Increasingly the leaders of mainline denominations have been emphasizing the bi-vocational nature of ministry. After centuries of elaborating on models based on Roman Catholic practice and professional training in other disciplines, the church in the United States has begun to back away from the models that inspired both the modern ordination process and the contemporary seminary curriculum. But the retreat from that model has been ad hoc and indiscriminate. Denominational leaders haven’t discussed what this brave new world might mean… Read more

According to a recent Gallup poll, Clergy credibility is at an all-time low. There can be little doubt, as the report suggests, that the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church did a good deal to set that trend in motion, beginning in 2002. But after recovering slightly in the years that followed, the numbers have continued to decline. Gallup says little more about the trend than that, and it is difficult to be adamant about the causes. But… Read more

The death of Stephen Hawking led to predictable observations and storylines: “He is free now,” and “Look at what he accomplished in spite of his disability” were among the most common. Understandably writers who deal with their own handicaps had some trenchant criticism for people who drew on those tropes. Ellis Palmer, who writes for the BBC and is himself confined to a wheelchair, was particularly telling in his outline of the dangers in framing Hawkins life in this fashion…. Read more

Growing up, I was told that fundamentalists were judgmental. The implication, of course, was that people who were not fundamentalists were free from that particular sin. It wasn’t true, of course. In the reactive dialectic that is the relationship between fundamentalist and progressive Christianity, each one has its object for judgment. Only the criteria and the targets differ. And, over eight decades of strife, those judgments have inevitably included their opposite number in the Protestant world. The prejudices are so… Read more

The ritual of Ash Wednesday always calls to mind one of my favorite “Far Side” cartoons by Gary Larson. It portrays two deer standing opposite one another in the forest. One has a target on his chest and the other deer observes, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal!” We do such a poor job of describing the purpose of Ash Wednesday that most people think that ought to be a liturgical greeting today. Stick it in there, perhaps, in place of… Read more

Ash Wednesday, like other days in the Christian calendar, is designed to encourage spiritual reflection. But in a culture that is easily bored and longs endlessly for relevance, the nature and purpose of that day is easily lost. So, over the years, we have developed liturgies that don’t require reflection, like Ashes to Go: “I won’t have time to go to Mass today,” declared one participant. We have combined ashes with glitter to symbolize inclusion, or even pride. “LGBT people… Read more

I have no trouble praying for the dying or the dead. With C.S. Lewis (among many others in the Christian tradition), I believe that eternal life is life lived in the presence of the Triune God. That life begins with our conversion and baptism. It deepens as we journey ever more deeply into God and share in the life of God and — in the life to come — that journey takes on new dimension and depth. I also believe… Read more

  Last week I wrote about the importance of rigor in a seminary education. Predictably, someone finally noted that the disciples of Jesus didn’t have educations, so modern pastors don’t need one either. I’ve heard this argument repeatedly over the years and the defense often offered for it is the observation that there are pastors of mega-churches without a seminary education who have built mammoth non-denominational churches, while seminary-trained mainline Protestants often preside over struggling congregations. One problem with this… Read more

  I found myself in a conversation with students about the challenges of being a seminarian. There is no doubt that there are innumerable challenges. For most seminarians Masters work does not cover ground to which they’ve been introduced as undergraduates. Few have majored in religion and, in any event, a religious studies major, which focuses on comparative methods, is nothing like the world of theology. Theology is different in both its approach and subject matter. There are a number… Read more

One of the vagaries of curriculum revision is that you find yourself teaching a new course or two. So, in the wake of that change, I found myself teaching a class on the theology and practice of Christian spirituality this autumn. To open the conversation, I asked the students to write down the definition of spirituality, explicit or assumed, that they brought with them to class. I wasn’t surprised to discover that for many of them, the definition that they… Read more

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