Someone told me once of a provision in the Rule of St. Benedict that when the monks of a community gather to review their activities the most junior of the brothers are to speak first. I tried to find the provision once in a copy of the Rule that had come my way but couldn’t; however, the principle involved has great value to decision-making bodies like governing boards, whether it is genuinely Benedictine in origin or not.
Juniors should speak before their elders so their fresh insights and perspectives can be brought to the table free of the recasting and polishing that might occur if the juniors knew in advance the views on the matter held by their seniors.
This idea, of course, flies in the face of more widely held notions like: Newcomers should remain silent until they understand the culture of their new surroundings. Or: Children should be seen, not heard.
Those precepts make life together less annoying. They don’t necessarily encourage bold new thinking.
In the world of North American theological education, where half or more the schools are in a fragile condition financially—and perhaps in terms of morale as well—bold new thinking is among the best things a school can have going for it. The members of the school community in the best position to be its bold thinkers are the members of the governing board and, if the board members are ready to be of encouragement and support, the chief executive.
The church is changing with extraordinary rapidity, whichever manifestation of it provides your spiritual home, but all too often the church’s leaders and authorities are ignoring the phenomenon in favor of defending the status quo.
In a section of his conversation that does not appear in the article "Questing for Excellence" in this issue of In Trust, Vincent Cushing said: “The American Catholic church is experiencing a few things that are not taken into account by officials. First of all, the ministry is changing in front of our eyes, in terms of those who are practicing it, and we’re not taking that into serious account. Secondly, the issue of who are the theologians of the church has already become that they are lay people. There is no lack of Roman Catholic thinkers and theologians and sophisticated interpreters of the Catholic tradition but almost none of them are being ordained.”
To my eye this phenomenon of the rise of the laity is affecting a wider swath of Christendom than simply Roman Catholicism.
All across the sweep of the denominations, lay people, informed lay people, are speaking up for themselves on behalf of the church, and not waiting for the preacher’s guidance.
What does this say to the theological school and its role?
I don’t, I can’t, know the answer for your school, but it does suggest that in many denominations increasing numbers of lay people are going to be seeking theological education not to become ordained but to be better informed lay disciples and ministers. Is that happening in your constituency? Are your school and your curriculum configured to welcome them in, or will these seekers of learning turn to other schools better positioned to meet their needs?
What do the new, presumably younger, members of your board think about this?
This may not be the bold question you need to ask. But think hard before settling down—to quote Cushing again—“to polishing the ecclesiastical silver while the world is rushing on and we’re not looking out the window to see what’s going on.”