Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sheldon Jackson College—Transform or Close? (Part 6)

Dahlia of the day: Sugar Cane.

In Thursday’s post I said that it would be an embarrassment to the PCUSA if Sheldon Jackson were to close its doors. So… what should happen to SJ?

The answer to this question has to be rooted in the needs of those in Alaska.

Alaska is unlike anywhere else in the U.S.A. Most of Alaska’s population is centered in Anchorage and Fairbanks. These cities function like small cities in most states. If a person could live in Boise, Idaho, they could live in Anchorage. If a person could live in Bend, Oregon, they could live in Fairbanks (as long as they could put up with the long, cold, dark winters). However, it is difficult to compare the rest of Alaska to other places in the U.S.

People in Alaska have deep spiritual needs. These needs are similar to the spiritual needs that people have in the Lower 48. The context in which those needs are addressed is what makes things so different in Alaska. Small, rural churches are the norm in Alaska. Regardless of denomination, most village churches tend to be Pentecostal/charismatic in practice. The Native folks seem to be in touch with the “spirit world” in a way that most non-Natives cannot understand.

Alaskans live a subsistence lifestyle. They hunt, fish and trap to provide for their needs. Native Alaskans can (and do) legally hunt seals. The potluck meal at a small village church along the Kuskokwim River had swan, moose, caribou, bear, salmon and berries. Seal oil would be used for dipping various foods. The foods and the procurement of them are very important to the Native population of Alaska.

You might ask, “Why would you mention the subsistence lifestyle of Alaskans when talking about the spiritual needs of Alaskans?” Just look at most Presbyterian pastors! Most Presbyterian pastors do not hunt. The men of most villages would not respect a man who doesn’t hunt. Many pastors would seriously offend villagers by refusing to eat seal, whale, swan, herring eggs and Eskimo ice cream (don’t even ask!).

The worst pastor for most village churches is one trained by one of our seminaries. Taking a person away to seminary for years at a time changes a person. Most of our Presbyterian seminaries are fairly theologically liberal—which goes over like a lead balloon in rural Alaska. A pastor that didn’t believe in the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible would not be welcomed in most village/rural churches. In my humble opinion, seminaries do a horrible job of preparing a person to be a pastor of a church in the Lower 48. If they do such a horrible job training Lower 48 pastors just imagine how bad of a job they do at training pastors for the Alaskan experience!

I served as the moderator of the Committee on Ministry in Alaska Presbytery. I watched a steady stream of potential pastors seek calls within the bounds of our Presbytery. Those seeking calls in our village churches had no clue of what they were getting into. They hadn’t even done their due diligence in research. The pastoral turn over in our village churches was unbelievable! Lay pastors were by far our most successful pastors in village churches. These folks lived in the community in which they served. These folks had jobs that provided most of their living age. These folks knew what village life and customs were like. The training these folks received was from our Presbytery!

Sheldon Jackson could have a significant impact on Alaska by becoming THE training place for pastors and church leaders in the State of Alaska. They might be able to partner with Vancouver School of Theology in this endeavor—VST has a fantastic pastoral training program for Native pastors. Pastors and church leaders could come to SJ for short-term classes and training. Staff from SJ could go to the village churches to provide on-site training. SJ could lead in developing Bible study and Sunday School curriculum that was sensitive to the Native/rural culture. SJ could use current technologies to deliver distance learning classes through the use of Skype or other video conferencing technologies. I am confident that grant $$$ could be obtained to help make many of these changes.

Sheldon Jackson could have a powerful impact on the spiritual life of the Alaskan people!


At 8:40 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I know virtually nothing about Alaska or the college situation, but I found this very informative.

Alaska sounds really challenging and really appealing, on many levels. I would consider a call there someday.

And you are also right about our seminaries: they train elitists! Most sissy's from our seminaries would not make it one week in Alaska.... :)

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