A Vulnerable Church: Passing The Dave Test

Much of the last year was thread through with considerable loss.  My brother, Dave, battled a fatal brain cancer for nearly eight years and he died this last January as the result of a fall that was due in large part to his disease.  He would have been 58 years old this month.

In reaction to Dave’s quest to find a durable faith and supportive friends, I wrote a book called The Dave Test, which was just released by Abingdon PressThe book distills Dave’s quest into ten questions that any of us can ask ourselves, when we are in one of life’s hard places or when we are trying to support those we love.  Whether that hard place revolves around divorce, death, unemployment, abuse, or illness, I hope that the questions I ask and the answers the book offers will help us all be a bit more available to one another.

In a recent interview for Patheos.com editor, Deborah Arca, asked, “Dave’s best and most valuable friends throughout his illness, ironically enough, were not his church folk. What were the qualities these unlikely companions in his suffering demonstrated that were lacking in his church community?”

My answer was this:

“Honesty, vulnerability, the ability to walk-wounded, and deep faith are probably the qualities at the top of the list.  The two friends who were closest to Dave were both recovering alcoholics.  So they had been to the bottom and found their way out.  Far too many churches are places where people are expected to show up with the rough edges planed off or hidden, minds clear, and hearts aligned.  We need to find new ways to welcome people who are struggling.”

Deborah’s questions were very helpful and I hope my answers were as well.  But I’d like to elaborate on that answer a bit in a way that wasn’t possible in the interview and lay beyond the purpose of the book:

I meant it when I said that far too many churches are places where people can’t bring their problems.  There are plenty of churches that accommodate recovery programs, of course. And if you are in crisis in most cases you can call on the parish clergy.  But such efforts — as good as they are — are seriously limited:

Understandably, recovery programs can only offer the most generic support.  AA, for example, is an excellent program with Christian origins, but in order to address the larger needs of its constituency, AA confines its language about the struggle with addiction to the broadest possible categories.

If churches hope to integrate their ministry with outreach of this kind, they will need to learn how to offer wisdom that is more immediately integrated with their message.  This doesn’t mean that support and recovery groups are a bad thing.  Nor it does it mean that the people who attend those groups should be gang-pressed into church life.  Anonymity is, in fact, often necessary to that process.

But as long as parishes restrict their efforts to recovery groups administered by outside organizations, such efforts will always be at arms-length and those who participate will always live on the fringes of the church’s life.

Such stand-alone efforts also rob churches of the opportunity to cultivate the spiritual wisdom that might arise out of confronting life’s ragged places together.  If modern Christianity lacks a certain muscularity or reality, much of its superficiality can be traced to churches that dispense therapeutic help at arms-length, but lack the rigor and reality that comes from wading into life’s hard places.

That’s why people who suffer through divorce or lose a job are often forced to look for a new church or give up going at all.  A church that can’t acknowledge life’s hard places or needs to lay blame will never walk very far with people who are struggling.



About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.