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Warren Kinghorn: Asking broader questions of medicine

Posted on: October 22nd, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments

Medicine needs physicians who can call on the Christian tradition to offer another way of thinking about human flourishing, sickness and health, says a physician-theologian.



A knowledge of theology, whether acquired through formal education or life in Christian community, can bring much to the practice of medicine, said Dr. Warren Kinghorn, a theologian and physician at Duke University.

“Medicine — and perhaps other professions as well — needs people who are able to explore deeply the Christian tradition and make it relevant to medical practice,” Kinghorn said. “Someone with formal theological education can call on the Christian tradition to challenge certain assumptions within medicine.”

Warren KinghornKinghorn, an assistant professor of psychiatry and pastoral and moral theology, said those assumptions include the notion that illness, indeed all life, is simply a matter of which technique or technology people need to get the results they want.

“Medicine is much less adept in asking broader questions about what it actually means to flourish or to be healthy,” he said.

With its long history of asking difficult questions about human flourishing, health and illness, Christian theology can give practitioners the ability to challenge those assumptions, Kinghorn said.

Trained in both medicine and theology, Kinghorn has joint appointments at Duke Divinity School and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center. He has a B.S. from Furman University, an M.D. from Harvard, and M.T.S. and Th.D. degrees from Duke.

Kinghorn spoke with Faith & Leadership about medicine and theology and the role that Christianity can play in shaping the practice of medicine. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: During medical school at Harvard, you took a couple of years and came to Duke to complete a master of theological studies degree. Why?

I started medical school in the fall of 1997 with a great deal of enthusiasm for medicine. As someone who grew up in the church, I also had a strong desire to think theologically — but little training in how to do so.

As a first-year medical student, I was mostly learning about how to read medical literature and the kinds of issues that physicians deal with. But I also did some shadowing at an alcohol detox facility in Boston and met people who were struggling with addiction.

I wondered how to make sense of that as a Christian. Is alcoholism a sickness? Even then I understood the medical literature around alcoholism.

Or is it sin? And if sin, then in what way, and what do I mean by sin anyway?

I realized that I didn’t have any categories to make sense of how to think about alcoholism in relationship to the moral agency of a Christian.

I needed to know more. So I went to the Harvard Divinity School library and for the first time in my life read about the fourth-century debate between Augustine and the Pelagians. I realized that there was this deep, rich conversation around the nature of sin and the degree to which humans are bound or not by sin.

Although I didn’t understand how to make sense of the question of alcoholism, I realized that the Christian tradition has this 2000-year history of asking difficult questions about human agency, flourishing and illness, about how humans die and how humans live. I wanted to know more.

Q: So this ancient conversation you stumbled upon had relevance for modern medicine?

Absolutely. The questions that Augustine and the Pelagians argued about are absolutely relevant to questions around the disease concept of alcoholism. Are humans bound in sin? Can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps? To what extent can we be caught in structures that limit our agency?

Later, I read about the disease concept of alcoholism and learned that alcoholism has a particular social history in the United States. It went from being seen predominantly as a moral, spiritual, religious and, sometimes, criminal issue to being seen in the 20th century as a medical issue.

Yet it’s complicated. Alcoholics Anonymous itself has a religious logic. These concepts of sickness and sin are still with us and still affect the way that culture relates to people with addictions, and how physicians relate to people with addictions or with mental or physical illness. I wanted to learn more about how Christians had thought about these questions as a way to then do so as a practicing physician.

Q: After you completed your M.T.S., you finished med school, returned to Duke to do a residency in psychiatry and then decided to get a Th.D. Why? What made you want to come back and do a Th.D.?

When I did the M.T.S., I didn’t plan to do a doctorate in theology. I wanted to be a practicing physician who was theologically trained.

But several faculty encouraged me to think about how my vocation could be of service to the church. I realized that I wanted to be involved in scholarship and teaching at a university level, and in pastoral formation, teaching in a divinity school. So to do that kind of work, I decided to get a Th.D.

Q: What does a theological education bring to the practice of medicine? In what ways can it help prepare a physician?

Every Christian physician needs to have a theological view or context in which they practice their vocation — though not all physicians need to have formal theological education or training.

But with that said, medicine — and perhaps other professions as well — needs people who are able to explore deeply the Christian tradition and make it relevant to medical practice. Someone with formal theological education can call on the Christian tradition to challenge certain assumptions within medicine.

Physicians who are able to engage the Christian tradition can also help medicine recover some of the moral sources that have sustained the care of the sick and dying for centuries. For example, the charity hospital evolved in the Mediterranean in the context of Christian monastic institutions in the fourth century.

Christians have long sustained those forms of care, and that’s what’s sometimes in danger of being lost in our modern, business-oriented practice of medicine.

Q: So theological training can help a physician to see and to name the assumptions that otherwise go unseen in medicine?

Yes. Training in medicine is a distinct process of moral formation and formation of the imagination. Like any process of disciplined training, it both creates new possibilities for imagination and constrains the imagination.

The medical model in general — the way that we interpret pain and suffering through the language of pathology, prognosis, epidemiology, treatment and cure — absolutely dominates modern biomedicine and leads to this heavily instrumentalized understanding of human suffering. It is very hard to even imagine medicine otherwise unless one has a different kind of sustaining community that makes that possible.

You don’t have to have formal theological education, but you do need some alternative community that provides a sense that the logic of biomedicine is not the only way to think about human flourishing and sickness.

Q: You just touched on this some, but what are the challenges in integrating a Christian calling in the world of medicine?

Biomedicine in America is rooted in certain givens that are largely unquestioned. One has to do with how physicians think. Medicine encourages clinicians and patients to think in very instrumentalist ways — “I have something that’s wrong with me, and I need the right technology, the right technique to cure it.”

It encourages people to see all of life as a question of what technique do I need to get where I want to go. Medicine is much less adept in asking broader questions about what it actually means to flourish or to be healthy.

I was in my third year of psychiatric residency before anyone in an academic setting ever asked, “What is health?” It’s ironic. We’re in this world of health care, and yet the question “What is health?” is rarely asked in any robust way.

That’s partly because if you begin to ask normative questions about what it means to be healthy, then you get into questions of value. You press up against religious and theological conceptions about what it means to live a flourishing human life. And medicine, which sees itself as a neutral institution that doesn’t take sides on these value questions, tends to back off.

That allows individual patients or physicians to set for themselves their own particular ends, and the only focus is on the instrumental questions, the questions of which technique or technology to use.

But that’s unsustainable, because it means that particular conceptions of health can be inserted by anyone who wants to. So advertising, the pharmaceutical industry, various commercial interests that have a stake in the medical system begin to shape what we understand as health and flourishing.

Theology gives us the ability to call that into question.

Another challenge is the way medicine deals with questions of religious faith by bracketing them into the worlds of “spirituality” or “personal commitments” that aren’t allowed to inform the way that medicine is practiced. That is very hard to get outside of if one is in medicine.

How do you think about a theological view of medicine that doesn’t become marginalized through the language of spirituality, that makes a difference for the way that medicine is practiced?

For me, the question of Christian vocation is not tied up in my spirituality. It’s tied up in how I understand excellence in medical care. How do I be an excellent physician? What is excellence?

Christian vocation allows me to see myself as an integrated whole, practicing medicine in a way that seeks the good for my patients and that embodies this sustainable practice for the culture as well.

Q: What are the places, the issues, in health care and medicine that would benefit from this kind of Christian formation?

We have an immensely expensive health care system. No one has any clear idea how to decrease costs or how to set boundaries, in part because we don’t know how to ask questions about the role medicine should play in a good, flourishing life. We don’t have the ability to stand back from medicine and ask those kinds of questions.

Also, within medicine itself, there’s widespread discontent, which I think reflects a moral or even spiritual discontent. A recent survey found that 45 percent of physicians show signs of burnout and 37 percent have symptoms of major depression.

There’s certainly increased dissatisfaction with parts of managed care, with litigation, with increased demands of time efficiency. There’s also a cultural shift, where medicine is increasingly no longer seen as a calling but as a job.

All this dissatisfaction has a number of causes. The Christian tradition would say this is at least partly a problem with theological dimensions. Christians engaged in health care need to remember that the sick need care because Christ is in the sick. The sick person, the dying and the mentally ill are where Christ is. That doesn’t provide all the answers, but it provides a way to go on.

