Semne Ecclesia: How the Seminary Can Bless the Divided Church

When I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I came to know about the life and legacy of John M. Perkins through SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. A few times I was able to bring the center director, Tali Hairston, into my classes to talk about reconciliation to freshmen. His advice to them was simple to understand, but difficult to practice: become friends with someone different than you.

Pastors struggle with this as much as anyone else, and the tendency is to be around like-minded people of “my” culture. My denomination. My race. My music and worship style. My class. People that look and think and act like me. Obviously no single church or pastor can be blamed for our disunity problem in the Western church, but so very few of us have a bigger, braver vision and are willing to make those relationships across theological or cultural dividing lines. How can this change? Where do we begin? How do you, as a pastor or leader, go about getting to know “someone different.”

When I was teaching a pastoral leadership seminary course last year, I got a beautiful glimpse of one possible contributing solution – the ecumenical or inter-denominational seminary. Here we were: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, UCCers. African-Americans, whites, Asians, Hispanics. We learned together. We wrestled with challenges in Scripture, theology, and ministry. Obviously these are central activities of a seminary. But I was particularly struck by this: we became friends. In what other context do we see such a cross-section of church life gather together for prayer, study, and mutuality? Where else do we find it possible that hasty assumptions and theological biases can be dealt with? If seminaries are attentive to the possibility that a major feature of what they do is bring strangers and even historical “opponents” (e.g., relating to doctrinal views) together for study, friendship – and even partnership – then I guarantee we could see the power of the gospel in action when such connections lead to inter-church cooperation.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German theologian) studied for a time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he became close friends with fellow student Albert F. “Frank” Fisher. Fisher invited Bonhoeffer to his Harlem church, Abyssinian Baptist Church (could you imagine this?!). Even though it was a black church in Harlem, Bonhoeffer was quite taken with it and attended the black church regularly, even taking active roles like leading Sunday school classes and Bible studies, and making home visits to parishioners. He was also introduced to black gospel music and his fascination with this music stuck with him long after he returned to Germany. Indeed, there is little doubt that his inside look into racial problems in the US played a major role in his compassion-driven efforts on the behalf of persecuted Jews in Germany. It is obvious how his seminary friendships led to new experiences and offered insight and wisdom far beyond the lecture hall. So much growth and illumination, for Bonhoeffer, came from his willingness to step out of his comfort zone and love and trust people very different from him.

All too often, we imagine that the “other” (pastor, church, ministry) is doctrinally or exegetically flawed, even dangerous. It is a small step to demonize these others, or at least presume ignorance or unintelligence on their part. I have had many such unfortunate assumptions and biases, and becoming friends with seminary classmates brought me a long way, not only through formal moments of “education” (lectures, books, assignments), but especially through sharing life together.

The word “seminary” comes from the Latin seminarium (“seed plot”) and refers to a place where young students go to grow academically and vocationally. Interestingly, the word “seminary” also resembles the Greek word semnos, which means “sacred.” Traditionally, those training for the parish or mission-field needed a focused time to engage in sacred things. “Seminary” was the place to do that. What if one of those “sacred” things is friendship beyond dogma and preference? What if a lasting contribution that a seminary can make (among others) is to connect ministers to one another across all manner of divides for the sake of the semne ecclesia?

We would treasure it. It would be very sacred. And beautiful.