This article is abridged from a talk presented at the 1998 Seminary Department Convention in Los Angeles and subsequently published in Seminary Journal 4 (Fall 1998). Reprinted with permission.
For most of my adult life I have thought of myself as a teacher of the Bible or a Bible scholar. But since 1986 I have been more or less in full-time administration at Catholic Theological Union. Looking back, I realize I have learned an awful lot about myself and about human nature. I also think it has had an effect on my soul.
From time to time we need to think about our work in language, symbols, and metaphors drawn directly from our Christian and biblical heritage—to do ourselves the kind of theological reflection that we expect of our students.
Allow me to choose three fundamental aspects of administrative service in the context of theological education, reflect on their spiritual dimensions, and offer a biblical and theological reflection on some of what I have found to be the most important and demanding aspects of administrative work.
The Body Crucified
Those in administrative leadership have to care for the institution as a whole, not just one part of it, but institutions are not abstract realities. Institutions are fairly mysterious and have a life of their own. Fundamentally, institutions are people organized for a certain purpose, equipped with a certain resources, and perhaps housed in a physical plant; but most evident of all, made up of people.
This is certainly true of seminaries and schools of theology. We have little else that matters except people: faculty, staff, students, trustees, donors, etc. When I became the administrator of CTU, I realized how complex and manifold this community of people really was. I knew my faculty colleagues well, but in most cases I knew little about the contributions or personal lives of the staff.
The work of the administrator is plunged into the public and communal dimensions of an institution, having to interact with all the groups and interests that make it up. Surely having to work with the community of people that forms an institution, people in all their glory and their shame, involves us in something that is close to the heart of the gospel. A school of theology is a coming-together of people of faith for the sake of the gospel, and the relationships that bind together that community of faith and learning can certainly be viewed as an embodiment of the Risen Christ in the midst of God’s people.
One can make a strong case that Paul has in mind the Christian community as the crucified and broken body of Christ. Whenever Paul speaks of his own body, he cites its “weakness”; it is an “earthen vessel,” a body that carries with it the death of Jesus (2 Cor 4:7, 10). Surely Paul’s own turbulent relationship to the Corinthian church reflects that perspective. By the time Paul arrives at chapter twelve, where he uses this provocative symbol, he has already addressed a host of ripe problems in the Corinthian church: bitter and rival factions, incest, sexual promiscuity, divorce and remarriage, chaos during the liturgy, to name a few. Thus when Paul applies the image of the body of Christ to the Corinthian church, he is not describing an ideal community but a real one, broken and crucified.
The gospels, too, portray Jesus and his teaching realistically anticipating the demanding work of reaching out for the strays and keeping everyone at the table when trying to fashion a Christian community. The good shepherd has to leave the wholesome flock and trek after the stray who is determined to go off on his own (Mt 18:12-14). One suspects that the stray had probably played this role a few times.
Community of the Disciples
What about the way all four gospels portray the community of the disciples? Jesus’s band is hardly ideal, displaying remarkable ignorance, ultimately denying, abandoning, and betraying Jesus in his hour of greatest need. The mood of the gospel story about the disciples is sadder but wiser; the community is at best reconstituted after monumental failure and weakness. Frankly, as an administrator, this portrayal of the disciples of Jesus is a comfort.
While for many Paul’s description of his confrontation with Peter in Antioch when, under criticism from some in the community, he withdrew from table fellowship with gentiles, seems bold and heroic support for the gospel of freedom, as an administrator I have begun to feel great sympathy for Peter. What was it like to have to mediate between, on the one hand, James the brother of the Lord and the circumcision party in Jerusalem, who were shocked to see gentiles entering the community without the restrictions of the Jewish law and, on the other, Paul of Tarsus, who wanted the gentiles to be completely free of the law? Perhaps later in his career Paul may have felt more sympathy for Peter when he, too, had to be the mediator and reconciler within his own communities.
In any case, the effort to serve the community as a whole, the energy it takes to be equitable and inclusive for the sake of the mission of the institution—such commitments, I believe, plunge us deep into the heart of the gospel and the life-giving ministry of Jesus.
Paul notes, perhaps somewhat wryly given his stormy relationship with the Christians of Corinth, “But remember as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18). Not as we choose, but as God chooses. That is the community we are given to serve and the community for which we are required to give our life force. By working within an academic community that prepares ministers for the church, I am actually building up the body of Christ—not an abstract body, but a real body, even a crucified and broken body. Being an administrator allows me on a daily basis to understand how real that body is, how it has a life of its own.
Journey to Jerusalem
If being in administration means striving to embrace and accept, as it is, the community God has given us, good administrative work also requires planning for the future of that community. Schools of theology and seminaries have to think about the evolving mission of the church, the kinds of conditions our students will face in the years ahead, and how best we can prepare them now for the future they are likely to see.
Jesus’s entire ministry was a proclamation of God’s coming reign and the call to live now in the light of that experience. The Beatitudes become a powerful expression of that future vision. So, too, do Jesus’s parables of the kingdom.
Institutional planning, like anticipation of the reign of God, is not ideal speculation. To move an institution and its resources towards the future required by its mission takes great effort and is one of the most demanding administrative responsibilities. I have found myself reading Luke in a new way. Luke wants to demonstrate to his readers how the life and mission of the church emerged from the past history of Israel and the mission of Jesus himself. Jerusalem, in the setting of Luke’s overall narrative, becomes both the end point of Jesus’s earthly mission and the starting point for the mission of the community.
So Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem. The very words reflect the determination, the discipline, and the fidelity needed for Jesus to complete his mission. Jesus’s teaching at this point in the gospel drives that lesson home. Would-be disciples are warned not to look back or to turn their heads to other concerns. Jesus’s parables are likewise sober on this point of preparing for the future. Would a king confront an opponent without first seeing if he has the resources to face his enemy (Lk 14:31-33)? Would someone intending to build a tower not first sit down and estimate the cost (Lk 14:28-30)? The disciples are to think of what it takes to carry out their mission and ensure that they have the commitment to do so. To this extent, the work of planning and the discipline needed to bring the whole community’s attention to that task is an exercise of Christian hope and Christian responsibility for the future.
Some of the most difficult and most life-giving realities for me and for the institution I serve have been unplanned and often unwelcome. As an administrator, I never know what is coming through the door next—an unexpected personnel problem; a pressing financial crisis; a burst steampipe and a big repair bill. The unwelcome realities are sometimes simply unanticipated circumstances that throw us and our carefully laid plans off track.
From a deeper Christian perspective such experiences can also be seen as moments of grace. Here, too, the biblical precedents are illuminating. One of my favorite passages is the story of Peter and his meeting with Cornelius, as Luke presents it in Acts 10. Peter, the devout Jewish Christian, has a dream in which a large sheet filled with all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds is lowered towards him and a voice from heaven tells him to “take and eat.” Peter, good Jew that he was, refuses, since he has never eaten anything “unclean” in all his life, but the heavenly voice admonishes him: “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” Just at that moment, messengers arrive from Cornelius, a Roman centurion and an “unclean” gentile if ever there was one. Cornelius desires to be baptized and has summoned Peter for that purpose.
Peter travels to the seat of Roman authority. After hearing Cornelius’s request for baptism, Peter launches into a long theological discourse, but before he can finish, the Spirit descends on Cornelius and his entire family. Peter is overwhelmed and exclaims, “I begin to see that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God”—a pastoral principle that is still courageous.
In fact, the whole story of the Jerusalem apostles is one of constant surprise as the Spirit outruns the church and confounds its expectations. So much of the Bible is that way—God at work in discontinuity; God’s presence found in unexpected people and in unexpected circumstances. Even Jesus himself seems to experience this in his encounter with the Canaanite woman (see Mt. 14:21-28), when his initial refusal even to speak to this gentile finally yields before the unrelenting assault of her faith. The fixed expectations of a traditional “Israel first” theology have to give way to the unexpected and apparently unwelcome determination of the Canaanite woman. The entire biblical saga reminds us that the Spirit of God roams the world and works through events and people we might never anticipate.
Israel’s story is an amazing catalogue of how events that seem random and hardly sacred shape the movement of God’s people through history. Slavery and oppression from an Egyptian despot set the stage for the Exodus, and when the promised land is reached, Israel is in turn shaped by so-called pagan culture, adapting the language, architecture, and even the religious rituals of the Canaanites. Absorption of Middle Eastern monarchy and law codes gives Israel a structural framework—a secular experience that ultimately gives us even the language for our Messianic hopes. Christianity breaks out of the confines of Palestinian Judaism, not only because of the inherently centrifugal dynamics of the gospel, but also because the Jewish revolt and brutal Roman suppression of it would change both Judaism and Jewish Christianity forever.
We know this story continues. The shape that priesthood and church will take in the future will be influenced just as much by the shifting platelets of culture as they will by our discussions, documents, and good faith efforts. Are these the accidents of history, the tyrannies of fate, or is the Spirit of God at work?
The Bible views the world as an interface of chaos and order. Within that schema, the administrative role is to bring order, predictability, and due process to the life of a community. Yet for order to serve its place, there has to be room for chaos: for the unexpected, for the new and unanticipated. It does take spiritual discipline, a spiritual detachment, to allow room for God’s prophetic spirit to shake our ordered securities. By being attentive enough to search for the stirrings of God’s Spirit in unexpected and even unwelcome realities, we also find the strength and imagination to adjust and seek new life.
The Long Obedience
In a recent article discussing what theological schools would need to sustain their missions in the face of the demands of the future, Craig Dykstra, vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, used the enticing phrase, “long obedience in the same direction.” When the post-Easter community gathers to choose a replacement for Judas, Peter’s criterion is of one who has walked faithfully with Jesus from the beginning in Galilee. The long obedience. Those of us in administrative service must be especially aware of the importance of perseverance and obedience and foster them in ourselves.
I am always struck by the large statue of Paul the apostle that stands in the beautiful atrium of the Roman Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. The statue is heroic in proportions, but the apostle seems to be weary. The sword of God’s word, an artistic symbol that often adorns images of Paul, is firmly grasped, but it lies on his shoulder with a certain weary air. There is great and fierce strength in this man, but he seems to have suffered much and is bone-tired. The statue, I think, captures something authentic about Paul. He had great plans, but things did not happen the way he hoped.
All his Christian life Paul was an object of suspicion. For most of his ministry he was stalked by truth squads, suffering enormously from his own church members, the pillars. Ever think of Paul’s lament in 2 Cor 11:22-29 in this vein?
The effort to serve the community as a whole, the energy it takes to be equitable and inclusive for the sake of the mission of the institution—such commitments plunge us deep into the heart of the gospel and the life-giving ministry of Jesus.
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.... And besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor 11:22-29).
Yet, despite a life of struggle to shape communities and to keep their Christian vision robust, Paul never gave up. The fire may have been banked a bit, but never quenched. Paul, in effect, demonstrated what “long obedience” really meant. His soaring sense of Christian hope breaks out in Romans 8:35-39: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Here, in Paul’s conviction that the Spirit was at work even in the groans and sufferings of the world and would ultimately triumph, is both a theological vision and a Christian example for anyone weary of long obedience in the midst of their discipleship, and here, perhaps, is the balm of Gilead for those called to the service of administration.