Category Archives: seminary

Pastoring is NOT what it used to be

There was a time when pastors were true shepherds of souls. They were sought after as the spiritual guides who had access to privileged spiritual information and therefore could speak authoritatively into people’s lives. They were the moral upholders of community, able to act as the voice of society’s conscience. Their primary job was to connect a community with God through preaching, counseling and teaching. Their position was undisputed and trusted. They were role models of morality, family values and model citizens. They were in charge of small communities, knew most of his parishioners by name and were there in the most important events of their lives: birth, baptism, marriage and death.

How the world has changed! If pastors can still be seen as spiritual guides so are Oprah and Deepak Chopra. If before they had access to privileged information, now anybody can access the Internet for Greek dictionaries, books and most other resources that in the past was only available to a few. If in the past they were the sole spiritual gatekeeper for a small community of believers, now they compete with many voices that are constantly speaking into the parishioner’s life. Not only that but their sermons are being scrutinized by society (case in point, a former pastor in Pasadena just got fired from this public service job because of a YouTube video of a past sermon in which he denounced homosexuality). Congregants now will listen to the pastor on Sunday and their favorite preacher’s podcast in the week. If they are curious about theology, they will buy books, read articles or enroll in seminary themselves. Many may already have some theological training through Christian college.

The role model piece is also being re-defined. While most pastors live upstanding lives, the high-profile scandals taint their reputation in society. Yet somehow, the expectation of perfection continues. The reality is that given  the current set up, the only image people get of pastors is who they are in the pulpit. Then, it is no surprise that when they get to know them better the reality falls short of the pulpit image.  This would be the case with any politician, artist or any other celebrity.

Pastors don’t counsel anymore. They leave this to therapists who many times have little training to address spiritual issues that come enmeshed in psychological issues. The current dominant church model defines the pastor’s job on a 45-60 minute sermon on Sunday and the administration of the church. He or she is judged by her weekly performance. On the administration side, most pastors struggle.  They tend to be poor administrators. Pastoring and managing require very different and at time diametrically opposed skills. The good administrator is rarely the compassionate type.

Then there is the constant comparison to the successful mega-church pastor. North American evangelical society projects the image of the successful CEO in every pastor. Well attended conferences teach the “how-toss” of building a mega ministry. Books tell tales of success affirming that if so pastor made it so can any pastor who follows these steps. They are to strive for the success portrayed by large and wealthy ministries even at the expense of family and spiritual health. Even those who are immune to this comparison trap face the harsh reality that their small or mid-size church is competing with mega-churches for the same parishioners in the area.

It is no surprise that many pastors are quitting their jobs. This is not only true for the small church pastor struggling to make ends meet. It is becoming a reality for even high-profile preachers.  The recent resignation of high-profile preachers like Francis Chan and Rob Bell is an intriguing turn of events. No, these guys did not step down because of moral failures. They simply walked away from highly successful ministries to pursue different opportunities. Another bizarre twist was a Swedish mega-church Pentecostal pastor stepping down and “converting” to Catholicism. While these pastors may be unique, you have to wonder what would drive successful pastors to step down. Are those anomalies or symptoms of larger problems in the church system?

 

Doing Theology in (truly) Global Contexts

I haven’t been doing much blog lately as classes, work and life are a little overwhelming. Yet, I wanted to leave a quick imprint of this time for those of you who are praying and thinking of us from afar. Our time here has been quite an adventure and I am grateful every day for the gift of being here.

In the beginning of every quarter, I put myself through this grueling ordeal. I attend three classes and then force myself to drop one (as keeping 3 with a full-time job would be simply insane). The difficult part is having to drop a class after being there for the first day. So far, this is the second quarter and in both quarters I ended up changing my mind in the first week. “Doing theology in Global Context” was a wildcard class, an elective, that I added just because it sounded interesting. In my mind I was set on taking Biblical studies class and a Spiritual practices class (both that were required for

 my degree). Yet, after my first visit to DTGC, I was undone. I HAD to take that class. The professor was good and topic interesting but the real gift of the class was my fellow students.