Often, Christian physicians, like other medical practitioners, are so focused on finding the right techniques or technologies to control the body that we forget to ask basic questions about what the body is for and what human life is for, what a well-lived life looks like. Those are the kinds of questions that can be transformative for physicians and for relationships between physicians and patients.

The Christian tradition also has the ability to sustain care of those who aren’t wealthy or pleasant, because Christians recognize that we also stand in need of grace. The person in the emergency room at 2 a.m. who is cursing and malodorous and spitting on clinicians is not ontologically different from us. We have been given grace, and we still need grace.

Christ is in that person, too. So when we care for that person in the ER at 2 a.m., we are caring for Christ. The Christian tradition can illumine all of that in ways that can help sustain medicine as a moral and spiritual practice.

The Christian tradition also is very clear that physicians are not in medicine alone but, like all Christians, are part of a larger body, the church, which has as its mission the reconciliation of the world to God. And so the question is how to help congregations to own that and to support physicians and to sustain medicine as a practice.

Q: How did you work through the process of vocational calling and decide on medicine?

I don’t know that I had a clear sense of call when I entered medical school. For me, it’s been a process where I walk into new opportunities, experience what it’s like to inhabit the role and the practice of medicine, and then see opportunities for beauty within that and pursue them.

I’ve changed course several times. When I came to the Divinity School, I thought I was going to be a primary care physician, and when I left I was interested in psychiatry, because of the kinds of human questions that psychiatrists engage in daily.

Q: Did each of these experiences feed the other? Med school fed divinity, which fed medicine, which fed divinity?

Absolutely. My training as a theologian has always been in the context of my vocation as a physician. And my training as a physician has always been informed by my theological training in ways that are hard to separate out. It’s one integrated whole.

It doesn’t mean that my medical practice is always about theology. But it does mean that my Christian commitment always informs, and motivates, the way that I understand what it means to practice psychiatry well.


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, October 15, 2014

Serene Jones: I did not anticipate how fast change would come

Posted on: October 21st, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


The president of Union Theological Seminary reflects on her six years in office and the rapid pace of change both in her institution and in the church as a whole.

Photo courtesy of Union Theological Seminary


In 2008, Serene Jones became the first female president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, one of the nation’s leading centers of liberal Christianity. A scholar in the fields of theology, religion and gender studies, Jones is the author of books on feminist theology and Calvin, among other topics. She took over the helm of the institution as it worked to secure its financial footing amid the meltdown of 2008.

During her tenure, the seminary has continued to take a leading role in the issues of the day. In June, the board of trustees voted unanimously to begin divesting fossil fuels from the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment. Since August, Union students and faculty, including scholar Cornel West, have been active in protesting police actions in Ferguson, Missouri.

Jones was at Duke to give the Jill Raitt Lecture sponsored by the Duke Divinity School Women’s Center and spoke with Faith & Leadership about what she has learned as the leader of Union. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: When you took over at Union, you wrote a vision statement. How do you assess where you are now in terms of your original vision?

It has been interesting, in the years that I’ve been there, to see the evolution of Union and of my understanding of what leadership is. Let me first talk about Union. When I wrote my presidential vision statement, I was too new to have a vision statement of Union really grounded in deep knowledge of the school. I built it on the call for Union to engage these huge demographic shifts that are taking place in the church. So I outlined some ways the school might begin to respond, which means rethinking theological education in a deep way.

What I did not anticipate was how fast that change would come. These are not demographic shifts that we have time to gracefully and slowly and thoughtfully consider. These changes are on us now, and the shifts that they require are coming organically from the very questions that our students raise. Four years ago in our entering class at Union, the largest single denomination — if it was a denomination — was the “spiritual but not religious.”

We have lots of these millennial students who have not grown up in any faith tradition but are coming to seminary, for the most part, because they’re engaged in social change. They want social justice, and they’re tying that to questions about the meaning of life and spiritual questions. There’s a yearning there. Similarly, I did not anticipate the degree to which we would begin to see the racial demographics at Union shift. Union’s always had a large number of African-American students, in part because of our faculty and our location in Harlem, but in the last five years we’ve seen that grow even more. In our degree programs, it’s almost 47 percent students of color, the predominant number African-American. So we have a school that’s very racially diverse.

Across the street from Union is Jewish Theological Seminary, so the Christian/Jewish [interfaith] part has always been in our bones, but in 2010, through the support of the Luce Foundation, we hired a professor of Islamic ministry who’s a Muslim woman, and we have more and more students who come with interests in Buddhism. We have a new faculty member who teaches Christianity and Hinduism. Two years ago, we created a new field at Union. We created an interreligious engagement field, and it’s now the biggest field with the most number of students in our master of arts program. Most of those students are Christian and planning on Christian vocations, but the interest in interfaith studies is just phenomenal.

Q: What are the challenges of a Christian seminary in having students who identify as spiritual but not religious?

It is funny that they’re coming to seminary — but great — and it makes a certain amount of sense. I think the demographics show that many of these spiritual-but-not-religious millennials come from families who are part of the demographic shift away from mainline Protestantism. So they have some kind of deep connection to those traditions, even though they haven’t experienced it institutionally. But think about it: you’re graduating from NYU, and you thought you might want to go into business, but you ended up taking a course in philosophy, and then you took another one in religious studies, and your English class, in which you did a reread of American history, sparked your interest, and you get involved in Occupy Wall Street — it’s just happening six blocks away — and you get more and more excited about the changes that are happening. You’re getting ready to graduate, and you want to know, “Where can I go and think about these deep questions?”

Our seminaries are the place in our country that historically we have done that. So in a sense, these students are reminding us of who we are and who we can be again. It’s very interesting. Students get to Union and by their second year have discovered that the church is actually an interesting place, and it’s actually a place where they can do the kind of social engagement that they dream of. There’s a network of people there, and there are deep faith commitments driving that goodness. It’s an essential part of what happens.

Many of them end up in churches, to their great surprise.

Q: So your observation is that people circle back to Christian institutions they had rejected. What value do those institutions have in this rapidly changing world?

One of the biggest challenges of being the president of Union is I’m the president of a school where 90 percent of the students hate institutions, and I’m the head of the institution. I am “the man.” I share a sense, along with the faculty, that part of teaching them how to be leaders — when you learn to be leaders, you learn what it means to be responsible for communities.

Which means being responsible for institutions. So part of the process is recognizing that being anti-institutional is in large part being naive about what communities need to thrive — indeed, what a community is. Many of these “spiritual but not religious,” because they have been so isolated, don’t have a communal sense of the change that they seek. I also think it helps to give them models, in the administration and in the faculty, of institutional leadership that they respect. And that’s no small thing.

Q: To be a good institutional leader yourself.

Yes, yes. The institutional leadership does not have to fall in 10 steps behind where the people are going. In fact, it can walk abreast with them.

Q: Is some of that tension inherent in Union itself, as the flagship progressive, liberal seminary?

With that much diversity at Union, it’s understandable that the tensions that that can produce could be, you know — the centrifugal forces could pull it apart. But it’s not. It’s a miracle; it’s not. In being the flagship progressive school, it has in its own history deep wounds of divides between faculty members, between causes, between varying levels of “political correctness.” In that environment, you learn to cut your teeth on what you oppose, and you spend far less time figuring out what it is you love, what it is you want to bring about in the world and what you seek.

In the near past, we’ve been focusing a lot of the curriculum, as well as mentoring the student body leadership and working with the faculty, around love and around what it means to have real diversity that’s not divisive and judgmental. You’re starting to see that happen, and it’s quite exciting. The student body this year chose “Love in Action” as their theme. Learning to love deeply, not just to critique passionately, is the challenge for an institution like Union.

Q: What has been your biggest surprise in that leadership role? Positive or negative.

Until I became a president and hence a leader, as a faculty member I never had the experience of building a team of people that you work with closely. That leadership happens because of that really deep partnership. As an academic, you sit alone in your office and write your book. You sit alone in your office and do your course prep. You meet with students one-on-one, and you don’t have to think about the challenge of moving whole communities of people forward in practical ways. So I love working with a team. How do I say this? Becoming a president has made me much less interested in my own leadership and more interested in a team. It’s fascinating. I didn’t anticipate that.

Q: You’ve been a single mother during this period. How do you manage work/life balance?

