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Sprunt Lectures opening worship lifts up conflict and confusion in the church


‘Getting along’ was ‘never the mission,’ preacher tells worshipers at Union Presbyterian Seminary

July 20, 2024

Union Presbyterian Seminary Sprunt Lecture participants included, from left, the Rev. Dr. John Thatamanil, the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes and the Rev. Lori Raible.

“The early church was very accustomed to conflict, both conflict with the world around them and conflict with each other,” preached the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, interim pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, and president emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary during opening worship of the Sprunt Lectures on Tuesday.

The 113th Sprunt Lectures of Union Presbyterian Seminary were held online and in person in Richmond, Virginia, May 6–8. Guest scholar, the Rev. Dr. John Thatamanil, professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary, delivered four lectures on the topic of interreligious wisdom. Along with the four lectures by Thatamanil and two worship services preached by Barnes, the three-day event will include the presentation of the Distinguished Alum award to the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s director of advocacy and adjunct professor of practical theology for Union’s Charlotte campus. The Rev. Lori Raible, pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, spoke at the alumni luncheon.

This year, the event culminated with the inauguration of Dr. Jacqueline E. Lapsley as Union Presbyterian Seminary’s eighth president on the afternoon of May 8. Lectures and worship can be viewed through Union’s website or YouTube channel.

Lapsley, who served as the academic dean at Princeton Seminary during Barnes’ tenure there, introduced him in worship, noting his storied career in churches and seminaries, where he often served for exactly 10 years, as well as his serious commitment to theological education seasoned with holy humor.

“When there was a minor conflict that I needed to attend to as academic dean,” said Lapsley, “he would say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a cleanup on aisle 7.’”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins

For his sermon, Barnes centered his message on the “challenges of conflict and confusion” in the church and theological education. He chose passages of scripture that cover the split between evangelists Paul and Barnabas, as recorded in Acts 15:36–41 and Acts 16:6–10. The Bible called it a “disagreement that became so sharp that they decided to part company.” The split between Paul and Barnabas could be seen from two perspectives, according to Barnes — as a decision “to bust up the team” or an opportunity to train new leaders and expand the reach of evangelism.

Barnes admitted that his seminary class on leadership through conflict was always full, but the takeaway was often surprising for his students: “The Bible doesn’t tell us much about how to resolve conflicts, but it’s very clear in telling us not to get distracted by them,” he said.

With relatable anecdotes and signature humor, Barnes explored the effects of conflict on our leaders and institutions and the need for what he calls “Plan B theology,” a belief that it is OK to change course and permission not to be right all the time.

Barnes advised leaders of churches and seminaries and everyday followers of Christ to “be clear about your mission.”  The mission, according to Barnes, is not that we all get along, but “to glorify and enjoy God.”

“It you find that all of your energy and joy is being sucked away, trying to make sure that everyone gets along,” Barnes proclaimed as part of the good news, “you are missing the point. That was never the goal, never the mission.”

Beth Waltemath, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Today’s Focus: 113th Sprunt Lectures held at Union Presbyterian Seminary

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jessica Maudlin, Mission Associate II, Sustainable Living & Earth Care Concerns, Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Mission Agency 
David Maxwell, VP/Geneva Press & Church Relations, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation 

Let us pray

Gracious God, we hear your call to love our neighbors, and we know that you intend for us to care for both their physical and their spiritual needs. Help us to respond to this hungry, thirsty world with love that pours from the river of living water that you have placed in the hearts of those who believe. In the name of Jesus Christ, who is living water for our bodies and our souls. Amen.

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