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Friday, November 15, 2013

My Philosophy of Education

I was named Clinton Alternative School's "Teacher of the Year" this year. As a part of the portfolio I was asked to produce for the next round of that process (the District level) I was required to write a "Philosophy of Education."

I genuinely struggled to write the document for two reasons. First, I felt that the assignment was so broad that I couldn't wrap my arms around the essential nature of my teaching philosophy. Certainly such a paper would be too long and esoteric for the purposes of the Teacher of the Year process. I was afraid I would wind up writing a dissertation.

Secondly, I was unsure about the forthrightness of my answers. Should I actually tell this committee how I feel about education vis-a-vis standardized testing? Should I intimate my feelings about grades and behavior with my specific set of children? I was worried that if I was honest I'd be disqualified and perhaps be labeled persona non grata among my peers.

After almost a month of thinking and fretting, I generated a brief (albeit heavily-footnoted) statement about what I believe about teaching. My readers might not be interested in such a document, but I include it here because it reflects my heartfelt theological conviction that teaching is important to the Church. The text of the document follows.

Philosophy of Education[1]

What gets me up in the morning to go teach math, admittedly not my students’ favorite subject, at the Clinton Alternative School? I find that I thrive in the environment of CAS, and those feelings must have something to do with what I believe about myself, my students, and the broader world of education. This essay, I hope, will lay out some of my core assumptions, understandings, and beliefs about teaching the way I teach.
My philosophy of education begins with faith. Fundamental to everything I am as an educator is my understanding of humanity as framed by my Christian perspective on the world. Specific to this understanding is the notion of the Imago Dei, or the theological idea that human beings are created in the image of God.[2] Although this theology is at no point introduced in my classroom, I believe it has a profound effect on who I am as a teacher and how I interact with my students at the Alternative School.
            If my students are made in the image of God, then they must be understood and seen from the perspective of God, insofar as that is possible.[3]  We must understand our students, then, as more than their biological natures or as the products of their unique upbringings. Our students have inherent dignity and worth that must be the beginning point of our teaching. They are worth teaching and are worth our best efforts to make them as successful as we can. According to my underlying philosophy rooted in the imago Dei, then, “human dignity must be understood as creatively posited by God with the fact of human existence. It is not dependent on the existence of a quality which humans posses. Rather, it is the presupposition for all qualities humans posses…”[4]
            This is essential to my teaching philosophy at the Clinton Alternative School. Our students, with few exceptions, present personalities, habits, and attitudes that make them difficult to manage in a classroom and contribute to their need for academic remediation. Understanding that each student has a value beyond their specific qualities or performance is the first step in the re-humanizing process that I plan to go through with each of them.[5] It is the posture that each student has inherent value in the eyes of God that prepares me for each lesson and each encounter with admittedly difficult students and situations at the school.
            My core educational philosophy, then, is this: relationship precedes moral (and academic) performance.[6] By this I mean that my relationship with my students comes before, both temporally and ontologically, any expectation I might have of their behavior or academic ability. They are not defined by their behavior, and they are not defined by their academic performance. My presence in their lives and in the classrooms of the Alternative School is about something more fundamental than that; it is about forming and developing healthy relationships with the students that lead to their being humanized by the educational process. First and foremost they are human beings who are deserving of the highest values of society: honor, love, belonging, and the donation of dignity that they most likely will not willingly receive or understand.
If a relationship can be established with my students, then I can begin the truly valuable task of educating them. Traditional approaches to teaching mathematics content have, in the majority of cases, failed to bring my students along. Thus an approach that meets them where they are emotionally, spiritually, and academically may prove to be best to engender success among them. This is the goal of the relationships I form with my students. I aim to find them at their core, gently motivate them, and show them that there is a part of them that can be successful academically and socially.[7] If the relationship comes first, then the academics will follow, and, I hope, the target behaviors will as well. My students are not mere “behavior plans” nor are they “behavior problems;” they are people who need my love and mercy. My lesson plans, then, always begin with those two things: love and mercy.
As demonstrated above, my position on relationship-first teaching is neither novel nor unique. This emphasis, though, places me at odds with contemporary education theory and practice. Many educators in America are influenced by Skinner’s pedagogical philosophy based on “behaviorism.”[8] This understanding of teaching assumes that the beliefs, intentions, and settings of a students actions are unknowable that therefore irrelevant to the task of teaching. I understand, along with MacIntyre, that such a position is untenable in experimentation and in practice in the classroom.[9] I do not want to stand intentionally at odds with my peers or with those great lights in education who have gone before me; however, the formation of relationship before correcting or even examining behavior is too important to me to cede my position.
My students are human beings, not human “doings.”[10] Part of my task as an educator is to continually humanize my students, often over and against the de-humanizing forces of their culture. I have found that a part of their culture that tends to see them as creatures meant for production can be their school. I try to limit the load of work that I assign to my students. I look for that balance point between assignments that are necessary for their mastery of the content and those that become onerous and sources of frustration and angst among them. My academic expectations for my unique set of students are not different from teachers at other schools; my expectations are, however, tempered to meet the needs of those students. They will be successful in my classroom, both academically and emotionally. I will not burden them with unnecessary work nor will I allow myself to value them based upon their performance.
I am a teacher. Teaching is not something I do. Teaching is a part of my being: my spirit, my mind, my body. Teaching is not in the content of my lessons or the scores on my tests; it is in the relationships that I form and grow with my students. To teach, in my heart, is to offer humanity, real, God-inspired humanity to my students. It is the greatest, hardest, and most central part of who I am. Even on my worst days at Clinton Alternative School, I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther when he faced his most challenging day in court: “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”[11]

