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Thinking Out Loud
  • Thought Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2014

    Thought LeadershipThe clipping from the newspaper hung on the ragged bulletin board outside my philosophy tutor's room in our college. I don't recall the precise wording or the British newspaper from which the story had been torn, but the headline reported bemused shock: "Thinking Well May Aid Businesses." This was late in the 1980s in Britain when philosophy departments around the country were being gutted because they were unprofitable units, unnecessary and financially draining on the universities. My own tutor, with whom I studied Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein among others, was a casualty of this era. The article reported the "surprising finding" that many of the most respected leaders in the U.K. credited their business acumen to the study of philosophy.

    Fast forward twenty years and to the hallowed pages of a recent issue of The Economist, and we find an essay titled, "Philosopher Kings: Business Leaders Would Benefit from Studying Great Writers." It touts the benefit to business leaders of studying serious thinkers rather than chasing the latest consultant-fanned fad. Rather than investing in yet another outward-bound adventure brimming with trust games and kayaking, one would do well, says the author, to sign up for an inward-bound adventure like learning to think more deeply, critically and with greater care.

    The world of leadership, and this applies to far more than business leadership, has become the dominion of superficiality and reactivity - the anxious suspicion that the magic elixir of success lies in the next book or the newly advertised leadership conference. An inch deep and a mile wide, what passes for thinking is often little more than the anecdote-driven realm of good and bad advice drawn from examples of past successes and repackaged as the next big thing. Many leaders, desperate to deal with perennial human compulsions in a highly anxious world, rush from one seminar to another like dogs chasing cars at a demolition derby.

    "The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides's hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to 'culture consultants.' Peter Drucker remained top dog among management gurus for 50 years not because he attended more conferences but because he marinated his mind in great books. … Inward-bound courses would do something even more important than this: they would provide high-flyers with both an anchor and a refuge." (Schumpeter, "Philosopher Kings," The Economist, October 4, 2014, p. 76.)

    Engaging deeply great thinkers helps us discern what is truly important, what it means to live wisely, how to keep our heads amid distraction and danger, and what is truly valuable.

    "It is difficult to measure your worth in terms of how many toys you accumulate when you have immersed yourself in Plato. Distracted bosses would also benefit from leaving aside all those emails, tweets and LinkedIn updates to focus on a few things that truly matter." (Schumpeter, p. 76)

    Of course, many of us have known students and professors of the subject of philosophy who score as poorly at living as do the most deluded of the rest of us. That's where a key philosophical distinction comes into play. One deserves to be called a philosopher not if one has read the most books on the subject or can rattle off the most impressive array of somebody else's ideas. One deserves to be called a philosopher who has learned to live a life guided by thought and enduring values.

    In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, we are introduced to an array of modern gods all vying to knock off the ancient ones. Among the contemporary gods, I think the most entertaining one is the twitching, compulsively superficial spotty-faced young god zipping around in a fast car unable to center his attention on any one thing for more than a few seconds, anxious that someone else will possess a technological toy or trendy new idea before him, greedy and angry and zealous for short-term gains. Perhaps the time has come to save ourselves, our businesses, our organizations, families and lives, from the deathly worship at the shrine of the god of perpetual distraction. Surely it's worth a thought.

  • Leadership Notebook 4: Adaptive Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 23, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Our second theoretical model for the practice of leadership is adaptive leadership.

    Leadership Notebook 4Ron Heifetz is the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership and the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. In arguing for the importance of what he calls “adaptive leadership,” Heifetz says that if we wish to “clarify a complex situation,” we must be able to see it from “multiple vantage points, each of which adds a piece to the puzzle.” Heifetz, in other words, is arguing for our using a variety of theoretical lenses to bring our practice of leadership into clear focus.

    Leadership, according to Heifetz, is not for the fainthearted, nor for those who wish a quiet retreat from the “fever of life” in this busy world (to borrow John Henry Cardinal Newman’s eloquent phrase). Leadership, Heifetz argues, demands that leaders stir things up so that groups and organizations can examine their own deep, largely invisible, but life-guiding beliefs and values. In doing so, leaders ask whether, where and how these beliefs and values continue to serve their common life and their goals, and whether, where and how even long-held beliefs and values actually work to the detriment of their common life.

    According to Heifetz, leadership must be comfortable with and politically prepared to deal with the conflict and anxiety produced among a community or organization if it hopes to meet the challenges of the present and make the necessary adaptations to meet the challenges of the future. Heifetz understands something that many do not. He understands that the deep beliefs and values of every group are and must inevitably be in tension, even in contradiction, and that this state of affairs does not represent a failure to be overcome or an evil to be opposed, but merely a reality that is essential to the nature of things.1

    In order to understand the significance of Heifetz’s perspective on adaptive leadership, we need to examine the powerful assumptions underlying our culture which explicitly contradict what Heifetz is saying. These assumptions are so deep and so tenacious that most people never question them. They constitute the cultural and philosophical water we swim in without noticing it. They are so much a part of Western culture that Sir Isaiah Berlin, a professor of political philosophy and founder of Wolfson College at Oxford University, referred to them as the philosophia perennis, i.e. the perennial philosophy of Western Civilization. I want to explain why at least one aspect of Berlin’s thought matters so much to our leadership.

    A Sense of Reality
    Berlin had the rather amazing capacity to cast his mind over the entire scope of Western civilization and to see those dynamics that shape our lives and communities. His most provocative (and perhaps most useful) attempt to understand the societies in which we live takes into account the entire philosophical heritage of the West, from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through the twentieth century (he died in 1997). Even as a young student at Oxford first reading philosophy, he had begun to notice something that disturbed him, an assumption inherited from ancient Greek philosophy that (as he put it) “all genuine questions must have one true answer and only one, all the rest being necessarily errors,” that “there is a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths,” and that “the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another.”2

    In some of the most brilliant and often witty essays in the English language, Berlin debunks these ideas and argues for a sweeping pluralism founded on what G.K. Chesterton once described as the most extraordinary form of imagination, the imagination to see what is really there.

    Berlin has a lot to teach leaders, but arguably the most important lesson he has to teach us relates to that basic idea Heifetz articulates in his discussion of adaptive leadership.

    There are in various cultures, and frequently in the same culture, and often in the same individual, conflicting and incommensurable values and moral ends. These values and ends compete for our loyalty, exerting claims upon our allegiance. And these claims may necessitate conflicts that are as intractable as they are objective. We must, in a manner appropriate to our own deepest understandings and wisdom, and especially with the adaptive needs of our communities in view, make our choices between these competing values and ends. As we make these choices, we must recognize that our choices often entail losses that are as irremediable as they are irretrievable.

    For example: There are times when a nation which values both freedom and security will have to make trade-offs between these two values, sacrificing the one for the other. Even a society that values freedom as a bedrock value, a founding value which lies at the core of its identity, may choose to sacrifice a greater measure of freedom than it wishes in order to survive a particular threat to its existence. A society should be absolutely clear and truthful with itself about what it is doing, Berlin observes. It should never misname a value to pretend to itself that it is not making a tough choice.

    Several years ago, Jack Stotts, then president of Austin Seminary, said that he had noticed a profound shift in American cultural debate. He noted that in former times, it seemed to him that when two people disagreed strongly, one was likely to say, “You are wrong.” Now, one person disagreeing with another has become more likely to say, “You are evil.” The theoretical insight derived from Berlin’s analysis of Western philosophy may be among the most practical perspectives a leader can bring to a community’s decision-making because it recognizes that often our conflicts are not grounded in a lack of values, but a wealth of values.

    Good leadership will inevitably churn up conflicts over values and ends within an organization, because good leadership keeps an organization focused on its forward momentum, both dedicated to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission and adapting to changes in the environment. When values come into conflict – as they inevitably will – there may be times when one must trump another for the sake of the organization’s success. It is natural for people in these organizations to mourn losses in the midst of these value negotiations. The fact that the losses are real does not change the fact that the choices have to be made for the sake of an organization’s future. This is why Berlin’s theoretical model is sometimes referred to as “agonistic realism.” The fact that it is true doesn’t detract from the agony.

    I suspect that Berlin’s insight might introduce a word of grace into many of the conflicts raging in our societies, in our churches and in higher education.

    1A few years ago, the Academy of Religious Leaders, an organization of which I was a founding member, asked those who teach leadership in theological schools to rank the best books in the field of leadership studies. No. 1 by a large measure was Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998).

    2Quotes here are from Isaiah Berlin, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (London: John Murray, 1990), 5-6. Among Berlin’s many other writings, see Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), in which two other essays especially pertinent to leadership appear: “The Sense of Reality” and “Political Judgment.”

  • Does OUR History Have a Future?

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 20, 2014

    All of the future has a history; not all of history has a future.
    -Dan Aleshire

    Does Our History Have a FutureThis summer Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), addressed the 49th biennial meeting of the association on the topic of change. Dan is quite simply one of the wisest observers of theological education and the church in our time. His reflections were sobering, but also exciting.

    Dan says that twenty years from now theological schools will probably not look as they do today. As someone who joined a theological faculty in 1993, and thus has spent more than twenty years in theological education, I have come to realize that only the very young think that two decades is a long time. The truth is, twenty years is a mere blink of an eye, and already the transformation of which Dan speaks is well underway. Some ATS member schools with great histories have no future, Dan said. Thus, the epigraph at the beginning of this blog: "All of the future has a history; not all of history has a future."

    If there is one feature that dominates the current ecclesial and educational landscape more than any other, it is change. There are technological, economic, ideological and demographic aspects to this change. However you characterize the change, it is relentless and real.

    A year ago at a consultation in England, a professor expressed his fury to a group in which I was participating. He said he was sick of administrators in British universities constantly talking about change and the need for sustainability. All they do is change things, he said.

    I don't know his particular context well enough to comment on it, but if the administrative leadership of his schools is anything like the administrative leaders I know in American higher education, they aren't making the change happen. They are desperately trying to help their schools adapt to the change with integrity, because if they don't adapt with integrity, they either won't survive, or they won't be worthy of survival.

    Dan Aleshire, in his address to the ATS biennial, drew lessons from a handful of congregations he has observed, each of which has adapted with integrity to the massive changes in their environment. All of the congregations he profiled are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Dan lives. He went into great detail analyzing each congregation, but I will simply enumerate the lessons he believes these congregations may hold for theological schools. There's real hope in his rather somber message.

    First, each congregation he profiled found a way to a future. In other words, each of their histories will have a future. The churches he examined did not give up or give in to the forces surrounding them. They found a way to respond to their challenges. They found a way to thrive in indifferent - if not hostile - environments.

    Second, each congregation claimed the future in a different (its own) way. You might say, each of their histories will have its very own future. They embraced the distinctiveness of the challenges they confronted rather than giving in to the drumbeat of pessimism in contemporary culture regarding the future of faith communities. While learning from others, they also learned how to adapt in their own ways.

    Third, what worked for each congregation would likely not have worked for the others. The examples of these congregations dispels the terrible temptation many desperate institutions share - to find a template for success and to force your church or school to fit it.

    Fourth, conventional wisdom might not be very wise. This is important to remember every time we see a bandwagon rumbling by promising that it has the solution for everyone who will just jump on. Many are the congregations and the schools that have spent their best energy and resources following the crowds rushing to a solution that "every expert agrees" is the only thing they can do.

    Fifth, the future of each congregation is more multiracial and multicultural than their past. Those churches and schools that want to thrive by retreating into an enclave of homogeneity (whether denominational or cultural) are likely to fail. The vision of the New Testament, as described in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, is of an ever enlarging circle of God's love, to paraphrase Gene March’s book, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). The gospel calls us relentlessly outward.