I don’t know. I never figured it out. I never figured it out. It’s just hard. Now that [my daughter] has gone to college, for first time in 18 years I’m experiencing having time to myself. I didn’t even know I didn’t have it until I finally got it.

For the last 18 years, I worked and I was a mother, and that’s about all I had time for. I know men struggle with it, too, but women in particular get vexed by the idea that somehow if they could just do it right it would be easier, and there’s no way to make it easier. We have to hope that our institutions change more and more so that parenting is truly a shared endeavor.

Q: Do you think it’s important that your students go on to practice in the church institution?

That’s a complicated question, because Union has been committed since its beginning — and still — to preparing leaders for the church. And by that I mean pulpit ministers, preachers, pastors. That’s still the vast majority of our students. About 60 percent go into parish ministry. It’s only very recently in Christian history that we’ve decided that a seminary education was something that you should get a [professional] degree for doing, and that it’s a profession primarily for the management and leadership of churches.

When Union was founded, to get a seminary education was to get a very good liberal arts education, to learn theology and Bible so that, first and foremost, you could be a responsible citizen and a good Christian. There’s a long history in the United States of people getting seminary education so they can be leaders in the civic sphere. I come from a Calvinist tradition, and Calvin has a profound sense of the multiple ways in which Christians can witness, and so to limit or to even make sacrosanct the work of a seminary with respect to pulpits, I think, is to limit the power of that education. It’s also the case that people now go into the ministry and then cycle in and out of the ministry.

I like to think that at Union they’re getting prepared in ways that allow them to go in and out of ministry and do different things in their life, but to see those things as ministry. I mean, given the shrinking size of the church, if you don’t prepare them to do multiple things, they could drift away, and we might also lose even our own reverends and M.Divs.

Q: Has administrative leadership influenced your theology?

Yes, it’s changed my theology. I have a much deeper respect myself for the way that the Christian message is embodied, not just in individual lives and not just in groups of people’s lives, but in institutions, the actual bodies of institutions and how they run themselves. And that that’s a theological endeavor is so clear to me — that to run a seminary is to run a school that tries to, in its infrastructure, embody its values.

We’re not just any kind of higher education.We’re Christian higher education. If we can’t show the students what it means to be faithful and good stewards of the institution, if we can’t show them that while they’re there, we can’t expect them to go out and be good caretakers of the institutions they find themselves in.

Q: Are you thinking along the lines of Union’s recent vote to divest itself of fossil fuels? Or are you thinking about something more day-to-day?

I’m thinking about both kinds. So when we decided to divest our endowment from fossil fuels, that was a board decision. It was a unanimous decision. It wasn’t even a difficult decision. So there’s that kind of work. But also if students in seminary don’t experience an administration and a faculty that take them very seriously as co-workers and co-learners, they are not going to go out into their parishes and treat their congregation members as if they’re in shared ministry together.

I work very hard at Union to develop an administrative team and a faculty that doesn’t just see our students as kids that need an education but as people learning about the shared ministry of the church and the world. So I think it matters at that level, too. It’s the attitude you have toward the community of people you’re leading.

Q: The Christian Century noted recently three major pulpits getting female pastors — Riverside, Fourth Presbyterian and Foundry — and I wondered whether you saw that as a hopeful trend?

I think it’s very hopeful. Many of the most effective women church leaders that I know, like Amy Butler [at Riverside], and like Ginger Gaines-Cirelli [at Foundry] — I do not know the person at Fourth Presbyterian, but I know the first two very well — they have a very collaborative leadership style like what I was just describing, in terms of institutions being spaces of collaboration.

Q: And do you think that makes a difference?

Yes. The decline in the numbers of people going to church in this country in mainline Protestant communities is in part a symptom of the ways in which capitalism has gutted our value systems so that people no longer even imagine the need for communities of moral formation and faith. But it’s also partly due to how destructively focused our churches got on doctrine and correctness and shoring up their identities at a very time in which a more radical openness to the world was needed.

I think that the churches can be faulted for that. The way that denominations and churches responded to change was defensively: “We just need to teach them how to be good Methodists. We just need to teach them how to be good Baptists and UCCs.” That’s not going to make the churches stronger. We will be known by our openness. We’ll be known by our love.


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership Newsletter, October 21, 2014

Joseph Bathanti: Writing as a sacred office

Posted on: October 21st, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


Growing up an Italian Catholic in Pittsburgh had a lasting impact on the recently named poet laureate of North Carolina.


Joseph BathantiJoseph Bathanti’s poems reflect his life. Raised in a close-knit, blue-collar community of Catholic immigrants in Pittsburgh, he attended parochial school and lived near his parents and other relatives until he was 23.

In the 1970s, he first ventured out of Pennsylvania to work as a VISTA volunteer with prison inmates in North Carolina. He met his wife-to-be on his first day of training and has since continued to live and work in North Carolina.

Bathanti, 59, was installed in September as North Carolina’s seventh poet laureate. He is a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University.

His poetry has been published in the Christian Century, among other magazines, and his books of poetry include “This Metal,” “Land of Amnesia,” “Anson County” and “The Feast of All Saints.” He has published two novels, “Coventry” in 2006 and “East Liberty” in 2001, along with a book of short stories.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about the influence of his upbringing and his religious life on his writing. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your faith growing up and how it influences your work.

I grew up in a little Italian enclave, one of the last in Pittsburgh. All my grandparents were from Europe; three were from Italy, one from France. Everybody in the neighborhood had similar equations. Some of my friends’ parents didn’t even speak English. We were very much dyed-in-the-wool Roman Catholics.

I was an altar boy, a choirboy. I went to Latin Mass every morning during the school week, and I went to church. The sound of the liturgy infiltrated me at a very early age. I loved all the pomp, the smell of incense, the statuary and the stained-glass windows.

I liked Jesus very much. I liked Catholicism well enough. I guess my big quibble is I didn’t like the nuns, the vicious women who taught me early in my life.

Growing up, I thought everybody was Catholic. I had really lovely parents and amazing friends and extended family. And I had the nicest dad in the wide world.

But I got in trouble a lot in school. It wasn’t bad stuff — never a fight. Yet I was physically abused with boards and sticks and all sorts of things. It was the traumatizing influence in my childhood. I guess I should thank the good sisters, because they certainly have given me a lot to write about.

After that, I attended Pittsburgh Central Catholic, a private high school for working-class boys. My mother called it a private school for Catholic hoodlums, which always amused me. I was taught by Christian Brothers. I loved the brothers, and I will always love Central. It was very liberal. It was life-changing.

I go back every year and spend a week as writer-in-residence there. So my quibble has never been with Catholicism. It was just with the nuns.

I’m in Protestant churches now more than anything; I belong to one, as a matter of fact. The Spirit is still very much alive in there.

But I miss the beauty of those old Catholic churches. There were things for my eyes to light upon. I smelled things. I heard things. I was surrounded by incredible imagery. I miss that kind of Wizard of Oz, Cecil B. DeMille giant production.

Q: Do you still consider yourself a Christian?

Oh, yes. At the risk of co-opting some fundamentalist language, I do have my own personal relationship with Jesus, albeit very idiosyncratic.

I am what we would call a lapsed Catholic, I suppose. Technically, I’m even excommunicated, because 35 years ago I married a by-God Southern Baptist from Tucker, Ga., and was married at Indian Creek Baptist Church. So I’m a fallen-away Catholic, if you will. I still consider myself a Catholic.

My wife, Joan, and I belonged to Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. When we moved up to Boone, N.C., we became charter members of High Country United Church of Christ, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Q: You have talked before about being steeped in stories in the church. What did that mean for your work?

Little Catholic children who go to Catholic schools know the Bible. I loved all those wild science fiction, fantasy, magical realism stories that occurred in the Old Testament.

A rod would turn into a snake and rivers would turn to blood, seas would part and bushes would burn and talk, and there was levitation. All sorts of nifty things. That stuff really fueled my imagination.

We were taught about the saints. One of my favorite books still is Alban Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,” a compendium of saints’ biographies. We heard wild stories of torture and dismemberment and gladiators. They were adventure stories, and those were some of the first really far-out, crazy and inexplicable stories that I heard.

