Following Jesus into dangerous places
An interview with new Columbia Seminary president Steve Hayner
July 10, 2009
“I don’t really become president until July 1,” quipped a casually dressed, unflustered Steve Hayner, the ninth president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, upon finding the door to his new office locked. “Let’s go talk in my academic office.”
Reflecting on the admonition of Karl Barth to do theology with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, Hayner said that recent denominational and world news absolutely impact his sense of what he is being called to do at Columbia.
“The key question,” he said, “is what God is doing throughout America and the world today.”
As a seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that also serves a variety of other constituents, the CTS community must wrestle with how it “can participate in what God is doing now and into the future, not 30 years ago,” Hayner said.
“Mainline, institutional denominations are bleeding,” he said of General Assembly Stated Clerk Grady Parsons’ recent announcement of a record membership drop in 2008. “We’re not the only ones bleeding, but we’re doing it faster than most. The issue in our face is how to help students engage with the realities of our time and still move into ministry with a great sense of hope.”
Responding to a quote from outgoing president Laura Mendenhall at the recent Big Tent event in Atlanta, Hayner agreed that the “higher education” model of seminary education may need to change. Acknowledging tension between Columbia’s historical reputation for training pastors versus the tendency of academics to educate scholars, he recalled his excitement at a 2003 faculty/trustee retreat in which “we all agreed that Columbia is primarily about the training of pastors. I have a deep sense,” Hayner continued, “that this is the vision which has driven us over the last six years.”
Offering examples of the impact of this vision for training pastors, the new president cited the strength of the current Practical Theology faculty, increased requirements for supervised ministry in the Master of Divinity program, and a Doctor of Ministry program focused on life in the parish.
“At a time when Princeton has just given up their DMin program, we are helping pastors take the next step in their education,” he said.
Asked whether he sees a need to “do church” differently in the future, Hayner responded emphatically.
“The fundamental thing,” he said, “is building a definition of what the church is and ought to be now.”
Citing the cultural, theological and religious diversity of the nation, and a shift of the institutional church from a privileged position in the center of American society toward the margins, Hayner continued.
“The problem is not the so-called liberal/conservative debate. That’s not why the church is dying. It’s a symptom of the real problem, which is that the old image of the church as an attractional club no longer works. We think the world will come to us, but, while it still happens in a few places, it is becoming less and less true,” he said.
“Buildings, budgets and butts will no longer work as a measurement of our success,” said a grinning but deeply serious Hayner. “The goal can’t be maintaining membership numbers in order to maintain our institutional buildings and programs. We must imagine the church of the future not so much as a club of folks who look and think like we do, but as an instrument of God in the world, the hands and feet of Christ. Rather than being simply gathered, we must see ourselves as being sent. And we must help the pastors of that new church become equippers, not chaplains. Indeed, they must be agents of transformation.”
Citing places such as Iran and China where the church has persevered and grown despite massive political attempts to force it out of struggling cultures, Hayner said he finds his own hope not in “business as usual,” but in “God’s desire for reconciliation and compassion and justice — for human flourishing in the world.”
Asked about the scariest part of his new call, Hayner responded that what scared him most personally was the fear that he would get so bound up with the needs and demands of the institution that he’d lose touch with the heartbeat of God in the world, and with students.
“My whole life has been about students,” he said.
After a few moments of silence, he continued.
“When I left InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after 13 years as president, it was because I was feeling more and more detached from students. I guess my fear is that I’ll become institutional and I don’t want to be institutional. I’m a pastor. I love students and I want to do that. I love the church and I’m so desperately concerned about the Bride of Christ and how we serve.”
Then, shifting gears, Columbia’s new president began speaking of curriculum review, which he sees as the major task before the CTS community.
“It’s hard,” he said. “We’ve got to change, and that’s always hard. I think the fear is that we’ll actually do it. That things will actually get different.”
Again, the tension between what has been and what the future holds broke into the conversation.
“The majority of this faculty is ready,” Hayner said. “And we’re all, at some level, wondering if we will in fact be able to prepare students for the church that is coming.
“We’ve been a well-run institution,” he continued. “Laura Mendenhall has done a fabulous job as a bridge builder between Columbia’s constituents. She maintained the integrity of a pastoral heart while she was here and set us up well. The question now is whether we can build on this legacy.
“Our enrollment numbers are holding well,” Hayner said. “The quality of our students is doing well, too. Not just on paper, but in their hearts and in the questions they’re asking.”
Claiming the need to create a space to think about the changing issues and questions of our future, this pastor/president said, “We need to move even more into being a learning institution. A place where the administrators and faculty and staff learn along with the student, instead of merely teaching. We need to lean into our place in God’s work in the world.
“This is not about me,” Hayner said. “It’s not about my vision or my dream for Columbia. It is about a passion I have. A ‘holy discontent’ with the world and with the church as it currently looks.”
And then, as the old southern joke goes, the ninth president of Columbia Theological Seminary “quit preaching and went to meddling.”
“We have to get comfortable with the ambiguity of the world,” Hayner said. “It was dangerous for God to become flesh and move into the neighborhood. God took a huge risk. And God is calling us today to follow Jesus Christ and take those kinds of risks.”
Sue Boardman is a Presbyterian minister and counselor, free-lance writer, and former editor of the late “Monday Morning” magazine.
- Agency: Presbyterian Mission Agency