Sunday, September 29, 2013

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Michael A. King (Part 1)

Challenges to Religious Formation in an ever-changing World

Part One/Part Two

Michael A. King, has been dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and Vice President, Eastern Mennonite University, since July 1, 2010. He has long been an editor and publisher, first through Herald Press (Scottdale, PA, 1989-1997) and then more recently as owner and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC (Telford, PA, 1997-). He has been pastor in diverse congregational settings, ranging from Germantown Mennonite Church (Philadelphia, PA, 1982-1989), Spring Mount (PA) Mennonite Church (1997-2008), and more. As author and publisher, King addresses theology and culture, including implications of postmodernity and the “emerging church” movement. King is co-editor of Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse (Cascadia, 2009), editor of Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Cascadia, 2007), and co-editor of Anabaptist Preaching: A Conversation Between Pulpit, Pew, and Bible (Cascadia, 2004). He is author of Trackless Wastes and Stars to Steer By: Christian Identity in a Homeless Age (Herald, 1990, which emergent leader Brian McLaren has said began to address emergent issues 10 years before McLaren), Fractured Dance: Gadamer and Mennonite Conversation On Homosexuality, C. Henry Smith series, vol. 3 (Pandora U.S., 2001), many articles in a wide variety of magazines and journals, including Christian Century. He is co-author (with Ron Sider), of Preaching about Life in a Threatening World (Westminster, 1997).

Yago: Michael, you are very much welcome to this blog where we are engage in deconstructing and transforming the energies that keep enslaving today’s world. In this interview we would like to deal with the challenges religious formation is facing in today’s ever changing world. We are concern with the quality of training given to future Pastors and lay Christian leaders. You have been Pastor in diverse congregational settings and edited and written many books. You are currently the dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Vice President of Eastern Mennonite University. In this interview we would like to be enriched by your experience on leadership in the pastoral and academic realms. Your contribution will be of great help in our endeavor to be truly Christ-like in today’s challenging world.

First of all, we would like to know more about your own background.  You grew up in Cuba and Mexico as son of missionary parents, you experienced multiple cultures and faith understandings. Could you share with us how your early life has been influencing your on-going understanding between culture and faith?

Michael: Yago, many thanks for the warm welcome to the blog. When I set up my Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) employee page I was concerned to address precisely the type of question you raise here, so I’ll quote from my page, which can be seen in full at the following (link). 

Growing up in Cuba and Mexico as son of missionary parents, King experienced multiple cultures and faith understandings. He learned to cherish the Anabaptist-Mennonite commitment to faithfully follow Jesus while wondering what alternate convictions another tradition might have shaped in him. Immersion in Christian thought and life at a time his Mennonite community forbade watching TV even as he gulped down secular books and novels made him wonder what was real and true and good amid competing perspectives. He also wrestled with the gap between Christians’ talk and walk. As a result, into early adulthood King came to question the existence of God and the validity of Christianity even while craving the divine. Often feeling at the margins, unsure to which culture he fully belonged, bred in him compassion for others marginalized by life circumstances or unjust structures.

Then after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University in 1976, marrying my wife Joan, whom I met at EMU, contributed to my ponderings of multiple cultures or subcultures. Joan was from an American Baptist background, had been influenced by the charismatic renewal movement during her teen years, and in contrast to my roots in a historic peace church who had registered as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, she had been shaped in an extended family within which military service was common. We then together moved to Philadelphia in 1979, for me to go attend Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary and she to begin a career working as a nurse in urban hospitals and later a visiting nurse in some of the most poverty-and-pain-ridden areas of Philadelphia before in recent years working as a family therapist and a consultant to mental and behavioral health programs.

We had intentionally chosen an urban setting and continued to invest in learning about and living within urban dynamics after I graduated from seminary and we moved to the Germantown area of Philadelphia. Living in a largely African-American neighborhood made us more aware of our whiteness and gave us at least a taste of what it can feel like to live as members of a minority community—even as we retained many of the privileges conferred on whites in our wider U.S. culture.

