John W. Kinney: Theological education and the needs of students and the church

Students at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, where the Rev. Dr. John W. Kinney served as senior vice president and dean. Photo courtesy of Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology

In an era when ministry is rapidly changing, theological schools must be more sensitive to the needs of both students and the church, even if it means questioning long-held approaches, says the pastor and theological educator.

The character and context of ministry is radically changing today, and that in turn means that seminaries must become more sensitive to the needs of both students and the church, says the Rev. Dr. John W. Kinney, a longtime pastor and seminary educator and administrator.

“Some of the challenges today are engaging the populations that will be guiding congregations and the larger community,” he said. “What are their realities? What are their needs?”

For seminaries, that process will mean engaging and questioning long-held approaches, Kinney said.

“Have we absolutized some things as the symbols of excellence when in fact they may be archaic and were excellent in their season?” he said. “We have to begin to reassess and examine how we guide people to excellence in this day and age.”

Kinney retired earlier this year as senior vice president and dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University and has served as vice president and president of The Association of Theological Schools. He has also been pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Beaverdam, Virginia, since 1977.

Much of what seminaries traditionally do to establish excellence in theological education, Kinney said, “may be the relics of a way of life that are more an expression of our own social construction rather than a holy or divine mandate.”

Regarding issues of racism and sexism, seminaries’ first challenge is “to, in a real sense, be set free from our denial,” he said.

“We like living lies,” he said. “Lies allow us to operate under an illusion that affords us the privilege of identifying ourselves as the enlightened, or those who are beyond something, when in fact it’s very much a fabric of what we do.”

Kinney spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School recently to deliver the 2017 Gardner C. Taylor Lecture. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What are the challenges of theological education today? What does excellence mean in theological education?

There are multiple challenges.

The character and context of ministry is radically changing, so it means that the centers of preparation have to be sensitive to those contextual variables and realities -- both the needs and the life circumstances of learners and the needs of the church.

Excellence is always, for me, understood within the constructs of a goal or an outcome. You can’t be excellent without vision, without somewhere that you intend to go.

Excellence is not an abstract concept. It has to do with performance for and with purpose.

Some of the challenges today are engaging the populations that will be guiding congregations and the larger community. What are their realities? What are their needs?

Have we absolutized some things as the symbols of excellence when in fact they may be archaic and were excellent in their season? We have to begin to reassess and examine how we guide people to excellence in this day and age.

There are clearly timeless principles and timeless foundations. How do we identify those and articulate those as the nonnegotiables -- things like integrity, fidelity, commitment?

We can talk in these larger terms, but when I prepare someone to serve in the world we live in, what are the skill sets they need? What is the knowledge they need in order to be excellent?

Surely, some of that has a long history in the church, but some of what we do to establish excellence may be the relics of a way of life that are more an expression of our own social construction rather than a holy or divine mandate.

When we see what people are facing, the dynamics in our world, even things that we thought were long gone -- racism, sexism, addiction -- we have to think more globally.

As an example, when I went to seminary, we didn’t have courses on HIV and AIDS or substance abuse ministries, but now, where I operated as dean for years, those are essentials. Students need to come out of there with understanding. In fact, in some ways, renewing the curriculum has to do more with assessing the reality that people are going to step into, as what they need to be excellent.

Q: You’re saying that pastoring is contextual, and so therefore theological education needs to be as well. So what should seminaries be doing with relationship to race and related issues? What do seminaries need to do to prepare students of diverse backgrounds?

The first issue we have to deal with regarding race and sexism is that we need to, in a real sense, be set free from our denial.

We like living lies. Lies allow us to operate under an illusion that affords us the privilege of identifying ourselves as the enlightened, or those who are beyond something, when in fact it’s very much a fabric of what we do.

One way that we operate in our illusions is that we don’t begin to engage the constructs of our systems that are a function of race and of sexism. We abdicate our responsibility by saying we’re following policy or we are following the tradition and the guidelines, whether they be institutional, denominational, familial.

In some ways, I can always escape the charge of being a racist or a sexist by turning to following a paradigm. And it’s not only following a policy -- we could say, “I’m following the Constitution.” But it’s also affirming, in a unilateral and universal way, a hermeneutic for interpreting documents. We don’t realize that sometimes we have a lens in the way in which we engage the document.

For instance, “You can’t mess with the Constitution.” But both from the legal and the applicative side, what hermeneutic do you use for unlocking that? How do you open it such that it challenges the assumptions?

Sometimes we say that we’ve transcended it. It’s like welcoming women to seminary -- so, “We’re not sexist.” Or welcoming black folk. Some of the most racist institutions are now commodifying black people so that they can present themselves as having gotten beyond certain things. Often, what generates their investment in welcoming people of color has nothing to do with affirmation of the people of color. It has to do with the survivability and the image of the institution.

It really means that your real interest in black folk is the need they serve for you, rather than how you can be responsive to theirs.

Q: It’s hard to escape our own self-interest. It becomes the air we breathe, and we’re not even aware of it.

Absolutely.

It’s been absolutized and has a normativity that cannot be questioned. In the lecture today, I will talk about how social constructions can take on an ontological status and assume cosmic validity and self-legitimating facticity to the degree that if you question it, you either lack faith or you’re un-American, because “this is God’s way.”

Q: There’s not a lot of honest speech about important matters like race, war, religion, sex.

Not honest -- and part of it is that we tend to choose up sides and defend our side rather than engage and encounter. And tragically, we have used the Christian story to defend and justify our side.

It’s tragic in the United States of America how masses of those who call themselves Christian would align themselves with values and principles that are in no way consonant with the revelation of God in any form.

