The announcement came electronically, as they do now, in the mail I regularly receive from the denomination. It was a death notice, this one like so many lately, of someone I knew. The announcement said that Carl Kromminga had died at age 96. Carl was my teacher in seminary. He taught Practical Theology, the applied part of the seminary curriculum.
In Carl’s teaching, Practical Theology was about developing the rudiments of pastoral wisdom in those of us who were about to step out into churches as pastors for the first time. I’ve not, and I suspect others of my class have also not, forgotten Carl’s lecture at the end of our first year, preparing us for our first summer assignments.
Carl, gently and with characteristic humor, gave us the sort of advice we would need if we were not to embarrass ourselves in our new roles. He paused in his lecture on the topic of pulpit furniture. These were the days when many churches had three large throne-like chairs on the platform behind the pulpit. Which should one choose if you were preaching in one of those churches? Carl advised us never to take the center chair. Bad form. That chair was reserved for the pastor. And once you were seated in one of these outsized chairs with your feet off the floor, as they typically were, where should you put your arms? Head high, trying to get the on top of the chair arms? Carl demonstrated with his own arms. Or sort of snaked through the arms? Carl again demonstrated the position. By now we were all laughing. And imagining ourselves sitting in one of those big chairs.
Throughout his lecture, Carl pointed out pitfalls, defused our anxieties, and invited us in a way we had not been invited before into the art of ministry. What he conveyed above all was a tone, a tone of solemn good humor. Take your role as pastor seriously but never yourself, he was telling us. Which is the way that Carl always seemed to take himself.
Except once in my experience. Years after I had left the seminary, we were at a synod in the days of the debate over whether women would be recognized in the denomination as elders and pastors. I was a delegate from Classis Lake Erie. It was not for nothing that in those days other delegations were told to be leery of Erie. In the course of one of the debates, I made a speech, not unusual for me. I don’t remember what the speech was about or what I proposed. What I do remember was Carl. He met me in the hallway outside the auditorium where the synodical sessions were held, and he was hot.
Carl told me that what I had said was ill-advised, poorly thought through. It wasn’t that he disagreed with what I intended by the speech; we were on the same side of the issues. It was that he thought I had approached the matter at hand in a way that would give aid to our opponents. He said to me, “Clay, you are going to regret that speech.”
I was taken aback by Carl’s passion, but in a strange way I was also honored by it. He took me seriously enough to correct me, to tell me that I had made a mistake, that he expected better of me. His anger was not the anger of an enemy but of someone who cared for me—for me and for the church.
It’s that kind of engagement I miss these days. We seem in denominational life as well as everywhere else to have lost the glue that holds us together strongly enough so we can disagree. Passionately. Forcefully. And still lovingly.
We have become more inclusive. I am reminded that in those days there were no women on the floor of the synod and few minorities. Part of what permitted us to debate with such passion was that we were all alike. We went to the same school, spoke the same cultural and theological language, looked alike, and dressed alike. A unity based on sameness is not the gospel unity declared in the New Testament.
That said, and it must be said, I miss the loyalty. Can we find again the love and loyalty that binds us to each other so that we can disagree and still be one church? Can we still learn and practice, as Carl taught us, not just the right theology but the right tone? A tone not of acrimony but of graciousness?