This range of exposures, from interpersonal through urban multi-cultural through personal, to a diversity of cultural and sub-cultural factors fed my conviction that faith and context inextricably shape each other. It has also nurtured my passion for seminary to be a context within which we together learn about intercultural intelligences and competencies within our ever more diverse world. This has contributed to my passion to hire new EMS faculty members on the merits—but from as diverse an applicant pool as we can encourage to apply.

Yago:  Michael, you went through difficult times wrestling with the gap between Christian’s talk and walk. As a result, into early adulthood you came to question the existence of God and the validity of Christianity. What did you learn from that experience? How did you rediscovered your Christian faith?

Michael: First, Yago, let me quote again from my personnel page, then I’ll elaborate.

Although refined and chastened by life journeying, experience as pastor and publisher, academic training, and turning toward a faith in Christ enlarged by doubts and questions, lessons from King’s background continue to nurture his passions at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. There he is articulating such themes as "treasures of not being sure,” “transforming the shadows,” and “using power for the less powerful.”

Years of wrestling, as you might imagine, lie behind that paragraph. To be quite brief about matters one could write books about, I’d highlight that key to my moving beyond doubt was not intellectual assurance but my version of Pascal’s wager. I concluded I’d be better off allowing my life to be shaped by betting on God and faith and being wrong than by betting against God and faith and being wrong. The key way I lived the bet was to follow Jesus. Over the years, the bet became self-confirming.

I still don’t believe that we can have failsafe proof that God exists or that given faith claims are unquestionably valid. We each will tend to look for the evidence that confirms are choices and beliefs and to bypass or downplay the evidence that might disconfirm it. Still the more I live toward God through my walk with Jesus the more I trust that some sort of reality underlies what I then experience.

Yago: Michael, could you share with us how did you experience your call to be pastor?

Michael: Yago, my call was somewhat backward, in that I went to seminary with the conviction that I wanted only to explore issues of faith and meaning and specifically did not want to become a pastor as a result of seminary training. I had too many questions about the church and its leaders to want to become formally involved in helping to lead the church myself.

However, as I reached my final year in seminary, one factor was that perennial one: How will I earn a living? I had tried various short-term options between college and seminary, including house painting, factory assembly line work, and writing and selling radio ads. To this day I appreciate the skills I learned in those jobs, but as the time came to find work beyond seminary, I found I wanted to do something different,. Despite my misgivings I found myself drawn after all to explore whether I could somehow be true to my faith journey and involved in serving the church.

That led to my exploring the option of planting a church in West Philadelphia, and in fact that church was eventually planted, by David and Anita Greiser and others, and is now West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. But the night before Joan and I were intending to say yes to the committee overseeing the church planting assignment, I dreamed that I was throwing Joan and our first daughter, infant Kristy, over a waterfall. In the dream I watched them fall with an abnormal lack of concern, and I heard a dream voice saying, “That’s what you’ll be doing to them if you take on this church planting role.” The dream so powerfully affected me that after Joan and I talked it over, we told a startled committee we felt we needed to turn down the assignment.

But a member of the committee was Roman Miller, on the pastoral team and Germantown Mennonite Church, and when he heard this response he told us he thought God was speaking about a different option. He and his wife Marianna invited us to a brainstorming dinner at their house, and the result was eventually to be my being called to my first pastorate at Germantown Mennonite Church.

So the call was a mix of circumstances and inner processing that finally took me from resistance to pastoring to at least exploring whether it suited me.

Yago: Michael, thanks for sharing this meaningful event in your life. It is an invitation to take seriously the symbolic content of our dreams. Now, what were the main challenges you faced during your Christian ministry?

Michael: I became a pastor at age 27 in a congregation which had for a generation or so been strongly committed to “priesthood of believers” congregational polity. This was understood to mean that pastoral leaders should come from within the congregation, might well be laypersons rather than ordained, and that the Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings from within which this approach emerged pulled against viewing pastors as paid professionals or set-aside leaders

Because the congregation had dwindled to some 25 members, the congregation eventually concluded it was time to try returning to a paid pastor model though there was not full consensus that this was the best way to go. I became the first paid professional pastor of that era.