    In each case, each congregation built on foundations that were distinctly their own. They claimed what was strongest and most durable in their histories, but they also claimed what was most flexible. They were willing to sacrifice some cherished traditions so that something even more sacred than their cows might survive. They discovered the grace of stewardship that lurks within the challenge of sustainability.

    Dan warned his audience that "fundamental redirection takes time." His comments reminded me of what Dean Robert Shelton often told his green young faculty: "A theological seminary is like an ocean liner. It takes time to turn." Dan wanted us to understand that we are likely at the front end of huge changes, not behind them. So, we need to be a little patient, but we also need not to grow weary in making necessary changes. The conditions that necessitate change are not a couple of momentary bumps in the road that we're bouncing over. Rather, we're climbing a long hill, and it won't do any good for our schools to pretend either that the hill isn't there or that we don't need to go over it.

    The theological schools that thrive in the future will be inventive with their missions, their resources, their facilities and their employees, Dan told us. There are implications for every aspect of theological education, from pedagogy to governance to faculty roles. Some things that were much beloved in the past will not exist in the future of our schools, and other things we do not know today will emerge. Of course, this has been true from the beginning of formal higher education. Hardly anyone today engaged in liberal arts education can name the original "liberal arts" (hint, they are carved above the doorways of the Old School Quadrangle at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University).

    As I emerged from Dan's address, the question that I found myself asking was this: "Does OUR history have a future?" I'm sure I wasn't the only president or dean in the audience asking that question.

    Upon longer reflection, a better question may be: "If our theological school has a future (and I am convinced our seminary does because of the courageous course we have charted) what parts of our history will go forward with us into that future?"

  • "Who am I? Why am I here?"

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 13, 2014

    James StockdaleJames Stockdale is not a name I had thought about in years.

    Probably the last time I thought much at all about him was during Ross Perot’s independent run for the White House back in 1992. Perot chose James Stockdale to serve as his vice presidential running mate. Most people, if they remember Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale at all today, remember him for saying, “Who am I? Why am I here” during his opening remarks in the 1992 vice presidential debate. He died in 2005 at the age of 81.

    So why has his name come to mind now?

    John Wimmer, a friend and program director in the Religion Division at the Lilly Endowment Inc., knowing my love for Stoic philosophy, in general, and Epictetus, in particular, shared with me a lecture that James Stockdale presented when he was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. The lecture is titled, “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior” (Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, 1993). I am grateful to John for his reading recommendation. Since the essay came into my hands, I have read and reread it, and bought copies for colleagues and family members.

    The “laboratory of human behavior” of which Stockdale speaks was, largely, his own life. As he explains in the lecture, he came to the philosophical life relatively late as a thirty-eight-year-old naval pilot in graduate school at Stanford University. By this point, he had already been in the Navy for twenty years, spending most of that time in a cockpit. Philip Rhinelander, dean of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford, opened Stockdale’s eyes to philosophy in a course he taught on “The Problem of Good and Evil.” Specifically, Dean Rhinelander turned Stockdale on to Epictetus, giving him a copy of The Enchiridion, a brief handbook of Stoic thought drawn from the teachings of the former Roman slave who was born in approximately 50 A.D.

    Stockdale seems to have resonated immediately with the teachings of Epictetus. However, it was after he was shot down over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, during the seven-and-a-half years he spent as a prisoner of war - four of which were spent in solitary confinement – that Stockdale drew for daily sustenance on the Stoicism of Epictetus. Repeatedly and brutally tortured, wearing heavy leg irons for two years, attempting suicide rather than allowing his captors to force his capitulation, Stockdale brought to life the Stoicism he had committed to memory.

    In his Hoover Institution lecture, Stockdale says:

    "The Stoic viewpoint is often misunderstood because the casual reader misses the point that all talk is in reference to the ‘inner life’ of man. Stoics belittle physical harm, but this is not braggadocio. They are speaking of it in comparison to the devastating agony of shame they fancied good men generating when they knew in their hearts that they had failed to do their duty vis-à-vis their fellow men or God. Although pagan, the Stoics had a monotheistic, natural religion and were great contributors to Christian thought. … In his inimitable, frank language, Epictetus explained that his curriculum was not about ‘revenues or income, or peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery and freedom.’ His model graduate was not a person ‘able to speak fluently about philosophic principles as an idle babbler, but about things that will do you good if your child dies, or your brother dies, or if you must die or be tortured.' " (Stockdale, “Courage Under Fire,” 3-5).

    At the core of Epictetus, there is a conviction that no one and nothing can restrict our freedom once we understand that our freedom (and our happiness and serenity) do not depend upon externals, the things that happen to us, but only upon our response to them.

    This philosophy served Stockdale well as the highest-ranking naval officer in captivity, encouraging and organizing his fellow prisoners, helping them to develop “a society with our own laws, traditions, customs, even heroes.” Stockdale was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, two Purple Hearts and four Silver Star Medals. I am sure that these recognitions meant a great deal to Stockdale, but the philosophy that was forged like steel in the crucible of his imprisonment taught him, in the words of Epictetus, that “whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him shun nothing, which depends on others.”

    Beyond the lessons Stockdale’s Stoicism teaches (and I do encourage you to read both Stockdale’s lecture and Epictetus for yourself), there is something else his experience of public life brings to mind, and it is a point of considerable criticism I wish to raise. Indeed, it is a point of self-criticism.

    How does it happen in our culture that a person as distinguished as Stockdale is reduced to a caricature? Even the reverential obituary offered by The New York Times mentions that Stockdale is remembered by the general public as “the butt of jokes from late-night comedians” because of what he said during the vice presidential debate. Incidentally, as the Times obit says, in an article written by Stockdale for The World & I magazine, he explained that he had chosen these words, “Who am I? What am I doing here?” in order “to showcase his basic view of himself” as a “philosopher.” (Steven A. Holmes, “James Stockdale, Perot’s Running Mate in ’92, Dies at 81,” The New York Times, July 6, 2005, accessed August 21, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/06/politics/06stockdale.html.)

    We have all seen it happen again and again, haven’t we? If I were Roland Barthes, I would have the competence to develop a rich semiotics of public caricature, something like what Barthes did with his brilliant essay The Eiffel Tower, observing the way in which the Eiffel Tower, quite apart from its architectural function, now serves as a gesture “standing in” for the identity of France.

    We use a shorthand of images and statements conveying simplistically (and often humorously) the identity of a person, reducing the rich complexity of their lives to a gesture. Sometimes we employ the gesture to remind ourselves of them with affection, but sometimes we employ it to dismiss or ridicule them. Of course, we do not only do this to public figures and celebrities, we do this to other people too, even to acquaintances and relatives.

    I recall a very good friend, an artist herself, remarking several years ago that she does not like sketched caricatures. The reduction of a person’s appearance to a few linear gestures (as we often see in political cartoons) was offensive to her. It seemed unfair and untrue to reduce a person in this way. I have mulled over her comments for something like twenty years, reflecting on the way she called into question a genre that I dearly love (political cartoons). Where would the political cartoon be without the immediately recognizable hangdog expression of Lyndon Johnson or the exaggerated ears of Barack Obama? Equally, where would Saturday Night Live be without the political caricatures in comic sketches from the “stumbling President Ford” of Chevy Chase to today’s hottest targets ready for comedic lampooning? But maybe there should also be a pause of reflectivity beside or just on the other side of our caricaturing, a reminder that however much fun we are having, we owe others more dignity than a stock gesture.

    “Who am I? Why am I here?” It may not be adept professional politics to ask these questions, but they are still great questions. Maybe it takes a philosopher to ask them. Maybe that was the point.

  • Leadership Notebook 3: Fables, and Other Truths and Untruths

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Because of its influence, especially in congregational leadership, the first theoretical model we’ll look at is family systems theory.

    Friedmans FablesA domino saves all the other dominoes in the long row from falling just by remaining standing. An “uncouth” animal observes that if you want a ferocious beast in your forest and you don’t want the small animals terrorized or eaten, you’re going to have to build a cage. A man who, in his desire to motivate his wife to play tennis with him, ends up running back and forth on the tennis court playing both sides of the net. A very sensitive, sadly afflicted fellow who has learned to use his sensitivities to run over others, until his wife has finally had enough. Fables.

    Whenever I think about Edwin H. Friedman, who died in 1996, I do not think first of his extremely influential book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985). Nor do I think first of his posthumously published A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 1999/2007), his popular DVD and study guide Reinventing Leadership (New York: Guilford Press, 2007) or even the intensive workshops he led around the country. I think first of Friedman’s Fables (New York: Guilford Press, 1990) where his remarkable gift as a storyteller and his insights into human nature come together.

    Edwin Friedman and the family systems theory, which Friedman developed and applied to the leadership of religious organizations, was arguably, at least for a season, the most influential force guiding pastors of a certain ilk (my own ilk, mainline Protestant, especially those of us who had some training in pastoral counseling) as we sought to be better congregational leaders. We flocked to work with him. We read his books. We did our genograms. We joined groups of other Friedman fans assiduously examining our own families of origin and analyzing the organizations we led. Those of us who taught in seminaries put his books high on our list of required texts and framed many class exercises to help students learn the best of what Friedman taught.

    The first thing that must be said about all of this is that it was, in the main, extremely beneficial.

    Any pastor or other leader of a congregation will benefit from learning how to achieve genuine “self-differentiation” while also remaining “in touch” with her or his congregation. It is a fundamental of good leadership to be a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of the organization you lead (there’s no “faking” non-anxiety). And it is valuable for everyone to be able to identify emotional triangles and to learn how to de-triangulate oneself from them. I remain convinced that if a pastor or other leader can do these three things consistently, s/he is giving the church an inestimable gift of emotional and spiritual health that can form a foundation for real community.

    Friedman’s occasional comments and asides were almost as valuable as his big theoretical insights. For example, he often noted that in highly anxious systems it tends to be the least mature group members who exert the most influence, thus preventing the group from actually achieving its goals. He often said that, in spite of the best intentions of highly rational people, insight does not change unmotivated people. And he observed that adventure and lightheartedness are far more valuable in actually moving a group forward than safety-seeking and over-seriousness. For Friedman, vision was an emotional phenomenon. Persistence and stamina, especially in the face of mutinies, was the gold standard of good leadership. Self-regulation of one’s emotional responses was the only way to deal effectively with sabotage, because reactivity only stokes the fires of the emotionally immature, while self-differentiation and reflection hold the best chance of inspiring more mature group members (and potentially mature group members) to participate positively and to counteract sabotage.

    Friedman’s key insights derived from his own experience as a rabbi and as a therapist who had grown disenchanted with the highly individualistic approaches long popular in psychotherapy. Along with others like Murray Bowen, Michael Kerr and (though he is not strictly speaking in the same family of family systems therapists) Salvador Minuchin, Friedman sought to understand how our systems function emotionally often drawing or even forcing people into roles for which they are then blamed.

    This was largely for the good. However, there was a tendency among some who applied family systems theory to accentuate its authoritarian side. While self-differentiation actually allows for greater freedom in a healthy system, some in leadership used it as an excuse to say “My way or the highway” to those who didn’t agree with them. For them, it was often much too easy to paint as immature or even saboteurs anyone who disagreed.