Let me describe my class yesterday. In the first part, we gathered in groups to discuss our readings. We had 5 people in our group, literally representing almost every continent on the Earth. We weren’t just discussing theology in a global context; we were DOING theology right there in a very global context. It was beautiful to see how God’s Spirit was weaving common themes in the narratives of our very different lives. The only bad part was that after 15 minutes we had to stop.

In the second part, we watched a video of Asian-American theologian reflecting in his experience within Western theological circles. His main argument was to encourage Asian-Americans to start reflecting theologically WITH their cultural heritage rather than in spite of it. This resonated well with me as I struggle to do theology as a Brazilian-American-Charismatic-with-Anglican-leanings in a Western seminary like Fuller.

In the last part, we actually divided in groups based on geographical region to discuss a reading on Philippine Catholic theology. I felt at home sitting with a fellow Brazilian, a Uruguyan and a Chilean brother as we discussed what it meant to be evangelical in our cultures and our relationship with Catholicism. At the end we mused about what would it mean to develop a theology around “El Chavo / Chaves”(a Mexican comedy show that is known by just about every Latin American that grew up in the 80’s).

This is WHY we moved to California to be at Fuller. It is not just to get an education but be immersed in Global Christianity with fellow believers from all the parts of the world. This is where I feel most alive, right there basking in the beauty of the diversity of God’s people as we grapple with what it means to theologize in an ever changing world.  As our world gets bigger, we also catch a glimpse of the vastness of our boundless God.  

Spiritual Formation vs. Practical Gospel

Let me define Spiritual formation broadly as our life with God. That is, it encompasses not only our times of worship or personal devotion but looking at how all aspects of our life relate to God. I say this to avoid the misconceptions that spiritual formation has only to do with quiet times and prayer. This would fall short of the comparison I am attempting to make here. The issue is not exchanging one focus with another but with upending our approach in a wholesale fashion. Let me illustrate this proposal in the following paragraphs.

We tend to approach our problems by responding to symptoms. If your foot is hurting you go to a podiatrist; if you got emotional problems you go to a therapist; if you are overweight you join a workout program and so on. Our educational and professional apparatus is designed to create specialists. People prepare for a specific career in a specific field. We even tend to evaluate our lives in compartments: how is my marriage doing? How is my career going? How is my health?

What gets missed is how those things may be connected. A lack of holistic approach can lead to an incessant search for the right specialist to address the specific problem. Even more, given the abundance of options available, at times part of the problem is the anxiety of finding the right specialist, program, and diet for our problem. This experience can leave us more frustrated breeding additional problems of their own. Another downside of this approach is that we may find success in addressing one area at expense of others. The person who wanted to lose weight may successfully train and complete a marathon only to find their marriage crumbling or their children distant.

In the evangelical world, our response has been the practical gospel mostly encapsulated in the “3-point” sermon. Every Sunday, preachers will give you a motivational lecture with 3 simple steps to becoming a better Christian, parent, husband, friend or worker. They distill the complexity of Scripture into practical advice not much different from self-help books. You leave the service feeling good about yourself and with a game plan on how to face life.

This short piece is not about rejecting the specialist approach (and all the money-making industries behind it). A lot of people would be out of work if that happened. While recognizing the value of focusing on specific areas and how this can yield positive results, I would ask us to take a step back and challenge our overall approach. What if instead of searching for the right specialist or program that we would instead give priority to our life with God. By this I don’t mean just pray and read more the Bible and your life will be free of problems. While it may include that, what if we were to pay closer attention to our relationship with God? What if we started there first? How many of these symptoms would be addressed if we were to address the root cause of the human condition, namely our need for God?

Food for thought…  

A Fuller Community

If Los Angeles is a cosmopolitan vibrant urban center of the West coast then Fuller seminary fully fits its metro area. This was week one in the Fuller journey, orientation time. Throughout this week, I prayed, worshiped, heard amazing speakers tell the Fuller story, wept and met a myriad of amazing people. Fuller is the church on the move. You find a little bit of everything here from the common seminary student to second career business person hoping for a fresh start. It is one of the few places on this country where you are forced to hear somebody speak a foreign language in official events to welcome those who are coming from a far. And believe me, the sound of Korean was sweet to my ears. As one who visited and left a part of my heart in that great nation, seeing so many of them here was a bit like coming home.

