Seminary Spotlight: Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

By Darrell Yoder, reprinted from the Oikonomia Network.

Note: Appropriately for the new pandemic reality, this update comes to you via video. A transcript, with links to the resources discussed in the video, is provided below.

Hey, my name is Darrel Yoder. Greetings from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I serve on the faculty here and provide administrative support and administrative leadership over a number of different programs and a lot of the ON efforts. And so greetings to all of you in the ON network.

I’m wanting to provide a quick spotlight, and thought I’d use the technology we’re all getting used to using these days, and share a little bit about what we’ve sort of attempted this year, and then what we’ve actually accomplished. Couple of quick things, the biggest one I get to mention this year, kind of in addition to our ongoing ways of integrating these things into our classes, and those real quickly would be especially in our theology classes. And we have some theology for counseling classes that really talk about the vocation of counseling, so there’s some integrating happening in there as well. And then some of the ministry courses as well, we’re able to integrate these topics in.

But the things I want to highlight in this spotlight are probably three main things. One is an attempted pastors conference that we had. I’ll tell you about an attempted project with a local church that was going to be really, really cool, and when we get to do it, it will be really cool and I think really strategic. And then also a series that one of our professors is doing. I’ll mention each of those three things in this spotlight.

So the first thing, one of my hats at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary that I’ve written about in previous spotlights for us, is our Talking Points program, where I’m able to hold conferences or develop resources that help pastors, ministry leaders and students engage in difficult topics, often really dicey topics that have different perspectives and try to lean into it from a distinctly theological perspective to bring God’s word to bare on really culturally relevant issues. And this year, what we did with our Talking Points program was we leveraged our conference as the sort of climax, as part of what is called the GRTS Fiscal Literacy Project. And that is supported by a grant from the Lilly Foundation, through their Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers initiative.

I haven’t been in leadership over that whole grant project, but I was invited in to provide sort of a climax event at the end of that multi-year project, to do a conference that would engage pastors on this area of fiscal literacy. But we wanted to make it within the realm of pastoral well-being, that broader topic of pastoral well-being, and fiscal literacy being a piece of that, and the realities of what pastors for their own souls, their own hearts, their own wellbeing and also issues around identity and calling, which is really similar to the kind of vocational questions, right? That we engage outside the church as well, with this conversation.

And so, we planned a conference. It was supposed to happen on March 17th of this year, and our state went into lockdown about four or five days before that, and we had to cancel the conference. The theme of the conference was “resilience,” finding wholeness in ministry by way of the cross. We wanted to engage pastors in thinking about how does a pastor stay resilient, stay healthy? How does a pastor practice self-care and prioritize as their own well-being, their own wholeness, when they’re in a calling that is by definition, self-sacrificial? Right? We’re supposed to be, and we are, pouring our lives out for others and being there for others to support others.

So how does one shift that and think about caring for your own soul? And how does carrying our cross relate to that? And can we find wholeness? We believe we can find wholeness in ministry by way of the cross, through engaging with Christ and through walking with him and following his lead of picking up our crosses and leading others to do the same.

We had several different speakers lined up. Matt Bloom was one of our featured speakers, Dr. Matt Bloom from Notre Dame. His work around flourishing in ministry, flourishing at work, is really, really helpful. And it was really a key part of that effort. And as well as the work done by the folks who published Resilient Ministry and The Politics of Ministry, that would Dr. Bob Burns, Dr. Donald Guthrie and Dr. Tasha Chapman, and just their research around what helps pastors be resilient, what helps pastors survive and thrive in ministry.

And then we had a pastoral care professor and a psychologist, here in Grand Rapids, Danjuma Gibson, a former pastor. He teaches Calvin Seminary, down the street from us. Had him talking about his work on Frederick Douglass, how did someone like Frederick Douglass, in the time that he lived with the experience he had, everything from slavery to freedom, to civil war, to Reconstruction. It just sort of seems like he maintained a sense of who he is, a robust sense of self. How did he do that, and what can we maybe take away from his life?

He was going to speak, and then we also had Dr. Ingrid Faro and some of her work on suffering. She’s at Northern Seminary. Just a theology of suffering and the role of suffering can help us understand these things.

So, that was our plan. It was a profound plan. We had hundreds of people registered to come, and then we had to cancel the conference. So I’m describing all of that, just to say, we were able to then make some changes and we did reclaim and are still reclaiming some of that work.

Over the summer we just worked on, what if we unbundled this conference? Unbundled, meaning all of those speakers, as well as the prayer introduction that I had planned, then I was able to add a couple of more speakers that I didn’t have space for in one day, we’ve unbundled that into a series of virtual events that we’ve just offered for free.

And so this is kind of what everybody’s been doing, but it’s been really interesting and it’s been a learning experience and we’ve had a really good response. So we turned it into nine virtual events and we actually just did our eighth one this week with Dr. Chuck DeGroat from Western Seminary, author of the book Wholeheartedness, and a more recent book on narcissism in the church, which is an interesting topic to think about for pastors.

And then we’re going to close our series with Ruth Haley Barton in a few weeks, at the end of this month of November, on her topic, her book, Strengthening The Soul of Your Leadership. So we’re able to actually add to that list. And so every other week, almost, roughly every other week from early August all the way through the end of November, we’ve been holding a one-hour, free, right after lunch, virtual event, a Zoom event, and had people, pastors and ministry leaders and students engaging in those sessions.