    There was also a rather strange need on Friedman’s part to generalize his insights into universal truths - strange at least to my post-modern ears, and unnecessary. Anyone who ever participated with Friedman in his intense workshops also observed the mischievous twinkle in his eye when he provoked someone with a particularly insensitive remark. It was hard to tell if he really meant what he said in one of his more outrageous utterances or if he was simply (like many good teachers) saying it to provoke thinking on the part of his students. In contrast to the genuinely and deeply beneficial insights offered by Friedman’s brand of family systems theory, these are all relatively minor concerns. I would be the first to say that if you really want to see for yourself just how valuable family systems theory can be for you as a leader or just to be a healthier and saner human being, you would be well served by reading Generation to Generation.

    However, when it comes to communicating to others the most important of his insights, you can’t do better than Friedman’s Fables. Whether working with families in workshops or intensive retreats or with groups of pastors or students more interested in understanding leadership, again and again I have seen the light of self-recognition appear in someone’s eyes as they heard the fable of “The Bridge” and realized in their soul, “I need to free my hands from this rope,” or who suddenly realized that they are the fish in the fable “Burnout,” who swims incessantly at the bottom of the pool eating up everyone else’s excrement until it is too much to bear.

    Recently someone asked me if family systems theory was the answer to getting their organization to move out of its rut and to move ahead. It is possible, but that’s not really the primary interest of this approach to leadership. The basic thesis of family systems theory is that unhealthy behavior (a lack of self-differentiation, being driven by anxiety, participating in triangulation, and so forth) on the part of an organization’s leadership dooms an organization to the same. The healthier the leadership, the greater chance the organization has of getting healthy and remaining healthy.

    Family systems theory isn’t a manipulative tool to motivate other people to do what you want. It offers an opportunity to embrace sanity, at least for leaders of organizations. I would argue that this is no small thing.

  • The Talk

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2014

    The TalkWhen some parents say they need to have "the talk" with their kids, they are speaking of that awkward conversation so many of us have had with a prepubescent child about "the facts of life." But for many parents these days, "the talk" is about something rather different than "the birds and the bees."

    Recently, a friend and former student, the Rev. David Snardon (MDiv ’11), was visiting with me, and we were talking about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young man was gunned down by a police officer. The young man was black, the officer was white. (Incidentally, I encourage you to read the Rev. Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell’s excellent article, “Marching into Danger,” which appeared in The Christian Century and focuses on her recent experience as a nonviolent protestor in Ferguson.) David and I also talked about another incident in New York City, where a black man was killed by being placed in a chokehold and the shooting of a black man in South Carolina during a routine traffic stop.

    David, who is also a pastor, mentioned that he had recently seen a film clip on television of a white woman arguing with a police officer who was demanding to search her car but refused to state the cause of the search. She was stopped at a roadblock, and her car was holding up traffic. She argued vigorously with the officer until a supervisor came over, took a look at the woman, and told the officer to let her car move on. David told me he was watching the news story with his son. After it ended, he turned to his son and said, "Don't you ever do what she did."

    Then David had "the talk" that many people today must have with their children. It’s "the talk" about the dangers of being black, the necessity of saying "yes, sir" to the police officer, cooperating fully and immediately, keeping your hands visible, doing exactly what you are told, and not arguing (even if you believe strongly that you are in the right) so that you don't get hurt or killed. "The talk" that many parents - black parents - are having with their children is about how dangerous, how potentially lethal, it is to be a person of color - especially a young black man - in our society.

    My children could always count on running to a police officer anytime they felt threatened or in danger. That's what we told them to do. But my children are not black. They are white. And for many citizens of our country today, our police forces do not represent safety, they represent a life-threatening danger.

    Some people have argued that this is a case of a "few rotten apples" among law enforcement. And I personally know many fine policemen who place their lives on the line every single day to protect and to serve. I grew up in a home in which police officers and other emergency workers were not only heroes of our community, but close friends and even family members. But there is no denying that we have a problem in our country today which we must address. It is a profound problem when many of our citizens live in fear because of the color of their skin. A result and symptom of that problem is "the talk" that so many of our African-American neighbors are compelled to have with their children.

    The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once told the story of having to explain to his daughter why she couldn't go to an amusement park she had seen advertised in the newspaper. He said, as he explained the rules of segregation to her, he could see a pall, a tragic veil, fall over his child's face. A psychic wound was opened up that he feared might never heal. The wounds suffered by too many of our nation’s children today are both psychic and physical.

    My colleague, the Rev. Kilen Gray, who is the dean of students here at Louisville Seminary, recently put it more eloquently than I possibly can. He said:

    “While African-Americans feel the necessity of survival to have ‘the talk’ with their children, we need to encourage our white sisters and brothers to have a much more necessary ‘talk’ of how they will work among their law enforcement friends to make this necessity a figment of the past. I just wonder, while we are training our children how to survive legal terrorism, what are the conversations being held within the majority culture? There must be a comparable conversation and action by all Americans so that the few who hold hegemonic filters will find no sanctuary for their misguided beliefs.”

    "The talk" that many black parents are having today with their children has become necessary. This is a tragedy beyond all words, and we must do whatever we can to make it unnecessary.

  • Friendship as a Means of Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2014

    Thinking out Lous 093014What does the most notorious spy of the twentieth century have to do with a twelfth-century saint?

    Almost nothing. But it’s the “almost” that’s interesting.

    Over a thirty-year period, Kim Philby worked his way up the ladder of Britain’s elite MI6 (MI for “military intelligence”). Yes, that MI6. The one of which the British government denied the existence. The one that employs the fictional James Bond. But Philby was no fiction, though I’m sure there are lots of people who wish he had been.

    A product of the British establishment, schooled at Westminster and Cambridge, Philby was recruited as a Soviet spy while in college. Philby betrayed his country. Throughout his long and apparently distinguished career (at one time in charge of counterintelligence against the Soviet Union), he fed his Soviet handlers every scrap of information he came across, costing untold lives across Europe and the Middle East.

    He also betrayed his friends, especially the two colleagues who trusted him most, Nicholas Elliott (his fellow officer in MI6) and James Jesus Angleton (the head of counterintelligence for the CIA). Cutting an elegant and disarmingly charming swath across British, European, Middle Eastern and American society for three decades, Philby used every relationship he gained to advance a Communist ideology that he refused to question even as the evidence continued to mount of the horrors of the Gulag and Stalinism.

    Philby once said, “Friendship is the most important thing.” But he also said, “I have always operated on two levels, a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first. The conflict can be very painful. I don’t like deceiving people, especially friends, and contrary to what others think, I feel very badly about it.”

    However badly he may have felt about his betrayals, his actions led to the death of hundreds of real people who placed their trust in him and the intelligence services for which he worked. As a result of Philby’s spying, one CIA analyst said: “What it comes to, is that when you look at the whole period …, the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage. We’d have been better off doing nothing.”

    And the friends Philby betrayed never recovered from the betrayals. All were scarred by the profound betrayal of intimacy and trust. He left in his wake three wives, one of which took her own life and another who died prematurely, as well as friends on two continents who never recovered. The lack of trust suffered by Angleton likely contributed to the witch hunts he conducted undermining the CIA for a generation after Philby’s defection to Moscow.

    Ben MacIntyre’s new book, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014) leaves the reader scratching his head alternately asking, “How stupid could we have been?” And “How could someone do what Philby did to people he seemed to care about?” It is particularly this last question that fuels this book, delving into the tragedy of friendship betrayed, the power of political ideologies and the detritus of sociopathology.

    So, how does Philby connect to the twelfth-century saint?

    If ever there were a perfect opposite to the ideal of friendship, the sacramental potential of friendship, portrayed in Aelred of Rievaulx, Kim Philby is it!

    Recently during a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I came across Aelred’s writings, and I was astonished never to have read him before. Born in Hexham in 1110, near Durham, England, which for the past thirty years has figured prominently in my sense of call, Aelred served first as novice master at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, before becoming Abbot of Revesby Abbey, and finally returning to Rievaulx as abbot.

    He remained at Rievaulx until his death in 1167. Just to locate Aelred historically, before entering the monastery he served in the household of King David I of Scotland and later as an adviser to King Henry II of England. As a Cistercian monk and abbot, he was under the authority of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who took a great interest in him, mentoring and encouraging him as a writer and diplomat. Among the greatest of Aelred’s writings (and he wrote broadly in history, theology and spiritual direction) and the most influential of his texts in the medieval period, was a book titled, Spiritual Friendship.

    To understand the significance of this book, perhaps a little theological background is in order: Christian theology, from the church’s earliest times, advanced an understanding of the Trinitarian God known as perichoresis, though this term does not appear until somewhat later. This doctrine can be difficult to grasp, but I think it can best be understood by focusing on the incarnation of Christ. In the incarnation, according to this doctrine, we are invited to look into the very heart of God’s eternal being; as classical theology puts it, into the Father’s eternal outpouring into the Son, God’s giving away God’s own life and love without reservation. This act of self-giving love is itself not merely an impersonal “it,” but is God the Holy Spirit, flowing from the Father to the Son and through the Son to all humanity and creation. The life of Jesus, through the eyes of faith, invites us to see that love is the ultimate meaning of all things because God is love. God created all things in love, and God loves all things that God has created. The God who is love invites us to participate in God’s own life and love through the power of the Holy Spirit.

    This classic doctrine has been articulated variously by fourth-century theologians like Gregory of Nyssa and modern theologians like Catherine Mowry LaCugna. C.S. Lewis famously described prayer in these terms as participation in the triune God in his Mere Christianity, noting how an ordinary believer quietly bowing to pray in his or her bedroom is in fact lifted up into the inner life of the Trinity.

    Every attempt (at least, that I know of) to speak of our participation in the life and love of God has been explicitly religious. Prayer is a religious act, a means of grace by which we participate in God. The Lord’s Supper, the same. And so forth. But then I came across Aelred. For him, human friendship is a pathway to participation in the life and love of God. Friendship is sacramental, a means of grace.

    As Marsha Dutton (of Ohio University) explains, Aelred “writes of the sacramental essence of friendship – the way in which men and women may by loving one another embrace Christ in this life and enjoy eternal friendship with God in time to come.”

    Drawing on sources like Cicero’s On Friendship, Ambrose of Milan’s On the Duties of the Clergy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and the Bible, Aelred argues that God has woven God’s own love for the other, God’s love for community, God’s own being-in-communion into the very fabric of creation. When we participate in friendship, then, we are participating in God, we are being united to God. [Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, SJ, ed./intro. Marsha L. Dutton (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010)].

    According to Aelred, whether we know it or not, Jesus Christ is the silent partner in every real human friendship. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ shares with us, in and through the bonds of friendship, the joy that is the love of God. Not only is such “spiritual friendship” a love that never ends, it is a love that is divine because ultimately it flows from God and returns to God. This means, of course, that a betrayal of friendship is not merely a social faux pas. It is not an unfortunate lapse about which we may “feel very bad.” It constitutes a loss that shatters something of eternal significance in us.

  • Leadership Notebook 2: Theoretical Flies in the Practical Ointment

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2014

    Leadership Notebook 2Several years ago, the seminary of which I was then dean was conducting interviews for an opening in the faculty. A professor on the search committee observed that while the candidate we had just interviewed seemed to possess a fairly good knowledge of certain aspects of her discipline, whenever she was asked a question on the subject of feminism, she could only speak anecdotally. My colleague observed that the candidate’s understanding of this subject was “insufficiently theorized.”

    I asked my colleague what was meant by that phrase. The response was very interesting: “The candidate only spoke from her own individual experience, and however valuable that particular experience undoubtedly was, it neglected the rich multidimensional understanding of the subject. She had little or no knowledge of the critical literature, no familiarity beyond the most superficial and popular levels of discussion on the subject, and no understanding of the history of the most important conversations on this subject.”

