himself having to shape his intellectual interests, and his theology, to his pastoral task. In contrast. Ambrose, now finding himself a pastor and the bishop of Milan, turned to Simplician, whom he had long admired for his wisdom and theological acuity, and invited him to be his theological mentor.
Two different paths: a theology that is then shaped by the needs of the people of God; and a ministry shaped that is then shaped by good theology. Two different paths, but one result: good theology and good ministry going handin-hand.
These two patterns have persisted throughout history. For a number of reasons, the Augustinian pattern has been the most recognized, the most studied, the most followed. The Ambrosian pattern has often been relegated to the margins. We take Augustine as our paradigm, and not Ambrose. We believe that we must fust learn, and then do; theory goes before practice. But for many theory is developed out of the need and the experience of practice.
Roughly at the same time as Ambrose and Augustine, there was in Cappadocia a family deeply committed to its faith. One of the members of that family, Basil, traveled to study law in the best schools of their time. His sister Macrina, being a woman, had to stay at home, and find her own ways to learn. The name of Basil is still revered by, and theologians and scholars study his writings. Macrina is seldom remembered. Yet it was Macrina who, practicing her own ministry, opened the eyes of the learned Basil to his responsibilities as a Christian, and turned him into a pastor and a theologian. And it was Macrina, and not Basil, whom their younger brother Gregory of Nyssa called “the Teacher.”
Augustine and Ambrose. One pattern is not necessarily better than the other. And certainly each has its own dangers. The Augustinian pattern often leads to irrelevant theology, to a narcissistic theology whose purpose is theology itself, to a theology where you study in order to publish, and you publish in order not to perish. The Ambrosian pattern often leads to the canonization of ignorance and bigotry. The Augustinian pattern may lead to theologians such as the one appropriately called “the Subtle Doctor,” whose speculations are practically impossible to follow. The Ambrosian pattern may lead to a monk also appropriately called “the Mellifluous Doctor,” whose honeyed preaching blasted all who did not agree with him, and unleashed bloody violence against Jews and Muslims.
In general, for obvious reasons, the Augustinian pattern – with its values and its perils –has been more available to the privileged, while the Ambrosian pattern – with its perils and its values – has been more common among the marginalized, among women and ethnic minorities, among people in what used to be called “the mission field.” In general, the Augustinian pattern has become the paradigmatic ideal among so-called mainline churches, while the Ambrosian pattern has become typical of ethnic minority and Pentecostal churches. In mainline churches, the notion often prevails that the Augustinian pattern is “for us” – that is, for those who are “mainline” also with reference to class, culture, and ethnicity – and the Ambrosian pattern is “for them” – pastors and leaders in ethnic minority churches.
As I now look at the issues before our day, I see a great crisis, and an even greater opportunity. For the sake of brevity, I will not take the time to describe the crisis. Suffice it to say, on the subject we are discussing in this panel, that theological institutions built around the Augustinian model, to serve denominations that viewed that model as paradigmatic, can no longer fill their classrooms with students from their own denominations, nor even from similar denominations, and are filling this gap with people who are following the Ambrosian model – pastors who have been leading churches for years, and who do not go to seminary because it is required, but because they feel they need it. This is feasible because there is a crisis also among those traditionally following the Ambrosian model, who are recognizing that they need more of the sort of education that the Augustinian model requires.
To many traditional institutions, this seems to be the answer to their crisis. We can now fill our classrooms again! We can increase tuition income! We can now justify our existence! We may even increase our donor base! We can see a way out of the present crisis! What an opportunity!
But I fear – and I hope – that this will soon lead to a much deeper crisis, and therefore to a greater opportunity. The crisis and the opportunity are not just institutional; not just a matter of recruitment; not just a matter of finances. They are also a matter of pedagogy and of theology. For a while, institutions that were born out of an Augustinian model will be able to provide services for those coming from an Ambrosian model. If people who have been leading churches for years now feel that they need to know more about the New Testament, or about theology, or about church history, let them come take the courses that we offer on those subjects…
But you cannot put new wine in old wineskins. The new wine will break the old wineskins. A different student body, with different needs, and with a different church experience, will force us to develop new courses, new methodologies; even a new theological method – one that is more consonant with the actual life of the church in all levels of society. In order to achieve this, those of us who have long been formed by the Augustinian model will have to visit and partake in the life of churches that may be very different that the ones that have shaped us; to go to areas and to communities that are not the most familiar to us; to listen to questions that are not the ones our professors told us were the right questions… This will be a difficult task. But it is also a great opportunity!