The Bible is filled with stories with no kind of literal explanation for what goes on. So we take it on faith. And in a lot of ways, when we enter into a relationship with a text — a poem, a piece of fiction, a play — we also take it on faith. We feel like maybe we are in the hands of somebody who knows a little more than us.

Books can convert us in a lot of ways. We all have those kinds of texts in our life that are life-changing, which for me often means a kind of spiritual experience, too.

Q: In your transformation from Northern kid to Southern writer, did you think a lot about community and sense of place?

Although I was a citizen of Pittsburgh, I was more a citizen of my neighborhood or the schoolyard. My parents were working folks. We didn’t go on vacation. We never left the city.

I like to say one minute I was in my mother’s kitchen; the next I was on a prison yard in North Carolina. And the contrast seems that abrupt to me.

I realized after moving here that in North Carolina you are a citizen of the state, rather than simply a city or a neighborhood. I’ve traveled to all 100 counties in North Carolina. I have friends all across the state. I don’t even need a map. I can just take off anywhere. So there’s this wonderful sense of a bigger, broader community.

I guess another thing that kind of authenticated me — this Yankee Pittsburgh Italian boy — is that I met my wife in the very first moment of VISTA training. We’ve been inseparable since. I’ve had this wonderful tour guide with me all the time. Tied to a Southerner, I didn’t feel quite so much like the invader.

So while I’ve been able to hang on to my own culture, I’ve been able to embrace another really wonderful culture. I love North Carolina very much, and I love the South.

Q: Do you think that your working-class background has affected your practices as a writer and creative person?

I do; it provided me with a work-ethic backbone. I believe you have to work hard.

Writers actually generate writing by sitting down and putting words on a page. It takes the young writer a long time to realize that you don’t sit around and wait for inspiration. So the idea of just getting to work was ingrained in me.

And then there’s the subject matter. I recently published an essay in The Sun Magazine called “Real Work,” where I talk about the real work that my forebears did, all of whom were bricklayers and steelworkers and cement finishers and seamstresses. They worked with their bodies.

I write mainly about people who are kind of invisible. Those people are quietly toiling in their communities, whether they’re in North Carolina or in Pittsburgh.

Q: So you consider working people both a subject and a model?

I honor those people. I’m 59 years old and I’m in very good physical shape. But if I had to be working on a roof every day or doing some of the other things that men and women still have to do that’s physically demanding, it would be different than being intellectually zapped at the end of the day.

My 12 hours isn’t like my dad’s 12 hours — I don’t care what people say. Get out there and dig ditches and see what it’s like.

I feel the distance between that kind of labor and how kids now are growing up. I teach a lot of kids who are the children of educated parents, who are sometimes the children of educated grandparents. And so I think we lose that very real connection to sweat and dirt and hardship. It’s important to respect that, even if you never do it.

Q: You have referred to the habit of writing as a habit of being. What did you mean by that?

I steal that from Flannery O’Connor. She said “the habit of art” is having a work ethic that doesn’t wait for inspiration. You get to your table every day, whether something good is happening or not. She worked every morning for three hours.

“The Habit of Being” was also the title of her posthumous letters, which had to do with her spiritual life. So I see the two as very much equated. It is a sacred office to sit down and write, in the Benedictine sense of trying to seamlessly mesh life and work and art so that it is all one contiguous, contemplative exercise.

I fail at this all the time, but it’s what I’m striving for.

Listening to myself talk, I sound to myself pretentious and a lot more ordered spiritually than I feel internally. But that’s what we do in writing anyhow. We make sense out of things on the page that had no sense when they were occurring.

As Samuel Beckett said, “Words are all we have.” So thank God for them.

Q: Your background indicates an almost vocational obligation to serve specific communities, such as prison inmates. Is that accurate?

There is an obligation that emanates from spirituality.

I’ve been so blessed. People have been so nice to me. I never felt poor at all. But my father was a steelworker. My mother was a seamstress. My dad was on strike once for an entire year. There wasn’t a lot of money to do anything. So I want to champion those people.

It’s a kind of survivor’s guilt. You see a prison inmate and you think, “He’s there and I’m here.” I go all over the place talking about prisons, and it always comes down to poverty and lack of education.

I had a mom and dad, and I had dinner every night. I had clean clothes, and people checked my homework. What if that hadn’t happened?

Also, as a VISTA volunteer, I found out about the community of mercy: social workers and psychologists and battered-women shelters and all those people doing things for people who can’t do for themselves.

My wife was a social worker for indigent prenatal patients, and we were houseparents for abused and neglected children for a year. Once I was aware of that community, they began to occupy some acreage in my conscience, and I want to serve them in some way.

We don’t say enough things like, “Oh boy, thank God that’s not me.” Instead, we say, “Of course it’s not me, because I’m so great and they’re so not-great.”

Q: You also are working on a project with combat veterans.

A young man walked into my office one day, one of my colleagues’ sons who had been a corpsman in Iraq. He asked me if I would work on an independent study with him writing about his experiences. I told him that I would, and as I began to contemplate doing it, I thought, “Why don’t I generalize this opportunity to any veteran on campus who wants to avail him- or herself of this?” But then this fellow disappeared, and those intentions went nowhere.

But I had it lodged in the back of my head, stored. When it came down to being a finalist for the poet laureate, we were all asked, “What would your signature project be?” So I just said this was what I was going to do.

There are a number of initiatives where people are doing things like this all across the state, independently. But as poet laureate, I can serve as a kind of lightning rod for all the initiatives, and maybe get some of these people talking, sharing resources and ideas.


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, October 21, 2014

Restoring hope for historic Quebec church

Posted on: October 21st, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


By Leigh Anne Williams


The Rev. Thora Chadwick says that restoration work on St. George’s, Clarenceville, the oldest wooden church in Quebec, has been a sign of hope in a small community where people can feel marginalized.

The tiny parish of St. George’s, Clarenceville, Que. is preparing for the 200th anniversary of its church building in 2018 by doing some restoration work.

Erected between 1818 and 1820, the church is the oldest wooden church in Quebec, but the Rev. Thora Chadwick, who serves as the rector in a three-point parish with two nearby other churches, said the wood on the exterior of the building is in very bad shape and is in need of some urgent restoration. “The paint has been peeling…. Because [the church] was registered as historic, it couldn’t just be painted, and each winter that goes by makes the problem much worse.”

The cost of restoring the foundation and exterior is estimated to be about $300,000. Fortunately, the Quebec government has approved a grant to cover 70% of the costs. Work on the foundation, which cost more than $100,000, has already been completed, using some funds from a trust fund with money remaining from the sale of the rectory in Clarenceville. The next phase of the government grant will cover $138,000, leaving the parish to find funding for the remainder.

Chadwick said the parishioners want to raise as much of the required money as possible before beginning the work, but it is a challenge for a tiny congregation where many of the parishioners are now too elderly to attend every Sunday or help with fundraising events and young families are not attending regularly. Clarenceville has about 1,200 residents, but she said there are often only three or four people at Sunday services (which rotate between the three churches), noting that St. Thomas, Noyan still has about a dozen parishioners who attend regularly. She was also pleased to see about 50 people attend a blessing of the animals service recently.

Fundraising efforts so far have benefitted from a $10,000 anonymous donation and proceeds from a performance of a local Swiss German men’s choir. Chadwick hopes that additional donations may come in at some special evensong services that will feature an organist playing the church’s antique organ. The parish is also seeking other sources of funding.

Though the numbers might not seem to warrant this new investment, Chadwick said there are historic and human reasons to go forward with the restoration.

Historically, the parish, which straddles the U.S. border with St. Luke’s, Alburgh on the Vermont side, was home to United Empire Loyalists. The exterior of the church with a belfry that Chadwick says “looks like a wedding cake” has changed very little since construction was completed in 1820.

Changes made about 1850 reflect changes in Anglicanism, she said. “There was an addition made on the east end to incorporate what we expect to find now in churches, to find an altar and a stained glass window over it,” she said. “The Oxford movement that started earlier in the 19th century recovered a lot of the more catholic [style] worship,” she explained.  Before that, Chadwick said the north end of the church had had “one of those three-decker kinds of things with a pulpit on the top, then there was a communion table at the bottom and a place for a clerk to assist the minister.”

She suggested that the contemporary community also has reasons to want to restore and maintain the church.  People in the small community where many young people move away feel marginalized, she said. “This work that was done is a sign of hope for the community.”