[1] My great thanks to the committee for their consideration and for their time to read this admittedly difficult document.
[2] Grenz et al. define the Imago Dei as “the uniqueness of humans as God’s creatures. In the Genesis creation account Adam and Eve are said to be created in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27). Theologians differ on what the image of God actually refers to, but most agree that the image is not primarily physical. Instead the imago Dei may include the presence of will, emotions, and reason; the ability to think and act creatively; or the ability to interact with socially with others. Scripture attributes the imago Dei solely to humans…” See Stanley J. Grenz et al, “imago Dei,” Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999, 63.
[3] See Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man, New York: Scribners, 1953.
[4] R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead (eds.), God and Human Dignity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 51.
[5] This has been informed by education writer Haim G. Ginott. He writes, “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” Haim G. Ginott, Teacher and Child, New York: Scribners, 1993.
[6] I have developed this idea thanks in large part to the writing of Miroslav Volf. See especially his Exclusion and Embrace, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
[7] My understanding of relationship as a prerequisite to learning comes from my reading and interpretation of Plato’s works on education, specifically Gorgias. McEwan comments on this work that “Plato opposed [the] conception of the teacher as someone who did something to someone in contrast to his own view of the teacher as someone who did something with someone. The asymmetry in the relationship between teacher and pupil that the sophists advanced—the idea that teaching was a one-way affair with the teacher always in control—had little to do with how learning took place. In effect, sophists treated their pupils as little more than customers to be pleased rather than co-inquirers in search of the truth.” McEwan further reinforces my perspective by saying, “In order to teach someone something, a prior relationship must be established based on a special affinity between teacher and pupil—a sort of marriage of true minds or a match that connects people who have souls that are alike. This is what Plato’s elaborate myth about the heavenly journey of the soul in the company of a favored god teaches. Relationship precedes method. In terms of Plato’s elaborate metaphors, Socrates must be a matchmaker before he can be a midwife.” See Hunter McEwan, “Narrative Reflection on the Philosophy of Teaching: Genealogies and Portraits,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 45 no 1, 125-40.
[8] For a helpful introduction to this theory of educational philosophy, see B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, New York: Vintage, 1976.
[9] MacIntyre comments about Skinner, “There is no such thing as ‘behavior,’ to be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs, and settings.” Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (3rd ed), Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame, 2010, 208.
[10] I first heard this phrase on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” on ESPN Radio. He certainly did not come up with the idea, but he is the one who started my thoughts in this way.
[11] Brecht, Martin. (tr. Wolfgang Katenz) "Luther, Martin," in Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 2:463.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Painful Work of Prayer