Who knows? Perhaps Ambrose will once again baptize Augustine!
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). 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.
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.
 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.
How to form Christian leaders in an era of endemics: it’s an intimidating topic. Forming leaders in an era of pandemics might have been a more obvious topic, if a bit on the nose. But no: like a Jacob deGrom slider, Pres. Aloyo’s “endemic” pitch came with way more movement on it than a simple pandemic fastball (incidentally: that’s the last pro-Mets illustration you get, Pres. Aloyo. You’re in Braves country now).
Pandemics hit hard and go away; they manifest in occasionality and disruption. Endemics, though, stick around, multiplying on each other, driving us to constantly renegotiate the very changes they force upon us—to modify our plans, adjust our hopes, and reframe our practices. Endemic diseases are those that settle into various communities, always threatening and always demanding attention. Tay-Sachs in Ashkenazi Jewish populations. To speak on “forming Christian leaders for an endemic era,” then, is to speak of attending to those evolving forces that are with us for the foreseeable future, demanding that we modify our teaching plans, adjust our vocational hopes, and reframe our ecclesial practices.
What might forming Christian leaders during an endemic era look like? An obvious starting point is that endemics force us to roll up our sleeves and get re-vaccinated each year because, like the influenza virus, endemic forces in the church and in wider society mutate such that one shot isn’t enough. Forming leaders can’t be structured around a single three-year MDiv dose and can’t be confined only to persons on their way to becoming professional Christians paid by the church to run its business. We will need to give greater attention not only to students who hold jobs while going to seminary but to ministers who hold a job while serving the church. Christian leadership in an endemic era is a lifelong project that catches up the whole body of Christ.
And we should keep our sleeves are rolled up. There are increasingly powerful authoritarian and technocratic movements in the United States that would deny not only the value of higher education in the humanities but also the wisdom of pursuing any type of ministry grounded in obligations to love a God bigger than our biases and to love neighbors other than those who look, act, and think like us. At least in the North Atlantic, those of us with the privilege to teach the humanities in institutions of higher education are in a knife fight for legitimacy and the only reason I can see that we theological educators are not alert to this fact is that we have been allowed to coast on the accommodations provided for the mainline church under the illusions of its non-threateningness and cultural centrality. But the church isn’t meant to be nonthreatening, it isn’t at the center of U.S. culture, and it, too, is imperiled by authoritarian and technocratic movements. If we want students trained to think; if we want graduates capable of defending democratic and humane practices; if we want a church that is relevant, we need to be in that fight.
Paradoxically, students from around the world are seeking desperately to come to the U.S. to study because regardless of our many national flaws, higher education in the U.S. is still widely seen as the gold standard. My classes this year include a student from Syria who grew up in a town surrounded by Islamic State forces, cut off from basic goods like food and water; an Orthodox priest from the Republic of Georgia watching from a distance as Ukrainian refugees and young Russian men fleeing the draft have attempted to enter his country; and a student holding poetry slams in Madagascar in the hopes of raising enough money to come study here because she can’t rely on the internet there. And these are just a few of my students.
All of which raise complicated and increasingly pressing questions about classes and curricula; about course readings and institutional resources; about academic research and scholarly guilds; about disciplinary integrity and the amusements of interdisciplinarity. Theological education in North America is undergoing a period of dramatic churn and its future for those of us forming Christian leaders is going to mandate that the selection of our courses, the patterns of our pedagogies, and the foci of our scholarship will turn on some complicated and, at times, grief-causing decisions as we respond to the church’s marginalization among North Atlantic countries and its explosion elsewhere.
Rather than adoring ivory tower offices filled with soft lamplight, we must join our professional academic work to public activism. Rather than mouthing simplified mantras like, “listen for silenced voices” and idealized truisms like, “God’s preferential option is for the poor,” our pedagogies must confront the objectification of romanticized others and engage our neighbors as we find them in all their graceful and sinful complexity. Rather than projecting a vision of seminaries as places of refuge framed by myths of womb-like community, we need to encounter each other as adults called to hard and wondrous tasks in politically complicated and morally fraught places. Doing so involves rolling up our sleeves.