The church is also a point of contact with tourists and other people outside the church, Chadwick noted, explaining that whenever the church is obviously open, cars stop and people ask if they can come and look around. “They are very quiet and respectful. Sometimes they take pictures, but they seem very pleased and surprised to see the beauty of these little churches. All three are lovely in their own way,” she said. “I think they are really pilgrims who don’t know it.”


Anglican Journal News, October 20, 2014

The importance of the local church: An interview with Loren Mead

Posted on: October 20th, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


Forty years after founding the Alban Institute, the Rev. Loren Mead still believes in the fundamental importance of congregations.

 “I am still stuck on the importance of the local church,” he said.

It was that “monomania,” he said, that prompted him to create the institute in 1974.

“I sort of woke up in ministry with a sense that whatever’s going on, it’s the parish that’s the issue, that the local church is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “And I focused on that part of the institutional framework.”

At the time, many in the church discounted the life of local congregations, but Mead was “clear that that was not the way to go, that we needed strong local churches.”

Looking back, Mead said he hasn’t been surprised at the track record of mainline and other churches over the past 40 years, and he offered a general critique.

“It feels like we’ve been fighting a defensive war and not shifting our model to understand the power of the laity as the important part of the church,” he said. “We’ve gotten more hierarchical and defensive. We’re worrying about how to survive rather than what we ought to be doing.”

An ordained Episcopal priest, Mead is an educator, consultant and author who has worked to strengthen religious institutions, especially local congregations. He served from 1974 to 1994 as president of the Alban Institute, developing its national, multidenominational work of research, publishing, education and consulting.

He spoke recently with Alban Weekly about the institute and its work. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You started the Alban Institute 40 years ago, in 1974. Tell us about that. Why did you start it?

Well, a lot of it goes back before Alban. I sort of woke up in ministry with a sense that whatever’s going on, it’s the parish that’s the issue, that the local church is where the rubber meets the road.

And I focused on that part of the institutional framework. I probably discounted a lot of other important things, simply because that was what I felt called to deal with. The parish is what I was about. I expanded to look at other things that affect parishes, but that was my monomania.

Q: What were the issues at the time? What was it about congregations that caught your attention?

What I saw was a church that largely discounted the life of the local congregation. At the time, in the 1960s, clergy were leaving in large numbers to go into all kinds of social work and whatnot. I was clear that that was not the way to go, that we needed strong local churches.

I was partly reacting to the negative image that seminaries and churches had in the ’60s. Everybody said, “You need to go where the action is” — and that was not where the church was. I thought that was just wrong.

I was asked to do an experimental project for the Episcopal Church, Project Test Pattern, and for three years I studied local churches, how to change and strengthen them.

We were beginning to worry about people leaving the church. We didn’t have the data yet, but everybody told me that the problem was evangelism — we weren’t getting people into the church.

I discovered that the problem was that they were leaving the church. We got lots of people into the churches in the ’50s and ’60s. I mean, they flocked in — couldn’t stop them — but they went out the back door after a year or two. I always thought that the issue of evangelism is, “How do you close the back door?” more than worrying about getting them in the front door.

In Project Test Pattern, we experimented with organizational development that was being used then in education and management — industry and universities. We sent consultants in to work with congregations.

Previous efforts at changing congregations were pretty thin. People would tell congregations what to do, and they would or wouldn’t do it. People in the church structures would develop programs for congregations, but they never found out whether the programs worked or not.

What we did was send trained people into congregations to help them make decisions about what they needed to do, what they needed to respond to. And the consultants wrote up what they discovered and what they saw and what happened.

That was the key turning point. We started getting data about what really happens in congregations. Before, most of what we knew about churches was from sermons about churches or proposals that people made for churches. We didn’t know what actually went on in a church board, for example, or what happened when people got in a fight in a church.

These consultants began writing reports of what they saw happen in churches, and what they tried and what the reaction to the trial was. We began to build up a body of information and knowledge about what happens with churches. That was the basic thing we did in that project.

Q: What were some of the most important of those findings? What did you learn in assisting these congregations over the 20 years you headed Alban?

I guess the first thing we learned was that you can learn, that you don’t have to just sit down and accept what happens. We can learn what is going on; we can learn how to change it; we can learn how to plan what we’re going to do and then figure out how to do it.

We learned that every congregation went through crises, and those crises were when they were open to change. Probably the major crisis that happens to any congregation is the change of pastors.

Every time a pastor changes, a congregation has an opportunity to change. We came to see it as the critical point in the life of a congregation.

Pastors didn’t like to hear that, because we pastors think the most important thing is what we help the church do. But the fact is, the biggest change that happens in a church is already over when the pastor gets there. The congregation has had to face the loss of a previous pastor and decide where they want to go. When you come in, if it’s been done well, the congregation is ready to go in some new directions.

So we spent a lot of time working with placement systems and trying to help people learn. We helped develop the concept of “interim pastor” and ways to train and prepare them to go in and help the congregation get over the previous pastor and get ready for the new one.

Q: Do most congregations take advantage of that opportunity for change? Or does it just inevitably happen in any pastoral transition?

We thought for years it just would happen, but we discovered — and others discovered — that paying attention to that change point is a critical, strategic issue for the church. But most churches don’t see it that way. They see it as “an unfortunate time we’ve got to go through before we can get a new pastor.”

But we discovered that often the most creative moments in a church’s life happen when the pastor isn’t there.

That’s true of the interim period, but also, for example, when a pastor’s on a sabbatical, or the pastor is unable to get to a board meeting, and the board goes in a new direction. Sometimes the way pastors relate to congregations makes it difficult for the people in the congregation to have their true authority.

Congregations that go through a long period without a pastor always think everything’s going to hell in a bandwagon or something, but before long they discover that they’re learning new things and doing things in new ways and feeling pretty good about it.

Another crisis point we discovered was church fights. Most people hate the thought of them, and they’re terrible experiences, but we found that a church fight often opens a congregation up to new life. Things that have been neglected have to be dealt with.

Most churches try to squelch fights. And people today think the way to deal with conflict is for some people to leave the church. Sometimes that works, but we felt that it’s possible to learn something from conflict management to make that kind of crisis different.

Q: These discoveries from 30 or 40 years ago seem very relevant to church life today.

Yes, I think they are.

I was ordained in 1955, at a time when the church was on an incoming tide. This was after the Second World War. The strength of the American economy was unmatched; we were getting richer; there was more money; the church was popular. Religion was important in everybody’s life; it was the way we made community in a lot of places.

From 1950 to 1965, we had a massive movement of people into the churches. We built stronger institutions. Our seminaries were made stronger; membership went up; every judicatory, every Methodist conference and Episcopal diocese built a headquarters. People who used to run a judicatory with a bishop and a secretary suddenly had five or six people on the staff.

And about 1965, the mainline churches — and about 25 years later, the evangelical churches — discovered that the tide had peaked. It was 1966, I think, that the Methodist Church for the first time lost members. The tide started going out, and since at least 1970 the membership and strength of the churches has been declining, and the institutional structures we built in the ’50s and ’60s we can no longer pay for. But all of that related to local churches.

Q: If you were launching an Alban Institute today, would you still focus on local congregations or on repairing those larger institutional structures?

I am still stuck on the importance of the local church. And I think that a lot of those other structures came and went.

The structures of the churches think organizationally, but they often don’t see the interrelationship between things. When we started Alban, we discovered that churches of different denominations are dealing with the same stuff, but they do not share what they know with each other.

Our denominations make us siloed, so that each denomination is trying to solve its problem by itself, and they don’t realize other congregations down the street are having the same troubles. We have to relate them to what other congregations are doing.

Q: Has that situation improved over the last 40 years? Are congregations working together a little better?


For example, take the loss of members in a church. In the ’70s, I was consulting with a bunch of churches in New England. And everywhere I went, I found big churches having the same problem. They had built a church for 1,000 members but now had only 200 members. And they were all asking, “What can we do to get more members?”

I remember working with one in Scarsdale, New York. They had lost members and were having a hard time paying their bills, but they were stuck on the fact that they no longer had a strong youth program. So they decided they would raise a lot of money and get a new youth director.

What they didn’t know was that all their young people had moved on and gone to other places. There had also been demographic changes, with a large increase in Jewish residents and a large number of Japanese immigrants. The church was trying to recapture what they had been 20 years before. They didn’t look at what was going on in the world around them.

