By Dean Craig C. Hill
Following the called General Conference in St. Louis in February, those of us in the United Methodist church find ourselves in a season of deep uncertainty. The decision to adopt the Traditional Plan has enormous but as of yet unknowable implications for our future as a denomination, for our local churches and for every United Methodist institution, including, of course, its theological schools.
The question “Where do we go from here?” remains unanswered. As annual conferences meet, as churches and United Methodist organizations absorb and react to the news, and as we and other United Methodist schools of theology continue to engage in intense conversation, the answer will gradually emerge.
During this period of uncertainty, it is especially important to reiterate what we at Perkins can say with confidence. That begins with an affirmation of key and unchanging values, on a sustained commitment to Perkins’ mission of being “an academy for the whole church in the world,” and on a heightened emphasis on civil dialogue. Specifically:
AFFIRM KEY VALUES
Respect, wholeness, civility, honesty, understanding, inclusivity and love have always been, and will continue to be, the way we strive to live in community with one another at Perkins. Servant leadership — that shared desire to serve that brings students to Perkins and connects us to our alumni serving the wider community — remains a core value. Servant leadership begins with a desire to know and understand. Its essential character is humility. It is nondefensive and other-oriented, the opposite of the egocentricity and tribalism that so dominate contemporary American culture. We will continue to honor “the other” and to learn from those with whom we may at times disagree. We cannot serve those whom we do not know nor care to understand.
STRIVE TO BE AN ACADEMY FOR THE WHOLE CHURCH IN THE WHOLE WORLD
That means that we aim to prepare Christian leaders not just for the United Methodist church but the “Big C” universal, global Church and the “little c” local congregation. Of course, we prepare leaders not just to serve in the traditional ministry but also in the wider world and in ways that go beyond the walls of our churches. Along these lines, I’m excited about the work of faculty member Robert Hunt with the Global Theological Education (GTE) e-Academy. In its initial phase, the project is capturing some of the leading theological voices in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa in short video segments and making them available to students globally — including, of course, here at Perkins. It is more critical than ever that genuine dialogue occurs across the church. Similarly, the launch of the Baptist House of Studies, led by faculty member Jaime Clark-Soles, is offering a nexus of support for our Baptist students that will connect them to resources in the Baptist world. In short, we are reaching out, not pulling back.
RENEW OUR COMMITMENT TO CIVIL DISAGREEMENT AND DIALOGUE
Ideally, a theological school is one of the increasingly rare places in which people of varied background and opinion can respectfully disagree, debate without personal rancor and then share lunch and worship together. On our best days, we are generous in trying to understand others. We never assume that, because someone’s beliefs differ widely, that person can simply be written off, much less demonized. You’ll see that in this issue. Read the Student Roundtable to learn how the embrace of our caring community has been transformative for students. The lively and fierce yet affectionate debate between progressive faculty member Susanne Scholz and conservative faculty member Billy Abraham will make you think and even make you laugh.
Dialogue such as this — across differences and yet truthful and respectful — enriches and enlivens our community. Those are the kinds of conversations we want to encourage at Perkins. Conversations between people who disagree can teach us as much about ourselves as they do about others. “Echo chambers” are more comfortable, but they merely confirm what we already think we know. Challenging conversations across the church aisle stretch us and teach us, and they give us the chance to stretch and teach others. I have been gratified on several occasions to hear former students say that Perkins did not so much teach them what to think as how to think for themselves. That, plus the ability to understand others with differing viewpoints, are critical skills for future leaders.
In this time of uncertainty and transition, we can expect turmoil and even some anxiety and apprehension. The question becomes: What can we at Perkins do to continue to bring hope to the world? In part, we can affirm our basic values, strive to serve as an academy for the whole church in the whole world and recommit to civil dialogue.
Finally, Perkins is, and will continue to be, a place of caring. We do not always live up to our ideals, but we do genuinely care for one another at Perkins. After all, the standard Jesus left us with was not mere tolerance, but love. Or, as Paul put it, “If I…understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Important as it is, knowledge will never be a substitute for character.
People come to Perkins School of Theology to learn, to grow, to become part of this community and to pursue excellence in scholarship. That has not changed and will not change.