Meanwhile I myself, influenced by 1960-1970s anti-authoritarianism and my own faith questions, wished to minimize the professional trappings of the pastorate even as I needed somehow to do more than simply replicate the lay leadership modes of authority or lack thereof which were proving not fully functional in the congregation.

Adding complexity, as word got around that a new young pastor was leading the congregation, many younger Mennonites from throughout the Philadelphia area who felt themselves in some exile from their roots (much as I had at times been due to my faith questions) began to attend the congregation. The more of them attended, the more were attracted to attend, and within a few years the congregation had grown to over 100 participants, often with their own doubts about authority figures or professional pastors.

Amid the complexities of that context, over the seven years I was pastor in that setting I made plenty of mistakes. I needed to learn, I believe, how to wear a pastoral mantle. I couldn’t just be one more member of the congregation, a friend to all. That wasn’t humanly possible or healthy for me or the congregation. I needed to learn how to live meaningfully within my pastoral roles, not simply minimize or reject it, yet I needed also to learn how to wear the role mantles lightly and humanely.

In another semi-rural congregation I pastored for 11 years into 2008, the issues were quite different. That congregation was down to 35 members and at risk of dying as many of its younger members had moved away or key older leaders had die amid a rash of tragic illnesses. The congregation, largely made up of more traditional Mennonites, needed to learn how to attract community participants who had not been Mennonite or face likely death. There I experienced more fully the power of being actively asked to wear the pastoral mantle, as in that context my ministry included more traditional activities, such as hospital visitations and funerals, than had been common when I was pastoring a congregation made up largely of younger participants.

By the time I left, the congregation was perhaps semi-stable with attendance often in the 50s and over half of the participants often from broader community rather than Mennonite backgrounds. To reach that point, we needed to do deep wrestling with ways Anabaptist-Mennonite values could be meaningful to persons not raised in the tradition. That meant learning which of our beliefs and practices were non-negotiable essentials of Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings and which were “clothes” of local context or cultural background which could be exchanged for other clothing without violating the underlying body.

For instance, though a majority but not all in the congregation would have agreed, I saw pacifism as an essential. But even as I’m personally quite committed to a view of believers or adult baptism according to to which persons baptized become members of and accountable to their baptizing congregation, when several teenagers wanted to be baptized without joining the congregation, after careful consultation with the larger regional denominational body to which I was accountable as pastor, I did baptize them without insisting on congregational membership.

We did much of this learning at the feet of the Apostle Paul, who had to engage with similar issues as the early church wrestled with what it meant that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile.”

Yago: Michael, thanks for sharing with us your life experience as a pastor. Now, let us talk about the challenges our Christian faith faces in today's world. Our understanding of reality is changing drastically. Robb Smith, in his TED talk “The Transformational Life,” invites us to grow in discernment, mindfulness, humility, sustainability and empathy. These transformational practices are essential if we want to thrive in the complex world we all now inhabit. What can you say on his proposal? What is required so to be more equipped to adapt to today’s world without losing the very essence of our Christian faith?

Michael: Here I’d largely reference one of three “dean’s leadership themes” I’ve used for three years as guides to core values or principles I want to emphasize when leading EMS. One of those themes, “treasures of not being sure,” I’ve described like this:

Amid today’s divisions and polarizations in culture as well as church, seeking to be a community marked by the reconciling power and peace of Christ. This includes fostering an intellectual posture of “humble learning” contributing to a relational and learning community able to model ways of managing divisions that allow community participants to see each other’s different emphases less as enemy positions to be defeated and more as partial understandings of God’s truths to be woven by the Holy Spirit into treasures benefiting the entire community. Modeling peace in the seminary community can form a basis for sharing peace with an entire world in need of peacemaking rooted in the teachings of Jesus and shaped by an Anabaptist hermeneutic of taking seriously Jesus’ commands to love enemies and do good to those who persecute us (Eccl. 3:11; Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 10:27, 1 Cor. 13, 1 Cor. 13:12;  Gal. 5:6; 1 John 4:12-18).