The Painful Work of Prayer
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The 23rd Sunday of Pentecost

There is a class at Mississippi College that students in the Christian Studies department regard with fear and respect: the Teachings of Jesus. It is rumored that this class is so difficult that not even Jesus could make an A. What becomes so tough for the students is the formal, in-depth examination of the parables found in the Gospels. How do we interpret them? What type of literature are they? How literally do we take the settings, characters, and events in Jesus’ parables?

Already this Fall we have encountered such troublesome parables as that of the Unjust Steward and the Unjust Judge, both of which are cumbersome yet compelling, and awfully difficult to preach from. The faithful preacher, like those thousands and thousands who have done so before, preaches a message of Kingdom hope in Jesus Christ and hopes no one in the congregation notices how tough the exposition really was. These parables and those like them press our Baptist belief in “Soul Competency” about as far as it can go.

The nature of parables is that they often defy the neat, well-organized logic of the gospel narratives and leave themselves open to many interpretations. We sometimes characterize parables as simple stories that point to a complex truth, but even this category does not capture the totality of what Jesus accomplishes in his parables about the Kingdom.

There are at least four major categories into which the passages of Scripture identified as parables can be located.[1] The first group are maxims: short, wisdom-style sayings that resemble properly-spelled Tweets. “Doctor, cure yourself!” or “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment” are biblical examples of such parables. They have no characters or plot; they simply exist as proverbs.

The second type of parable is the similitude. These sayings are slightly longer than maxim parables, and they include language that compares two things. For example, “the Kingdom of God is like…” often introduces these parables.

The third category of parables in the Gospels is allegory. These are longer parables in which Jesus likens elements, characters, or actions in a generic situation to a different reality. A great example is the Parable of the Sower: Jesus tells us a parable is coming, tells the parable, and then gives an explicit interpretation of each element of the parable.

Finally, most of the parables in Luke are the fourth type, that is, the short story. In these long parables we have narrative explanation of a hypothetical situation, some character development and plot, and open-ended interpretation. It is this final category that drives us crazy in Luke’s Gospel: what is the Good Samaritan about? What is the point of the Parable of the Two Sons? These longer narrative parables are so thick and rich that they could be interpreted many ways, all of which may be faithful and accurate.

Our temptation as modern readers is to find the point and to make connections between the elements of these longer parables and some aspect of our lives. We usually, though, insert ourselves into the most favorable, heroic character in the parables as we interpret them. For instance, when we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we bravely imagine ourselves as the holy outsider bathing the wounds of a stranger in oil and God’s love after others have passed him by. We are challenged to remember the weak and the wounded and to give of our time, talent, and treasure to help those in need. I wonder, though, how many sermons on that parable encourage good Americans to see themselves as the one bloodied in the ditch, or, worse yet, the ones who pass by the dying in the name of ritual purity?

It is certainly the case that Luke’s long parables communicate a theme of reversals, which is a theme of Luke’s entire literary Gospel project. God comes to the poor Mary to bear Jesus; poor shepherds are the first to hear of Christ’s birth; those who are rich are frustrated by Jesus’ teachings; the poor are welcomed into the in-breaking Kingdom; the insiders become the outsiders; and death turns out not to have the last word.

Yet here is a troubling parable about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. We are told up front that this parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Great: we know that this is a parable and that it is, somehow, about self-righteousness. Before Jesus even has an opportunity to speak in Luke’s narrative we already know what side we’re on - the side of whoever in this parable is not self-righteous. We already know the winning team; all Jesus has to do is name the victor and the fool and we’ll be done with this thing.