    The lack of sufficient theory meant that she did not know what to pay attention to and what to ignore in practice. On one level she was highly reactive, at another blithely unconscious. According to my colleague, the candidate needed a deeper engagement with theory on this subject if she was going to teach it.

    Something similar can be said of many leaders and their practice of leadership. Their understanding of leadership is insufficiently theorized. Many leaders, actively engaged in the leadership of organizations, have little or no knowledge of the rich, varied and critical literature on the subject. Their knowledge is frequently only anecdotal, restricted to their own experiences or to pop publications. And as valuable as individual experiences and popularized resources can be, they can also leave us without the deep grounding we need to lead well.

    In a public leadership course, which I taught jointly at an Episcopal and a Presbyterian seminary, I attempted to address this issue by presenting a few of the most crucial theoretical models for leadership. Students in the course learned these models and used them in analyzing case studies.

    Before I presented the models themselves, I realized that we had a significant obstacle to clear regarding the meaning of “theory” and why “theory” matters in practice. The very word “theory” is sometimes used as a derogatory term. In the religious world “theory” ranks right up there with “myth” as a term misused and abused.

    Theory is, in fact, a model for thinking about realities. It is a lens through which we bring the world into focus, and it represents a process for critically analyzing matters at hand. Theory does not simply play the egg to the chicken of practice. Virtually every practice bears within it (usually implicitly) a variety of theoretical understandings.

    I once heard an astrophysicist define “theory” as a descriptive model for how reality functions. He said that although no theory is perfect and every theory has flaws, some theories are useful. For example, he observed that every physicist with whom he worked on the Hubble telescope project recognized that Albert Einstein’s theories represent the workings of the physical universe more profoundly, more accurately and more subtly than do the theories of Sir Isaac Newton. However, he added, if you want to get a rocket from the earth around the moon and back to earth again, you don’t resort to Einstein’s theories. You use Newtonian physics. Einstein’s theoretical model for the way the universe functions is not as useful for this particular task as Newton’s. However, a physicist who only has Newton’s model today is nowhere! We are best equipped to get things done when we are adept at using various theories and fitting the right model to the right situation.

    In order for leadership to be both successful and effective, leaders are best served by practices enriched by theoretical awareness. Leaders need theories better to understand their practices. Ironically, a theory-rich practice can help leaders resist the temptation of living in thrall to the latest pop leadership fad du jour, being tossed first in this direction and that by dueling consultants and experts.

    The next few Leadership Notebook blogs will explore very briefly a few genuinely helpful theoretical models that many have found particularly useful. For example, the October 10 Leadership Notebook will address one of the best known models among congregational leaders, the family systems theory. The reason many people have found this theory so valuable is because it provides both a set of understandings through which we can bring our practices into focus and because it provides a set of insights into organizational dynamics that can help us see what, perhaps, we had not previously noticed. The key to success here is to have more than just one theoretical model to help us understand what’s going on. Human organizations are extremely complex, requiring a variety of complementary (and sometimes contradictory) theories to make sense of them.

    Max De Pree once said: “Leadership is an art, something to be learned over time, not simply by reading books. Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information.”

    De Pree’s insight, which I believe is right on target, actually supports the idea that theories can enrich practice. If we wish to practice an art well, if we want to learn over time (and not just repeat the same failed practices again and again), if we are going to weave relationships, we need lenses to help us see as well as possible what is really going on. That’s what good theory provides.

  • Average is Over

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 22, 2014

    average is overThomas Friedman wrote a column some time back about the revolutionary changes sweeping through higher education. In his column, “The Professors’ Big Stage” (The New York Times, March 5, 2013), he observed that Harvard Business School no longer offers a basic accounting course. The school refers its students to an online course offered by another university, observing that there's no need for them to use Harvard's resources providing that kind of basic course. Better for Harvard to concentrate on the kinds of educational offerings they are best at providing.

    A couple of things are notable in Harvard Business School’s strategic adjustment.

    (1) They recognize that certain kinds of knowledge can be acquired just as well from a high quality online or hybrid educational source. It is not that basic accounting as a subject isn't important, it is just that the particular kind of knowledge is suitable for transmission through a non-traditional delivery system.

    (2) Harvard Business School itself is focusing its resources on those methods for transmitting the kind of knowledge, wisdom and competencies that it does best. It excels at intensive face-to-face instruction that transforms the student through the acquisition and integration of knowledge and practical wisdom.

    In developing his argument, Friedman makes a fascinating observation that ought to be carved on the heart of every organizational leader today: "When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over."

    From the perspective of theological education, the message could not be clearer. We must make the case that theological education is not simply good for the church. Theological education is indispensable to the practice of Christian faith.

    What do I mean?

    I read The Economist each week for two reasons. It is fascinating. (That's the purely positive reason.) And, more importantly, it has become indispensable to me. I would be afraid of what I would miss if I didn't read it.

    Is this a fear-based motivation? Sort of. But it is true. As someone who needs the best information I can get, I would indeed be afraid not to read this journal. I don't feel the same about many other good newspapers and magazines, some of which I read regularly.

    Seminaries need to demonstrate that they are indispensable to the preparation of excellent leaders for our churches and our society. Average is over. Just being "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery Store" may be good enough for Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, but it is not good enough for the real world of ministry today.

    But even that is not enough.

    We must demonstrate that we are thoughtful in determining what can only be learned and what can best be learned through the educational modes we cultivate. And we must never stop learning what needs to be learned for leadership and ministry and how best to teach this. Average is over. Average is no longer an option. Not if our schools are to have a future. And not, I would argue, if our communities of faith are to flourish in this rapidly changing environment.

  • Creative Genius

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 15, 2014

    Creative GeniusWe tend to create genius in the image of our age. Just as the nineteenth century created the myth of the solitary hero (a myth that dominated the Romantic movement, and beyond) with its lone and sometimes lonely genius, whether discoverer, artist or adventurer, our age is creating the myth of the corporate genius, the idea that great ideas and great achievements inevitably arise as the products of collaborative groups.

    The reality is far more complex and idiosyncratic than either the myth of the solitary hero or the myth of the corporate genius conveys.

    In every age, breakthrough moments and achievements of genius, have resulted from the insights and hard work of individuals (often in concert with incremental corporate plodding), AND from wonderful symbiotic group processes to varying degrees and in various mixtures.

    Charles Darwin possessed genius. His publication of The Origin of Species represents the meticulous assembly and analysis of data as well as an explosion (far more than a mere spark) of creative insight and considerable courage. This was an individual achievement, from one perspective. To miss the individual character of this achievement is to misunderstand it fundamentally. But it was not just an individual achievement. As historians of science remind us, Darwin stood on the shoulders of others who were trying to make sense of the data that was accumulating. And Darwin stood among others in a milieu of scientific investigation that was seeking to make sense theoretically (as we say now, at a "meta-level") of this accumulation of data. An evolutionary metaphor seems to have been gathering in the ether ready for someone to conceptualize. The concept was resonate before it was articulated.

    Bletchley Park and the Manhattan Project were rich in examples of collaborative group genius long before the open-concept school or office emerged. In both of these very different contexts during the Second World War, one can also find examples of individual creativity and discovery.

    To minimize either the roles of communities of thinkers and aggregated collective creativity or that of the courageous, industrious individual is to misunderstand the way creative genius functions in either the arts or the sciences. But our age seems to be an age afraid to give individuals their due, and some folks have a hard time expressing an idea without the benefit of rigid "either/or" exclusions. We tout the ways in which technological innovations emerge in groups of gifted people, as we should. But groups consist of individuals with distinct gifts, and groups function in relationship to individuals, some of whom make the groups function better than they might otherwise function because of their peculiar and highly individual (and sometimes difficult) genius. I'm thinking here, for example, of Steve Jobs.

    Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, and longtime colleague of and collaborator with Jobs, does not shy away from describing Jobs as a genius - someone with a distinctive and singular creative gift. One aspect of that gift consisted in Jobs' ability to get the most out of groups of other creative people, helping them to create far more than they might otherwise have been capable. Catmull does not sugarcoat Jobs' personality or the challenges Jobs' personality could present for working with others, especially in his earlier years of leadership. But Catmull also praises the ways in which Jobs' passion, his intellectual brilliance and his capacity to draw out the best in other creative people exponentially multiplied a group's creative power, though not everyone was comfortable with his approach. (Catmull, Ed. "Afterword: The Steve We Knew." In Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, with Amy Wallace, 297-315. New York: Random House, 2014.)

    In Joshua Wolf Shenk’s recent (and widely read) New York Times editorial essay, “The End of Genius,” the collaborative model is singularly advocated, and the collaborative genius of songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney (among other examples) is extolled as definitive (an argument-clincher for many baby boomers). Shenk, argues that there's really no such thing as individual creative genius and that all creativity is collaborative. (Joshua Wolf Shenk, "The End of Genius," The New York Times, July 14, 2014, accessed July 30, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-genius.html?_r=0.)

    Shenk's observations might have provided a helpful and corrective perspective, but as an argument for the existence of only one form of creativity they collapse under their own weight. As Beatle historians have demonstrated, for example, there was much more in the Lennon/McCartney partnership than collaborative creativity. There was also extraordinary individual creativity spurred on by competition with one another and others, and astonishing individual achievements were credited under the signature of the duo. ("Yesterday" being just one example among many McCartney products credited officially to the two songwriters.)

    In other words, even in collaborative creativity, we should not underestimate the role of the individual of genius. There are times when a person of remarkable creative ability makes a leap of insight, creates a work of art, or discovers something that leaves us all standing flat-footed and speechless. This is not to say that the individual of genius operates within a social vacuum (few would claim such a thing), but it is to say that a creation of original vision might take us so far beyond all known predecessors (to whom the creator acknowledges indebtedness) that we find ourselves struggling to understand how it is connected to whatever went before. (I'm thinking here of artist Mark Rothko's acknowledgement of his debt to J.M.W. Turner, for example.)

    When we consider the contemporary preoccupation with "collaborative genius" as a necessary corrective to the previous myth of the solitary genius and as an expansion of our understanding of the way genius emerges "among" us, we find in it a really helpful insight, and one that can aid artists and scientists, as well as organizations and their leadership, to function better.

    The gift of collaborative genius has only begun to be explored. When we use the idea of collaborative genius, however, as a sort of weapon against individual insight and individual achievement, we not only give in to yet another dominant-culture ideology (and this one a myth of the moment masquerading as counter-cultural myth-bashing), but we also undermine the very processes that lead to the breakthroughs which enrich human life.

    It takes two to tango and a full room to make a great party - especially a party of genius. AND let us not underestimate the value of those individuals who make up the duets and collaborations as well as those who sometimes work in solitude through the lonely days, nights and decades of quiet inquiry and expression.

  • A Leadership Notebook

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 11, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    leadership notebookSometime in 1993, shortly after being called to the faculty of Austin Seminary, Dean Robert Shelton invited me to his office to discuss his vision for the area which I had been invited to teach. He told me that we needed to rethink the seminary’s whole approach to the teaching of leadership for the church. As of that day, I had his blessing and my faculty colleagues’ encouragement to completely reshape our curriculum in the areas of leadership, administration, management and finance. Looking back over the experience of teaching leadership in a seminary for seventeen years it seems as though I never stopped reshaping that curriculum.

