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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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What’s a Harvard MBA Got to Do with a CTS M.Div.?

Ministerial formation is an elusive phrase that seeks to portray theological education as something more than the sum of its parts.  To the study of church history and Bible, theological, sociological, psychological and ethical reflection, we add the practices of preaching, liturgical leadership, pastoral care, CPE and contextual education, followed by disciplines of prayer, spiritual direction, and communal worship, stir (here’s the magic) and – voila! – we have the beginnings of a minister!  Since H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous study in the 1950’s, theological educators have engaged in endless tinkering, fiddling with various parts of the recipe in the quest to get it right in terms of the tastes of the church and the hungers of the world.

Yale theologian David Kelsey addressed this quest pointedly and I think aptly in his study of theological education nearly twenty years ago:

“Can we reconceive theological education in such a way that (1) it clearly pertains to the totality of human life, in the public sphere as well as the private, because it bears on all of our powers; (2) it is adequate to genuine pluralism, both of the ‘Christian thing’ and of the world in which the ‘Christian thing’ is lived, by avoiding naivete about historical and cultural conditioning without lapsing into relativism. . . ; and 4) it can retrieve the strengths of both the ‘Athens’ [“study ordered toward the students’ own personal appropriation of wisdom about God and about themselves in relation to God”] and ‘Berlin’ [“a movement from data to theory to application of theory to practice”] types of excellent schooling?” (David Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin, 1992).

These days, amid the economic peril facing so many theological schools, these profounder questions are often squeezed out of board rooms and faculty meetings as schools and seminaries struggle to adjust or transform business models merely to survive.  The scramble to keep red ink at bay turns deep reflection about formation into a luxury for many, attended to at Association of Theological Schools gatherings, during ten year accreditation visits, or in revisions of individual syllabi, but not often in the regular and normative course of mainstream planning and governance settings where those charged with teaching and those charged with oversight gather to converse and consult.

Sometimes, therefore, it’s a gift to be provoked toward these deeper questions by a voice from an apparently alien discipline.  A recently published interview with the new dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, got me thinking again about what ministerial formation should look like today.  When asked about the new components being incorporated into a Harvard MBA, Nohria named three:  “One is leadership, in particular to develop emotional intelligence and to investigate more deeply the purpose of leadership.  A second theme is globalization, and the need to educate the next generation of business leaders to be far more savvy about what is going on around the world.  And the third theme is that we need our students to be better at integrating everything they are learning, particularly to develop an entrepreneurial imagination,” (The New York Times, July 24, 2011).

Professional church folk are often arrogantly suspicious of business school types, but I was struck with how much Nohria’s three points resonate with what CTS has long said needs to be at the heart of theological formation today.  Leadership is the topic of an avalanche of literature, much of it trendy and self-justifying.  But there is also richness here, particularly as leadership is seen arising not so much out of a set of strategies and techniques but rather out of the honing and nurturing of a moral, spiritual, and emotional character or intelligence.  Good leaders are “intelligent” in a variety of dimensions – intellectually, strategically, emotionally, spiritually, ethically.  This intelligence is not something we just “have,” but is formed and shaped personally, in community, and among colleagues through engagement with shared texts, values, practices, and commitments.  Isn’t this what theological education, at its heart, ought to be?

Scholars like Philip Jenkins remind us that the Christian “center” has shifted to the South, that the places of greatest growth and vitality for the church are no longer Europe and North America, but communities across the southern hemisphere, often in Pentecostal forms.  But other scholars like Robert Wuthnow also remind us that the “global North” remains a vital setting for Christian faith and witness and that U.S. Christians wield enormous impact around the world for both good and ill.  (See Boundless Faith:  The Global Outreach of American Churches, 2009)  To be sure, religious leaders in the U.S. need to understand global trends in Christianity, and to be alert to how global religious pluralism impacts the practice of faith in our own country.  But they also need to be alert to how American Christianity continues to shape the global church and global culture through our vast humanitarian apparatus, continued missionary presence (think of the growth of the Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Latin America), and the impact of American theology on US foreign policy (think of Christian Zionism and its role in the Middle East or of George Bush’s theological imagination in shaping the War on Terror).  And, of course, to this we add the vast array of increasingly popular mission trips taken by US congregations which undoubtedly do more (when led properly) to reframe our own religious imagination than build up the already vibrant communities we visit.   The question for religious leaders is not simply how we are shaped by our global context, but also how our religious beliefs, witness, and practice bring hope or despair to the global context.

Developing an entrepreneurial imagination may sound alien to those of us in the old Mainline, something we don’t want to take over from the business world, though I suspect that attitude may derive more from our caricatures than reality.  At the heart of a strong entrepreneurial spirit is a creative, innovative imagination eager to shape and/or transform companies to serve new or growing markets rather than merely maintain existing ways of doing business.  That means being market centered rather than “company centered” which translates in the church world to primary attentiveness toward the mission of the Realm of God rather than to the more parochial needs of the institution as it currently exists.  Pointing out the worst excesses of the entrepreneurial mega-church movement is no excuse for accepting mainline mediocrity and malaise. Not every ecclesiastical innovation is of the Spirit.  But a dying church does little to further the love of God or neighbor either, any more than Border’s Books now advances the cause of a literate society.

The ability to “develop emotional intelligence and to investigate more deeply the purpose of leadership.”  “Globalization, and the need. . . to be far more savvy about what is going on around the world.”  “The need to develop an entrepreneurial imagination.”  That’s not a bad way to think about what ministerial formation these days ought to be about.  Here at CTS we talk about being “an international force in the development of religious leadership to transform society toward greater justice and mercy.”  I suspect Dean Nohria might just approve!

John H. Thomas

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