Sure enough, Jesus paints a pretty poor picture of a Pharisee by putting the most arrogant, self-righteous prayer imaginable on his lips. Shortly thereafter we meet the humble, convicted, humble tax collector beating his breast in shame over his sins. We cheer. “That’s us!” we say. Jesus declares that the tax collector is the winner by saying he is justified by God, and the narrative briskly moves on toward another topic.

In the words of that great theologian Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Luke’s parables are hardly as simple as winners versus losers. In many of this Gospel’s longer parables we are presented with extreme people or extreme situations. We hear about the first and the last, the prideful and the humble, the poor and the rich, the outsider and the insider, the one near by and the one far away, the one lost and the one found. We are presented in this parable by hyperbole, that is, with extreme characterizations of people and opinions.[2]

This parable presents two such extremes: the impossibly prideful Pharisee and the super-humble and contrite tax collector. Neither is to be understood as normal, everyday people. They are caricatures of two ways in which people respond to God. Their prayers represent two positions, both spiritual and physical locations that relate people to God and God’s Kingdom. I contend that neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector represent the true way to live in God’s Kingdom. To demonstrate this notion, let us examine the two characters a little more closely.

First, the Pharisee. The words of this religious expert are insulting to our ears. He is self-centered, listing the things that he does that he is sure will earn him favor in God’s eyes: “I fast…I give…I…” The Pharisee is arrogant, prideful, and boasting. He is certainly not exemplifying the type of life that Luke’s Jesus calls for. He is not practicing the virtues of “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” He is not living under the role-reversal of God’s coming kingdom where the rich are sent away empty and the poor are elevated and satisfied. He is very much the clanging gong and crashing symbol that Paul criticizes in his Corinthian correspondence.

The Pharisee is certainly a caricature of what the real Pharisees were like: over-confident in their interpretations of Torah, over-zealous in their application of periphery rules that excluded outsiders in the name of religious purity. We boo the Pharisees because they are the antagonists at almost every turn in the Gospels. This man must be the bad example of prayer and Kingdom life in this parable!

Let us make one final observation about the Pharisee in this parable. Jesus introduces this scene to us by saying that “two men went up to the temple to pray.” Let us not be too hasty in imagining them entering a gothic cathedral on their own to offer prayers on their lunch breaks in an empty sanctuary. From what we know of ancient Temple worship practices, the opportune time for individuals to pray aloud in or near the Temple was the afternoon Tamid service.[3] This was a regular, popular, and well-attended service of prayers frequented by all types of Jewish men. While an organized Temple service is not exclusively mandatory to understand this parable, it is helpful to break through our own post-Reformation assumptions about the scene Jesus is painting for us.

Consider the Pharisee standing apart from a congregation of people meeting for regular prayers. He offers this arrogant, self-righteous prayer not alone but intentionally separated from people he considers less righteous than he. He is there, looking judgmentally at the assembly, pointing to himself as an example of righteousness. This image of the Pharisee certainly makes his prayer even more deplorable to our souls. I liked this “bad guy” more when I could imagine him complete alone praying arrogantly before God. Now I see him belting out his non-prayer in front of God, and everybody.

In this same scene we meet the tax collector. By that title we already understand him to be hated in his community as a sellout to the Roman occupation. He takes his own peoples’ monies and “renders them to Caesar.” He is an outcast by his occupation much as Matthew would have been when Jesus called him from behind his booth.

Now we see this outcast as standing far away. Far away from what? If we can accept as plausible the Tamid service described above, then this tax collector was standing away from the congregation by himself. He was apart, outside, on the edge, and certainly not in the middle of the congregation as he prayed. Even the arrogant Pharisee calls him out as an outsider, as undesirable, as lost.