    I think I was an odd choice for this work. My academic training was in historical and systematic theology, and the first courses I taught (at the invitation of Austin Seminary but before I joined the faculty) were in philosophy of religion and doctrinal theology. My education was just about as traditional as it gets, in the ancient, ivy-covered bastion of King’s College at the University of Aberdeen.

    Nevertheless, I had also been a pastor by that point for some twelve years, and, with my wife, Debbie, had recently written a book on power and change in congregational leadership - the first of two books and several articles we would go on to write together on leadership. So, I turned my attention to rethinking the teaching of leadership in a seminary context.

    Frankly, this was really rewarding work. It brought me into a close and enduring mentorship with the great Ellis Nelson, who had retired to Austin after completing his presidency at Louisville Seminary, as well as a number of great new colleagues in a variety of fields around the country. The work also gave me permission to read as deeply and broadly as I wished in the rapidly growing field of leadership studies and organizational behavior.

    As we begin this new academic year, I plan to write a semi-regular feature in these blogs relating important lessons about leadership from some of the best practitioners. Most of what will be shared will come from paradigmatic figures in the field. I will also share insights from rather surprising sources, such as the intrepid and brave women and men who fight wildfires, and from political historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin who have a way of unearthing the most interesting leadership insights while writing their biographies about leaders.

    There’s so much we can learn from these folks that is applicable to the life of our congregations in this rapidly changing world. I hope you enjoy this new feature and that you find it helpful.

  • Parables and the "Zen" of Jesus

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 08, 2014

    Zen and JesusDuring the summer, I decided to spend some time with the parables of Jesus. Many of the parables are among the most familiar and beloved texts in all of the Bible. We’ve heard the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the good Samaritan, the unjust steward and the prodigal son again and again. One of the things that gets in the way of hearing what the Bible says to us is our tendency to think we already know what it says. This can be especially bedeviling when reading familiar passages like the parables.

    Robert Farrar Capon, in one of his wonderful books about the parables of Jesus, makes the observation: “The first and most troublesome (obstacle to the parables), oddly enough, is familiarity. Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what is meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it is, too.’”

    But, as Capon explains, “Some of (Jesus’) parables are not stories, many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.” [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 7.]

    In fact, far from teaching in parables in order to aid the understanding of his hearers or to clarify what he meant, we are told by the Gospels that Jesus sometimes taught in parables specifically to make his points obscure.

    Perhaps I should tell you why I recently became interested anew in Jesus’ parables. During a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani early last summer, after reading Thomas Merton’s classic study, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968), I committed myself to becoming more familiar with some basic texts of Zen philosophy and spirituality. It was in the course of reading and contemplating ancient Zen stories and koans that I came to a new awareness about the parables of Jesus. [Incidentally, the most useful source for these stories I have found is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (Tuttle, 1957, 1985)].

    Zen writings, you see, are often intended to mystify, to confuse, to discombobulate, to obscure meanings and multiply possibilities. They are designed to provoke a more profound level of reflection and contemplation in the reader or hearer that pushes us beyond our comfortable assumptions.

    Frankly, reading Zen literature, I repeatedly found myself saying, “Wow, that sounds a lot like Jesus!” Not necessarily like something Jesus said, but the “tone,” the “posture,” the “way” Jesus said things. There’s often a sly, foxy wisdom, a serpentine trick, a twist of expectations, even a sense of humor about the best Zen stories. Again and again, the reader or hearer of an ancient Zen story meets resistance at the very point he or she might wish to find a little clarity, accessibility or comfort. Some of the stories are rather bleak in outlook, few have any sort of a “moral” (in the sense of a fable), and virtually none yield meanings to the impatient or to those who “can’t get out of their heads.”

    In one story, a person finds himself chased over the edge of a cliff by a hungry tiger. Falling, flailing, he reaches out and grabs hold of a root of a vine with one hand. Hanging there, he realizes that mice are gnawing at the vine, and it is on the point of breaking. If that weren’t enough, looking down, he sees another hungry tiger in the valley below, pacing back and forth, just waiting for him to fall. Just then, the man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of the cliff. With his free hand, he reaches out and picks the strawberry and pops it into his mouth. “Ah, how sweet it tastes,” he says.

    In another story, a disciple comes to his teacher and explains that he has succeeded in emptying himself entirely of all distractions, indeed of everything that would prevent him from receiving enlightenment (Zen). His master simply says, “Good. Now throw out your emptiness too.” To which, the disciple says, “I can’t throw out my emptiness!” His teacher answers, “Of course, I see. Then carry it out.”

    Barump-bump goes the trap drum.

    If anything, Zen koans are even more mystifying than the stories. There are Zen koans that so utterly defy understanding they have become the subject of years and years of meditation. They are designed to trip us up, especially, again, if we have a hard time apprehending the world around us except from an intellectual perspective.

    That’s when it struck me that Jesus as a teacher is a lot closer to the approach of the ancient Zen masters than he is to the approach either of a tenured professor or a pastor. Jesus is a lot more “Eastern” than “Western” to start with. And it may just be that our cultural bias toward understanding, making spiritual matters more accessible, and ensuring that people are comfortable with our faith may be getting in the way of them and us hearing the message of Jesus. If we aren’t provoked by some of his parables, we aren’t paying attention. If we aren’t mystified, we haven’t yet heard them. If we don’t find them self-contradictory, we haven’t really followed their trajectory. They are often intended to resist us more than to draw us in.

    The parables of Jesus are not intellectual puzzles. They are after a bigger prize than our comprehension.

    The parables of Jesus sometimes are meant to work on us like an annoying pebble in our shoe. We keep taking off the shoe, shaking it upside down, putting the shoe back on, only to discover that the pebble is still there. The parables just keep working at us, never simply confirming our sense of rightness or righteousness.

    When I returned to the parables of Jesus after my engagement with the ancient Zen writings, I found myself considerably more open to not assuming I understand them, and I have found this exercise enormously enlightening. For those who have ears to hear, well, you know the rest.

  • Spotting "Promise for Ministry"

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 01, 2014

    How do we spot promise for ministry?

    This is not only a lively, perennial question generally for pastors, concerned church members and committees on preparation for ministry, it is an essential question for the faculty, leadership and Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary as we move toward the implementation of our Covenant for the Future scholarship program.

    Already we invest a significant amount of the Seminary's endowment in the education of our students. Beginning next fall, we will fully subsidize the tuition of every master’s degree student. Making sure that we invest these funds in the students with the greatest promise for ministry is a matter of good stewardship.

    So, how do we spot women and men with the greatest promise for ministry?

    The first thing that must be said is that ministry is not one-size-fits-all. There are, as Saint Paul tells us, many varied gifts for many different ministries. (I Corinthians 12:4-31)

    A person with the right gifts for pastoral leadership in certain congregations might not be ideally suited for pastoral leadership in some others. A great hospital chaplain might not necessarily make a great pastoral counselor. A remarkable Bible teacher does not necessarily have the gifts needed for a director of a church-related nonprofit charity. An advocate for the needs of impoverished children's health might not be the sort of person who will make a good spiritual director.

    Ministry is varied. Contexts may vary as much as gifts and forms of service. And timing can be particularly crucial, even in a single lifetime. For example, one member of our Seminary faculty, Dianne Reistroffer, after a long vocation as an educator, having recently retired, has returned to graduate school to train as an attorney so she can become a legal advocate for children. We've all seen gifted congregational ministers move on to teaching careers or leadership. Again, ministry is varied for many reasons.

    Consequently, we must first recognize that spotting promise for ministry means being on the lookout for a wide variety of gifts, interests, personality types, aptitudes, skills and capacities. But this is where another truth emerges with special force.

    The second thing we must bear in mind when attempting to spot promise for ministry is that while the wisdom about how to do this may be conventional, it may not be all that wise. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, surveys the history of the conventional wisdom of talent spotting. While his comments are geared to recruiting the best talent for jobs in corporations, his comments offer some real insights for ministry.

    Fernandez-Araoz explains that for something like a millennium, people judged potential based entirely on physical attributes. "Those attributes were easy to assess," he writes, "and, despite their growing irrelevance, we still unconsciously look for them." He notes, for instance, that Fortune 500 CEOs are on average 2.5 inches taller than the average American, though I doubt that many board members or stock holders believe there is any positive correlation between good leadership and height.

    Historically speaking, the next era of talent spotting "emphasized intelligence, experience, and past performance." There's a lot of wisdom in this approach, conventionally-speaking, as we all know, but it may also only guarantee the repetition of the same-old same-old. And in a rapidly changing environment, the status quo may be the last thing we need.

    The next era in talent spotting, which sought out "competencies," was an advance over the first two, Fernandez-Araoz explains, and was shaped by the needs of a particular time (the era in which most of us have spent most of our professional lives). The growth of new technologies and the convergence of previously unrelated fields in this era meant that intelligence was still valued in the process of spotting talent, but "emotional intelligence" was even more to be prized, because you needed people who could fit into various social contexts. And the possession of specific competencies and skills was much more predictive of future success than either previous experiences or job descriptions, since many of the professional positions that were emerging had never previously existed.

    "Now," Fernandez-Araoz writes, "we're at the dawn of a fourth era, in which the focus must shift to potential." If the previous eras constitute "conventional wisdom," here we enter the realm of the unconventional. We must now focus on potential, as he defines it: "the ability to adapt to ever-changing ... environments and grow into challenging new roles."


    Because: "In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment ... competency-based appointments are increasingly insufficient. What makes someone successful in a particular role today might not do so tomorrow if the competitive environment shifts, the company's strategy changes, or if he or she must collaborate with or manage a different group of colleagues. So the question is not whether your company's employees and leaders have the right skills; it's whether they have the potential to learn new ones." There's no part of the contemporary context - business, education or religious - that is immune to the dynamics he describes. We need to recruit for potential.

    What does potential look like? According to Fernandez-Araoz: "The first thing we look for is the right kind of motivation: a fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals." This kind of motivation reflects a form of humility, a dedication to "big, collective goals," and a willingness to keep on improving. He identifies four hallmarks of potential, for which we can all be on the lookout; they are curiosity (an openness to learning and change), insight (the ability to gather and make sense of information that suggests new possibilities), engagement (a knack for using emotion and logic to communicate a persuasive vision and connect with people), and determination (the wherewithal to fight for difficult goals despite challenges and to bounce back from adversity). (Fernandez-Araoz, Claudio. "21st-Century Talent Spotting." Harvard Business Review June 2014: 46-56. Print.)

    There's a great deal more in Fernandez-Araoz's insightful essay, and I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety, but even this small sampling is highly suggestive to those of us who want to ensure that the next generation of ministers and leaders can help our church meet the challenges before us.

    Now, it's up to us to listen for the Spirit and to do the work of discernment, spotting promise for the ministries to which God calls men and women in our time. As Saint Paul reminds us:

    Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.


  • Sickened by it All

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 25, 2014


    Loretta RossEditor’s Note: This summer’s final Thinking Out Loud guest blogger is Loretta F. Ross (MDiv 81), executive director of the Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer (www.fromholyground.org) and author of Letters from the Holy Ground-Seeing God Where You Are (Sheed & Ward, 2000). She blogs at www.theprayinglife.com. This blog post is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, What Is Deep as Love Is Deep – A Memoir of a Praying Life.

    I recently attended in the same week two gatherings of bright, earnest, faithful people. Leadership training was the focus of the first meeting. An esteemed author presented the best thinking on how to lead organizations in a changing church and society.

    The second meeting also considered leadership, as well as other business. However I had been invited to this meeting, not primarily to learn, but to pray. So I sat in the back and prayed for about six hours. I went off duty for lunch and slacked off in the late afternoon, when I forgot my purpose and got caught up in a presentation about the church and the digital age.

