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Confessions of a Middle Aged Professor, Part 2

professors 2 Argument black and white smallIn my last post, I took an honest look at my early years as a biblical studies professor. I considered a handful of things I could have done better as I was developing as a biblical theologian and scholar and attempting to minister in a highly cultured context that I did not always understand, dealing with students who were often unprepared for the kinds of discussions I would involve them, and both administration and faculty members who were often ruffled by the decidedly scholarly approach I took in the classroom, challenging traditional thoughts about Scripture with too little regard for the impact that my nearly unfettered pursuit of RIGHT-ness had on my new environment. Today, I’d like to continue this confession, moving away from the personal and onto the institutional tensions are innate between trail blazers and place holders… two important tools in maintaining a healthy church who are often at each other’s throats.

What failures I suffered as a professor in relationship to administration and denominational culture may be ascribed in part to a personal struggle with these types of relationships as a whole, and in part to the natural tension between “institutional administration” and “scholarly pursuit.”

On a personal level, I was raised in a Charismatic church whose theological convictions were somewhat loose.  We held to foundational Evangelical doctrine and added to it a general insistence on the legitimacy of the “charismatic gifts,” but the details were often hazy.  The bulk of our ministers were uneducated and/or downright anti-academic. My parents possessed a stronger conviction of the necessity of scriptural knowledge and had better training in this regard than some, but I was still left in a perpetual state of striving against my environment in order to learn even the most basic things about hermeneutics, church history & theology. My desire for a deeper knowledge of Scripture marked me out for intimidation and ridicule. I left for Bible college to the sound of our church leaders’ scoffing. In my first Bible college, which had long since neglected their Pentecostal roots, preferring a more Charismatic flair, I was subjected to the same intimidation and ridicule for questioning or even wrestling with the things we were being taught; I tested them against Scripture and, to the rage of several of my poorly qualified professors, often found them wanting.

In childhood, I developed a “counter-cultural” demeanor.  I was an outspoken conservative Christian in a religiously hostile public school. I was small & bullied by my peers. I was also socially off-beat with an “odd” but vocal sense of humor. I learned to exist on the fringe of any group… of every group… with which I found myself associated. This is an easy pattern for me to maintain, even in the church.

As for the natural tension between scholar and administrative leader, I think it takes a good deal of maturity and perpetual effort to live out Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 12 concerning the importance of all the parts of the body. Many claim it, few truly feel it. The tendency is for one who is passionate in a task to fixate on his or her role as THE role and to either dismiss the importance of other roles or to be grateful on some minimal level that someone else takes care of them so one can get on with the important tasks. Few would articulate themselves in such terms, but if honest, most would recognize it.

For me, the tension is, in large measure, the tension between the role of the scholar and the role of the administrative leader.

  1. Pastors/denominational leaders and the like exist to preserve, to propagate.
  2. Scholars exist to discover, to re-define.
  3. Those who seek to sustain a tradition, to preserve and spread a way of life almost always view the “change agent” as a threat.
  4. The change agent almost always views the preserver as an obstacle, a gate-keeper. 
  5. The more rigid and particular the tradition being preserved is, the greater the tension one finds between its preservers and those seeking to investigate it, challenge it, reshape it and redefine it.
  6. The truth is, however, that without preservers, institutions of all forms lack stability & direction.
  7. So also, without change agents, institutions of all forms stagnate and die from within.
  8. There is a vital symbiosis between the administrative leader and the scholar in every institution, a symbiosis that is threatened by an overly aggressive stance by either functionary.

I am a scholar in truth. My whole bearing is to investigate and discover and educate. And so, it has been easy for me over the years to take the skills and gifts required to sustain institutions for granted. It was easy to be harsh with pastors for being weaker in the word than I was, easy to be critical of denominational leaders for being heavy handed champions of the past and for failing to ride the crest of the latest scholarship, easy to be impatient with all administrators for “compromising” for the sake of a more peaceable community.

Now, however, though my personality and inclinations for ministry have not changed, I have a more measured assessment of the importance of my own work (though no less excitement over it), have gained a deeper appreciation for those having ministerial gifts outside my own, and have greater patience with those who do not immediately fall into step when I share the things I have discovered in God’s Word.

Does recognizing all this about my past suggest that I have now found that perfect balance in my teaching that prevents “ruffling of students and other faculty”? No, and one would not want to exist in such a state as a teacher. What worth is a professor who does not provoke students and colleagues on some level? Passion is infectious, solid intellectual methods of interpretation are stimulating and good teaching is transforming. Scripture is the most influential piece of literature in the history of the human race. It’s words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. To teach it well brings fire to the soul. It is a double edged sword whose words penetrate deep into a person, transforming them. Transformation of the heart and mind is not a quiet unassuming process and debate is an essential part of intellectual growth.

Also, since I am a biblical theologian, it is often hard for people to grasp my categories. These categories do not even exist in most students’ minds. Few have mental slots to place and to assess a lot of my data. I have to go back to basics and help them create new mental categories before any serious conversation can take place. This is a painful process for many. I work at fundamental levels of developing methodologies and come around to validating foundational beliefs anew through those methodologies. I create new mental processes by which one’s theology is made his or her own, gained on one’s own through a proper study of Scripture… through faith filled questioning.  This can be a VERY painful process. But when I am done, I do not return heretics in exchange for the good Evangelical students I received, but return self-assured & stable Evangelical ministers for the “believe it because I was told to believe it” students I was sent. I certainly hope to set the dorms abuzzing, just like they buzzed when I was a student.

I do, however, seek with my whole heart to exercise more wisdom in the classroom, being more attentive to the learning level of my students, more conscious of their backgrounds, more sensitive to the painfulness of the processes through which I bring them. I try to be slower in my lectures (stop laughing, I am really trying), more patient in class discussions. I avoid embroiling less prepared students in my own theological ponderings, saving such methods for more mature students in more intimate mentorship situations. I stay closer to topic, holding a firmer grip on class dialogue. As before, I do everything in my power to help my students develop both cultural and global literacy, and both Christian and Biblical Literacy as I mentor them in those aspects of ministry that I might best influence. I also encouraging students to seek from other faculty members and administrators the mentorship that THEY might best influence.

While I have always sought to be friendly, I seek to do more to extend an easy and deliberate hand of friendship to all the faculty, being more pursuant of and open to criticism, more sensitive to the impact of well-intended but careless statements on my part that might unintentionally impact students’ attitudes toward their teaching. I am more responsive to hints of tension and disagreement.

I have a greater appreciation for the complexity of administrative leadership, and am less critical of those aspects of the ministry that fall short of past idealistic visions. I strive to be more sensitive to the particular theological concerns of denominations, and to learn more about what it means to be culturally and not just theologically part of a group.

I have gained a more measured assessment of my own part in God’s larger work in the world and history. I have learned to pursue, and not just hope for, peaceable community. I am slower and more patient. I like to think I am more gracious and forgiving, more understanding of other’s weaknesses and limitations. I am certainly more aware of my own.

I seek help in all these areas from those around me who have a more natural gift for preservation and heritage than I do.

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