And that’s been, I think even providential, not only that we were going to take up that topic right before the pandemic hit, but then that we were able to turn it into a virtual event series. I know a lot of folks have experienced it as an extended reflection on resilience, pastoral well-being, their calling, their identity. What’s the relationship between your identity and the role that you play as a pastor? And this gets to especially this integration of vocation and calling and fiscal literacy, where the way Burns and Guthrie and Chapman talk about in Resilient Ministry, where there are aspects of leadership and administration that are inherent to the pastoral call, but often they’re not expected by pastors. It feels like, “I didn’t go into ministry for this. This feels outside the calling. I want to preach and provide care.” But there are intentional and inherent parts of pastoral ministry.

And so we wanted to – and we have been – engaging pastors in thinking about their calling and thinking about how they can stay healthy. That was the major effort this year, and we’ve been able to reclaim and been able to record each of those sessions. And we’re providing those for pastors and ministry leaders, as ways to reflect on their own souls during this really pressing time for pastors. A lot of pastors are especially experiencing burnout and pressure of, how do I be a pastor in a pandemic? How do I be a pastor when things are shut down? How do I face the tensions around, do I enforce masks or not? And do I hold face-to-face services or not? All of those political tensions that come in and I know pastors are carrying in huge ways. So it’s been a providential topic.

Now, the second thing I mentioned, a conference that we were hoping to hold, and this one hasn’t been redone yet, but I would love to go back to it. But as a part of our grant project, we were partnering with the church to host what they were calling the Whole Conference, which is about the whole gospel for the whole person. And we were going to frame that, invite our pastors that had come to our conference and invite them to bring their congregants to this church’s conference – this was Berean Baptist Church, here in Grand Rapids – as a way to bring all vocations together, to think about the same topic. Not only should pastors think about their calling and their wellbeing in ministry, but to Dr. Matt Bloom’s work, to their point, every vocation ought to be thinking about identity, calling and wellbeing at work, right?

So that was this especially direct connection to get pastors thinking about their vocations and their wellbeing at work and in ministry, in their case, or church-based ministry. And then to invite their people, in their congregations, to come to that conference that would have engaged people in their vocations.

And so the pastor, Marcus Little, had planned at that church, a number of different workshops based on sort of areas of the economy. Kind of a workshop for professionals or executive level leaders, a workshop for kind of what he was calling The Doers, it might be more blue collar, might be the trades, those kinds of vocations. And then we had one identified for the tech industry and reflecting on integration of faith in the tech world. I think he had one on the medical fields, a big industry here in West Michigan. And then I think he had one on sort of non-paid vocations, caregiving and things like that. And there might’ve been a couple of others.

I am hopeful that we’ll be able to come back to that, but because of all of the shutdowns, they canceled that conference as well, and haven’t retooled it in another way yet. But we hope that we can come back to that. That partnership with a local church to host something at a local church, and we were with our grant funding, going to support some of those expenses, and we were kind of part of the planning and this was a new effort for this church to do a conference. So it was fun to come alongside and help them plan that and help them think through that. And I hope to be able to do that kind of a project in the future. It was maybe a suggested model, a way that we can partner with the church, and I know other schools do these kinds of things as well.

So that’s the two main things throughout this year, some accomplishments out of it and some disappointment. The last thing I’ll mention is what we call, at Grand Rapids Seminary, our Thursday evening Bible class. This is something we’ve had, it’s a tradition of ours for decades, I think really. Every fall one of our professors picks up a topic and brings some of their teachings, some of their research in a Bible class, a weekly Bible class free and open to the public.

So this year, what I loved was, one of our theology professors, Dr. Kenneth Reed, picked up on some of the things we’ve been working on that I’ve talked about in the past in our spotlight. So as we’ve thought about the integration of faith and work and economics or injustice, as we’ve thought about whole-life discipleship and issues that flow out of that related to justice, we’ve made a number of different efforts to reflect on that. A few years ago, many of you might remember our Everyday Works curriculum that came out where we talked about faith and work and economics, and its implications for how we engage poverty and justice issues. And prior to this year, we did a series on justice and unity, reflecting theologically about issues related to justice and divisions in the church. And how can we sort of heal divisions within the church, especially along racial and ethnic lines and gender questions.

And then this year, what Dr. Reed has done is he’s been doing a series on Biblical Foundations for Justice, understanding what the Bible is teaching about justice. And so just a quick description that he wrote: “Our nation is facing an insurmountable crisis regarding social and racial justice. While many voices are proclaiming their views from sociological and political perspectives, both conservative and liberal, many are not appealing to scripture.” What he wanted to do with this series: “This series will survey the Bible’s teachings about public justice and seek to answer the question, what does the Bible teach about justice and how should Christians respond in light of it?” So, that’s been a series he’s been in the middle of, for the last number of weeks, and he had to do something new too, he had to go virtual. And so he’s been doing it through Zoom, I think, and had a number of people engaging with him.

None of these things, the formatting – having to go out virtually – none of it is ideal for, I think, any of us, but it’s been fun to see us continue to work on these kinds of topics and thinking about, what does whole life discipleship looked like, and how can we help pastors and ministry leaders engage these things? So, like I said, in addition to our integration and classwork, those are some of the sort of programmatic things that we’ve done this last year and saw some success and saw some real setbacks, which I know a lot of my colleagues at other schools are facing some of the same things.

I hope that’s a helpful spotlight. Greetings to all of you. Hope to see you again.

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