While our sleeves are rolled up, we should dig our hands into the dirt. We have entered a period in which our relationships with the nonhuman natural world will define all life on earth. Air pollution is a leading causes of death worldwide. Animal species populations have diminished by over 2/3’s in the last fifty years and we’re at somewhere around 100 times the natural background extinction rate for all species. There is more carbon dioxide in the air than at any point in the last 800,000 years which, combined with other greenhouse gasses, has led to more massive droughts, floods, fires, and storms than at any point in recorded history. Melting ice caps could raise sea levels by six feet before someone born today is likely to die, which rising seas could displace over two hundred million people. And since I started speaking, we’ve lost the equivalent of 80 football fields worth of rainforest trees. Any church that claims the centrality of Matthew 25 better figure out how that chapter matters in an age of environmental concerns and any seminary that doesn’t foreground these concerns is committing pedagogical malpractice.
I’d note, moreover, that the deleterious effects of all these forces are unequally distributed among both human populations and global species. Philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò has argued that the impacts of these events—framed within what he refers to as a “global racial empire”—have been and will be most dramatically felt by those who have already been most victimized by colonization projects, overwhelmingly Black and Brown peoples and indigenous non-human species, so any attempt at pursuing tikkun olam—the repair of the world–will mandate pursuing projects of reparative justice as part of “formation during an endemic era.”
What might this look like? Around here, beyond pointing at LEED Gold-certified buildings, beyond maintaining a marginal partnership with Global Growers, and beyond offering the occasional conference or course on environmental justice, such formation would involve rapidly divesting our endowment from fossil fuel-related corporations, shifting our own sizeable energy footprint downward and towards renewables, making sure every course we teach attends to and is informed by climate science, knowing the ecological contexts from which our students come, and keeping a copy of Bill Brown’s “Climate Chaos: A Pedagogical Manifesto” pinned above our computers for reference. Or, said differently, we need to dig our hands into the dirt.
Finally, we need to learn to live with dirty hands and form Christian leaders who can do the same. The modern theological project has been framed by attempts to avoid defilement in the pursuit of purity and avoidance of complicity. We have mouthed illusory maxims like, “The church should be an alternative polis; a community of resident aliens.” We have leaned into the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as a way of avoiding schismatic impulses. We have defended the ways of nonviolence as above reproach and incapable of being weaponized towards divisiveness. We have treated DEI initiatives as curatives for deep and longstanding systems of racial, patriarchal, heteronormative, and ableist injustice and we have treated the failure of those same initiatives as signs that some of us just weren’t trying hard enough. We have put theology in the service of therapy in the hope that we can form healthy people to lead healthy churches. We have, in short, sought to cure ourselves from all that ails us.
I am not saying that we should simply accept dirty hands, throwing them up in the air in surrender. Should we go on sinning that grace may increase? Me genoito!—By no means! The church does have a role to play in society, schisms carry harms, the coercive use of force is always morally troubling, initiatives that reduces historic injustice and ongoing harm warrant our attention, and it is far better to address psychopathologies within theological education than to allow them to later fester within church leadership.
Instead, I am saying that dealing with such matters means letting go of the endlessly wearying and metabolically wasteful projects of pursuing antiseptic cleanliness. We must learn how to negotiate the inevitable complicities that come with living while endemics interact and when responsibly addressing one endemic usually means exacerbating another. We need to imagine the practices of justice as carrying costs that are not fairly distributed, the pursuit of justice as not synonymous with claims of righteousness, and, at least this side of eternity, the consequences of just actions as neither perfect nor complete. We need to recognize that the manufacturing of discontent over local imperfections has become an escape from dealing with a world of outrages. We need to be less selective in our compassion and more profligate in our forgiving. And we need to link our hopes to the actual conditions within which most people—most creatures—on this planet live. As bell hooks reminds us, “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” This is learning to live with dirty hands.
