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Recently I returned from leading a seminar for twenty-one pastors at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado. On this particular seminar I was joined in leadership by two colleagues, Peter Jonker and Heidi De Jonge (who also blogs here on The Twelve). Since becoming the director of Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching thirteen years ago, I have been privileged to lead and co-lead many seminars for groups of pastors–indeed, this Snow Mountain event was the sixth such week-long seminar we have held up there in the Rockies.
Among the great blessings of these seminars–and it was especially true of this recent one–is the ecumenical diversity of the group. Not only did we come from all over the U.S. and Canada–as far west as San Diego, as far north as Edmonton, as far south as Houston, as far east as Maryland–but we represented among the twenty-one of us nearly a dozen denominations. We were Baptists and Lutherans, Mennonites and Presbyterians, Reformed and non-denominational, Christian Reformed and Orthodox, Anglicans and United Church of Christ.
Naturally this represents a broad swath of the North American church. Lots of different histories, traditions, worship styles, confessions, and theologies were represented around the table. But we had all come together for a common purpose: to try to make our preaching better by shining up some basic skills. We talked about storytelling and imagery, about theories of change and use of music in preaching, about “Show, Don’t Tell” and beauty. The seminar was designed to give some consideration to the nuts and bolts of preaching so that each participant would have a bit more in his or her homiletical tool kit once they got back home.
And once they got back home the sermons that would get preached would have a lot of variation: some preach ten-minute homilies, others thirty-minute sermons; some preach in highly confessional settings and others in more liberal traditions. When discussing the idea of courage in the pulpit, one pastor shared that for her in her more progressive church context, it took courage just to talk a lot about Jesus or to encourage evangelism whereas other pastors in the group preached boldly about Jesus all the time but had to find the courage at times to suggest that Christ is not necessarily the white middle-class Savior some envision him to be.
But here’s the thing: despite some pretty big differences among these pastors, from the first moment of Morning Prayers on the first day, most all of that melted away. Suddenly we were not Orthodox versus Baptist, not conservative versus progressive, not U.S. versus Canadian, not small-town 80-member church versus big-city megachurch. We were just pastors, under-shepherds of the Lord’s flock. We were just disciples, followers, fellow Christians seeking to do our best to lead God’s oft-times difficult people along paths of faithfulness to the Gospel. What’s more, as the discussions unfolded, we discovered that we all struggle with the same things. People are people, the challenges of preaching are universal across traditions, and leadership is often fraught with struggle and with criticisms.
It was so obvious that we were unified in all of these significant ways that no one even bothered to note how remarkable it was that we could hold our conversations so easily despite the theological and liturgical gulfs that otherwise separate our various communions. Indeed, it was as though those differences did not even exist for the five mornings we spent together.
Of course I realize that had a topic shifted to some doctrinal or socio-political point at any given moment some differences might have leaped out quicker than you might guess. And of course I realize one cannot over-extrapolate on this experience and make some blanket conclusions. Still, for the last number of years I (like many I suspect) have felt so much alienation throughout North America and particularly in the U.S. and especially in the church. Facebook can quickly become a battleground (if not a killing field) these days and the rifts in the church have become deep and fearsome. I have found myself squaring off–especially at times here on The Twelve–with many people, even family members in ways that just tend to generate unhappiness.
So forgive me if I overstate this or over-exaggerate this but for me the unity we pastors had a couple weeks ago up there in the grandeur of God’s creation that just is the Rocky Mountains was encouraging. Maybe when the dust settles and the air clears and we get to spend some time face to face with people, maybe we as Christians can yet find a unity that transcends our differences and that points to things that are more . . . hopeful (at a time when hope sometimes seems in short supply). Maybe in the end it is true that on many key points the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide or even just differentiate. Yes, I plan to continue to advocate for what I think is right and true for the church and yes, I am therefore not forswearing more difficult conversations to come. But in the midst of all that, perhaps some comfort can be drawn from remembering also all that holds us together at deeper levels of the faith.
And yes, maybe that’s too naive or optimistic. But for now I am going to go with it and be encouraged by all the new pastor friends I made and see it as perhaps a beacon of unity and hope in an otherwise fractured moment.