I see my comments in the above paragraph as strongly connected with Robb Smith’s emphases on “discernment, mindfulness, humility, sustainability and empathy.” I find inspiration for such an understanding in the classic statement of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 that then, face to face with God, we will see clearly, but now we see only dimly, as if through a mirror, and so know only in part. That calls us to live and think humbly, in awareness that absolute certainty is likely a mirage, and that in fact we need each other’s treasures of insight, since none of us knows all—but our given part-knowledge when pooled can empower communal discernment of truth, knowledge, right living.

Sustainability often these days entails the sustainability of our relational patterns with the earth itself, and I’d see connections here with humility. As Lynn White proposed decades ago now, in a 1967 Science article on “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” one can argue that some interpretations of Genesis as giving humans “dominion” over the earth have been wrongly disconnected from other biblical emphases on “the earth as the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Thus even as the Bible offers resources for humble and sustainable relationships with the earth, it has also been misused to justify Western capitalistic “dominion” practices of control over rather than humble living within the earth’s resources and glories and fullnesses. This is unsustainable.

I won’t begin to try to sort out the complexities this leads us into except to suspect that given the dominance of globalized capitalistic practices, a key way we may achieve some sort of meaningful humble sustainability is to turn a capitalism of the future against the capitalism of the past by ensuring that our use and misuse of resources is priced into our capitalistic practices.

If the true cost to the environment of our resource extraction and consumption were priced in, we would at least incentivize ourselves to begin to move toward sustainability, because then we could see the terribly high price of what we’re doing rather than bracket that price out when we buy our consumer items and our energy streams.

With the very fate of our ability to continue to live peaceably on the earth threatened by climate change, I suspect one of the most powerful responses we could implement—and doable, if only we had the will—would be a carbon tax.

Yago: In 2009 you co-edited a book called Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better ways for Christians and Culture to Converse. You challenge and reject both Christian withdrawal from and confrontational approaches to culture. You are calling for engaging others by coming alongside them, building relationships of trust through which to seek mutual treasure. How can we authentically engage today’s global culture?

Michael: Yago, in that book a host of chapter authors wrote about this. I wouldn’t claim to have an adequate answer to such a large question writing primarily on my own behalf. I do think we need to bring multiple perspectives to bear in answering the question. But I’d offer a few thoughts.

One would be to clarify that though I doubt the effectiveness of stridently confrontational approaches to culture—particularly today as confrontation is virtually the oxygen we breathe or the money we spend to gain attention through our blogs, Facebook pages, or Twitter posts, which sometimes seems to do little but leave us with air fogged with outrage.

That doesn’t mean I see nothing to criticize. I worry greatly that, to echo Foucault, we live in a global “power-knowledge” nexus driven by wealth, power, status, popularity within which the wealthy and powerful exploit for their own benefit the world’s natural and human resources. Whatever generates more of any of these ingredients tends increasingly to shape what we consider real or true or right.

I see such forces as making it difficult for us in fact to come alongside others. Thus the very hope to come alongside may require some prophetic critique of the underlying factors that may impose on us certain preunderstandings of life, reality, truth itself before we even have a chance to begin to think.

Nevertheless, to the extent that, even within the obstacles, we are able to experience a zone within which mutual understanding can flourish, when we disagree I do see it as vital to view each other’s perspectives not simply as objects in win-lose battles in which I seek the victory of my viewpoint over yours. Rather, we need to see alternate viewpoints as potential sources of mutual treasure.

This relates to my earlier comments on humility and knowing in part—if we know in full, then of course we may wish to impose our “in full,” God’s-eye view on everyone else. But if we know only in part, then we need the nuggets of treasure potentially inherent even in perspectives we may be tempted to smash.

Yago: You are also the author of “Trackless Wastes and Starts to Steer by: Christian Identity in a Homeless age.”  In this book you reflect again on the challenges the “postmodern” world poses to our Christian faith. Many Christians live in a homeless age as exiles lost between the traditional religious homes and whatever homes will replace them. Christians respond in different ways, the two extremes are what you call the separatist and the translationist. You weld these two approaches into a third way. Could you explain to us your alternative behind “the third way”? How do you envision our Christian engagement in today’s world?

