“This Rambunctious Spirit of God”

An interview with Joyce Ann Mercer ’84 M.Div.

The “future of theological education” is a perennial subject of extravagant or anxious speculation. YDS academic dean Joyce Mercer ’84 M.Div. injects a strong word of caution: “The pandemic has unmasked the illusion that we actually have a working crystal ball,” she says. Turbulent uncertainty is compounded by other forces—the multiple pandemics of racial prejudice, economic inequality, and climate crisis, she says. Still, we can activate some hopeful ideas and pursue new forms of agility as schools endeavor to prepare future practitioners. Mercer is Horace Bushnell Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at YDS, as well as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. She is the author of GirlTalk GodTalk: Why Faith Matters to Teenage Girls—and Their Parents (Jossey-Bass, 2008) and other books, and co-editor of Conundrums in Practical Theology (Brill, 2016). She is also editor of Religious Education journal, the publication of the Religious Education Association. She spoke to Reflections in summer 2022. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Reflections: How would you characterize this moment in theological education? A time of crisis? Self-scrutiny? Or something else?

Joyce Mercer: We are in this moment of reimagining theological education in the face of new realities. Even before Covid-19, it was already in transitional space of multiple pandemics of racial reckoning, planetary ecological devastation, and economic uncertainty. When that kind of uncertainty hits, theological education is forced to assess its aims and purposes more clearly.

People need a fluid set of skills. They need to know how to manage conflict constructively. They’ve got to learn ways to invite collaboration across many perspectives. They’ve got to know how to educate folks for imagination. They need financial savvy. They should know how to organize communities. The work of leadership now consists of many complex practices.

In such a time as this, we have to hone our capacities for managing ambiguity and recognize the gift that the transitional moment brings—not succumb to nostalgia and despair or regard change as a barrier to doing what we do, but to recognize that in these shifts we have a really important opportunity to lean into the work of love and grace and justice that is at the core of Christian ministry and Christian life.

I think we have to be engaged, for instance, where people on the ground are suffering and ask, How did it get like this? What are we called to do in this present moment? The work of theological education has everything to do with equipping people to tolerate the ambiguity and listen with humility and care to people’s stories—and not charge in and “save the day.” Instead, try to understand the systemic dimensions of suffering and the need for a theology from the ground up instead of from the top down, and hope to discern what God might be calling people to do.

Reflections: How to build that kind of humility and agility into the training and imaginations of future theological practitioners?

Mercer: A key is to engage religious tradition critically and hopefully, but also to break open the meaning of ministry to new possibilities. The kinds of vocations people are preparing for need to be much more open and innovative, more entrepreneurial.

As a YDS student in the 1980s, I was part of a group of folks doing an innovative program in hospital ministry focused around chaplains. Back then, chaplaincy, basically hospital or military, was considered the only alternative to institutional church life. Well, these days, people imagine being chaplains in many places—such as in social change movements, working alongside people and helping them make meaning of the hard work of activism, supporting their spiritual practices. That probably existed in previous decades, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been called chaplaincy. 

Today, in a time of huge institutional unsettlement, what’s needed is an expansive imagination about the ways ministry might take shape. The curriculum should be grounded enough to help people retrieve what they need from religious or spiritual tradition but not be hemmed in by it to the extent that they aren’t able to imagine anew what the Spirit might be calling forth in this moment. To me this means walking with a more developed pneumatology: an openness to the spirit, the undomesticated spirit of God. What’s this rambunctious spirit of God asking of us?  

Reflections: It’s tempting to think these are uniquely perilous times. Is that too parochial a view?

Mercer: This theological moment is not entirely unlike any other in history—there were times during the Vietnam conflict when theological education in the life of the U.S. seemed obscure to a lot of folks. In those days curricula were changed to reduce the number of hard-and-fast requirements. I think the moment we’re in now similarly is asking us to reevaluate how well the curriculum embraces the fluidity of today’s circumstances.

What’s important is we make sure we know what our theological commitments are as we educate people for ministry across all kinds of job definitions, including those who use terminology other than “ministry” to name what they do, whether they are learning congregational ministry or want to become a chaplain or run a political campaign in an ethical way.

