Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Tom Oord

So, there's always the next controversy it seems, with the Church of the Nazarene. Maybe I just wasn't aware of things growing up, or, in a pre-internet age, it was just easier to keep things quiet, but it sure feels like our denomination is struggling with who it wants to be and whether it will still exist going forward.

That might sound a bit harsh or over-reactive, but more and more it feels like the leaders of the Church of the Nazarene are just completely out of touch with its next few generations of leaders.

Last week Tom Oord, a Philosophy and Religion professor at Northwest Nazarene University was told he'd be laid off at the end of the semester due to some financial changes to be made in the graduate program of which he is a part. There's been a pretty sizable backlash to this move, for a whole host of reasons. One is Tom's prominent place in the denomination, both as a thinker and as a lightning rod. He's a social-media savvy forward thinker, willing to challenge the bounds of traditional thought - a tough subject when it comes to the core doctrines of a conservative denomination.

There's a lot of speculation about the why and how of this decision. Tom's not had the best relationship with the University President and some measure of attempt has been made to challenge or take his ministerial credentials. There has been talk of attempts to silence him or buy him off, but I'm really not privvy to the ins and outs of all that.

It's an interesting situation for me since my dad is on the executive committee of the NNU Board of Trustees. I had a rather disjointed and emotional (from my end) talk with him briefly about this. As is his responsibility, he said only that it's a personnel matter and he can't comment - so nothing I say here should reflect on his views one way or another.

My personal perception of this situation is simply that NNU's President would have an easier time running his institution without Tom Oord around. It's a sad state of affairs, but between complaints and threats and whatever else, the truth is, Oord's presence makes things a little more difficult. The President certainly has the right to make a decision like he did.

I'm not an alum of NNU. I'm not on the region. I've never given a dime to the University. I have no horse in this race. I think any school is better off with Tom Oord teaching there, but I'm also not going to interfere with decisions made by a college President (a really, really difficult job to do, let alone do well).

I can say Tom Oord is a fantastic teacher (I had one class with him way back in January of 2000, when he was teaching at my alma mater, Eastern Nazarene College), who cares about students. I've never known him to impose his will on anyone, more often asking questions and helping students process a larger scope of information on their own. His theology is well within the parameters of our denomination and his commitment to our core doctrine, holiness, is unimpeachable.

I think his removal, regardless of the reasons surrounding it, makes little sense for the institution or the denomination. It's more the message being sent here - and with recent troubles at MidAmerica Nazarene University and at Olivet Nazarene University and at our denominational headquarters.

Difficult, diverse, and non-traditional approaches to God and theology aren't scary and they really shouldn't be, especially when they're engaged in the midst of a loving, affirming, committed, accountable system like the one set up through our Nazarene higher education system. These are the best places for our students to wrestle with difficult questions and explore the depths of mystery inherent in a life committed to Jesus Christ. I wasn't a religion major in my undergrad years. I took nothing more than the required course, but I was asking the same questions and it is certainly because of the environment at ENC, where I was free to ask them, encouraged to do so, and surrounded by supportive (not manipulative professors) that I am still a Christian today.

These kinds of discussions (and, for the record, in the grand scheme of Christian thought, Tom Oord is solidly, wholly, and completely in the conservative camp - even if he seems wildly liberal to those farther right) are not an issue to the next generation of denominational leaders (who are already 35-45 years old). What's more, this type of creativity and exploration is a bottom-line minimum requirement for engagement from the generation of leaders after that.

So many of my peers are just getting out - of ministry, of the Church of the Nazarene, of Christianity - because if we really can't handle the kinds of discussions we're having publicly, we're never going to be able to handle the discussions we need to be having publicly. Even if Oord's layoff proves entirely, 100% necessary and justified, the message it sends is worth more than any amount of monetary savings.

I wasn't able to confirm any of the specifics about challenges to Oord's credentials in recent years - I'll try to update when and if I do, but if even half of what I've heard proves right, it's an even worse problem for the denomination. I can get over the sacrificing of money for greed and power - I don't like it, but I can get over it - I'm not sure if I can get over sacrificing our polity and principles for power. That might just be a bridge too far.

I used to be angry about these types of things (even just last summer, for instance) and so I'm happy others have taken this as an opportunity for righteous indignation. I encourage students, pastors, and alums from NNU to voice your opinion, ask your questions, be heard. At the same time, it just makes me more sad. I'm incredibly optimistic about the future of the Church - perhaps now more than ever, I'm excited about what the people of God are ready and able to do in the world. I'm just less and less optimistic each day that my tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, will play much part in that future. I want us to be there. I think we've got the history and the theology to be front and center in whatever post-modern, post-Christendom movement the Spirit of God brings forth in the next generation - I'm just not sure we're actually going to live up to that promise.

Tom Oord will be just fine. He's an incredible teacher and a well-respected theologian. He'll likely have multiple offers with less headaches and troubles, like so many others before him who've been chased away by the Church of the Nazarene. It's a shame, though, if it comes to that, that's he'll have to leave the school he loves, the home he loves, the wild Idaho country he loves, to do it. You don't often get people willing to invest in walking the difficult road, taking the abuse, and persevering. Often even the most eager give up - and do so understandably. Tom Oord has fought hard to stay when it would be far easier to leave. For that alone, I consider him a hero and an example. I pray he will continue to be, wherever he is teaching in the future.


Chuck said...

Well said.

Andy said...

All about the Benjamins.....

Carol (Oord) VanSlageren said...

Thank you for your support of my brother, Tom. He WILL be fine wherever he ends up and in whatever he does, because we were taught to live lives of love and to give grace.

Ryan said...

Andy, I'm not sure, in this instance, it is all about money. I think there's a lot more to do with power and fear and control. NNU has been getting lots of donations - a $10m unrestricted gift that I'm fairly sure had nothing to do with Tom Oord one way or another. The denomination has lately been working to undermine voices that speak outside the established power structure. We can speculate as to why (I did above), money might be A reason, but I don't think it's THE reason.

Kara LP said...

Thank you for this, Ryan. Your tone is gracious but you've also not obscured the true threat to our denominational home: fear and control.

Austin Wall said...