Both men are standing apart from the congregation, one in judgmental self-righteousness, the other in crippling humility and spiritual segregation. Both stand apart, both represent extremes. The holier-than-all Pharisee, is about to be brought low by the judgment of God!

Oh, what a sweet reversal! The tax collector, the despised outsider, beats his chest and refuses to look toward heaven because of his guilt for sin. He has committed wrong and has been convicted by God of that sin. He stands apart from everyone because he has to and because he cannot bear to stand “boldly before the throne of grace” in his despair. Jesus declares him to be justified over and against the sinfully arrogant Pharisee! Whoo-Hoo! Victory!

Declared justified? Yes. Example to follow? Not Exactly. Both men are caricatures of two approaches to righteousness, neither of which are ultimately appropriate for God’s people.

It is easy to pick on the Pharisee because of his arrogance. It is easy to preach about Christians who are “holier-than-thou” and think that they have a corner on righteousness. These folks have usually selected some social evil that they have sworn off of or picketed against and have thus found for themselves some sort of moral high ground above and apart from the less righteous churches and people. The caricature of the hyper-arrogant Pharisee sounds like a lot of Baptists I know, and certainly a lot of religious folks. The sermon about the evils of arrogance and prideful prayer almost writes itself.

It is similarly easy to lift up the humble, repentant tax collector as a paradigm of Christian prayer and piety. Here is a man too broken to look to heaven as he prays. He, like the Pharisee, stands apart, not wanting to be near the congregation in shame and conviction. He begs God for forgiveness and mercy, terrified that he has sinned more than God can forgive. He is the perfect foil to the arrogant Pharisee - he is as humble and contrite as the Pharisee is arrogant and boastful.

I say be neither. The Pharisee is obviously not what we want in our Christian discipleship. He represents all of the arrogant, wall-building tee-totaling ignorance of Christians who find their justification in their deeds or non-deeds rather than in God’s righteousness. Certainly we should look to the example of the tax collector for our inspiration to repent. Yes, he is certainly a better example righteousness before God and a perfect image of the unforgivable outcast receiving justification.

But both men are standing apart from the community of God. Both men are extremes in their positions; both are outsiders with no intention of moving into the writing, messy middle of Christian congregation. The Pharisee remains apart in the name of Purity; he has earned his righteousness by his deeds of segregation and self-elevation. The tax collector stands apart in all-consuming guilt and brokenness. He beats his chest and begs forgiveness, but never moves into the community of people who have received it.

Both men need to move. They are both in places where they feel safe: the one in his piety and the other in his pain. Both need to grow through participation in the community through which God’s Spirit speaks to each of them. The Pharisee needs to hear the community live out Christ’s call to humbly walk with God though the way of the Cross rather than in judgments that only serve to condemn and exclude. The tax collector needs to hear the testimonies of those who have been broken by their guilt for sin and who have been restored to wholeness through the Spirit of God. He needs to hear the words of those who go “boldly before the throne of Grace.” These men are caricatures in Luke’s parable because they need each other to be real - they cannot possibly stand in the real world as they are.

The parable is about our places of comfort before God, the spiritual nests we have constructed and from which we pray. It is a call to leave those places of comfort and move into the messy middle of Christian discipleship. Our self-righteousness can become a wall against inclusion or participation in the broader work of the Kingdom of God. We can win battles of theology or culture and lose sight of the real nature of the Gospel in the process. Similarly, we can carry our good-old Baptist guild so far that we never move beyond the call to conviction and repentance toward the more difficult work of conforming to the image of Christ.

To those who are far off in their habits or holiness: come to the congregation of people who haven’t yet figured it all out. Teach us. Mentor us. Help the congregation of those praying to God live lives of godly practice in things like tithing and spiritual practices like fasting. Move from the comfortable place of condemnation to the painful place of praying for the forgiveness of sins and the humility that comes with it.

