The rhythms of life at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary are rooted in a vision of the gospel that is biblically holistic, prophetic, formational and deeply practical. Within our shared theological framework, we seek to hold space for difference – theological, cultural, ethnic, gender and otherwise – so that we can experience the richness of the body of Christ. These rhythms lead us into challenging conversations, through which God has been faithful to move us and our students toward him and toward each other. Students take up the challenge in their ministry contexts, and we create space on campus for pastors, ministry leaders and our campus community as a whole to wrestle with God’s word and the realities of life. As described below, these efforts are challenging, but we cling to a hope that is anchored in Christ and in the gospel.
In what follows, I get to celebrate several ways in which these rhythms are fleshed out in real life. Two are from the past year and one is coming up next year.
Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church
In 2018 and 2019, we engaged local pastors, ministry leaders and our whole Cornerstone University campus in a year-long reflection on the theme Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church. As part of our Talking Points program, we held three conferences that engaged the topic theologically and historically with special focus on three areas of real-world application (see below). Our hope was to explore the biblical themes of justice and unity, to acknowledge some of the ways the body of Christ is fractured along racial/ethnic and gender lines, and to discover together how we can heal those divides. We prayed not only for robust discussion but also for relationships to develop among pastoral leaders in our region who serve in different cultural contexts. Hundreds participated in the conference events, and scores took part in luncheons for further dialogue, relationships and action.
In our first event, we heard from Christina Edmondson, Mika Edmondson, Tim Gombis, Jonathan Greer and Todd Robinson. We explored Paul’s vision of the gospel in Ephesians, connected our baptism with our multi-racial unity in Christ, interrogated our theological heroes and highlighted our own local history of racism. Listen to the recordings here.
In our second event, we heard from Tim Gombis, Justo González, Joanne Solis-Walker and Carl Ruby. We reflected on the gospel’s call for hospitality, its implications for citizenship and immigration, our assumptions about intellectual colonization and the profound and often painful experiences of those who leave their homes to find refuge in another country. Listen to the recordings here.
In our third event, we shifted our focus from race/ethnicity to gender. Our seminary doesn’t take a confessional position on the theological debate about women in pastoral leadership. We choose instead to hold space for and proactively support those on both sides of that divide. In this way, we recognize a range of theological views, and we are committed to advocating for the voices and gifts of women. We are convinced that the church can do a better job in both complementarian and egalitarian contexts to recognize and encourage women in their callings to church ministry and to other vocations. In this concluding event, we opened space to reflect honestly not so much on the theological debate but rather on the actual experiences of women.
We heard from Lynn Cohick, Carolyn Custis James, Marcus Little and Justin Holcomb. We focused on the question: “Is our vision for women robust enough to enlist and empower all women to bring all their gifts to the body of Christ? If not, at what cost?” We recognized the ways male-dominated ministry suffers when it fails to include the gifts of women, we explored the ways women in the early church contributed to the church’s theology and practice, and we lamented the painful realities of sexual assault/abuse. Justin Holcomb provided practical guidance on how pastors can and must lead well in this area. We also held a panel discussion on the topic “empowering women vocationally.” Listen to the recordings here.
Each of these events and their follow up luncheons wove together issues of theology, culture, vocation, economics and justice.
Pastoral Well-being, Identity and Calling
Over the next year, our Talking Points program will partner with The GRTS Fiscal Literacy Project, a grant project supported by the Lilly Foundation through the Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers (ECFFM) initiative. Matt Bloom from Notre Dame University will help us explore issues related to pastoral well-being and the components that contribute to pastoral flourishing. From his research, Bloom has culled out several areas that need special attention to help pastors flourish. One of them, which we will give special attention to, is the tension between pastoral identity and calling. How do you navigate the tension between personal identity (who you are) and the pastoral role you play in the church (what you do)? What if aspects of your pastoral role (e.g., leadership, management, budgets and building projects) fall outside of what you perceive is your pastoral identity? In addition to a live event next March, we will produce a series of videos that will explore this topic and equip pastors to pursue greater flourishing in their own ministries.
Alongside this focus on pastors and ministry leaders, we are also excited to come alongside a local church that will host a similar conference aimed at congregants in any industry or career. We are collaborating with Berean Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Made to Flourish Pastors Network to help parishioners reflect biblically on their identities, callings and what it means to live out their faith in Christ at the workplace and at home.
Students Discovering the Hunger of God’s People
Several of our spring 2019 graduates completed capstone projects on whole-life discipleship and the value of work in God’s economy. These projects involved teaching series at their churches, small group discussions, community networking and more. One student reflected on his experience and said: “I learned from this experience that people are hungry for truth as it relates to their lives.”He noted that his church’s Sunday evening attendance increased 50-60% when he addressed the topic of faith and work. Another student echoed the same experience in his project and said: “I was surprised to see just how interested and engaged they were. I have been involved with this group for about two years and have never seen them more involved than they were for this series.”
To a student, we are seeing the joy and effectiveness of taking the theological and theoretical importance of connecting faith and work and moving into practical engagement in the church context. They see the hunger of people to discover God’s heart for the everyday issues of life, and they are inspired to shepherd them well on that journey.