A theological toolbox

The Dutch publishing firm Boekencentrum recently published a book with a title that, literally translated, says: Having good tools is half the work.[1] The book has two authors: Professor Kees van der Kooi, who teaches systematic theology at the Free University in Amsterdam, and his wife Margriet, who is a hospital chaplain. I have become rather well acquainted with the content of their book, since I translated the text for the edition that will shortly be published by Eerdmans in the USA. The message of the book is clear: Christian spiritual care has much in common with spiritual care that is given from the perspective of another worldview or that pretends to be neutral. The Christian chaplain, however, brings more to his job than the skills and knowledge that every person needs who mentors or coaches people in crisis situations. He/she needs a good theological toolkit in order to do and say things that have a solid theological basis. This thesis is further explored in the analysis of some fifteen different cases from Margriet van der Kooi’s practice.

As I was focused on this topic, I happened to see a book in my library that I bought a few years ago in an Christian bookstore in Australia. This book emphasizes the role of the pastor as the theologian in his church.[2] A pastor must dispose of a good number of gifts and social skills if he/she wants to be a competent leader of his/her church. But the plea of the authors of this book is that a pastor should first and foremost be a theologian, who is able to feed his church members with good, theologically responsible, spiritual food and can lead his team in a way that has a solid theological undergirding.

I would like to extend the thread that runs through these two books a bit further, to include a specific group of people: leaders and administrators of church organizations—in particular the leadership of so-called ‘higher’ organizations. In the context of the Adventist Church this would mean: leaders of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference. In the past decennia much has been done to provide education for leaders through leadership courses and seminars and even full academic programs. These usually emphasize the techniques that are needed to lead rather complex organizations.  Those who have tried to keep somewhat informed about the subject matter the church-initiated courses usually deal with, will have discovered that in many cases they include topics that are also relevant for training sessions in non-church organizations and in the business world. To some extent this is quite all right, for, after all, the church is also a social organization, in which one encounters the same processes that are found in any organization. However, it should also be mentioned that the training that the church provides for its leaders does always stress the important fact that church leaders must be spiritual leaders.

Nonetheless, there is an aspect that is often not given the kind of attention it deserves. A church leader must also be a competent theologian who is able to execute the task that has been entrusted to him/her in a theologically responsible manner. He/she must not just have the skills to organize things efficiently, to chair meetings professionally, and to lead and enthuse a team of co-workers. It is also of crucial importance that a church leader/administrator is a theologian who is able to steer the church in a positive theological direction. He/she must understand current theological developments and either stimulate or resist particular developments in a theologically responsible manner. It seems to me that on its various levels the Adventist Church has many leaders who are ‘spiritual’ men and women, but at the same time are theological light weights. And this has its consequences. I cannot help but think of the former president of the General Conference and his current successor. The leadership of the former president was characterized by his solid theological background and, unfortunately, that cannot be said of at least some of the present leaders of the world church. Church administrators must always have their theological toolkit at hand in the execution of their task. If not, the church will suffer incalculable damage.

[1]  Kees en Margriet van der Kooi, Goed Gereedschap is het Halve Werk: De Urgentie van theologie in pastoraat en zielzorg. Utrecht: Boekencentrum, 2017    [2] Kevin J. Van Hoozer en Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.