Higher Education Blues

From James Bratt

Theresa Latini stole my thunder yesterday with her wise post, “How to Live Well and Faithfully in the Midst of Institutional Upheaval.” I’m glad she did, for her allusions to constricting markets, falling budgets, the downsizing of staff, the departure of some colleagues and the sweat of fear among those who remain give an apt picture of how things are in the “education industry” today. Her description was immediately pertinent at my own institution, for yesterday a long-awaited report was released in summary form by way of explaining how it is that Calvin College finds itself with $115 million of property debt and another $30 million overhang of, if you will, pre-payment penalties should we wish to get out from underneath some of the burden.

Theresa’s response to all of this is a model of sound pastoral care: abide, breathe, and communicate. My own reaction, as reports on bits and pieces of Calvin’s predicament have been released on campus over the past few months, usually ends up rattling between sorrow and anger bordering on rage. Yesterday’s release brought it all back; you can read it at Names are not included per campus policy, but exercise a bit of intelligent inference and you’ll get the picture. Particularly precious tidbits include the facts that—though not the reasons why—the debts in question were hidden, their interest payments not entered into the budget, the fund where they were lodged not audited, the committee in charge of investments not properly supervised by the college’s Trustees, etc. And etc., as the old comedian used to say. But since I’ve vented about this before in this space (see my post of last October 26:, I’ll try something else today.


Living Well and Faithfully in the Midst of Institutional Upheaval

From Theresa Latini

I’ve heard much talk in the past five years about the radical changes coming in theological education. From the head of ATS (Association of Theological Schools) to administrators, faculty, and church leaders, the message rings clear: we cannot continue business as usual. Students by-and-large cannot afford a three-to-four year master’s degree. Mainline Protestant churches are shrinking rapidly, meaning fewer job opportunities for all graduates and less and less financial stability for those who do get jobs in communities of faith. Besides this, our ways of structuring theological education—for example, the good ole four-fold division of theological knowledge (Bible, church history, theology, practical theology)—have long been identified as problematic for student and faculty formation alike.

In this context, some seminaries are adapting innovatively—establishing creative relationships with community and church partners that serve the vocational formation of students and enable them to participate in God’s ongoing ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world. Other seminaries are not able to do so. Many have closed, and more will close. Others are discovering (the hard way) that they must live within their means and somehow figure out to grieve the many losses that come with radical downsizing and the construction of a new identity.

All this talk about change comes easy at the level of abstraction—that is, when it’s someone else’s seminary. For those of us living through decline (or at least what appears to be decline until there are signs of resurrection), disorganization, or upheaval, it’s another story altogether.


The Leap

From Jennifer L. Holberg

Last time, I talked here about growing up in the Army chapel system, so I hope you’ll indulge a second blog in a row about “my military childhood.” But I’ve been going to a lot of meetings lately where hard choices are being discussed, so I’ve been thinking a good deal about how we articulate the principles we hold and about how we find the courage to carry them out. And what sometimes stops us too.

Though I was slight and small, I was quite a fearless little kid. When we moved to Korea in the early 1970s, I was six, my brother was four, and my sister was but eight months old. Army housing is assigned by rank and number of children, so our quarters had three bedrooms in one half of a duplex. Given our ages, my parents decided that we kids would have a sleeping room and a playroom--and proceeded to have a bunk bed custom-made for my brother and me. To this day, it remains the tallest bunk bed I have ever seen. It dominated the already small room, a bulwark against all comers and a perfect fort. Against the other wall of the bedroom, perpendicular to the bunk bed monstrosity, was my sister’s crib. So, naturally, my brother and I thought it would be great fun to do some precise parachuting from the top of the bunk bed and to launch ourselves into the crib. Looking back, I’m always amazed a) that we always landed in the crib and not in a heap on the ground with a broken limb or worse, b) that the crib never broke, and c) that our mother always discovered us. Perhaps it was the high-pitched shrieking of “Geronimo” coming from the bedroom that tipped her off.

With a childhood such as that, it will not astonish you to learn that I was probably 10 or so before I realized that I was technically a “civilian.” So obviously I loved the celebration every year on Armed Forces Day. Since the 1950s, Armed Forces Day has been celebrated on bases around the world, often by opening training facilities to family members and sometimes the general public too.

No surprise, then: that first year in Korea, I decided I wanted to jump out of the training tower.


Jim Brownson's New Book

From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

The little pond I swim in, the Reformed Church in America, has not, in my memory, anticipated a book as much as Jim Brownson’s recently released Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Lauded, dreaded, and vilified before it even appeared, according to Amazon it is currently the fifth bestselling book in the “Gender and Sexuality" category of "Religion and Spirituality" (15,173 overall, for a bit of perspective). It has made a splash. Many people I know are reading it. Early reviews are appearing. Jim even has a place where he occasionally blogs about the book. To my knowledge, however, no book-signing tour or appearances on Letterman or Ellen are planned.

Let me tell you a little bit about Jim Brownson. Longtime and respected New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Thorough, thoughtful, moderate, careful. Definitely don’t read that as “milquetoast,” but don’t read it as firebrand, radical, or pot-stirrer either. Jim has been very involved in all sorts of RCA committees and assemblies. He seems like a fixture at our annual General Synod. (This may be because he holds the uniquely Reformed ecclesiastical office known as “General Synod Professor.” More on that later.) At Synod, his unofficial role often seems to be finding a middle way, negotiating a compromise between two warring sides. He often wears what I call the “blue helmet”—as in United Nations peacekeepers. Others have it called him the “white knight.” And not completely irrelevant, Jim is the son of the beloved Reformed Church radio preacher of years gone by, Bill Brownson, a warm and pious gentleman. To say the Brownson family is part of the RCA pantheon doesn’t feel like exaggeration.  A few years ago, the thought that Jim would write such a book seemed unlikely.

Jim’s views and conclusions were widely known before Bible, Gender, Sexuality actually appeared, but his stature as centrist, loyalist, and serious scholar make it difficult to dismiss. Yet I don’t want to make so much of Jim-the-person that the content and aim of his book become secondary.


Training to see

From Mark Roeda

Learning to read resembles learning to ride a bike. In the beginning it feels impossible. You can’t imagine how people zip down a page full of words or around a neighborhood. They never even wobble-- not when flying off curbs or encountering silent letters. It’s as easy as breathing.

As my daughter struggled to read, I would remind her of this. “Remember how frustrated you became? How you’d want me to let you go and, as soon as I did, want to grab on again before you’d fall? When is the last time I’ve had to do that?” It offered some consolation, I think.

But reading has not come like pedaling or breathing. In fact, as she sat with a book, her breathing became like her reading-- halting and labored. Reading with her was like running alongside the bicycle. You could never just release your grip on the back of the seat and watch her go. This past summer, the summer before her third grade year, she still wobbled through books for first graders.