Michael: When I wrote Trackless Wastes in the late 1980s I was still actively remembering my own childhood in a “separatist” Mennonite church context within which I was taught that Mennonites probably had the best understandings of “God’s one true way.” Hence we should seek to maintain the purity of God’s way by remaining separate from the “world’s”—the larger culture’s—tainting and corrupting and mistaken ways.

Meanwhile I had seen one alternative as liberalism in its various forms, including through flexible accommodation to the larger culture rather than fierce withdrawal from it. That tendency was what I was summarizing with the “translationist” description.

I doubt I was doing anything greatly original by calling for a third way; many have sought some sort of mediating alternative to the poles Jesus himself seems to point to in his invitation for us to live “in but not of the world.” Some 30 years after writing Trackless Wastes, I probably have less faith that I know what precisely the third way is.

But I still see value in the quest to be connected to culture and larger world on the one hand, within an understanding that God as creator of the earth and its fullnesses is present in that world, and on the other hand to keep ever in view the need for critique and even prophetic denunciation of ways the world falls short of God’s dream for creation.

Thus I continue to treasure the separate-from-the-world’s-strategies mindset my parents and Mennonite community bred in me through various teachings. These included that God’s laws are above human laws, so there may come a time, for example, for me to proclaim loyalty to God over nation.

That was why I was taught not to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States, which left me in anguish sometimes as a young person trying to fit in when I tried not to call attention to my silence when the time for pledging came.

The intent was not disrespect of or disloyalty to country; I see much to cherish in the United States, including many precepts of our Constitution which call us to forms of justice we frequently fail to live out yet are worth calling ourselves to. Rather, the intent was to remember that we are always most primally citizens not of our earthly nations but of that heavenly country toward which, as Hebrews 11 so movingly pictures it, we ever travel and for which we ever yearn.

That was why I was taught that love of enemies means Christians don’t kill people, with all the personal and political ripple effects that can have.

Yago: Michael, let us explore now some challenges seminary formation faces in today's post-modern world. We are living in an age of information. Internet connects across time zones and cultures. Daniel Pink describes today’s age as the Conceptual Age. Diarmuid O’Murchu says that “millions readily access information on a whole range of different subjects; this can be both empowering and also overwhelming. And the information channels target new ways for connecting, relating, participating, and collaborating in endeavors of different types.” How does the reality of internet and access to all kind of information challenge the formation of the seminarians?

Michael: We’re still in relatively early stages of grasping how the Internet and access to all kinds of information challenges the formation of seminarians. But it’s important to wrestle with the questions. In an EMS chapel address, I noted that before the Enlightenment, people were often less self-reflective. The world just was what it was. The Enlightenment taught us that we can stand apart from how we first see the world as being. We can go beyond dwelling uncritically within inherited realities and knowledges. We can observe that those of us embedded in Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or various Christian traditions start out experiencing our world as The World. But the Enlightenment began to force us to see that many worlds can be experienced as The World.

Then in recent generations, intensifying pluralism, globalism, and cross-cultural engagements have only heightened our awareness of how many worlds have been experienced as The World. The Internet has explosively and exponentially intensified this awareness. We can with a few flicks of keyboards roam the globe entering and experiencing a dizzying range of worldviews.

While I was writing this I stumbled across a pertinent quote from Os Guiness in Christianity Today: “Many conservatives misunderstand and then twist the term ‘diversity.’ Diversity is simply a social fact. We are in a world where it is now said, because of the media, easy travel, and migration, that ‘everyone is now everywhere.’ What is dangerous is not diversity per se, but relativism—the claim that there is no such thing as truth.” 

I’d see Guiness as correct in highlight diversity as a social fact—and also that this social fact is affecting our relationship with truth. My thesis is furthermore that this is making it ever more difficult for us to avoid facing the difference between The World and a world experienced as The World. Increasingly this breaks the spell of any conviction we may hold that our world is The World. This can open us excitingly and enrichingly to insights from worlds beyond our original one. It also requires us to learn new ways of holding passionately to our own convictions and understandings even as recognize how many alternate ways of viewing things are available to humans.

