Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



What I Learned (Education)

Last year was an amazing year of being a professor and meeting some incredible students. It was also an eye-opening year of getting initiated to a changing educational landscape.

In June 2016, I learned that there was an immediate opening at the seminary I had attended from 2008-2010.  I got the one-year appointment and left LA, where I was finishing up a PhD, to move back to Portland.

It was a wonderful opportunity and I loved being in the classroom for a year.

I also got to teach an ongoing ‘intensive’ class in a doctoral program on the east coast at a school that I have a long-standing relationship with. We decided to open up the class to MDiv (divinity) students as well as the Dmin (ministry) students.

There were some issues that stuck out to me and I took the opportunity to call my friends around the country who have tenure-track positions or who teach adjunct. They confirmed my observations. This was especially true at ‘christian’ universities (but not exclusively).

Here are my three observations about education:

  1. Money is the lead dog – but technology is dominant.
  2. Education is a product and students are customers.
  3. Professors are nervous.


Money is the lead dog – but technology is dominant.  There is a delicate balance between ‘being profitable’ and ‘making a profit’. The margins at many schools are thin and shrinking. Both the thin margins and the shrinking profits create a very intense atmosphere of evaluation, insecurity, anxiety, and demand.

Adding to this mix are Presidents and Deans who have to do fundraising with donors who also have expectations of message and image. Students have expectations of cost-value, the ability to complete a degree, and the outlook for using the degree in the future.

Tech is also playing a larger role. Between online-hybrid classes, student portals for the curriculum, peer learning in online class assignments like message boards, and in-class audio/visual … professors have to be tech-savvy and surprisingly structured.

When you put together the institutional fundraising concerns of donors and boards, financial and time justification for students, and technological innovations embedded at every level – you get quite a demanding matrix of issues to navigate.

You can understand why faculty meetings might be contentious or there might be tension between departments. You can also see why administrators are both so crucial and so influential. Watching over the ‘big-picture’ is no piece of cake either.


Education is a product and students are customers. That might sound cynical but if you have not been around education in the past decade, you might be surprised at how influence students have now and much weight they carry. This was perhaps the biggest change I noticed from 2008 as a student and 2016 as a professor.

Due to the financial concerns listed above, and the democratization that technology empowers in any population, the scales within a school have really shifted. Students’ voices carry a surprising amount of weight.

Think about it this way: if a student is unhappy they will take their business elsewhere. If the degree is too long (too many credits), too expensive, there is too much work in class, or they get a bad grade / have a bad experience … it doesn’t matter why they choose another school, it only matters that you are losing students. So, you adjust the curriculum, adjust the degrees, adjust the cost, and adjust the ease of access/living/travel.

In our contemporary environment, student representatives and liaisons are vital and very influential. Institutions, both faculty and administration, make many of their decisions based on student input. Professors may have to adjust assignments, schedules, reading loads, and grading scales accordingly.  I’m not saying that the students are in charge! I’m saying that it is a very symbiotic relationship.

Professors are nervous. Professors don’t get paid a lot but are expected to do quite a bit of work. It is a prestige thing, to be sure, but it is also a passion thing. Young professors are expected to go above-and-beyond to show their value to the institution. Older professors know that tenure doesn’t mean what it used to.

So, you can’t afford to get a bad review by a student. You also need to keep in mind the ‘mission’ of the school and the concerns of the older generation of donors and board members. You want to be proficient and competent enough to justify your work to the institution but not so innovative as to attract unwanted attention.

Then there is the LGBTQ issue. I will say more about this tomorrow, but it is important to understand that every ministry training institution that I interact with (6 in total in California, Oregon, and NY) is wrestling with this. Navigating between student enrollment, alumni, donors, and denominational leadership / funding is a tricky dance.


When you look at just these three observations – between salary, job security, ethical convictions, student expectations, and a shrinking number of full time positions … I learned a lot this year and am very grateful for the opportunity to be in the classroom and meet some amazing students!

I would love to hear your observations, comments, or questions.  

Headed To Seminary This Fall?