I knew the Fuller was the larger seminary in North America, diverse in both tradition and nationality. I just did not know what that looked like. I also did not know how entrepreneurial this community is. As I heard professors, administrator and staff, I noticed a relentless desire to reach the world with the powerful gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ through whatever means possible.

This week my world was expanded. I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t know. New perspectives and paradigms flooded my mind. Above all, my vision of the church was enlarged. The immense God sheds his greatness through the vast tapestry of nation and tongue that is His church. In a time where most look at the church with skepticism, I met those working to improve it. Not just clergy but artists, entrepreneurs, geeks all coming together to rethink what it means to be the church in our century.  

I was also encouraged to see a passion to right the wrongs of this world. From classes on development to even the liturgy at convocation, the heart for the poor was clearly present. Fuller represents the best of evangelicalism being fully grounded in Scripture and God’s church but also being actively engaged with the world around it. The very campus is a metaphor for this as it sits in the middle of Pasadena, no walls around it rejecting the ivory-tower tendencies of academic institutions. Fuller is the church in the city engaging music, film and visual arts from a humble apologetic perspective.

I confess that my first reaction to all this was being overwhelmed and confused. Trying to find a concentration or even decide on a degree became exponentially harder. I know this is a good problem to have but when you are 34 and eager to get on with “doing what you are called for,” that is not an encouraging prospect. Later in the week, I found peace in realizing that the next year will be one of exploring. God’s timing is different from mine so I might as well enjoy the ride. Certainly, it is a privilege to be here.

Those of you who have accompanied us on this journey know how long it took to get here. It was years of waiting, months of planning, weeks of moving and an incredible amount of finances and commitment to get our family here. It was all worth it.

There were very few times I ever felt at home around God’s people on this Earth. First was as a teenager in my dad’s church in Brazil. Second was with our beloved Renovatus church community in Charlotte. Now I am thankful to find a place where a Brazilian-Charismatic-Analytical-with a pastoral heart-missionary zeal- Korea and South America loving-with Anglican tendencies can find a home again.

 

Living between two worlds

I live between two worlds. Certainly this was a choice I made only hesitantly. I knew that God had called me to go to seminary but didn’t know how to make it work financially in this stage of our lives. In an ideal world, I would have dropped everything and just go to school full-time. Yet, with two children and bills to pay, I was not being comfortable going into debt for a career move that would most likely result in a pay cut. I would either give up or postpone the seminary idea or just do both at the same time. Priscila could have gotten a full-time job yet that would mean having to cover child-care and face the fact that the market is more challenging for moms returning to the workforce. Thankfully, my manager allowed me to move to California with my job which made it all the more sense. That is how I ended up here straddling two worlds and trying to make sense of them in a “quiet” of home life with a toddler and a baby. Not your ideal life plan but somehow it works.

These are two conflicting worlds. In the 9-5, I inhabit a jungle of steel, looking at endless rows of numbers trying to tame complexity at every turn. The work is brutally analytical.  Efficiency and effectiveness are the orders of the day. At times there is no room for a soul.  Fortunately there are people surrounding you with gentle humanity, reminding you that while you work with machines, you are not one of them. Of course, it does not help that my work is extremely quantitative, deeply technical and most of my interactions with workmates are through the phone. 

 In the evenings, I engage in a very different world of reflection and human interaction. While the academic side makes this part also analytical, this is a complete different animal. Here I am engaging in theoretical concepts but my soul is alive. I still fight complexity yet at times this is rewarded by a new insight that can one day change a life (including my own). I embark in exercises of imagination, seeing a world unseen by human eyes but ever present and real to the human spirit. That is the seminary world at best. Of course, there are days when we get stuck in endless trivial discussions about the minutia of theological abstractions. Also, studying for tests, writing and refining papers can also feel as inhumane as taming numbers in a spreadsheet.

Thankfully there is a third world which is our home, a refuge where I find solace in the smiles of my children and the kisses of my wife. This is a world of mutual support and understanding, a place in which we are building the future by raising two amazing girls. There I find everything I need to remind me what is most important and why I must inhabit multiple worlds in the present time.