To all those who are buried under guilt for their sins: come in to the congregation of people who have been pricked by God’s holiness too. Come in to the fellowship of the sinful and the not-yet-perfected. Come and rest in the seats of those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good and that the Lord is more than guilt and conviction. Move from the comfortable cycle of sin-conviction-guilt-repentance toward a discipleship that makes real transformation possible as we learn to conform to the image of Christ together.

These are the people in our congregation and in every congregation. They may not be standing on the edges of the community in self-righteous condemnation or constant guild for sin, but they are away from the hard, beautiful, painful work of prayer that comes with knowing that our hope for righteousness comes from God alone, but thanks be to God so does our forgiveness and newness of life.

This is the community where the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. It is the community that finds life in the places that were barren. It is the place where all can feast at the table of God’s mercy whether they found temporary comfort in their self-righteous rule-making or their constant need for confession. The day that Joel envisioned is the day when the community can bring in the outsiders that are already inside the community and draw then into the real, warm, filling feast that is the Kingdom of God. Amen.

[1] See West, Audrey, “Preparing to Preach the Parables in Luke,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36 no 6, 405-13.
[2] See Holmgren, Fredrick C., “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” Interpretation 48 no 3, 252-261.
[3] See Hamm, Dennis, “The Tamid Service in Luke-Acts: The Cultic Background Behind Luke’s Theology of Worship,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25 no 3, 223-224.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On the Baptist Church Committee System

I enjoy college football very much. I will watch any college football game on any day and often lose entire Saturdays to random games with inconsequential outcomes.[1] As all college football fans are aware, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system that is currently used to “determine” the national champion is being replaced with a 4-team playoff. The selection of these four teams will be up to a 13-member committee.

One storyline coming out of the transition from the BCS to the playoff system has been the inclusion of Dr. Condoleezza Rice as one of the committee members. Some sports commentators have criticized Rice’s inclusion on such an important committee, claiming that Dr. Rice has no experience in the game of football and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments about which four teams are the best.[2] Rice responded to the criticism by saying that she is a “student of the game.”[3]

This committee is important to me as a college football fan. Rice’s inclusion will certainly influence the outcome of the college football season. Should a non-player be included? Should a woman be included? Many of the opinions on this issue have revealed sexist perspectives or, at the very least, the notion that a person cannot make informed decisions about something like college football without having actually played college football.

 The discussion of Rice’s inclusion in the committee got me thinking about the importance of committees in Baptist congregations and the decisions we make regarding who should serve on certain committees in our fellowships. We annually place people on committees that manage ministries and the administration of the church, but what are we requiring of the people who serve on those committees?

I am fortunate to be involved in two congregations that have excellent committee structures. Northminster Baptist Church is a committee-led congregation in the strongest sense of the word; the ministerial staff is beholden to the committees of the church and the committees take their responsibilities seriously. Madison Chapel has a strong tradition of whole-church decision-making (because of its small size). The ability to come together as an entire congregation to prayerfully decide congregational action is impractical in larger churches, but for our small fellowship it is a wonder to behold.

I have worked with churches that had relatively impotent committees, non-meeting committees, and too many committees. In one case the congregation decided to make a rule that a person could only serve on one committee per year, which necessitated the reduction of the number of committees by half!

The committee structure of Baptist churches is often at odds with other powers in the congregation, especially the deacon body or the pastor. There are certainly faithful Baptist churches that are led by strong elder or deacon groups that function as a board of directors. Similarly there are Baptist churches that function well with authoritarian CEO-style pastors who determine many of the church’s decisions.[4] There is certainly Biblical precedent for many types of church organization, so let us not be too hasty to either condemn or condone one form over another.

For Baptists, church organization and polity is based upon the principle of the Priesthood of the Believer.[5] Since we assume that the gift of salvation is offered to all and that the Spirit of God is pored out on all people who believe on Jesus Christ for salvation, the Church must be the collection of those people gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ to do the work of God’s Kingdom in a specific place and time. The Church is, therefore, an exercise in democracy: with Christ as the head of the congregation and the members rendered equal by the outpouring of the Spirit we gather to make decisions as peers.