    I was intellectually stimulated and energized by these gatherings. I wanted to go out and buy six or seven books. I was also drained and exhausted. Focused prayer for a gathered body is strenuous and leaves me limp and reeling with the Spirit. Following the meetings, I had some catching up to do back home. I was glad when I could finally sit down, read over my notes, and savor what I had learned. I marked things to read, underlined points I wanted to remember, and followed up on internet links and downloads.

    Then I got sick. Sick. Sickened by it all. Maybe it was my fatigue and sinuses acting up. I was curious, though. Why would this make me feel sick? People I dearly love and deeply admire had prayerfully planned and attended both of these events. “What is going on?” I asked.

    “It was all about us,” came the answer. It was all about what we could or could not do, should or should not do as leaders. It was about how we could influence and challenge the people we were leading. It was about how World War II and Baby Boomer generations could get on board with Gen X-ers, Millennials and the digital age. It was about how the church as we know it - this lumbering, beloved and maligned artifact of oral, print and broadcast forms of communication – could sustain itself and grow.

    Us. Our mastery of skills and information.

    Yet, as we attempted to understand the Millennial mind, we were stuck in a post-World War II and Baby Boomer print media, academic, hierarchical approach. As good Presbyterians, we were consulting the experts. As good Presbyterians, we were applying our knowledge and abilities to solve a problem with the same mind which created it. An approach, as Albert Einstein observed, which cannot be successful.

    As I understand the gospel, deep down, fundamental transformation requires a terrifying and sobering confrontation with the truth of human limitation. God's changes in our lives mean we will not know what to do or how to do it. In the face of that panic and helplessness we scramble to grasp for meaning and control. We will deny, blame, argue, and even use force to secure our sense of safety and righteousness, but ultimately we have no choice, but to surrender to the unknown in a leap of faith. I believe Jesus showed us the way of change through surrender and faith in the new thing emerging beyond our control and understanding. He called it “dying to self” and acted it out for us on the cross.

    Yet, in periods of personal and global crisis and disintegration, what else are we to do, but flail about, argue, worry and keep trying until the self in us wears out and dies? Human resistance to Grace has never been an obstacle to God, though often, according to scripture, a frustration.

    Time is on God's side in this romance. But in the meantime meetings like these allow us to huddle together in the warmth of community and lean into the mystery of God’s providence, even as we attempt to understand and control it. Applying our minds is a good thing. God certainly works though them. The danger is when human intellect presumes to usurp the sovereignty of God and we behave as functional atheists.

    We struggle to be simultaneously present to God and to our work. So we book-end our days and activities with prayer, often a perfunctory invocation and a quickie closing prayer “to get us all on the road.” We are split in a way which sickens, wearies and drains the life out of me. I struggle every day to bring an attentive awareness of The Gracious One into all I do. I fail over and over. I know when I have failed by the tension in my neck and shoulders, the eyelid twitch, the strain that comes over me when my ego has been bossing and shoving me around. I know I have failed when the space in my head has been crammed with words, ideas, opinions, fears and there is no room for Jesus.

    I know the deadening effect of too much talk, too much human need trying to meet human need, and no silence and space for God to meet any of it.

  • Jawanza Eric Clark's African-centered Theology: Is it Tenable

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 19, 2014


    Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is guest-written by Sekhmet Ra Em Kht Maat (McAllister), a second-year Master of Arts in Religion student at Louisville Seminary. Having completed graduate studies at Temple University in the Department of African American Studies, Sekhmet’s teaching and research interests include traditional African cosmologies and philosophies, Africana queer theology and African-centered theory and methodology for Africana studies.

    Can an African-centered theology serve the spiritual and socio-cultural needs of African American Christians? Jawanza Eric Clark, a 2008 Ph.D. degree recipient from Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, writing in his 2012 Indigenous Black Theology: Toward an African-centered Theology of the African American Religious Experience, seems to think so. In just under two hundred pages and across five chapters, Clark builds his argument toward an African-centered theology that is grounded in an Akan theological anthropology, defining the relationship between the human condition, ancestors and the creator within the philosophy of the Akan of Ghana, West Africa. In doing so, Clark outlines a theology that, in his estimation, is a radical departure from the Protestant Christian “doctrine of sin and the doctrine of Jesus Christ as exclusive savior.”1 Because for Clark, “the belief that human beings are born with an ontological defect is (in fact) alien and antithetical to all indigenous West African religions.”2 Therefore, African Americans must reconsider the cultural implications of the doctrine of sin and salvation. Given this idea, Clark opens the text with a quote by Malcolm X stating, “You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself,”3 proposing a theology, then, through which he hopes African American theologians, African American Christians and African American church folk in particular can seriously begin to redefine themselves in line with an African conception of salvation and find human value, again, in the African religious thought of their ancestors.

    Clark contends that African Americans suffer from a cultural and spiritual crisis that emerges from their ongoing engagement with Protestant theology. Unlike in the Caribbean and South America where the saints, symbols and rituals of Catholic enslavers fostered room for enslaved Africans to remember and transmit Akan, Yoruba, and Bakongo African religious systems across generations, the Protestant preachers, slave masters and church folk in North America attempted to curtail enslaved Africans’ incorporation of West African deities and theological constructs into Protestant liturgy and Christian life. For Clark, Protestants taught enslaved and free Africans in America, especially after the Great Awakenings, an interrelated theology that African culture, people and religions were sinful and that it was only through Jesus Christ that one could be saved from sin. As depravity, according to this theology, defines the human condition, Protestants viewed Africans in particular as heathenish creatures who were most specifically and naturally outside of the scope of salvation. Furthermore, Clarke also finds that the eighteenth and nineteenth century categories of sin, in relationship to the human condition, outlined in the doctrinal theologies of John Calvin, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, are truth-claims that even eighteenth, nineteenth and surprisingly some twentieth century Black nationalists found very difficult to refute. African American Baptist missionary John J Coles, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Payne, and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, for instance, were avid supporters of the Christianization of “heathen” and “uncivilized” indigenous Africans.4 Clark’s overall point in the expanse of chapters outlining African and African Americans’ relationship with Protestant theology is that it is through the Protestant doctrine of sin and salvation and its resulting anti-Africa sentiment that many twenty-first century African American theologians, clergy and church folk, similar to their Protestant and Black nationalist predecessors, continue to define and understand continental Africans in relationship to themselves. In the final analysis, for Clark, traditional African religion, cultural and spirituality remain sinful, inhumane and therefore (anti-Christ)ian for African Americans because of the Protestant doctrine of sin and salvation.

    Clark’s response to this crisis is to offer an Akan theology that attempts to shift contemporary African American Christians’ thinking about sin, salvation and themselves. In his section on “Akan Anthropology,” Clark reviews the spiritual components comprising the Akan body, all of which are an extension of Nyame the creator. It is this notion of the “oneness of being” within Akan ontology and anthropology that allows for Akan people to suggest that the purpose of human existence is to reach the ancestral realm in which one continues to work on behalf of the community. Humans, then, come into existence with a destiny that is linked to the community and the creator, and humans are therefore already divine by their very existence. This is the reason why each Akan is given a Kradin (soul name) depending on the day one is born, as each day comprises one of Nyame’s specific energetic qualities. Kwame (biological male) and Ama (biological female), Kradin for Saturday born, for instance, signifies the creative potential of Nyame. So the destiny of Kwame and Ama are to work out acts of creative potential within their communities. (Hence, ancestor Kwame Nkrumah, for instance, the first president of Ghana in 1957 and along with other Ghanain pan-Africanists, challenged British colonial occupation of the territory.) The idea that human beings are born in sin and are in need of salvation from sin is improbable within the Akan anthropology because the Akan worldview holds firm to the idea that human beings are spirit endowed expressions of the source of existence, that which is all oneness, all possibility and all consciousness.

    Becoming an ancestor, however, requires that one lives in accordance with the most optimal ideals within the Akan cultural reality. For the Akan, this includes cultivating a balance between one’s ego and destiny, mastering one’s spirit in the face of adversity and working on behalf of the survival and sustenance of one’s community.5 This view of the human condition, then, does not require a “deity” to save one from depravity, according to Clark. Given this anthropology, Jesus becomes, for Clark, a model of an ancestor for whom one can aspire, not unlike many African ancestors who have lived the highest ethical ideals in the midst of chaos. It is Clark’s hope, it seems, that African American theologians and church folk can find promise in their West African ancestors by beginning to reorganize their lives in accordance with these ideals; this is salvation.  Clark’s work concludes that all who are interested in bringing about salvation in their lives can seek Jesus as a model for ethical living.

    Indigenous Black Theology is in direct conversation with new constructive theological projects. A new generation of African American theologians is beginning to take seriously the key role a traditional African worldview(s) plays in how African Americans can (re)create their religious lives. These new theologians are exploring the plausibility of (re)creating Christian-inspired theologies that include specific aspects of religious thought. For instance, using the Akan term Sankofa to ground his Christology, also writing in 2012 Brad Braxton writes that, “Christ - and by extension Christology - should be understood more as a process than a person. Rather than simply being Christ, the human Jesus faithfully yielded his life to a Christ-process that resulted in deification.” 6 What is radical here about Braxton’s Christology is that Jesus’ life-death is the process of becoming one with the Spirit (God). Likewise, challenging Christian monotheism that positions non-Christian religious traditions as the “other,” Vanderbilt educated theologian Monica Coleman critiques this rigid perspective as that which is non-pluralistic and dismissive of the multiplicities of the divinity in human experiences. Using Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy model, she concludes that the Yoruba “model of gods,” in other words, the orisha (deities) Shango, Oya and Yemoja, for example, from within the cosmology of the Yoruba cultural grouping of Nigeria, West Africa, can open the door for theologians to become more inclusive of that which is divine and to reconsider the need for religious pluralism within twenty-first century American religious life.7 Following within this theological tradition, Clark too wishes to offer a perspective that contributes to the call for ecumenicism within Christian thought and life, urging Christians in general and African American Christians in particular to reconsider the significance of Jesus, remember themselves as Africans and redefine, then, what it means to be Christian.

    As a second-year Master of Arts student with a concentration in Black Church Studies here at Louisville Seminary and as one who attempts to foster an appreciation for varying religious interpretations of God, the universe and human existence, several questions come to mind, several of which I ask our Seminary community to think about and comment on below in the comment section of the blog:

    •Do African Americans in general and African American Christians in particular suffer from cultural and spiritual crisis as Clark proposes? If so, what cultural and spiritual healing could this theology provide for African American Christians, in particular, who are unfamiliar with their African ancestral cultural and spiritual traditions? Is this theology necessary?

    •Is Clark’s argument and proposal of value to not only African American Christians, but to the larger Christian community who seek an ecumenical approach to building Christian community and ethical living? What would this framework add to mainline Christian theology and African American theology and ideas about freedom, destiny and human, social and personal responsibility?

    •In line with the thinking one of my favorite Seminary colleagues, I ask further, if Christ becomes an ancestral exemplar for ethical Christian living, is this perspective still a Christian perspective or another belief or tradition?  

    I definitely do not propose to have any definitive answers, but maybe we should all think about what would Jesus say in response to Clark’s theology? Was it not Jesus who urged his Hebrew sisters and brothers to return to their most optimal ethical traditions in the face of cultural, spiritual and political colonization?

