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COMMENTARY: Let’s grow up and stop waiting for SuperChurch Philip Amerson, Nov 30, 2010
By Philip A. Amerson Special Contributor
If you have not seen the movie Waiting for Superman, you should. This film is a compelling analysis of the state of public education in the United States.
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows the life story of five young people, documenting their lack of access to quality education. The film’s title comes from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school in New York City. Mr. Canada speaks of his dismay as a child of poverty in discovering that there really was no Superman who would fly in and set injustices right.
As I left the theater, I was caught up in two streams of thought—the first about our schools, the second about the church.
First, our schools. My commitment to public education runs deep. Growing up, I benefited from exceptional schools and teachers. Our children also attended inner-city public schools. As a nation, we benefited from generations of investment in what Horace Mann proposed as “common schools.” The idea was that our nation held one thing “in common” and that was access to high quality education. All students, no matter their socioeconomic standing, could expect one thing—excellent public education. This was understood as essential for a healthy and prospering democratic society.
In the 1970s and 1980s, my wife, Elaine, served as a board member and ultimately as president of the school board in Evansville, Ind. We learned much during this time about the challenges and possibilities for public education. My appreciation grew. Still, it is impossible to ignore the ways our schools in so many places are failing our children.
As a pastor in a core-city neighborhood, I saw the tragic reality of a system where fewer than 15 percent of the young men in our neighborhood graduated from high school. We worked to make a difference and with a few successes, but the problems seemed so enormous.
The pattern of schools failing our youth has only gotten worse since then. Some critique the film for focusing too much blame on teachers’ unions and tenure. Certainly there are other contributors to the dilemma. There is corruption in a variety of ways, including unfunded mandates that are not expected of private or charter schools. There are political payoffs, the foolishness of top-down standardized testing ignoring the special gifts and knowledge of teachers and other educators at the neighborhood level. There is an insensitivity to cultural differences and a lack of quality facilities, made worse by capital fund tax structures that allow suburban schools to gain benefits far exceeding those available to others.
Pastor as scapegoat
Second, our churches. My commitment to the church runs deep. It seems we have been waiting for someone or something that will right the wrongs of our situation and restore our vitality. There is considerable hand-wringing. Just as the teachers can become scapegoats for a failing school system, some blame pastors for the perceived failings in the church.
Rather than seeking to free our pastors for innovative ministry, too often we demonize them as the problem behind all problems. And so we have proposals coming to change the appointment system to more easily remove ineffective pastors from the parish. And we wait for SuperChurch: that formula, that structure, that program, that model that will save us.
Perhaps our worlds of analysis are too narrow. In a recent gathering of church leaders, some spoke of the halcyon days of United Methodism, when we started a new congregation every day!
As the group bemoaned our contemporary loss of membership, a voice of hope and perspective was heard. Dr. William Lawrence, American church historian and dean of Perkins School of Theology, reminded us of the foolishness of believing we could do new church starts without a larger vision for all of society. Bill reminded us that our earlier successes in starting new congregations occurred at the same time we were founding hospitals, colleges and orphanages. In the decades when United Methodists lived out a public theology to the benefit of all and not simply a few, our vision grew along with our congregations.
In the 19th and 20th centuries we founded hundreds of schools, colleges and seminaries. (More than 120 of these schools are still in existence and are related to United Methodism.) We started scores of hospitals. There are still dozens that bear the name “Methodist” in their pedigree.
A lost witness
Why did we stop this wide-ranging witness? In fact, we have continued to give witness in countless ways through outreach ministries, group homes, etc. What happened to our commitment to quality education for all? It was during this period, when United Methodists shared in a public theology that sought the benefit of all and not simply a few, that our congregations grew and we successfully planted churches.
Have we lost our way? Did we think that by simply saying in our documents that we supported public education, this would be sufficient? Have we in our anxiety focused too narrowly on saving our congregations and consequently watered down the good news to something as tame as “We have a nice church around the corner where you should attend and we won’t ask too much of you.”
What if hundreds of our congregations were committed to improving our schools or our healthcare systems? Are we waiting for SuperChurch and have about as much real hope as those characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot?
Now lest I be accused of offering another formula (get involved in public initiatives and you will save the denomination) in response to the anxiety in the system, this is not what I would suggest. Rather the call is to be engaged in public witness and in new church development as a Wesleyan way to live out our faith. If growth of congregations and social health occurs, to God be the glory.
For many years we at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary have been thinking about ways to encourage congregations to support elementary and high school education, whether public or private. Those who know the story of Wesley’s Kingswood School will understand that our Methodist commitment to education is deeply imprinted within our genotype.
Think of the resources we have already in place: facilities that are strategically located, teachers sitting in our pews, internships through our colleges, universities and seminaries. We have enormous untapped capacity to make a real difference in our schools.
On April 7, 2011, Garrett-Evangelical is sponsoring a consultation at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis for congregations already engaged in (or hoping to engage in) significant educational ministries. The event will bring together congregational leaders involved in K-12 education to:
• learn about present ministries in public and private schools; • strategize regarding new partnerships in underserved communities; • strategize regarding internships for students through our colleges, universities and seminaries; • develop a network of support for congregations who are involved in educational ministries in public and private schools.
Information will be available at www.garrett.edu. If interested, contact Mary Ann Moman, director of the Course of Study, at email@example.com.
The wait for Superman or SuperChurch can end. We can grow up—and start being the real, live, witnessing people of God right where we live! It may or may not cause churches to grow again, but it will be a sign to the nation of a church that believes in all of our children.
Dr. Amerson is president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a United Methodist-affiliated institution on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.