Again the pressing need for humility becomes evident. Perhaps as never before in human history, the Internet confronts us with the reality that we do know only in part. We can respond by discrediting and separating ourselves from all the other parts and insisting once more that our part is the whole. But I hope what we help seminarians learn is that we dare commit to the part we do know while trusting that God, who holds the only God’s eye view there is, can help each of our “in parts” contribute to drawing us fallibly yet meaningfully closer to the fullness of God’s truth.

Yago: In this new landscape networking is emerging as the way humanity wants to share power. It is an invitation to create fluid structures in our Churches. How does this new reality challenge a hierarchical understanding of leadership?

Michael: Yago, I agree with your comments on networking. At the same time, I was invited to comment on power dynamics at the seminary for an analysis Laura Amstutz, EMS Director of Admissions, was doing in a course, and that project kept in view for me that as a seminary dean I operate within power arrangements that mix both network-centric and hierarchical modes. Although organizational life tends to be more hierarchical than many church structures, particularly congregational (at least in Mennonite polity) often are, my guess is that we will long continue to operate within a mix of network and hierarchical modes. So let me comment within that expectation and draw on learnings from seminary life I also shared with Laura.

I believe every member of an organization, including students—or employees, or congregants—has power. I’m influenced by Michel Foucault’s view of power, in which power flows across power/knowledge networks, not only hierarchically, is neither entirely stable nor predictable, and when imposed by structures can be resisted by individuals.

Michael Foucault (1926-1984)
For instance, in Foucault Live: Interviews, 1961-1984 (Semiotext(e), 1996, p. 441), Focault memorably says this: “For example, the fact that I am older than you and that you may initially have been intimidated may be turned around during the course of our conversation, and I may end up being intimidated before someone precisely because he is younger than I am. These power relations are thus mobile, reversible and unstable.”

I’m also influenced by systems theories, in which every individual’s actions within a system will have some systemic ripple effects.

Both Foucauldian and systems views strike me as suggesting that all persons and groupings at EMS or in other church contexts do hold power, whether or not they recognize it. However, at EMU and EMS there are also hierarchical forms of power. Persons report up levels of hierarchy. Any supervisor of a direct report has some power over that person, and this power works its way up and down level by level. I have power over my reports and in turn the EMU provost to whom I report has power over me. The president has power over the provost. The EMU board has power over the president.

Again, however, power is more than hierarchically disseminated at EMS. For instance, if I regularly use the positional power of hierarchy to impose my will—which the EMU/EMS system gives me at least some latitude to do—but minimize earning relational power through highlighting and nurturing collaborative initiatives to which other EMS stakeholders have contributed or helped shape, I will likely often sabotage my positional power. I will create blowback, generating outcomes only reluctantly adopted by stakeholders or sometimes actively resisted.

In more network-centric contexts, the issues of relational power are foregrounded, and indeed with you I see the world as increasingly trending toward forms of power that are earned within networked relationships rather than to a significant extent structured within pre-determined hierarchical arrangements.

Yago: In a patriarchal society power has been used to disempower more than to empower. You have the vision of using power not to aggrandize the powerful but to uplift  ‘the least of these.’ What are the risks that our Pastors face in our Churches related to use of power? How do you envision seminary training so to prevent the risk of dysfunctional use of power?

Michael: Amid the tendencies we’ve discussed for networked power to begin to supplant hierarchical power, pastors still will often find themselves granted some blend of hierarchical or at least positional power. In addition, they will often experience the power conferred when congregants project on them various priestly images or hopes.

The pastor will thus often function within the midst of high voltages related to the divine. If not careful, a pastor may confuse or conflate his or her personal power with God’s, which can set the stage for dramatic inflation.

