Grace Under Pressure: When we give up on Church

By David Kamphuis and Ben Garren

Sometimes Church stops being Church. There are these points when the pressure builds up and suddenly it is just another non-profit trying to make ends meet or a series of best business practices doing their thing. We fail to live into and take up God’s Grace and instead do what is politically or financially expedient. We become simply another thing of this world. We have lost the connection between that which is high ecclesiology and that which is low ecclesiology. When we do that everyone suffers. This is when we and the world around us begin to give up on Church.

Our Seminaries are all under a lot of pressure as of late. There are many struggling to figure out what best business practices will bring about a sustainable non-profit that can make ends meet and continue the mission of the Seminary. There are a lot of ventures going in a lot of different directions. In the end, however, in twenty years we will look back and the Seminaries that will still be continuing their mission will be the ones who maintained grace under pressure.

What this means is that can we look at the process that they went through, especially when it comes to human resources, and see the Gospel made manifest. The other option are those situations in which we see seminaries treating their employees as simply commodities to be discarded when the time comes. In the past decade it seems we have seen too little of the former and too many accounts of the latter. It appears that we can add another seminary to the list of those who have stopped being Church and simply become a non-profit grinding best business practices regardless of the human consequences.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary is merging with Capital University, neighboring ELCA institutions who have had an ongoing relationship for decades. This process has been considered many times and under much consideration in the past years. It presents an ideal space for the ELCA to live out best practices of how to move forward amidst the pressures the church is now facing in a way that fully lives out the Gospel and shows forth God’s Grace.

This week staff, now deemed redundant, were handed pink slips. The dismissals are intended to continue in the days ahead. These are individuals who just took on positions in the last year. These are individuals who have worked at the institution for years. These are individuals within a few years of retiring with benefits. They are all in the process of being dismissed, their contracts voided, and their decades of service rendered in void. This is a seminary giving up on being church.

 

The more one reads the bible the more one realized that a consistent theme is that God’s economy works differently than the world’s. God continually maintains that the people will be provided for despite their circumstances. Bread comes from heaven in the wilderness. Elijah is fed by the ravens. When we get to the New Testament the story doesn’t change. Not even death itself can stop the new and amazing life that is at work in the world. The early church in the book Acts consistently lives into this reality. In the face of survival threats the disciples pray for boldness.

However, if church history is any guide the will to survive, rather than actually live into the amazing resurrected life of God, is a powerful temptation. The church, in all forms and all places, is constantly tempted to abandon the trust in God’s provision and find a way to survive on its own.

Let us be clear: the staff decisions made at TLS recently make complete economic sense in today’s situation. They are probably measures that will secure the survival of the institution.

Let us also be clear: given what the church confesses to believe about resurrection from the dead, we are not called to make sense. Given what we believe, survival is not an option. We are instead called to live boldly into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That may mean some bad economics are in store.


There are three tiers of consequences to this decision to choose survival over our belief in God’s resurrection. The first, and most pressing, is the immediate desolation brought upon the lives of the dedicated former employees of the seminary. Theirs are the lives that are descending into chaos. The second, and most difficult to evoke empathy for, is the reality of those making those decisions, ordained and lay leaders of ELCA institutions, who are abandoning their relationship with God for the persuit of worldly concepts and ideals. The third, and possibly least considered, is the consequences these actions have on the reputation of Christianity as a whole.

When the leaders of the church give up on being Church, when they fail to have Grace under pressure, they lead those around them to give up on being part of church as well. When you talk to those who leave the faith, who never consider returning to the faith, who want nothing to do with the faith… what you find again and again is a story of church failing to be church. Of churches terrestrial that lose all connection with the heavenly reality and become just another worldly pursuit of power and money.  

The details of what sacrifices and compromises would have to be made by those in leadership at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Capital University to move forward with the merger amdist the pressure they are under but to do so with Grace is unclear. The reality, however, is that it is not too late for them to make those sacrifices, personal as they may be, and provide for their employees as they are called to by the Gospel and not as they are expected to by whatever worldly best business practices to which they have reduced their institution. There is still time for this to be a situation in which the church showed what it means to be Church and not another example of a seminary giving up on being Church

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