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Rachel G. Hackenberg Headshot

Scrooge vs. Santa Claus: Rescuing God From Shallow Theology

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I'm tired of reading bad ordination papers: 12 to 20 pages of poorly written, theologically thin, unimaginative discourse, intended to represent a ministerial candidate's breadth of preparedness and depth of spiritual formation but more frequently sending me into despair over the future of leadership in the Church.

If it sounds harsh, it is -- too harsh and too sweeping. Also, too true.

In my denomination (the United Church of Christ), the process toward ordained ministry includes goals in education, field experience, individual and collective discernment, prayer, and continual review of a candidate's understanding of church, theology, sacraments, polity, etc. As these goals are measured and met, the candidate prepares an ordination paper that is presented to the ecclesial body for consideration and (ideally) affirmation.

The ordination paper represents a penultimate step toward one's ordination, and as such it strives to be one's best foot forward to the wider church body. Nevertheless, too many ministerial candidates submit ordination papers full of typos, incoherent sentences, theological vacuums and regurgitated church history. "I don't know" suffices for critical thought. "Our churches are autonomous" summarizes their limited vision of United Church of Christ polity. "I'll figure it out as I do it" represents their depth of pastoral theology and vision.

And theology, Christology and pneumatology -- that is, perspectives on God, the Christ and the Spirit -- boil down to misappropriations of Santa Claus (with an explicit rejection of Scrooge), Aslan from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and a personal Jiminy Cricket for us all. Fairy tales standing as faith. Disney characters substituted for creeds. Occasionally a candidate manages to wrap such shallow theology in fancy church words; sometimes not at all.

In my frustration with each new sub-par ordination paper distributed to the denominational body for approval, I've been looking for someone to blame. Have seminaries failed these candidates, that they cannot connect the dots between church history and current ecclesial trends, between liberation theologies and the real-life politics of gender and race? What education system neglected to hone the candidates' grammar during their formative years, or to introduce the use of that handy-dandy spellcheck device located in every computer?

What committee on discernment -- in a candidate's home congregation or in the local jurisdiction of a denomination -- missed its opportunity to say, "You seem hard-pressed to articulate your faith in a clear way. How do you anticipate communicating faith and theology as a professional minister?" When did denominations decide to approve (and when did congregations opt to settle for) mediocrity in ministry, subliminally affirming a low bar for ordination candidates?

I concede that my cynicism has been brewing. The Church's collective acceptance of tepid ministry (both in leadership and in congregational vision), with the accompanying flat theology, is evident not only in ordination papers, but also in the tolerance of pastors who oversee the death of Spirit in a congregation, and in the persistent election of comfortable white men into strong pastorates while wise and talented non-white-male ministerial candidates are called (or sent) to dysfunctional churches where they are chewed up and tossed out within three years -- if they are fortunate enough to be offered a pastorate at all.

But this is not just a rant for the sake of a rant. The trends of religion in America reflect a growing disenfranchisement with the Church, its leaders, and its God. And who can argue? Why would those who have grown up in the Church continue to invest their time in congregations where Santa is the best analogy for God, an altruistic deity with only trinkets to offer on holidays but lacking the substance to speak to poverty and war? How can the Church expect to nurture its youth (and adults) toward mature faith when its pastors-in-training are being given a "pass" on their belief that the Spirit is a glorified subconscious, a holy Jiminy Cricket that nudges us along but lacks the authority and power to raise up prophets or impact a spiritual awakening?

Why would Christians (among others) not prefer the language of "spiritual but not religious" when American Christology is reduced to a bloodthirsty God requiring the sacrifice of a gentle Jesus; and a sanitized cross allows our encounter with God to be pretty and palatable rather than providing a hard lens for encountering our humanity and our systems of power? Critically thinking Christians are distancing themselves from the Christian label not only in rejection of the bullying voice of conservative evangelical Christianity but also in resignation to the apparent lack of a Christian theology in our churches and ministerial leaders that has the strength to wrestle with and offer prophetic wisdom for this human existence.

My concern is not so much that disenfranchised and/or disengaged Christians are opting for a private spirituality in lieu of congregational life. My fear is that they are right -- that their leaving is an appropriate indictment on the American Church's watered-down and disempowered God (ranging from a Disneyfied theology to the capitalistic prosperity gospel movement) -- and that they will continue to be right for several generations unless denominations, congregations and pastors alike begin to insist upon, pursue and support ministerial candidates of theological depth.