Roll up our sleeves. Dig our hands into the dirt. Learn to live with dirty hands. Of these things, I think, does the formation of Christian leaders during an endemic era consist. Given the incalculable, inequitable, and seemingly insurmountable costs of living in a conflicted, cheapened and commodified world, hope in the possibilities and power of a theological education may feel quixotic. But surely it is better to tilt at windmills than to beat our lances into lampstands or our syringes into knitting needles.
In 1997, I was freshly graduated with a PhD in New Testament studies, when I entered the lecture halls of the University of Botswana. I was excited and armed with all the classic and newest ways of reading the Bible. I was all ready to make my mark in the world of teaching, researching and community service. But I soon came to realize that I had landed in a country, region and world that was overshadowed by something else— the global HIV and AIDS pandemic. As I stood in a lecture theater, packed full with two hundred and fifty students, who had come to learn Gospel Narratives at my feet, I soon found myself unnerved, disarmed, and disenchanted as I began to ask myself, “What is the point of training these students about the ancient contexts of the gospels and methods of reading the gospels, if the knowledge I impart cannot save their lives and the lives of their families? Why should I teach the New Testament if it cannot address the pandemic that is engulfing the world? I had crisis. Career crisis. Infection rate among the young and sexually active population of my country was, at that time, placed at 33%. There was no cure and no access to any affordable treatment. The song we were singing then was ABC; namely, that preventing HIV and AIDS was as easy as ABC—Abstaining, Being Faithful to one’s partner and Condomising. But no, handling HIV and AIDS epidemic was not as easy as ABC. Death reigned and my students disappeared, either through death, grief or assuming new roles as heads of households.
Recently, it has been creeping on me, again. I am haunted by the relevance of my career as I watch our earthly home fall apart. Mother Earth weeps. She breaks apart, cracks, melts, and flows, closing boundaries between seas, rivers, dams and ground. She rages with frequent and more vicious hurricanes and destructive storms. She unleashes heat waves and burns, setting up endless fire storms. She releases hailstorms heating the ground, animals, plants and everything along the way. Mother Earth weeps. Mother Earth laments from all the corners of her body and we are witnesses. Mother Earth has become a strange home for us, uncomfortable, uncertain unsafe.
I begin to wrestle with myself, and how I should be teaching biblical studies in the context of the lamentations of Mother Earth and her children. Does God hear the cry of the Earth? I am at the crossroads, again: what is the relevance of my New Testament career if it cannot be part of healing and saving Mother Earth? I believe that the contemporary Earth crisis calls for the highest reflection and action from all Christian thinkers, writers, prophets, trainers and leaders. We need to ask:
Needless to say, we need to birth Christian leaders who will think and work through Mother Earth as we realize that God weeps with Mother Earth. We need to train Christian leaders who will weep with Mother Earth as they interrogate the sins that have been worked upon her body and the violation of Spirit of God that was there upon all creation from the very beginning. We need to train Christian leaders who will carry the lamentations of Mother Earth as they assume their prophetic roles on the mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, forests, villages, towns and cities. We need to train Christian leaders who will stand with and weep with the poor and marginalized as they, once more, become the hardest hit from the destruction of the Mother Earth. Curriculum transformation is in order.
I arrived in Atlanta last year, during Covid 19. We were still all masked, reeling in another pandemic. We were largely working from home, for Covid 19 had forced all of us to retreat, cover up and stay in our houses and give the Mother Earth a sabbath. Yet it was during the Covid 19 when the whole world came to graphically witness George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe” and watch him die, thereby unmasking the suffocating pandemic of racism. Now that we have been unmasked, what have we learnt from the Covid 19 pandemic? How should we think theologically through and with Covid 19 experience and its link with class, gender, race and age? What is the link between HIV&AIDS, Earth crisis, Covid 19, race and gender? It is fair to say that, among others, we have learned, and we continue to learn that we are a world living under various pandemics. Colonialism is a pandemic. Capitalism is a pandemic. Neo-liberalism is pandemic. Patriarchy is a pandemic. Racism is a pandemic. Anthropocentrism is a pandemic. Homophobia is a pandemic. Theological training should be in the business of training God’s foot soldiers, those who weep with the violated spirit of God in all creation; those who carry the mantle of prophets, those who lament in the public square, those carry the anointing oil, for the healing of Mother Earth and her children.