And then I found that all these large churches were each trying to solve it themselves. They didn’t realize that changes were happening all over New England. They were just looking at themselves. They didn’t know that every church in town had the same problem. [Each denomination was] trying to solve it on a congregational basis, when the problem was a systems problem.

We lost the capacity to look at larger issues. We were structured to deal with things denominationally, when the problems weren’t denominational. We thought the answer was a new program or a new staff person, when first we had to figure out what was going on in the world around us.

Our judicatories really have that responsibility, to look at the larger picture, but they are also siloed. They only see their own churches; they don’t see the larger issues.

Q: Are there any areas where you think the church, especially the mainline churches, have made progress, have done things right?

I think basically they’ve tried to double down on what they used to be and have not looked at the new things that are coming along.

But there are a few areas. When we started, seminaries and the judicatories and most of the congregations were concerned that people coming out of seminaries were remarkably well-educated in theology and denominational matters but didn’t know how to lead a congregation.

We helped do some research on the boundary between the seminary and the congregation in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of seminaries now have programs to help with the transition from the seminary to the congregation, and that’s helped a lot.

Another thing, when I came out of the parish, there was very little continuing education available for clergy other than book learning. Very few training agencies that worked with congregations helped pastors learn how to lead. Now, a lot of seminaries have some kind of continuing education that isn’t strictly academic.

Also, when we started, it was hard to get good publications about the nitty-gritty of parish life. Now, many publishers are publishing stuff that comes straight out of the life of parishes.

But there are still too many things trying to tell parishes what to do. If there’s one terrible thing the church does, it’s that we believe in gimmicks, that there is a gimmick somewhere that will fix it all. I don’t believe that.

Q: As you look back over the past 40 years, what has most surprised you? Anything catch you unaware about how the church has developed or not developed in the U.S.?

I guess not. It feels like we’ve been fighting a defensive war and not shifting our model to understand the power of the laity as the important part of the church. We’ve gotten more hierarchical and defensive. We’re worrying about how to survive rather than what we ought to be doing.


Alban Weekly, October 20, 2014

Shelly Rambo: The space between death and resurrection

Posted on: October 19th, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments

A theologian who works in the discipline of trauma studies says that Christians need to pay more attention to Holy Saturday. Believing in the promise of resurrection doesn’t eliminate suffering — and in witnessing this suffering, we are about the work of redemption, she says.


Theologians have always wrestled with questions about suffering: Why do we suffer? Where is God in the suffering? Does God allow suffering? Does God will suffering?

But new research into trauma “pushes them to the extreme,” said theologian Shelly Rambo.

“I think what’s different is the way that trauma exposes the extreme vulnerability of human persons in relationship to larger historical forces,” Rambo said.

She became interested in the field of trauma studies while at Yale University in the 1990s, where researchers were studying the effect of the Holocaust on survivors. She has continued to explore the theological issues of suffering and witness with military chaplains and others who have experienced trauma.

An associate professor of theology at the Boston University School of Theology, Rambo is the author of “Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining,” in which she rejects a triumphalistic theology of resurrection and develops a theology of Holy Saturday.

Rambo spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School for the Center for Reconciliation’s 2014 Summer Institute. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is trauma studies?

Trauma studies is not one field. It’s multiple fields coming together to say, “How do we understand what seems to be an extreme and overwhelming effect of violence and suffering in our day?”

The study of trauma largely emerged at the end of the 19th century — you could say it all began with Sigmund Freud. He was trying to make sense of what he was seeing in the midst of World War I, when he was seeing veterans return from war.

This phenomenon of trauma seemed to be a different form of suffering from what he had witnessed in his patients, and so some of Freud’s early theories birthed a whole study of trauma.

Certainly, the study of war continued with World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. And a lot of what we know about trauma is from studying veterans, because they went to hospitals, and this could be documented.

Also, post-Holocaust studies were very instrumental to what we think about as the study of trauma. How do we think about an overwhelming, historical event of suffering and its effects? A lot of the study of trauma emerged about what seemed to be overwhelming suffering that can’t be explained or that can’t be narrated straightforwardly in a kind of clinical relationship.

Trauma moved off the psychoanalytic couch because suddenly the study of trauma became interesting to historians and to neurobiologists and to philosophers and to people like Toni Morrison, who I think writes the best about the trauma of slavery and how it’s experienced, and the kind of haunting of history into the present.

The study of trauma as a theologian became really important, because theologians always study suffering.

Q: The suffering component seems a natural fit with theology.

One of the perennial questions of human existence is, Why do we suffer? And for theologians, Where is God in the suffering? Does God allow suffering? Does God will suffering? Is God absent or present in suffering?

Theologians have always asked that, but I think what’s different is the way that trauma exposes the extreme vulnerability of human persons in relationship to larger historical forces.

Often, trauma was thought of as very individual, right? Often we think about trauma as a traumatic event. An event happens.

But what we’re beginning to see is that traumatic events don’t end. Traumas are moving — and we could say bleeding — into other traumas. We don’t see a clear end to a suffering event but instead a kind of overflowing of suffering.

I think that trauma takes all of our theological questions — and theological answers — and it pushes them to the extreme.

I would look at someone like Jürgen Moltmann and say he was trying to make sense of Christian theology in light of the extreme suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust, and Christian theology could no longer be read the same way. That’s the birth of trauma and theology for me.

We can’t do a light touch on suffering anymore. It really is going to challenge our fundamental assumptions about the nature of God and humanity.

Q: How did you get into this field?

Well, I first studied English literature, and I’m at heart somebody who is a great lover of story. I was raised with this great sense of the biblical imagination and these great stories of David and Goliath, and it kind of fed me and bred me to love literature, I think, at its best.

It really was when I started to read the post-Holocaust literature where I started to see this is a story that can’t be told.

Q: Because of issues of memory or just because it’s so horrific?

Issues of memory, and yes, I think questions of the impossibility of speaking — recovering a memory, speaking — and the question of whether anybody could hear it if it was spoken.

These were all questions that someone like Elie Wiesel made very clear to me: What does it mean to write the horror of the Holocaust? What does it mean to write an event that can’t be written?

The post-Holocaust literature became really interesting to me, and then when I was at Yale Divinity School, I would trudge down the hill and I would go sit in on brown-bag lunch seminars that the Yale Psychiatric Institute was doing.

At that time, the Yale Psychiatric Institute was doing some of the primary clinical work with Holocaust survivors and their children, and so I was listening to it. It was, strangely, open to the public.

I was listening to psychoanalysts discuss the cases of the intergenerational transmission of trauma and the challenges of trying to think about a suffering that transmits across generations. And I thought, wow, this is a profound level at which the human story is disrupted, and yet somehow violence continues.

So it was from literature to this phenomenon of human experience that I’d really never heard about before — the experience of suffering after catastrophe — and I just trudged back up the hill at Yale Divinity School and I said, “Theology really needs to take this seriously.”

At that time, Serene Jones was at Yale Divinity School, and I did a directed study with her because she was interested in reading some of the trauma studies that were happening at Yale at that time.

We can do better in Christian theology to think about suffering, not as something abstract, but as a phenomenon around us that needs to be addressed, and that’s what I do with returning veterans. We have an obligation to re-integrate persons into a new community, and theology matters in doing that.

Q: Do you look at the resurrection in a different way in light of trauma?

Yes. The first book that I wrote was really a refusal of a kind of triumphalistic theology of resurrection. It was because, in the case of many people who are living beyond traumas, the resurrection was often heard as a rush to get over it, to recover, or as pressure to live into resurrection when in fact the reality of their trauma was still very present.

There’s this sense that because it’s a part of the narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, yes, there may be extreme suffering, but we have the good news in the end. The effect of that is that often we don’t linger very long in the suffering in Christian churches.

Walter Brueggemann says that we don’t pause on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter because we already know the end. But that moment, the moment of Holy Saturday — which I develop quite extensively — is that important moment in which you’re living beyond a death, a kind of metaphorical death, but can’t see life clearly ahead.

So what does it mean to take that theological moment — that Saturday — as really a descent into hell? People who experience trauma will narrate something like a descent into hell, which is a sense of survival but not living anew again.

