There’s been a lot of blogging in our little Church of Christ corner of the world about staying and leaving. My friend, Sean Palmer, wrote out of his experience about why some Church of Christ ministers are leaving. I think his observations are largely on the mark, and most of the things he identifies are and have been sources of frustration for me as well.
In thinking about this a little more, I’ve decided that the reasons people leave are actually a sign of our vitality. I know that sounds crazy and maybe I’m wrong, but let me explain.
In Churches of Christ, we have always valued critical thinking. While other traditions were resisting modernity by establishing Bible Colleges, Churches of Christ were establishing liberal arts universities. And by making that choice, we were avoiding the impulse to put a certain vision of the Bible like a lid on top of all other areas of learning. Now, places like Harding and ACU and Pepperdine and Lipscomb, et al, were hardly bastions of liberal learning. We wouldn’t confuse any of them with Cal-Berkley or Harvard or the University of Chicago. But our professors of physics and literature and psychology were encouraged to prepare themselves in the best way possible, and that meant the best schools you could get into.
The same was true in biblical studies. Our profs didn’t go to places like Trinity or Westminster or SWBS, but places like Harvard and Cambridge and Emory and Vanderbilt. As a result, our graduate schools (seminaries) have always been staffed with people who have been trained to take a critical approach to biblical studies, theology, etc. Our School of Theology and Ministry faculty meeting at Rochester College this morning was represented by Princeton, Emory, Vanderbilt, Luther Seminary, Marquette, and Baylor. Our schools of ministry preparation have modeled less the desire to tell us what to think, than how to think. Because of this, our seminaries are often more progressive than the rank and file in the pews.
Add to this dynamic the fact that we have been a non-creedal tradition. We have no agreed upon confessional framework under which we do our work. As a result, we often pick up various theological instincts based on the influences received in doctoral studies. When I taught in the Graduate School of Theology at ACU, we had pretty impressive theological diversity. Some of us were more Reformed, some more anabaptist, some more Orthodox, some more Catholic in our theological commitments. All of us were Church of Christ by practice.
My subsequent time at Luther Seminary was startling in some ways. Though the faculty was ecumenical, the Lutheran confessional tradition was very pronounced. I felt less theological elbow room there than I did at ACU.
So, our ministers are trained in what I consider a very generative environment. It’s open and thoughtful and committed to following wherever the discussion leads. As a result, I recognize in a lot of our young ministers a desire to make it on earth as it is in seminary. They can’t understand why our congregations aren’t ready to embrace Advent or a broader worship heritage or aspects of classic spirituality or a greater inclusion of women in ministry.
I recognize this in others because I felt, and sometimes still feel, the same way. I couldn’t understand why the congregation I served wasn’t eager to trade in their shabby and worn-out theology for my updated, shinier version. As a result, I often treated the congregation as my enemy. They wouldn’t do what I wanted them to! I felt bitter and under-appreciated and stifled and frustrated.
But here’s the thing. It was precisely the vitality of our tradition that made me feel this way. I was given gifts that pressed against the known limits of our tradition. What I was not given was a strategy for re-entry into congregations that was both hopeful and peace producing.
So, part of the reason I stay is also because I have found our tradition a deep commitment to inquiry. And this commitment will inevitably lead some to leave and some to stay, and both are actually a sign of our vitality.