How many people, like me, have been arriving in Atlanta, Georgia and the USA? Statistics can tell us. According to Avtar Brah the movement of human populations has been intensifying between countries, regions, continents and is not expected to stop anytime soon, for various reasons. Indeed, we are informed that the Earth crisis will brew more movements as some Islands sink, conflict rise dwindling resources, and as many places fail to produce food due to changes in temperatures and seasons among others. And so, I have heard that Atlanta boasts of, and smells of many cuisines from various parts of the Earth. I am yet to fully indulge. I have heard, and even visited, its farmers’ market with foods from everywhere to cater for its diverse populations. These are testimonies of diasporas in Atlanta avenues.
Brah argues that we are increasingly becoming a diaspora community, living in the diaspora space, where the native and the migrant find themselves within increasingly diverse cultures, religions and languages. Of course, why we travel and how we are received; how settle or remain unsettled, depends on ones’ race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity. For the theological educators it is imperative to craft welcoming spaces, theologies of various cuisines, sounds, songs, dances, fabrics and tongues. The good news should be the good news that welcomes the other as part of God’s created world.
The theology of diversity invites us to God’s welcoming shalom; the God who created the Earth and everything in it; the God who created the Earth, beautiful and everyone in it; the God who created the Earth in goodness, interconnectedness and in balance—the God who celebrated every part and member of creation as good and very good! This a theological dream we are called to nurture. It calls for a curriculum transformation—transformations that place Mother Earth and diversity of theological thinking at the center of our content, methods, theories, programs and praxis. Euro-centric theological programs do not equip the religious leaders of today, who must serve in extremely diverse contexts. Our diasporic space calls for welcoming faith leaders and spaces that welcome God’ s diverse presence– a welcoming space that does not invite us to leave our differences at the door of your academic halls and worship sanctuary, but to enter as God’s own celebrated member.
Dr Victor Aloyo, I really wanted to talk about the tall trees of Atlanta. I wanted to talk about its soil. It must be a rich fertile soil, that welcomes seeds and grooms them to grow to their tallest height, often refusing to be sidelined by human development. How can you and your school do a theology that is planted in the rich soils of the city—a theology that grows with the tall trees of Atlanta? How beautiful are the feet of those who plant theologies of liberation and healing in this fertile soil! Welcome to rich soils and tall trees of the city of Decatur, Dr Victor Aloyo.
Allard, S.W., K. E. Heyer, R. Nadella eds. (2021) Christianity and the Law of Migrations. New York: Routledge.
Brah, Avtar. 1996. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London Routledge, 1996.
Byron Gay L. & Hugh R. Page eds, 2022. Black Scholars Matter: Visions, Struggles, and Hopes in Africana Biblical Studies. Atlanta: SBL.
Chirongoma, Sophia & Scholar Kiuulu eds. (2021). Mother Earth, Mother Africa and World Religions. Cape Town: Sun Media.
Berman, S. K., P. Leshota, E. Dunbar, M. W. Dube and M. Kgalemang eds. (2021). Mother Earth, Mother Africa and Biblical Interpretation. Bamberg: Bamberg University Press, 2021.
Dube, Musa W and Paul Leshota. Eds. (2020). Breaking the Masters S.H.I.T. Holes: Doing Theology in the Context of Global Migration. Contact Zone Series. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsansta
Dube, Musa W. (2016). “Let There be Light: Birthing Ecumenical Theology in the HIV and AIDS Apocalypse,” The Ecumenical Review 67/4, pp. 531-542.
Dube, M: W, (2011). “Feminist Theologies of a World Scripture/s in the Globalization Era,” pp. In Sheila Briggs and Mary. McClintock Fulkerson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Dube, M. W. (2009). “I am Because We Are”: Giving Primacy to African Indigenous Values in HIV&AIDS Prevention,” pp. 178-188. In M. F. Murove, ed. African Ethics: An Anthology of Comparative and Applied Ethics. Pietmaritzburg: Univ. of Kwazulu Natal Press.
Dube, M. W. (2005). “Rahab Is Hanging Up a Red Ribbon: One African Woman’s Perspective on Feminist New Testament Studies ,” in K. Wicker eds., Feminist New Testament Studies: Global and Future Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan.
by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, Founder/Creative Director, A Sanctified Art
It’s truly an honor to participate in this conversation and be amongst the wisdom here on this stage, so thank you for having me.