I’ve been having some good Twitter exchanges with people in transitions. One of them is with a person headed to seminary this Fall. Here is a quick list of resources I would suggest as you get ready:

1a) The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Tiny little book. Do 1 letter per day. 26 days you are set!

1b) The Global Dictionary of Theology. Massive work (996 pages) Read it and you will be unstoppable.

2) Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy Woodley. American contextual theology connecting Jewish Biblical notions.

3) She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson. The nature and importance of religious language and God-talk.

4) To Each Its Own Meaning: Biblical Criticisms and Their Application by McKenzie and Hays. Genre is everything.

5) Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation by R. S. Sugirtharajah. You will never see the Bible the same. Available on audible as well.

6) Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism by Nancy Murphy. The #1 book I wish I had read before seminary.

7) Post-Christendom by Stuart Murray. Gotta know your context. Mind-blowing analysis.

8) Modern Christian Thought: Twentieth Century edited by Livingston and Fiorenza. Epic tome (554 pages) covers everything you will need to get started. SO good!

9) Theology at the End of Modernity edited by Sheila Greeve Davaney. 15 authors who light up the subject! Powerful.

That is my Top 10 list. I love this stuff so much and am grateful to have been asked this question.

I would love to hear your thoughts or additions!

Be A Better White Male

Last week I was a part of conversation about privilege and racism/sexism/oppression. I was asked about some simple starting points and this is the list that I came up with.  I know that it is flawed and limited but it might be a good start.RoadPortraitSunsetD&B

I would love hear your additions.

I will venture to get this started – the suggestions are going to be provisional at best and will need to be supplemented (heavily) by others.

  1. Assume that you are definitely part of the problem and only possibly part of the solution.
  2. Put yourself under the leadership/care of someone or a group that is not like you in race-gender-sexuality. So … if you go to George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland and it is time for you write your Master’s thesis, ask Randy Woodley, Roger Nam or Mary Kate Morse to be your adviser.
  3. Listen to them. Just listen.
  4. Resist the temptation to ask questions that have numbers in them. Like don’t ask “how hot does a sweat-lodge get and how many rocks are used?” or “what percentage of people would be X ?”  White guys love numbers – it’s a european enlightenment thing I think.
  5. Listen some more and do not discredit any of it – don’t allow yourself to think ‘that seems over the top’ or ‘it couldn’t have been that bad / blatant’. Don’t do it. You will want to. Don’t.
  6. Buy books by people that are not like you in a greater percentage than ones by white males. Start with Randy Woodley’s Shalom and the Community of Creation and Mary Kate Morse’s Making Room for Leadership.  You will not be sorry.
  7. and most importantly! – do what they tell you. No… Do what they DO … if you can. If they say ‘Don’t go to that conference’ cancel your plans. Even if you like the topic and you will lose money. If they say ‘This group could use some volunteers’, ask them if that is something you could do. If they tell you that they are doing something next Saturday, ask if that is something you could come to. Cancel the other thing you were going to do. Someone else will probably do that other thing.
  8. Assume that you are definitely part of the problem and only possibly part of the solution. You will make mistakes. It’s ok – we all do. The problem is so large and so seemingly insurmountable that we can not afford to get dis-couraged or to entertain allusions of grandeur.
  9. This is gunna take a while. Pace yourself. Embrace your spirituality in a new way – you will need it for the long haul. Don’t chuck it like so many do when they figure out how shitty the world is.
  10. Listen to the Smiley & West podcast every week.
  11. Whenever you are in a group do not use your whole percentage of air-time. If you are in a discussion with 3 other people – don’t talk 25% of the time (let alone 50). Use less than your percentage. I’m not saying ‘don’t talk or ask questions’. We don’t need to be silent … just use less than your 25% allotment.

Please let me know any additions or adjustments that you would like to see.   -Bo

Neighbors and Wisemen for Lent

My blogging energies have all been going to Neighbors and Wisemen over at HBC.  A bunch of us are using it for a Lenten emphasis.

I thought it would be good to post a list of them here so that if anyone wants to look into any of it, it is clearly cataloged.

