Theological seminaries must help students understand and appreciate the rich church traditions and leaders of the past while preparing them to be agents of transformation in the communities they will go out to serve, three Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary presidents said here April 15.

The three ― Cynthia Campbell of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Katharine Henderson of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and Paul Roberts of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta ― engaged in a lively panel discussion during festivities celebrating the inauguration of the Rev. Michael Jinkins as the ninth president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary later in the day.

The panel ― “Transforming Theological Education for Transforming Church” ― was moderated by Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools, who noted that the panel was unrehearsed, with no opening statements and no questions submitted to the panelists in advance.

Headshot of Katharine Henderson.

Katharine Henderson

Henderson got the ball rolling by praising Protestantism for “its amazing ability to change and adapt and rearrange itself,” as exemplified in the Reformation motto: “The church is reformed and always reforming.” She said she is “dazzled by the conversations she hears around the church” about how to do ministry more creatively.

At the same time, Campbell said, “Mainline Protestants believe that we’re not making this Christianity thing up, that we stand on the shoulders of thousands of millions who have embraced faith in Jesus Christ. We are deeply enriched by rediscovering the treasures of the past.”

Roberts said that attitude means “that we’re never content with what we do but are always on the alert for opportunities to grow and change and recreate and renew because we have a Holy Spirit ― a spirit of renewal ― that we cling to.”

Because the church is rooted in Christianity’s history, Henderson said, “the long view of the church keeps us from being trendy and gives us a perspective based on what’s come before.” In today’s ‘short term-gain world,’ she said, “the long view will help us through some of the changes, because we can see the trajectory that has spanned thousands of years when everything seems awash.”

But appreciating the church’s history won’t do if churches simply keep doing things the way they’ve always done them, Roberts said.

“My wife likes consistent liturgy and worship structure across all Presbyterian congregations,” he said. “That has been a source of comfort for a lot of us, but that kind of uniformity is not going to continue and cannot in the same proportion.”

Headshot of Paul Roberts.

Paul Roberts

In a rapidly changing world, Roberts said, “We’ll see formulations of church that are remarkably different from what we’re accustomed to.” At Johnson C. Smith seminary, he said, “We have a host of young people who want to hit the street and create ministry that is energetic and charismatic, to discern calls that are traditional and non-traditional, and I think that’s thrilling because our culture is not uniform. We need to innovate and cultivate a sense of creativity.”

There is no room for fear of the culture or the church’s role in it, Campbell said.

“Presbyterians are not afraid of culture and don’t see being a Christian as being an alien,” she said. “I love the cultures that are America ― God is at work as much outside the church as inside and churches are to be in partnership and conversation [with the culture] and not over against it.”

Henderson said she had a dream that a current Presbyterian seminary graduate  will, 25 years from now, look back upon these days as a time “when we decided we were going to use the resources at our disposal in more creative ways, not just for traditional churches but for ‘meet-ups’ that took many forms.”

Praising the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s recent vision to create 1,000 new worshiping communities in the next 10 years, she said that seminary graduate will recall that “she and others found their voices and were able to speak to the public in a fresh new way, media-savvy, knowing the power of [the gospel] story to change hearts and minds.”

In some ways, seminaries model the changing world the church must grow into.

“There is no majority group at McCormick,” Campbell said. “Our classrooms provide a lively opportunity for big discussions about big issues. Teachers have had to learn how to manage conflict and to foster respectful dialogue. We should do more to translate that to the church.”

Henderson agreed. “We must develop partnership between the seminary and the church about reading the signs of the times in the world that is upon us, with its religious and racial ethnic pluralism.”

Noting that a growing percentage of the world’s population is under 30 and that 44 percent of American Christians change religious affiliation at least once during their lifetime, Henderson said seminaries and churches “must be mutually engaged in a vigorous conversation about how to read the signs of change in a rapidly changing time.”

Roberts, who finished seminary in 1996, confessed that he “pastored a small church, but I was not equipped to be its pastor. I share this because I didn’t know until it was almost time for me to go how to transform the life of that congregation, to be a change agent, even though this church has potential.”

Referring to Direct Hit, a book about church transformation by Paul Borden, Roberts said, “Lots of pastors go into churches and don’t know what to do about transformation. Seminaries do a lot of things really well, but the cutting edge is to provide insight and knowledge and practical experiential training in how to be a lover of the people while being an agent for change.

“When we don’t, we struggle, and we’re struggling right now.”