Direct democracy is cumbersome and slow, though, and often impractical. Baptists have adopted the practice of forming committees to deal with certain aspects of congregational life, ranging from bereavement and ministerial visitation to figuring out who should mow the lawn. These committees are formed out of the congregation and are beholden (usually) to that congregation rather than to the pastor or the deacons.

So who serves on our committees? In a perfect church I suppose the committees would be made up of the wisest, most mature, most committed members of the congregation. What I have found, though, is that in many cases the committees are filled with the first people who agreed to serve. Further, in smaller churches people are required to serve on multiple committees because of a simple lack of numbers.

A fellow pastor told me a story over lunch recently about one experience he had with a committee in his church.[6] A group in his congregation had been tasked with the formulation of a statement of faith that was more appropriate and relevant to the congregation than the one presently in the church’s Constitution. After weeks of non-discussion and no action to revise or create that statement, the pastor commented to the committee that they “just don’t care.” He was right. Even on an issue as fundamental as the development of a statement of faith so little enthusiasm was mustered that the issue died on the committee floor.

Our committee structure is a good thing. As Baptists emphasize the Priesthood of the Believer we quickly emphasize congregational church governance. The two go hand-in-hand. What is also necessary to emphasize, though, is the essential nature of Christian discipleship in the Priesthood of the Believer and therefore in our Baptist church polity.

A Baptist church committee can only function in so far as its members have set themselves to the difficult process of maturation in Christian faith and life. There is a direct correlation between the effectiveness (I dare say relevance) of a committee and its members’ relative spiritual maturity. Yes, we could make the church finance committee be nothing but expert accountants and financial managers. But unless these individuals have committed themselves to following the Lord in ever-increasing knowledge and development, they will miss the true nature of a church’s mission and therefore miss the point entirely of serving on a congregational committee.

If a congregation’s committees are weak or ineffective, perhaps we should emphasize discipleship and the clear call to progressive maturity in faith demonstrated in the Scriptures.[7] Only through the spiritual maturity of the constituent members of a committee can that body truly serve the good of Christ’s church.

Further, let us take seriously the selection of committee members in our congregations. If these committees are important, then the selection of their membership should be important.[8] Not everyone who has balanced a checkbook is spiritually prepared to serve on the finance committee, and likewise a person should not be excluded if they don’t have a degree in finance. Our spiritual maturity as disciples should be the guiding principle in our selection committee members rather than our ability to find volunteers.

Cooler heads have prevailed in the case of Dr. Rice serving on the college football selection committee. Although she has defended her inclusion based upon her knowledge of the game, such excuses are irrelevant. Dr. Rice should be included in the decision making process because she has proven her maturity in making important, difficult decisions. She has demonstrated an ability to evaluate the facts and to make informed choices without being distracted by the passion that I would certainly have were I on that committee.[9]

We must seek maturity in our committee members because it is those who have been discipled by the church the most who are best equipped to make decisions on behalf of that church.

[1] However, Sic ‘Em Bears!
[3] See also
[4] The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) has been interpreted in ways that contribute to the Pastor-as-CEO model of church governance. There is no language in that document concerning a committee structure in a congregation; such language and direction is usually present in a congregation’s Constitution and By-Laws.
[5] See Leonard, Bill J., Baptist Ways. Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2003.
[6] It was at McAllister’s, and was very tasty.
[7] For more on this progression of discipleship, see me recently posted work on Catechesis as Discipleship.
[8] An argument can be made that serving on a committee is an act of discipleship whereby less mature members can be compelled to grow through their service. This is certainly true, but for growth to occur there needs to be a critical mass of relatively mature members on the committee to disciple the less mature members throughout the year.
[9] Again, Sic ‘Em Bears!