Here is a running list to all the links: 

Introduction:  Loss and Lent

Day 1:  Foreign Concepts

Day 2: Double Vision

Day 3:   Betrayed By a Kiss

Day 4:  Be Not Synced With The World

Day 5: Devotion and Distilled Friendship

Day 6: Translation Station

Day 7: Sodom’s Sin Wasn’t Sexual

Day 8: What’s In A Name?

Day 9: My Soul Is Fried

Day 10: Unlikely Allies and Not That Kind of Christian

Day 11: How Do You Know?

Day 12: The Voice of God in Others

Day 13: Poetic Language about God

Day 14: Going to College with Christians

Day 15: Living Out Faith Loud

A Sentence about Seminary

Once in a while you run into a sentence that hits you like a ton of bricks.  You can read thousands of sentences in order to get to it.

Only rarely do you see it coming. Once in a while you are in a chapter that is so rich and nourishing that the sentence is just the Pièce de résistance.

Over the past 21 years, I have 5 sentences that have hit me like this. I can tell you exactly where I was when I first read them and why they hit me so hard. I say 21 years ago because that is essentially when I started reading. I was captain of the football and basketball teams in High School and didn’t so much … how do they say? … read.

It was after High School when I was no longer at my parents house – and I couldn’t make sense of my faith – that I picked up a copy of Josh McDowell’s apologetic classic: Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  On that first page was sentence that stabbed my in the heart. That was the first of the 5 sentences.

Yesterday in the spirited exchange of comments on my blog post “You have to believe in Hell, Predestination, Election and the Book of Revelation”  Nate Gilmore (you can hear his Georgia via Iowa drawl on last week’s TNT) was responding to a little bit of a fun rabbit trail we had going about seminaries and said:

 At least in online encounters, I’ve seen far more appeals to authority, citing “Biblical scholarship” as if it were a monolith, from liberals than from right-wingers.  In my own experience, the conservatives are much more interested in seeing the argument worked out than in “experts say that…” claims.

This is one of my favorite topics of discussion!  I love this topic! Not because I agree with the binary between Conservative and Liberal (I don’t – I can’t after reading The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, which contains 1 of my 5 sentences) but because I have a story about it  – a story that holds the last of my 5 sentences.

The Story:

I was writing my Master’s Thesis on Contextual Theology and I was utilizing a lot of material from a specific author – a real authority on the subject.  In the midst of completing the Thesis I was accepted into the PhD program at a large Evangelical shool where he teaches and I was even appointed to study with him!  It was an amazing honor.

After the Thesis was over, I was reading as much of his work as I could and I ran into a sentence from which I never recovered. He was talking about the need for innovation in the way we do Seminary – something that I am very passionate about – and he made a quick point about the difference between Liberal and more Evangelical seminaries in Africa.

He said that in Africa, Evangelical seminaries are much bigger, grow faster and produce more pastors because they are very method focused. They teach future pastors what to do.
Liberal seminaries, however, while being much smaller, are where almost all the innovation happens. His observation was that the difference came down to permission. His caution was that innovation can not become syncretism. 

Its not that his point was especially earth-shattering or unique. There was just something in the way he said it … or perhaps it was the gravity he carried as my future PhD Advisor … but I put down the book, went for a walk, and decided that I needed to go a different direction. I turned down my appointment to the school and enrolled in a totally different program at a Liberal institution (Claremont School of Theology). 

It was odd that someone I respected said something I agreed with, and the end result is that I knew I had to go a different direction than them.

This is the reason that I went into Practical Theology. It bridges the gap between these Liberal and Conservative approaches. It also attempts to bridge that gap between the Church and the Academy. It also addresses the false gap between theological theory and practice.

I’m so happy with my decision. Every time seminary education comes up, that sentence rushes to the front of my mind. My father (who was recently on the podcast) now runs the D.Min at his Evangelical seminary – so the topic of seminary education comes up a lot.

I don’t normally subscribe to the Conservative/Liberal binary, but in this case I concede the framing of the discussion because the institutions themselves identify this way and teach this way in a sort of self-reinforcing manner. 

You may not like the split, but if those on the inside are telling you that there is a significant difference … you may just have to go with it for a while and see where the road takes you.

 I just wanted to share my little story and see if anyone had any thoughts on the subject. 

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