My name is Lisle Gwynn Garrity. I’m a 2015 dual degree graduate of CTS and I’m the founder/creative director of A Sanctified Art. We are a collective of artists, pastors, writers, musicians, and together we create multimedia resources for worshiping communities all over the globe. We primarily create worship series with resources like: poetry, liturgy, visual art, curriculum, worship art projects, devotional materials, short films….
We try not to define our ministry by what we create, but instead by what we’re trying to do: we use art and creativity as tools for spiritual formation. We hope to resource and support weary and overworked pastors. We try to foster collaboration on a local level, for we believe that creativity begets creativity.
We create visual art in order to expand imagination around images of God and the imago dei, and to the best of our ability, to counter the ways that white supremacy has purposefully limited our ability to see the divine in one another.
We partner with guest artists, writers, and musicians to share the abundant gifts of many, and we are so honored that many faculty here have been guest contributors: Dr. Marcia Riggs, Dr. Raj Nadella, and Dr. Christine Hong. Ultimately, we are trying to invite the modern Church to again become a patron of the arts and to use art for collective flourishing.
Personally, I’m an ordained minister in the PCUSA, but professionally, I exist as a bit of an institutional outlier. I’m what we call a “validated minister,” (which I think is a problematic label, but that’s a conversation for another panel) and I serve ministry leaders in the work that I do, but I am not employed by any particular church or denomination.
I was extremely fortunate and grateful to be ordained to the work of A Sanctified Art (which is pretty radical for Presbyterians), but to be completely honest, there were many parts of my ordination journey and ordination service that felt awkward and mismatched bc our institution’s process and language for ordination are still shaped around a pretty narrow vision of what it means to be a pastor. And so I often feel like an oddball in the system, but I hope that I can provide a unique vantage point to offer something valuable to this conversation today.
In my time at Columbia, the words that were ingrained in our collective consciousness were imagination and resilience. While those concepts have served me well, I’ve been reflecting on Dr. Aloyo’s vision for this new chapter in the life of CTS, one founded on the expansive grace and abundance of God. I’ve been thinking about how these values might have shaped my own journey into vocational ministry as an institutional outlier.
1) The values of abundance and grace prompt us to pursue new models for ministry.
First of all, I think the values of abundance and grace prompt us to let go of the structures that no longer sustain us, and to pursue new models for ministry, because there is an abundance of ways to live into a pastoral calling. To do this, we have to prepare leaders who are both financially literate and intentionally discovering and deconstructing their own personal money stories and theology around money.
When I graduated from Columbia, I tried really hard to follow the traditional path of ministry that was laid before me and to search for a “call” to pastor a church. But every time I read a job description, my heart would sink because pursuing a “call” felt like a betrayal of my own call. As I was compelled by the vision that was becoming A Sanctified Art, I started to realize that I would need to create a new structure.
My own money story at the time was the binary idea that non-profits were organizations who did good in the world, and for-profit businesses were greedy capitalists who only cared about their bottom line.
However, this binary started to unravel a bit when I felt deep down that the funding structure for A Sanctified Art needed to be entrepreneurial. We needed the freedom to experiment and create without having to fundraise as a prerequisite. I also was concerned about power dynamics; I didn’t want the source of our revenue to be deeply tied to other institutional powers who might have certain expectations and limitations. And so, as we created and experimented and adapted, and responded to the needs of our community, we’ve come to a funding model in which there is an exchange: our patrons give us financial resources, and in return, we give them creative resources.
This business structure has allowed us to grow and expand over the years so that now, as an organization, we endeavor to pay our creators equitably (and counter the starving artist trope), and to engage in our own financial stewardship. In the past few years, we have given away over $35,000 to 24 different organizations doing good in the world.
So many of our structures in ministry are no longer sustainable. Too many nonprofits are limited by the institutional powers that give them funding. Too many churches are functioning like corporate structures with a climb-the-ladder system of pay in which the people at the bottom are not compensated in ways that reflect the kin-dom of God. Too many ministries have income streams that have dried up, which is preventing them from doing the very needed work they are called to do.
