Community at Pacific School of Religion

erinDear Erin:

I’ve been thinking about the wonderful conversation we had over dinner Friday night. It’s very encouraging to learn that a highly skilled person with your perspective serves as Communications Manager at Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley. And it’s heartening to know that the school appreciates the role that the New Seminary Movement played in the school’s growth. When the President expelled several of us for a minor infraction, the Board of Trustees reinstated us, the President resigned, and the next President, David Napier, an activist chaplain from Stanford University, led PSR into a new progressive era. The school is now less of an isolated “ivory tower” and more involved in the community.

Toward the end of our conversation, you asked if I had thoughts about whether New Seminary Movement principles could help strengthen the school today. I hope my immediate responses were helpful. Here are some additional thoughts.

PSR could endorse political demonstrations and a PSR delegation could take a PSR banner to those demonstrations. The process of deciding to endorse a demonstration could be clear and transparent. Ultimately those decisions might be made by the President or a team designated by the President. But that process would best include extensive deliberation open to the whole PSR community, both face-to-face and online. Following those deliberations, a straw poll of community members could offer advice. To avoid damaging splits, the final decision-makers could make a commitment in advance to seriously consider a recommended endorsement only if a supermajority, such as 75%, support the action.

As we discussed, except when some concrete service such as helping to build a house is offered, it might be best to frame short-term student “immersion” in a community as primarily a way for the students to learn about that community so they can report to their own communities about what they learn. For outsiders to offer non-material (whether personal or spiritual) support is problematic. Rather, any such aid could emerge spontaneously, informally, naturally, not as an explicit purpose of the program.

Also, PSR could require every student to take a course on “the priesthood of all believers,” which was key to both the early Christian church and the foundation of Protestantism. As discussed in “Baptists: The Priesthood of The Believer or of Believers?”, that communal aspect highlights fellowship with other believers, which nurtures growth and improves ministry by helping believers to gain insight and understanding from one another, as equals. No one holds authority over the others. Decisions are made by the community, rooted in prayer, study, meditation, and discussion. This course could also address servant-leadership, collaborative leadership, and other new, emerging understandings of leadership that contrast with the old notion that defines leadership as the ability to mobilize followers.

Toward the goal of understanding the priesthood of all believers, as we discussed PSR could facilitate the formation of open-ended, confidential support groups that would enable members to aid one another in the pursuit of their mission. To enhance trust, those groups might form organically once students get to know others with whom they feel an affinity, with the initial core inviting others to join them. That experience could be like a “house church” that would help students be better ministers after graduation.

I emphasize “open-ended” because my impression is that most leadership development programs, faith-based and faith-rooted training programs, various support groups, Bible study groups, etc., adopt a predefined focus, a focus that is defined by the “authority.” The best exception to that rule that I’ve discovered is True North Groups, which are small groups of people with whom “we can have in-depth discussions and share intimately about the most important things in our lives—our happiness and sadness, our hopes and fears, our beliefs and convictions.”  So far, the only faith-based organizing I’ve discovered that adopted this kind of approach were practitioners of Liberation Theology who opened meetings by asking members about personal problems for which they needed assistance.

Perhaps PSR can better nurture “deep community” at PSR so its graduates could better do the same in the world.

Keeping faith,



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