    1Jawanza Eric Clark, Indigenous Black Theology: Toward an African-centered Theology of the African-American Religious Experience (New York: Palgrave, 2012), 2.
    2Ibid., 16.
    3Ibid., xvii.
    4Ibid., 46-51.
    6Brad Braxton, “’Every time I feel the spirit’: African American Christology for a Pluralistic World,” in Radical Christian Voices and Practice: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland, ed.  Zoe Bennett and David B. Gowler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 189.
    7Monica A. Coleman,  “From Models of God to a Model of Gods: How Whiteheadian Metaphysics Facilitates Western Language Discussion of Divine Multiplicity,” Philosophia 35 (2007): 329-340.

  • PC(USA) Relocation to Louisville

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 14, 2014


    Editor's Note: As we celebrate the 160th anniversary of Louisville Seminary’s founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!

    Today's blog post was guest-written by Dorothy “Dot” Ridings, a former Louisville Seminary Trustee who served from 1992 to 2008 (board chair from 2000 to 2008) and from 2009 to 2014. Ridings is also the former president and chief executive officer of the Council on Foundations, an association of more than 1,600 grantmaking foundations and corporations that promotes responsible and effective philanthropy. She held reporting and editing positions at newspapers in Bradenton, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., Louisville, Ky., and Washington, D.C. Ridings is a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates and a past president of the League of Women Voters of the United States.

    PCUSA Headquarters“5,000 Heroes” read the huge headline in Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper on a summer Sunday in 1987.1 Accompanying the story about the choice of Louisville as the new headquarters for the Presbyterian Church (USA) was a photograph of those 5,000 people gathered on Louisville’s Main Street, cheering and waving banners and releasing balloons to say “welcome” to the Presbyterians. The rally concluded with a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace,” sung by the 5,000 who participated in the noontime gathering.

    A video of that rally, which included spirited and warm greetings from local elected officials and religious figures, was part of Louisville’s presentation to the 655 people who mattered most: the commissioners to the 1987 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi – the people who would vote on where to locate the denomination’s headquarters following the union of its two former branches into the PC(USA). The video was the clincher in the 332-309 vote that chose Louisville over Kansas City, which had been the choice of a denominational committee on relocation.

    Many important factors led to the Louisville selection, with the gift of a building for the headquarters and local pledges to finance renovation of the building playing major roles. But so did many meetings with members of the denomination’s racial-ethnic caucus, hand-outs of miniature Louisville Slugger baseball bats to the commissioners, a Louisville information center open around the clock in Biloxi to aid commissioners with questions about the potential site, and much more.

    And Louisville Seminary was behind it all.

    Louisville was one of 47 cities that vied to become the denomination’s headquarters after the northern and southern branches of Presbyterianism merged and the two separate offices – in New York City and Atlanta – were to be combined. A General Assembly committee studied the issue for three years and recommended Kansas City, but Louisville didn’t give up. Persistent advocates were the seminary’s then-president, John Mulder; LPTS professors Grayson Tucker and Virgil Cruz; Louisville Presbytery execs Charles Stanford and “Camp” Edwards, and a host of other civic, church and seminary activists.

    It was an enthusiastic political campaign whose centerpiece was the donation by active Presbyterian David Jones Sr., CEO of Humana Inc., of a downtown building to be used as church headquarters. The city’s business community was convinced to pledge $6 million to cover renovations to that building. Hotels, moving and storage companies and consulting services promised discounts.

    Kentucky’s governor, Martha Layne Collins, flew to Biloxi to add her welcome to the Presbyterians. Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson went to Biloxi twice to meet with commissioners. Humana’s corporate jet ferried people, baseball bats and local newspapers back and forth all week during the General Assembly. (My favorite personal memory involves a plane ride to Biloxi from Charlotte, where I was engaged in a management training program for future newspaper publishers; I was observing a board meeting when a secretary came into the room and announced that my “jet is on approach to the Charlotte airport,” and eyebrows lifted and heads swiveled to affirm that the message was for this relatively young female newcomer in their midst.)

    Louisville’s presentation to a plenary of the General Assembly was made by President Mulder, Mayor Abramson, Professor Cruz and me. My role was to affirm Louisville’s adequacy of air service, which had been one of the negative factors put forth by the relocation committee. (I had just completed four years as national president of the League of Women Voters, and during that time had flown between Louisville and Washington weekly while also traveling across the nation and to 14 foreign countries to represent the League.)

    I guess we convinced the commissioners. But it’s clear that they recognized the significant stewardship that was offered to the church through the gift of a headquarters building, and were uplifted by the enthusiastic welcome from the community exemplified by those “5,000 Heroes.”

    One magazine article, however, called the “most valuable” attraction of the Louisville choice its “long leadership in reconciling northern and southern Presbyterians. The most notable fruit of that cooperation, and a central institutional player in the campaign to win the church headquarters, is Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Run cooperatively between the northern and southern Presbyterian synods since the move from the Centre College campus in 1901, Louisville Seminary had long promoted common action for the good of church and society at large. … To Kentuckians, Louisville seemed a natural place for the reunited church to settle.”2

    And so it has been.

    1Long, John C. “5,000 Heroes: Some of the untold stories of the epic battle of Biloxi.” Courier-Journal August 9, 1987: 5. Print.

    2Weston, William. “A Kentucky Home: How Louisville landed the national Presbyterian headquarters, and what it has meant to the city, the state and the church.” Kentucky Humanities 2001: 45-50. Print.

  • The Surprises of Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 11, 2014


    Pam LedfordEditor’s Note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Pam Ledford, a Master of Divinity student at Louisville Seminary.

    “Why seminary?” I am often asked. I have been thinking a lot about theological education since beginning studies at Louisville Seminary last August. Part of that contemplation stems from those well-meaning inquiries of family and friends, but mostly it has its origins in my ongoing efforts to confirm, define and refine my calling to ministry in Christian education and publishing. The desire to answer that call inevitably led me to seminary, and, since I began studies here, I have been surprised by several aspects of theological education that differ from any of my past educational and vocational experiences.

    Perhaps because it has been more than fifteen years since I attended a postgraduate institution that I find it refreshing to discover again at this stage of life a simple joy for learning. We learn something new every day whether or not we recognize that fact. I spent more than a decade practicing law in which I was continually learning the industries of clients I represented, gathering facts, studying law and analyzing legal arguments and strategy in order to be an effective advocate. And while I was grateful that each workday was not exactly like another, in the practicality of everyday work I cannot say that I recognized the fact that I was learning or experiencing joy in the process as in my studies at Louisville Seminary. While our seminary courses will help make us productive in future ministry, even if we never enter formal ministry, what we learn here has value in and of itself in molding our theology in ways we never contemplated.

    Seminary education also reveals itself to involve far more creativity than I ever expected. I have not always viewed education in general as especially creative because my past education involved more honing of analytical rather than imaginative skills. But theological study, after all, is study about God, who the Bible testifies is enormously inventive and involved and loves diversity as evidenced by the wide array of God’s own creations. Louisville Seminary, specifically, embraces and encourages creative theological study by fostering an environment in which original thought can be expressed in a diverse learning environment. I am also more aware than ever of the sheer privilege of the freedom to take this time to devote to the discipleship of theological education to which many in the world do not have access.

    Theological education presents a wonderfully difficult dichotomy. While seminary offers the security of learning material that is pertinent to our fields of calling in an environment supported by a common faith in Jesus Christ, it can also evoke fear because it is a study that is inherently deeply personal. My legal studies and career rarely required – and often prohibited – my personal thoughts and opinions. Theological education, on the other hand, demands that we put all of our cards on the table. Attending seminary at any age or stage of life obviously requires a sacrifice of time, energy and financial resources. As I am just beginning to realize, however, theological education also necessitates the surrender of a part of ourselves that we can hold in reserve in most other types of educational and vocational pursuits.

    What we study here in seminary not only impacts our future in work and ministry, but affects how we look at the world, how we look at others, and, perhaps more pointedly, how we view ourselves, God and our relationship with God. I can think of no other type of study that is more directed to the core of who we are and no other pursuit that has the potential to change us from the inside out and impact every aspect of our lives. I began seminary last summer with faith that theological education would equip me to do good works for God. This year has demonstrated that the true value of theological education goes even deeper. I now trust that my seminary experience will equip me to be the kind of person God can use for good works.

  • Accessibility, Theologically and Legally Speaking

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 04, 2014


    Dianne ReistrofferEditor’s Note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Louisville Seminary Professor Emerita Rev. Dr. Dianne Reistroffer. At the conclusion of the 2013-2014 academic year, Dianne retired from Louisville Seminary after 16 years of service. She is the pastor of Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church in Trimble County, Ky., and has enrolled in the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law, where she is specializing in public service and family law.

    As I depart Louisville Seminary and head to Brandeis School of Law, my mind has wandered to a “first” in pastoral ministry twenty-five years ago: my first sermon as the newly-appointed pastor of Sherman Avenue United Methodist Church. While many members of the congregation greeted me after the service with words of appreciation about my message, one kindly man asked me if we could talk briefly and privately at the coffee hour. We did, and he told me in very sweet terms that my message was “inaccessible” and better suited for my seminary professors than for working class people like him.

    After soliciting examples of this type of inaccessibility in the day’s sermon, I could easily understand why “the challenges of theodicy” and “the gospel writer’s eschatological perspectives” were impenetrable mysteries to this dear man. What was I thinking!? I shall always be grateful to John for his willingness to teach a new preacher the importance of bringing together the biblical text and the texts of people’s lives in ways that are easy to understand and appreciate.

    I suppose this novice lapse in accessibility is predictable for new pastors fresh from the exciting, heady days of theological study. The familiar phrase in Scripture, “The word of God came to me thus,” never had such power until I learned exegetical methods and the original languages of the bible. Courses in doctrinal and historical theology opened up new worlds of inquiry and reflection. My professors worked hard to encourage us seminary students to think theologically, critically, reflectively and pastorally. The nexus between the theological disciplines and the arts and skills of ministry was crucial and always in the service of making God’s revelation accessible to our present and future parishioners.

    My first congregation lovingly reminded me to go back to my roots before seminary which, like that of most of the church’s members, was working-class and poor. I recalled my own childhood pastor, a learned man who had a way of creating word pictures and using visual illustrations (well before PowerPoint) in making the gospel accessible. I turned to Monsignor Conway’s example and, to my delight, my preaching improved as I strove to make the connection between sermon text and the congregation. I began to keep a pastoral journal in order to record the events and times of our lives, pastor and people. It became the stuff of accessibility.

    As I turn to the adventure of legal study, I have no doubt that the issue of accessibility will loom large as members of the entering class learn to read, think, analyze and write as attorneys. Right now, I have begun to read a couple of cases in order to learn the art of briefing. With practice, I’ll work to master the craft. As a hedge against becoming “inaccessible” as a law student and a future lawyer, I have read some of the personal writings and legal opinions of my favorite Supreme Court Justice, the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor. Her recent dissenting opinion in SCHUETTE v. BAMN is a masterpiece of legal scholarship and accessibility1 and serves as a reminder to budding attorneys that legal memoranda can offer lively, relevant and inspirational reading for non-lawyers. Her dissent from the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision upholding Michigan’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action for public universities has been praised for its passion and for its resonance with themes of the contemporary debate concerning America’s so-called post-racial society. In no uncertain terms, Justice Sotomayor avers:

    “Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process … Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society – inequality cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities.”2

    In a moving paragraph in this same section of the dissent, Justice Sotomayor makes race real:

    “And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’, regardless of how many generations her family has been in this country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’ ”3

    Reading this section of the Justice’s dissent, I wonder if Sotomayor’s capacity to make her opinion accessible to lawyers and non-lawyers alike is rooted in her own life experiences as a Hispanic woman. In her autobiography, My Beloved World, she describes her own brush with racism from a high school nurse who questioned her high rating for “likely” admission to Princeton when two other students who ranked higher than Sotomayor were rated only “possible” admission.4 This early brush with anti-affirmative action attitudes no doubt informed the associate justice in making her dissent real, understandable and personal for the ones for whom race matters.