We need to train pastors to understand the many forms of projection and confusion of their human powers with God’s they are likely to face and to help them recognize that in the midst of the temptations and complexities this can pose for them, they remain frail and fallible human beings, not the near-mythic figures projections may sometimes tempt them to experience themselves as being.

On the other hand, amid major questions these days as to the viability and value of traditional church structures and offices, pastors can also face the contrasting dynamic of experiencing their roles as unclear, under-valued, or actively disempowering. They need training to recognize the power they hold even in ambiguous circumstances and to find peers and mentors to help them maintain healthy self-understandings even when structural factors may at times undercut their experiences of power or self-worth.

Nevertheless, I do believe that all pastors have power, in one form or another, and a key move they and we are called to make is both to name the power we do have and then to make decisions about how we will use that power. If we use the power to reaffirm cultural narratives that lead more toward death than toward life, including elevating the powerful over the less powerful, we have squandered and even destructively used our power. If we use the power to elevate and highlight narratives that are life-giving (of the sort you describe as “from below”) then we are spending it more wisely—even as we must ever remember that every use of power can be mistaken, corrupted, or corrupting.

Power can also, it’s essential to note, lead to sexual exploitation and abuse. The “problematizing of the body”  is a key concern; at the same time, the older I grow and the more I confront the brokenness in my self and in others, the clearer it becomes to me, as it has to so many in the church in recent decades, that relations inherently entailing power imbalance, such as supervisor/supervisee, pastor/congregant, parent/child, professor/student and more, create zones within which maintaining boundaries is the essential priority.

Sara Wenger Shenk, who was associate dean at EMS and then in 2010 the interim dean who actually trained me in the early phases of my work as a new dean, has been doing insightful and valuable thinking about this in her current role as president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. For example, in a blog entry she asks, “How do we have a richer conversation about power—abuse of power, yes, but also nurturing power, power for justice, power for good? How can men and women each acknowledge the power they wield and commit to work collaboratively for the well-being of our communities?” She also asks important questions about how patriarchal tendencies in society and church contribute to shaping understandings and use of power enabling abuse.

Yago: I believe that God’s mission unveils “from below”, through embodiment. So our formation programs must equip us to take the path of descent. This is the path of transformation. As Richard Rohr says “darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.” I would suggest that our formation programs seek to equip the seminarians with the skills of how to dialogue with today’s world as s/he carries in “vessels of clay” the treasure of his/her deepest humanity. This is a clear counter-script to the one presented in today’s society. How do we design programs of formation where the path of descent is value as the primary teacher?

Michael: There are key questions here with which I strongly resonate. Although a book could be written in response, I’ll offer one main simple thought: I see EMS as a whole as sensitive to the treasure Henri Nouwen offered us when he highlighted the image of the “wounded healer” in his book by that name. Nouwen, Rohr (as he helps us understand “falling upwards"), and many others offer rich guidance in shifting from the cultural invitation to focus on gaining money, prestige, and power to the upside-down gospel recognition that blessed are the wounded, weak, hurting, powerless, afflicted.

When are students graduate, they often tell the stories of what brought them to seminary and what happened to them  during a graduation weekend brunch. Again and again they speak of arriving lost, wounded, troubled, conflicted. Then they repeatedly tell of finding themselves not through rejecting their frailties and fallibilities but through having them reformed into resources.

Yago: We all carry unprocessed energies in our bodies (different intensity levels of trauma). A “top-down” approach to formation reinforces paralyzing energies such as guilt, remorse, shame, etc. Religious formation “from below” invites us to be creative in dealing with our areas of growth. The concept of Post-traumatic growth becomes very important on this regard. Peter Levine says that “trauma has the potential to be one of the most significant forces for psychological, social, and spiritual awakening and evolution.” Do you believe that “trauma awareness” is an important tool for religious formation? What is being done on this regard at the seminary?

Michael: Yago, I appreciate and resonate with your perspectives here including the thinking of Levine but will comment very briefly so as not to claim to know more than I do! I would primarily note that we do seek to provide trauma awareness in our seminary formation work, both in formation classes and through several professors who are particularly versed in trauma studies.

Link to Part Two >>