So that moment became really important for me to develop theologically. So what is the call of the Christian community to live all of those moments — Friday, Saturday, Sunday? Because they come around again every year, right?

I’m working on a book now on resurrection wounds, so I’m rereading the story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ, that Gospel of John story that’s so visually powerful, in which the resurrected Christ shows Thomas the wounds, and the wounds still remain there.

So often we read that story as Thomas doubts that it happened, and so Thomas becomes the believer because he comes to faith because of the wounds. I think we’re still not reading the wounds as seriously as we could in terms of the way in which life is marked by suffering.

It’s not doomed to be the only thing there, but the wounds, for many people, constitute part of how they understand their new life.

Maybe the work of the Christian community is to witness the wounds and bring them back into life again.

So there’s a different reading of the resurrection if you read a lot of trauma literature. Basically, what I do invites me into a new way of thinking about suffering, and then I’ve got to go back to my Christian texts and say, “OK, what does this biblical story mean in light of the wounds that I’m seeing all around me?”

Q: How does someone in a position of Christian leadership use what you do in working with people?

I went back to the biblical narrative with all of this reading about trauma — what happens to the brain, and some of the deeper philosophical questions about what does it mean not to know an experience that has happened to you, the cognitive inability to know.

So I took all of this back to the biblical texts, and one of the things that stood out to me was the importance of those who witness at the foot of the cross, and the importance of those moments in which the disciples don’t recognize Jesus when he appears — Is he the gardener? — those moments of not being able to discern what’s going on.

That made me think about how hard it is to witness suffering, how hard it is in the chaos in which you don’t know whether life’s going to emerge for someone. So in a sense, the preacher or the Christian leader becomes the Mary and the beloved disciple and the Thomas who don’t have a clear sign of life.

None of those witnesses really have some triumphant understanding of “Oh, it’s all going to be good in the end.” Their work of witnessing is part of the redemption story, so that it puts a kind of pressure on Christian leaders to say that in the witnessing of suffering, we are about the work of redemption.

So all of a sudden, the disciples got really exciting to me. Now I look and I say how confusing it is to be able to stare death in the face and to live beyond that, and the grief and sorrow of not being able to understand what’s going on.

Christian leaders are called into that space in a way that I hadn’t realized before. The proclamation of the good news of the resurrection has to do with participating in this process of witnessing the dying and the rising of all creatures, witnessing the new creation coming into being.

So that seemed to me like a different emphasis. Instead of proclaiming a very positive, triumphant kind of word, you had witnessing as a slow, almost unsatisfying, unrewarding process of accompaniment. The accompaniment often means not knowing, not having that certainty.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have the promise, but the certainty’s not there. You can hold on to the promises of God that life will come about, but holding on to the promise is different from a certainty that we know how this is going to end. Because often we don’t, when we’re with people and communities who are in such pain.

We don’t really know how that life is going to come about, so we cling to the promise and we do the slow work of witness.

Q: Do you work with trauma survivors?

When I was first teaching, I’d done my dissertation and I was really interested in trauma studies from a literary perspective, from a philosophical perspective, and so I was doing highly conceptual work like you do as a Ph.D. student.

I got a real education when I started to teach classes related to trauma. First of all, they would fill up and people would seek them out, because these were the questions that people wanted to ask. So I started teaching this class rather innocently, thinking people were going to be so excited about all this trauma theory and neurobiological research.

It is fascinating stuff, but what happened is I got pulled into multiple levels of engaging trauma and some very on-the-ground work.

The area that’s been probably most sustained over the last six years is issues related to military trauma. I started to get military chaplains in the trauma and theology class. The ways in which these military chaplains embodied the intersection between trauma care and theology was just astounding.

I started to say yes to any invitations that they extended to me to learn about their world, and that took me to places like the Naval War College in Rhode Island and the [Air Force Chaplain Corps College] at Fort Jackson. I was interested in how chaplains were being trained theologically to do their work.

They kept saying, “This is exactly what we need to have training in,” and so I just kept accepting invitations, which led me to develop a chaplaincy track at Boston University with members of the Religion and Conflict Transformation program.

I think Christian ministers are really struggling with the realities of violence, the pervasiveness of it, and the degree to which their own communities are being exposed to that violence and are really craving theologies of suffering.

Devastating things are happening to people in their congregations and in their communities, and how do you get up and preach? How do you teach the biblical stories? So I got an education in trauma, but I also have a passion to help religious leaders translate some of their stories into a new day.

The rituals of lament and rituals of baptism — these are very profound rituals that I think can be re-purposed. So there’s a kind of new purposefulness in my teaching, to keep addressing some of these issues.


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas,  October 7, 2014

Home-grown ministers for home-grown ministries

Posted on: October 16th, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments

The Kootenay School of Ministry (KSM) is a theological training ground like no other. It has no walls, no permanent facilities, migrates around the largely rural Diocese of Kootenay, and enjoys a rotating roster of faculty drawn from across the Canadian church. Eight years ago this school-without-a-school was just a vision emerging from the diocese’s changing ministry needs. Today it is flourishing and a wellspring of hope.

The diocese, which is tucked along the Alberta and American borders in southern British Columbia, has a history of pioneering in ministry. By the time the Kootenay School of Ministry emerged, the diocese was already two generations into the practice of Mutual Ministry, which is designed to help parishes morph from “communities gathered around a minister, toward becoming ministering communities.” This instilled across the diocese a belief that “God has already given us the resources we need,” notes Archbishop John Privett. This belief proved foundational as the communities of Kootenay set out to write its next chapter in innovative ministry practices.

Like many places throughout the Anglican Church of Canada, Kootenay was in a season of evaluation and visioning when Privett arrived in 2005. At this time, he notes, the diocese was in the midst of keen discernment and “looking at existing forms of ministry and what the needs of the future might be.” Kootenay shares with other dioceses the challenges and opportunities of largely rural ministries stretched thin by declining human and financial resources. Many communities in its boundaries are facing realities where they cannot afford traditional full-time stipendiary ministry provided by seminary trained priests.

The Kootenay School of Ministry proved to be the faithful response to this changing ministry environment. A conventional name camouflages the beautiful unconventionality of the school. Without any permanent facilities, the school instead migrates around the diocese and gathers students for short, intensive bursts of learning provided by a range of scholars and ministry practitioners from across the Canadian church. In this way, KSM very clearly lives out a particular understanding of mission: “We go where the people are,” reflects Privett.

The hallmark of the school is the Locally Trained Priests (LTP) programme, where the formation of priests is carried out through a relational and community centered approach within diocesan borders. Students preparing for ministry return to parish settings between courses to integrate their learning in partnership with supervising priests. This balance between class and parish speaks to people who are already “living and breathing congregational ministry,” notes Privett. It also opens the way for people who have long experienced a call to be a deacon or priest but could not take some years away to attend seminary full-time away from home.

This new model of training, which perhaps hearkens early ministries of the church before the professionalization of the clergy, places responsibility for formation in broader context. Education, as per the vision of KSM, is the covenantal undertaking of the whole church—parish, student, and professor.

Faculty is drawn from across the church and bring to the school a commitment to this new vision of ministry. Teachers function as partners in learning to KSM students, many of whom are second-career or adult learners who already have cultivated significant gifts for ministry. Privett says he receives more offers than he can manage from talented scholars and clergy wanting to be part of the teaching ministry at KSM.

Though not quite a decade old, the Kootenay School of Ministry is showing significant early results. Locally Trained Priests are returning to parishes in the diocese with strong, nurturing connections to their communities. Remarkably, the programme and school also led to a parish welcoming its first priest in 35 years.

The future of KSM is bright, if uncertain. Privett looks toward sharing the Kootenay model with other dioceses and communities and securing its financial future. He also sees potential for better dovetailing KSM courses with accredited seminaries, expanding continuing education opportunities for priests in the diocese, and developing mission centres at parishes with seminary trained priests to provide ongoing mentorship. “We believe the Kootenay School of Ministry is too good to be kept in Kootenay,” Privett says, “We would like to see the school become a resource beyond ourselves.

Whatever the coming years and decades may reveal for KSM, Privett sees nothing but grounds for good Christian hope, “This is a doorway to the future about how we rethink sustaining faithful Eucharistic communities.”