    Accessibility (making something clear and understandable) is a chief virtue for theologians and lawyers. Professional language and practices must always be translated and put in terms that are useful for those we intend to serve and that are real to us. We who are privileged to study in theological schools and in law schools and to serve in noble professions might draw insight from another Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    “But, above all, we have learned that whether a man (woman) accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his (hers) to command is to bring to his (her) work a mighty heart.”5

    1http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/572/12-682/dissent7.html, accessed on June 25, 2014.
    2Ibid., p. 20.  Fear not, my professors at Brandeis, I’ll soon learn proper citation for legal writing.
    3Ibid., p. 20.
    4Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2013): 118-119. By the way, Sotomayor was not only admitted to Princeton University, but also graduated summa cum laude in 1976.
    5Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire” (Memorial Day Speech, delivered on May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH), accessed at http://people.virginia.edu/~mmd5f/memorial.htm on August 2, 2014. NB: the text has been altered to make it more gender inclusive.

  • People of the Book

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 29, 2014


    Matthew S. CollinsEditor’s Note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Dr. Matthew Collins, associate professor of bibliography and research at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and director of the Seminary’s Ernest Miller White Library.

    As a librarian, I am frequently asked if I think paper books and physical libraries will become obsolete soon and cease to exist at some point. My answer is almost always that books and libraries will go away at about the same time we have paperless offices for business.

    The paperless office was touted as just about to happen in the early 1990s, when networks and email use became common in business. We now use more paper and print more in our offices than prior to the advent of email. Predictions about the demise of one form of technology with the advent of a new form, such as digital versus print, have a long history: radio was supposed to be the end of newspapers; television was to supposed kill the radio; and the personal computer was supposed to eliminate television. Typewriters were even predicted to be the end of pencils and pens for writing.

    None of these predictions came true, as new information-sharing technologies and media rarely result in the complete replacement of preceding technologies. We still hand-write a few things, even though print has existed for more than 500 years. But new forms of communication technology do often cause changes in how we use older forms of technology and, more importantly, cause us to change our behavior and our relationship to the information we communicate. We relate to the content and information conveyed through our new technologies in new ways. The larger question, then, is not whether physical books will all be replaced by digital books, but how we will use the new books and how this new format will change our behavior.

    The invention of the moveable type press by Gutenberg did not immediately result in a vast change in behavior, but within less than 100 years, it appears to have been a key factor in the rise and spread of the Protestant Reformation. Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, makes a strong case that the Reformation and perhaps even the Enlightenment as a whole would not have been possible without the printing press. She states that the Reformation was “a movement that was shaped at the very outset (and in large part ushered in) by the new powers of the press."1

    More than 300,000 of Martin Luther’s 30 pamphlet publications were printed between 1517 and 1520! Luther's thoughts and writings gained a far wider audience than his Roman Catholic opponents because they could be printed, rather than hand-copied. (Luther's works were also printed in German and thus more accessible than many of the Latin responses from the Church.) Likewise, the quick and wide dissemination of Calvin's writings and the spread of Reformed thought were made all the more possible because books could be printed cheaply and quickly.

    The inexpensive printing and distribution of Bibles was, of course, a major factor in the Reformation, placing readable texts in the hands of an increasingly literate population.  The printing of the Bible was, in fact, a business venture for most early printers. Gutenberg originally started his printing business, with its subsequent innovation, as a venture to make money printing Bibles. He was not successful, lost money and sold the business.

    The change in information distribution technology after 1440, from manuscript to printed text, led to a rapid and widespread change in the church, to changes in the practice of Christian faith, and to widespread literacy. The question now is whether our newest information technologies will result in another dramatic change for church and faith.

    The media history of the church in the twentieth century is one of rapid adoption of new media to communicate to the faithful and share the gospel. The church quickly adopted and adapted the use of newspapers, radio and television. Church use of digital technologies like the Internet and email became expected by the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the point that most churches have some presence online. Social media use by churches followed a similar trend. But how has this use of digital tools changed the life of the church and the life of the individual Christian?

    I think adopting new information-sharing technologies affects us in many ways, some good and some not so good. We are in touch with more people in more places at once.  Sharing news and community goodwill enables us to sustain fellowship with individuals and groups we might not have otherwise. We are able to keep up with needs and respond to crises in other parts of the world with a rapidity not possible in the past. But, in some ways, this focus on what is distant sometimes distracts us from what is close to home, where we might have ministered more effectively in the past. So, while our communication can be much better and wider, it can also cause us to lose our local and personal connections. In relation to the biblical text, our new digital tools help us with Bible study and finding resources in ways we never dreamed possible. We can go online and search just about any translation, in any language, for words, themes and verses. We can in fact go online and look at some of the oldest biblical manuscripts in existence, with images, text and translation.2

    At the same time, those same digital tools by the way they are programmed, force us to relate to the Bible in different ways than we relate to a printed Bible. In a recent article, Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, talks about how the physical form of the Bible has been theologically important in the history of the church.3 He notes that the paper printed Bible, as a thing, denotes both a certain kind of reading and a certain wholeness or integrity. With a printed book, we can see physically where we are reading in relation to the whole sequence of the text – Old Testament, New Testament, the arrangement of the books and letters all in physical order. The book, most often, sits in the hand as a whole thing, a unit of meaning quite apart from reading it. Ebooks and eBibles, on the other hand, while they can be read sequentially and can be “held” on our tablet, do not convey the same physical sense of integrity and sequence. There is no easily perceived sense of wholeness, just a metaphor for a whole text assembled out of electronic bits.

    A further complication that Jacobs also points out is that because of screen size and layout/design, we may see only a verse or two at a time. Our screen size (think smartphone) or browser window will only permit a certain amount of legible text. The sense of the whole and the sense of context are both entirely lost. The text becomes a series of short disconnected bits of information. As a result, while electronic text may enable us to share the Bible widely and quickly, this new format may present problems for our current understanding of the larger biblical messages or meanings. The use of short bits of biblical text, for example, is now common in arguments about what is right or wrong, moral or immoral. The larger context of how a verse or two fits within a narrative or how such a bit of text relates to the cultural constraints of the authors of a text is entirely lost.

    All this being said, I do, in fact, think digital texts, translations and tools are great things in many ways. We can find information, look things up and share information in ways that greatly benefit our lives, our ability to minister to others and our pursuit of scholarship.

    As a “People of the Book,” however, I think we need to be reminded of the whole Book and, more often than not, read from a real, physical, printed Bible. This odd, old, physical object serves to remind us of the presence of all of the text, with all of its complications and history, and that we are real physical people in a real physical world.

    1Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 148.
    2For a great example, see the Codex Sinaiticus Project, www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/
    3Alan Jacobs, “Christianity and the Future of the Book,” The New Atlantis, (Fall 2011), p.19-36.  Jacobs is also the author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011), a book well worth reading.


  • The Wonderful Women of Louisville Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 25, 2014


    Editor's note: As we celebrate the 160th anniversary of Louisville Seminary’s founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!

    Today's blog post was guest-written by Lucy Steilberg, a member of Louisville Seminary’s President’s Roundtable.

    I was so pleased to be asked to give my reflections on and memories of the wives of the presidents of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This is an effort to honor them for their contributions to the Seminary on the occasion of the Seminary’s 160th Anniversary. This is a joyous task for me!

    From my observation, there are two characteristics that all of these women share. One is the unfailing, generous and gracious hospitality that they have displayed to students, staff, faculty, board members and President’s Roundtable members. I can speak with some authority concerning this since I have often been a recipient of this hospitality.  The other characteristic they share is that each one of them brought such marvelous and unique gifts to the Seminary. 

    Fannie CaldwellUnfortunately, I cannot speak with any knowledge of the presidents’ wives before the time of Fannie Caldwell, wife of Dr. Frank Caldwell. I had a lovely conversation with Anne Caldwell, who lives in Memphis, Tenn. She said that her mother was particularly concerned about the students, and she entertained them and others quite often. Fanny was a fine writer and used these skills as a member of the Monday Afternoon Club, a group of women writers that originated 127 years ago at Second Presbyterian Church in Louisville.

    Grace WinnGrace Winn, wife of Dr. Albert Curry Winn, had one of the most infectious and contagious laughs I have ever heard. It was impossible not to respond to that laugh! Grace had a special ministry to the students and their spouses. She had a gift of making a person feel that he or she had always known her. There was much turmoil in America throughout the 1960s. Students all around the country were protesting against the war in Vietnam and crusading for civil rights for all people. The students at Louisville Seminary were no exception. Grace was a compassionate sounding board and means of support for the students. During Grace’s time at the Seminary, she was an active session member at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, being one of the first women elders in our Presbytery. She also served on the Pastor Nominating Committee at Crescent Hill and taught Sunday school there. 

    Nancy Nelson, wife of Dr. Ellis Nelson, was a sensitive and caring mentor and friend to the spouses of the seminarians. Nancy also endeavored to be a bridge between the churches in our Presbytery and the Seminary. She was a valuable ambassador for Louisville Seminary and also served as an active session member at Second Presbyterian Church. 

    Mary MulderDr. Mary Mulder, wife of Dr. John Mulder, had the unique opportunity of being a student at the same time that she was the wife of the president. She earned a doctorate in rhetoric and composition from the University of Louisville and served as an esteemed professor and administrator at Jefferson Community and Technical College for many years. She was a wonderful model and example for Seminary students. They could observe that the wife of their president had been a student and then was a professor. Mary is also an excellent writer. I’ve had the good fortune to read many of her papers at meetings of the Monday Afternoon Club. Mary was the only president’s wife in recent history who had two young children when she moved into the president’s house. She nurtured and reared them while fulfilling her responsibilities to the Seminary.

    Rebecca ThompsonRebecca Thompson, wife of Dr. Dean Thompson, brought her special gift of music to Louisville Seminary. She had worked as a music teacher and a director of children’s music groups before coming to the Seminary. Whenever people were invited to the president’s house, Rebecca entertained the guests by playing her grand piano. One of her greatest gifts to Louisville Seminary was when she brought a youth orchestra comprised of Israeli and Palestinian youth to Caldwell Chapel to perform a concert. I don’t think any of the congregation on that day will forget that special experience. Rebecca also taught music at a local high school in Louisville.

    Debbie JinkinsDr. Deborah Jinkins, wife of Dr. Michael Jinkins, came to Louisville Seminary as an extremely well-respected and recognized tenured university professor and reading specialist. In her career, she has been a first-grade teacher, a school principal, a university professor and a writer. Her entire adult life has been focused on the education and well-being of young children. As she and her husband visit churches around the country to inform Presbyterians about Louisville Seminary and the Covenant For the Future it is obvious that their partnership is very effective in this endeavor since, as Christians and academics, they are both passionate about Seminary education. Debbie is very open and committed to all in the Seminary community and uses her many and varied gifts to benefit her family and Louisville Seminary.

    It is necessary to have a community of gifted and dedicated people - students, staff, professors, board members, President’s Roundtable members and many others - to keep an institution such as Louisville Seminary strong and vital. It is also necessary to have two people to lead and serve this community. We have been very fortunate through the years to have these extraordinary couples to lead and serve this extraordinary institution.

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