A commitment important to me personally is the endeavor to welcome all as God has welcomed us. This is a kind of expansive view of community, what some theologians have called a radical welcome to all. I don’t have to stop being Christian—that value is grounded in my understanding of what and who God is, which is that God shows up incarnationally to welcome us in the Christ. I don’t have to drop my perspective on that in order to be in the room with people who don’t share that exact view and who come at welcome from a different angle. Similarly, I think coming to others in humility is critical to what it means to be a theological educator—and that’s rooted in my understanding of who God in Christ is in the world. And it shapes a way of being with others that has everything to do listening and walking alongside folks whose lives and wisdom are different from the contexts I know best. 

Reflections: How to approach pluralism in a divinity school like YDS, which continues to have a Christian identity and mission?

Mercer: That’s the big question across the table in the U.S. right now—the issue of religious difference and diversities—not just in theological education. I don’t think we have that figured out yet. Here at the School, there are some who’d like it if we stopped being connected to Christianity. They would see that as a move forward. But others here understand their own participation in theological education quite differently. This place is not going to become a religious studies program that looks at religion as if under a microscope only, even though some students come here for a religious studies-type of master’s work and can get that at YDS. There are places where that kind of knowing happens exclusively. Here it is not the only epistemological value in the room. There are also normative values to consider. Even for those other schools or other departments that profess a kind of objectivity or non-normative approach to religion, even for them something is normative. Maybe it’s the notion that we can have knowledge detached from engagement, that that detachment is somehow a higher form of knowledge. But that’s a normative assumption in itself.

At YDS we try to help people figure out what it means to be a part of their own particular tradition by encountering other people from other traditions who use a different vocabulary or use the same words but mean something different—or who aren’t part of a tradition at all but find religion really intriguing and ask all kinds of wild questions that haven’t been censored out of them! Sorting through this is an important way of becoming, of understanding one’s own identity. We figure out who we are in part by virtue of recognition of who we’re not. 

That happens in places where there’s diversity of all kinds—here, 29 denominations are represented, along with nones. This makes YDS a much more complex place than, say, a seminary where people are coming from the same or similar religious trajectory. And so a lot of people come here who aren’t Christian but who want to understand the world through a religious and spiritual lens. They are preparing not for a ministerial vocation but for other pathways. Meanwhile the M.Div. degree with its current requirements still expects some people will study Hebrew Bible and New Testament, drink deeply in systematic theology, engage practical theology in order to reflect on world events and situations and act in relation to those, encounter also the arts and culture, and across all those areas endeavor to understand the power of systemic forces in the world and the injustices of power differentials.

Reflections: For a long time Yale has seen itself has a place that produces leaders. Is the definition of leadership changing today? Does leadership require a new set of skills?

Mercer: At YDS we are about educating people for leadership in infinitely varied situations. You can’t just put students in a set of classes and then send them out where they will be the resident theologian without also knowing how to keep the electricity bills paid or do the administrative work the community needs for its mission. People need a fluid set of skills. They need to know how to manage conflict constructively. They’ve got to learn ways to invite collaboration across many perspectives. They’ve got to know how to educate folks for imagination. They need financial savvy. They should know how to organize communities. In many cases, the social movements of this time have pushed back against top-down models or authoritarian understandings of leadership. The work of leadership now consists of many complex practices.

One way of understanding this: in previous decades at YDS the practical theology faculty was less fully developed, with fewer tenured faculty members and more adjunct teachers. Now there’s a more robust faculty in practical theology with multiple tenured and tenure-track appointments representing this academic area. This practical theology focus is additionally supported at YDS through supervised ministry, a program focused on leadership, and another on preparing for nonprofit work. All of this is evidence of a turn toward paying attention to new kinds of practices—always engaged with theology and theory, not apart from it, but always nurturing a reflective practice that requires skills of both knowing and knowing how, the wisdom of knowing and knowing how. These always go together in the practice of ministry and in leadership. It’s not enough just to know … or just to know how. We need both.