It’s tragic that we cast our vote for those who would privilege the Christian church rather than those who would call the church to live into the fullness of its promise, its call and its identity.

So my real desire is, I want that which will privilege me, not that which prophetically calls me to be faithful.

Q: And in the process, it’s turning off waves of young people.

That’s the real tragedy, because there are young people who are literally saying, “If that’s what it means to be a part of this community, that’s not a community I can affirm.”

Not only are there young people; there are elders who have become so jaded they’re saying, “Maybe I need to drop the title ‘Christian’ and let’s just say, ‘I love the Lord,’ but I can’t be a part of that.”

That’s always been a debate in the black church. Even in the civil rights era, can you be black and be Christian when you look at the legacy of the Christian church as a co-conspirator in the maintenance of a violation and abuse of the people, and even developing theological systems that justify and sustain that?

Then the argument would always come back, “But yet that is not the full face of the Christian church; there are others who have put their lives on the line to live into authentic community.”

Q: So how do seminaries go about doing this kind of introspection, opening their own eyes to the kinds of issues that you’re talking about?

I believe the key to that is an honest faculty and honest administrators. Sometimes, as an educator, you spend a lot of time deconstructing, talking about the demon that resides in other people’s thoughts and behaviors, but we cannot begin to honestly engage the demons that reside in us.

Even the way that I’m doing what I do, and the model that I provide as a teacher, can be very oppressive, because I’ve established myself as the expert. And that means I have to “other” people.

Q: If you could design theological education anew today, what would it look like?

That’s a big question -- and in all seriousness, something I think about all the time.

I have not resolved that, but can I tell you one of the things I really wrestle with? It’s that we need to rethink how we establish who we welcome to study.

In many ways, we have designed it so that some of our greatest kids will never be the beneficiaries of the experience of accredited seminaries, and some of our fastest growing churches are being led by folk who have a disdain for what we do.

One thing we have to do is to begin in the beginning and look at our policies. If I redesigned theological education, there would be much more interdisciplinary classes. We would not be designing the curriculum into certain areas, but we would understand the integration of this experience.

There would be no separation of praxis and reflection. There would be an applicative dimension to everything you learn. Everything would be talking about “how you do this.” We would spend a lot more time in formation, with attention to the kind of people we form. In fact, some people suggest that theological education must give more attention to formation than we do to information.

It used to be that the seminary was a repository of information that was available on a limited basis and could only be accessed through participation in the life of that community.

But much of what you get in seminary you can now access without ever going to seminary. You can access all the faculties around the world.

So what is it that is distinctive and unique? What is it that seminary education offers that says that we need to be in community?

I’m wrestling with this. We will never separate spirituality from study; the root of our scholarship is deep devotion to God.

I can remember being in a seminary context where the students were even told, “Don’t bring that church stuff in here. You’re in seminary now.”

What a contradiction! What a violation!

At some point, we have to find that delicate balance between being learner-centered and content-centered, of having some grounding in principles -- dynamism, adaptability, flexibility, spiritual discernment.

Sometimes in the middle of our perfectly designed programs, we may need to step back, based upon the realities in our world and in the community of the seminary, and revise how we establish our learning goals. We cannot bow at the shrines of “the way we do it” and “the way we’ve done it.”

We’ve got to be radically open to what I perceive as a major shift in the Spirit, a new thing going on.

Seminaries can sometimes be very inhospitable places.

Q: They can be intense places.

An intense place, and threatening. You’re always trying to meet somebody else’s standard so that you can experience value and legitimacy.

You don’t have to establish value. You have value. Now, how do we help you live into that? How, as a community of learning and a community of formation, do we do that? And then how do we collapse the hierarchies where we divide communities by assigning value to some folk and other folk? It can be around denomination or GPA or all kinds of ways.

Q: So how do you answer those questions? How do seminaries do that?

People always say I’m an idealist, and in some ways I am. But I believe that when you enter the space of the holy, you get a glimpse of a possibility that transcends your constructions, and you don’t claim expertise. You position yourself as the student.

It’s tantamount to saying, “Lord, I surrender all.” As a teacher for several years, I can now look back where there have been moments that I’ve had to ask God to forgive me for surrendering the classroom to a power other than God.

I miseducated people and devalued people, because I was educating them to convince them to be my clone, and I promoted those who were the most clonish. I can even see, early in my years, how I victimized some good people, because I did not invite them to engage intellect as a function of interiority. Intellect was assent to propositions that I established.

Thank God I didn’t, but I could have crushed some people who were gifted and talented and were going to be a great asset to the world. But I was using arbitrary and absolute standards to define excellence and quality. In some cases, I was promoting folk who do great harm to the community.

Q: For more than 35 years, you have been simultaneously a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaverdam, Virginia, and a theological educator at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology and several other schools. How did being a pastor shape your approach to theological education, and how did being a theological educator shape your pastoring?

I am who I am as an educator because I’ve spent my life with the people trying to embody what it means to be theologically literate and to engage the journey of faith, using the mind in a fashion that does not distance you from the people of faith and the worshipping community.

I’ve learned some of my greatest lessons from the people. They’ve forced me to be thoughtful, because they are not always a compliant community trying to get an A from my class.

They will say, “Pastor, no, I can’t believe that” and “Pastor, you’ve got to help me understand.” So I have to go back and revisit theodicy and theological anthropology and the person of Christ and eschatology.

I don’t just read books about it or lecture about it. I’ve got to live it, and in living it, it makes me go back to the book and totally reinterpret it. It makes me go back and see more and see further, and it undermines any tendency on my part to function in arrogance.

Thinking with the people will remind you how ignorant you are. So the two have gone together, and I’ve been blessed to pastor a church who sees my work in theological education as an expansion of a footprint of the ministry of the church.