I’ll be honest. I’m a little frustrated with the Church right now. Anybody else out there feel that way? Unlike 73% of my fellow millennials, this is a relatively new feeling for me, because for the first time in my life I’m mad at the family of faith that has nurtured me for as long as I can remember. The message of grace and reconciliation that the Church has to share is being stifled by politics, apathy, and fear. And now that I’ve given a quarter of my twenty-four years on this earth to taking classes, engaging, and supporting the Church, I can’t find a congregation willing to take a risk on a young minister from a liberal divinity school. As it turns out, I’m not alone in this struggle, and one of my courses in this last semester at Wake Divinity has helped me deal with my ecclesial disillusionment.
Over the past few months, I have had the distinct privilege of taking Dr. Frank Tupper’s final course at Wake Divinity. Appropriately, the course was on the Church. Frank, as he insists his students call him, led us in a study of five different models of the Church – Embassy of Reconciliation, Fellowship of Friends, Beloved Community, Family of God, and Servant Church. From his own wealth of experiences in this complex body of believers, Dr. Tupper shared with usinnumerable lessons of leadership, including frustrating aspects of the Church, as well as the supreme joys and freedoms that congregational life entails. Indeed, this was one of the common themes at Dr. Tupper’s retirement banquet Thursday night, as students from Louisville and Wake Divinity, along with countless friends and colleagues through the years, gathered to celebrate his remarkable career.
After a fine meal, reunions with old friends, and stories unbelievable enough to be true only of Dr. Tupper were shared, I found myself reflecting on a Karl Barth quote, appropriated in 1947 from St. Augustine: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. “The reformed church is always being reformed.” For more than a half-century, Frank Tupper has been engaging, reforming, and wrestling with the Church, and that visceral struggle is what gives me hope for the future despite my frustration. Dr. Tupper has faithfully dared the Church to be more, simultaneously demanding more of himself and this Family of God, while also imparting that challenge to his students. Dr. Tupper’s course on and his participation in the Church have allowed me to see that the reformed institution I desire necessitates a struggle, and requires loyalty. In his final lecture, Frank told us, “Every person in this room has a responsibility to leadership in the Church. You’re too bright not to.” This young Baptist minister can take more than a few lessons from Dr. Tupper – in the classroom and the sanctuary – about faithfulness, struggle, and hope for the Church. My frustration, while painful and perhaps justified, also heightens my aspirations of what the Church can be at its best. If the church is truly semper reformanda, I have to believe that we can get it right one of these times. Asked by a former student what he’ll miss most about teaching, Dr. Tupper responded genuinely, “The students.” We’ll miss you, too, Frank, but your lessons are with us for a lifetime.
Graduating in May, Patrick Cardwell is a third-year M.Div. student, who plans to enter full-time ministry with a Baptist congregation next year.