And so, we need to train leaders in financial literacy. Students should gain education around different funding models, nonprofit and for-profit structures, budgets, taxes (because those will be complicated no matter where you land).
And these practical skills can be taught in tandem with our theology of money—to investigate our own personal stories around money, to disrupt the areas where we have scarcity, to heal where we have wounds. Because those stories shape our money behaviors and we will carry those behaviors with us no matter where we go.
And so, through the lens of abundance and grace, how can we train leaders who are adept at reforming structures when they need to be reimagined—and who can create new structures in order to respond to the needs of the world?
2) The values of abundance and grace prompt us to train ministry leaders who are collaborators.
Secondly, the values of abundance and grace prompt us to train Christian leaders who are collaborators. I am really saddened by the fact that many of my peers went into ministry contexts where the culture was deeply toxic and shaped around a scarcity of grace. Too many of my peers have been deeply harmed and wounded by these experiences and some have left ministry altogether.
So many pastors are isolated and church staff often operate in silos. But, why? Doesn’t the gospel compel us to work together through webs of connection and community? Aren’t we invited to see and utilize the abundance of gifts among us?
At A Sanctified Art, all of our creative work is rooted in collaboration, which is beautiful—and also very messy. But over the past 7 years, we’ve learned a lot about how to collaborate in ways that are generative and not destructive. We’ve gotten better at brainstorming together, inviting guests to partner with us, sharing ideas, holding our thoughts loosely without too much attachment, letting go of ego, and trying to listen collectively to the Spirit at work among us. It’s holy and messy work requiring us to both pursue clarity and also stay open to new possibilities as they emerge.
Learning the skill of collaboration is deeply valuable, and I think necessary, no matter what ministry path you pursue—but those skills can only be honed through experience.
What if seminaries had coursework that was completed through collaborative cohorts over the course of a full semester or year? And I’m not talking about your one-off group project, I’m proposing something more intentional. Cohorts that would be tasked with projects in which they discern a vision together and execute it together. Cohorts that would need to clarify roles, learn each other’s skill sets (and weaknesses), practice honest and vulnerable communication, and develop workflows in order to move a concept from the idea stage into something real. Cohorts that would need time to both execute their ideas and also debrief the process, to work through conflicts and miscommunications.
We have to train leaders who go into churches and ministry with a heart for collaboration, who see themselves as participants in bringing forth the kin-dom of God alongside their colleagues, their parishioners, and their community.
3) The values of abundance and grace prompt us to imagine expansive ways to connect & be transformed.
Lastly, the values of abundance and grace prompt us to imagine expansive ways to connect, to preach and teach the gospel, and to be transformed. In our culture we know all too well how our words can become swords. Our language is often loaded, and certain words can trigger us to close off and shut down.
However, images are inherently expansive. The artist creates with a particular message or concept in mind, but that shifts and evolves as the work comes together. The viewer sees more than what the artist intends, and one image can speak to multiple themes and ideas. And so, one of the gifts of our work at A Sanctified Art, is that we can sometimes say things through art that may not necessarily be received if preached from the pulpit.
A few years ago, I was leading worship for a church and throughout the service and sermon, I used this artwork, titled “Anointed” by my colleague, Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman (who is also a CTS grad). The painting is inspired by Mary washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. In the worship service I engaged the practice of Visio Divina, inviting worshipers to sit with the image, to look closely at it, to imagine how God might be speaking to them through the art.
After the service, an elderly white woman came up to me and she said, “You know, I have to admit that the whole time I was looking at the art, I didn’t see the foot; I thought it was part of the woman’s hand. It wasn’t until the very end of the service when you read the artist’s statement, that I realized it was Jesus’ foot. I didn’t recognize that it was Jesus’ foot because I hadn’t thought of Jesus as having a darker skin tone.” Then she said, “I’m gonna sit with that. I’m gonna be thinking about that for a long time.”
Friends, we need new ways to communicate, to connect, to see—ways that deeply transform us from the inside out. We need leaders with the skills to reimagine and recreate the structures of ministry. We need to be collaborators, connected to the web of gifts and talents in our communities.
But mostly, in a world of scarcity and fear, we need to return again and again to the expansive and abundant grace of God. Thank you.