To learn more about the mission and ministries of the Kootenay School of Ministry, please visit


Anglican Church of Canada, News from General Synod, October 16, 2014

Unlikely friends

Posted on: October 14th, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


By Michael Thompson


“Friendship—I am allowing myself to be changed by you, and I trust that the change will be positive” (Sam Wells).

Friendship is personal—our friends are close and trusted. They share our secrets and know our fears and hopes. They have authority in our lives—what they say and do influences us. We allow ourselves to be changed by them, as Sam Wells notes. In fact, some of those closest to us are close precisely because they have had the sort of influence that has brought positive change to our lives.

That’s also why the harm done by a friend weighs so much more and cuts so much deeper than the harm done by a stranger. When we give someone the authority of friendship—when we allow ourselves to be changed by them, we become unguarded and vulnerable.

This friendship, this allowing of myself to be changed by you, is not possible if you are the same as me. What makes friendship work is difference, and sometimes the deepest friendships are those that grow in the soil of the deepest difference. Whatever we are when we don’t run the risk of being changed by the differences between us, we aren’t friends. We’re just kind of mutually convenient.

There is in contemporary life a kind of mutual convenience that comes when we separate into what my friend Martha Tatarnic calls “designer communities.” These are communities in which the like-minded can gather without the discomfort that difference brings.

Some of these designer communities are ideological, some are racial, some are about sustaining a community’s privilege, and some are about sustaining a common sense of grievance. Some of them are armed with physical weapons, while others guard their borders with words, or wealth, or labels. They read the same blogs and watch the same network. Intensely partisan, they take pleasure in the disdain they hold for those whose difference is disturbing.

Most of our communities, including our church communities, have elements of this mutual convenience. But most have elements, also, of the kind of friendship by which we allow ourselves to be changed. And by changed I don’t mean necessarily the kind of change by which one or another of us abandons our convictions to embrace others. It may be that we change our minds, but the kind of change that Wells speaks of is in our hearts, in the breadth of difference across which we can say “we,” instead of “us and them.”

In my life I spend rather a lot of time with people whose understanding of this or that issue is not mine. With some, the absence of the easy agreement of mutual convenience keeps us safely apart. In others, the difference becomes the ground in which friendship can grow, in which we allow the other the authority to change us, and trust that the change will be positive.

I am grateful that our church has a generous and growing capacity to say “we” across great differences. Since it seems unlikely that we will be granted “the easy agreement of mutual convenience,” how delightful and life-giving it is to discover the more unruly gifts of friendship.


About the Author   

Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson

The Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson is the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada.


Anglican Journal News, October 14, 2014

Prison ministry crucial in Canada, says priest

Posted on: October 6th, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


By André Forget


“We need to ask ourselves how we would feel if we had been wrongfully convicted and were languishing in a darkened prison environment while fighting to clear our name,” says the Rev. Sharon Dunlop.  Photo: André Forget

For many Canadians, the justice system exists in the background, a vague abstraction that exists to maintain order and keep people safe—a benign, trustworthy institution. This is not, unfortunately, always the case. It is, like all human creations, an imperfect thing, and when it fails it can have horrifying repercussions.

In the last 20 years, there has been a growing sense of awareness about some of the weaknesses of Canada’s justice system. High-profile cases—like those of Steven Truscott, who was sentenced to death at age 14 for a murder he did not commit and only acquitted 48 years later, in 2007, and David Milgaard, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1970 and served 23 years before finally being exonerated in 1997—have raised questions about how certain we can be about a person’s guilt.

To draw attention to the plight of those wrongfully convicted, and to shed some light on why wrongful convictions happen, the Association for the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) hosted a public lecture followed by an open reception at the Upper Canada Law Society in Toronto, Oct. 2, in honour of Wrongful Conviction Day. The lecture, given jointly by acclaimed criminal lawyer and AIDWYC founding director James Lockyer and York University’s Professor Tim Moore, considered some of the most common reasons why wrongful convictions happen and how they can be avoided.

The event was an emotionally charged one; the audience included Joyce Milgaard (mother of the aforementioned David Milgaard) and Robert Baltovich (who was wrongly convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1992 and served eight years in prison). As Lockyer and Moore explained the different ways that human error can influence the administration of justice, one thing became very clear: Canada’s legal system is fallible, sometimes tragically so.

Among those who attended was the Rev. Sharon Dunlop, an Anglican chaplain who serves on the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, a faith-based coalition working to foster a more community-based approach to justice by addressing the needs of both victims and offenders. Dunlop, who works at the Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont., firmly believes that churches and people of faith need to be more knowledgeable about the failures of the Canadian justice system. “In order to better understand the importance of the work of AIDWYC, we need to ask ourselves how we would feel if we had been wrongfully convicted and were languishing in a darkened prison environment while fighting to clear our name,” she said in an interview. “We need to have some sense of the frustrating and sometimes hopelessness these people must feel. We need to understand that we, too, could be in that same position—no one is immune from being suspect and under scrutiny.”

Dunlop emphasized the vulnerability of all people to misunderstandings or abuses before the law, adding that this should make people even more compassionate toward those who are serving prison sentences. Wrongful convictions occur for a variety of reasons, said Dunlop. “Suspects may be vulnerable due to their economic status, emotional or intellectual impairment, visible minority [status]; police agencies may want to quickly wrap up their case; some prosecutors may have a bias; mistaken identity of eye-witness accounts; mistakes in forensic science.”

The staggering number of seemingly minor things that can lead to a wrongful conviction was one of the main points Lockyer stressed in his lecture.

At this time, the Anglican church has only an informal connection to these issues, one created by the many Anglican clergy and laypeople who work in prison ministry and human rights advocacy. But Henriette Thompson, the Anglican Church of Canada’s director of public witness and social and ecological justice, noted in an email that, “ ‘Justice and corrections’ and ‘truth and reconciliation’ are two public witness priorities in my work and the General Synod’s work. Wrongful conviction brings the two together.”

Over the course of its 21 years of existence, AIDWYC has secured the exoneration of 18 wrongly convicted persons. No one knows how many more are languishing in cells across the country, waiting for their innocence to be proven.

This, said Dunlop, “makes Matthew 25:3—‘I was in prison and you visited me’—even more important for us.”


Anglican Journal News, October 6, 2014

Shared ministry thrives in Australia

Posted on: October 6th, 2014 by CEP Administrator No Comments


By André Forget



Archdeacon Chris Wright says the Anglican Church of Australia has been exploring “local shared ministry,” in which parishioners share leadership responsibilities and are less reliant on a single full-time priest. Photo: André Forget


On a recent visit to the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office in Toronto, the archdeacon of the diocese of North Queensland, Chris Wright, sat down with the Anglican Journal to talk about the similarities between mission in the Canadian and Australian contexts.

One of the clearest points of contact was the changing nature of mission. “The Anglican Church of Canada is very much like the mainstream diocese of the Anglican Church of Australia,” said Wright. “There’s many grey-headed people in the congregations, but there seem to be shoots of new life.”

Changes in terms of demography and place in society provide an important opportunity, said Wright. “I think that in the next 20 years the church is going to be so different from what we have now, we perhaps won’t recognize it.  We will still have bishops and we will still have clergy, but we will do things in different ways and we will be a more community-based body of Christ.”

The Anglican Church of Australia has begun exploring what Wright called “local shared ministry,” a model in which parishioners share leadership responsibilities among themselves and are less reliant on a single full-time priest. “The clergy often have jobs,” he noted, “so they are non-stipendiary—you have a lay leader in the parish and someone looking after pastoral care and visitation, and nursing homes and Bible studies and outreach programs and Sunday school and school ministry, and most of those people are lay people.”

Although he was candid about the amount of work that local shared ministry involves, Wright was optimistic about its long-term possibilities. “We’ve had one parish doing that for about 20 years, and [the parish is] strong,” he said. “They lost their priest, and there was no chance of them getting another priest at that stage; two people offered themselves for ordination and went through the ordination process. One is a lawyer and one is a university lecturer.”

Wright was also careful to point out that this kind of ministry is not universally applicable. “You’ve got to have the right mix to do it. You can’t just throw people in and say, ‘You do this, you do that’—you’ve got to work on what spiritual gifts people have before you start off.”

But despite the challenges, Wright spoke with a quiet pride about the work these pioneering parishes are doing. “They break the mould of what was, where ‘father knows best.’ It’s a more co-operative venture.”


Anglican Journal News, October 1, 2014