Asking Better Questions: My Experience in the WPLP

by Aaron Stamper
Pastor, Cross of Grace Lutheran Church, New Palestine, Indiana

Aaron Stamper - Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program

My experience growing up as a white American male, combined with living in and serving a white Lutheran congregation in rural Indiana, have carved out a particular theological path.

Ok, I’ll go ahead and call it a rut.

Ruts can be helpful in honoring the rich heritage and traditions established by predecessors in the faith. However, they can provide a false sense of safety and security and rarely intersect in any meaningful way with fellow pilgrims bearing their own experiences, traditions, insights, and rituals.

The witness of the Judeo-Christian scriptures offer little evidence that following the established and predictable path is a worthy task people of God are to follow. One only has to look around to observe that our ruts are clearly pointing us in the wrong direction––namely, leading us away from others.

Enter the WPLP

The Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program introduced me to individuals who have been uniquely valuable resources in my attempt to think more comprehensively and theologically about the myriad of issues facing our nation.

Each session introduced me to new questions and perspectives on topics that had direct implications on my congregation and community. The guest presenters were experts in their fields who communicated the stories, data, and unresolved issues of matters such as healthcare, education, immigration, poverty, to name a few. The presenters were open to our questions and always left us with contact information, encouraging us to continue the difficult conversations.

I never walked away from a session feeling like I had the answers; however, I felt like I was asking better questions.  

As grateful as I am for the esteemed guests the Wabash program provided (and let’s face it, where else does one have face-to-face interaction with a US Senator, a world-renowned self-described “lunatic, libertarian farmer,” a former police chief, a CEO of a tech company, a “Roving Listener,” a Federal Judge, and an influential pastor who fought against Apartheid in South Africa), it was my pastoral colleagues in the cohort who have made the lasting difference. 

Over the course of two years I benefitted from over a dozen perspectives from over a dozen people regarding over a dozen topics. We treated one another with respect, disagreed when our principles dictated, had a lot of fun together, and grew to genuinely care for one another as well as the communities that we all served. 

I regularly reach out to my Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program colleagues to help me make sense of and think through the events unfolding in our world today. My aforementioned theological ruts are still as real and tempting as ever. Therefore, it is a gift to be able to ask colleagues who walk different paths in a different communities how they are making sense of our world today.

More importantly, they help me understand how the decisions, attitudes, and actions of my faith community impact the people whom they serve. 

For example, when the White House announced its plans to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September of 2017, I called my colleague who serves as priest to a predominately Hispanic Roman Catholic parish. I needed to hear how a decision that seemed to have few direct ramifications for my white suburban congregation was impacting his parish.

In our brief conversation he communicated the pain, frustration, and hope that he and his parishioners were experiencing. As much as my parishioners might have felt that particular piece of “politics” had no place in our sanctuary, that Sunday I preached about the pain, frustration, and hope around the termination of the DACA program. Not because I had any personal experience, but because I trusted and was willing to learn from someone who had.

A few weeks later I was privileged to welcome parishioners from this Roman Catholic parish to speak with our Lutheran youth group. Our Catholic guests shared their rationale and experiences of crossing the US-Mexico border illegally, living as undocumented people, and not being able to return to their families south of the border because they would never be able to return to this place where they have worked, studied, and raised children––the place they had called home.

We didn’t solve the myriad of immigration-related issues that day, but I was profoundly grateful to hear the youth of my church starting to ask better questions and contemplate the issues from a different perspective. I look forward to more opportunities to reach out to pastoral colleagues and community leaders to help my congregation and me make sense of our world today.

I completed the initial two-year portion of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program and was blessed with binders of materials, fascinating books, captivating lectures and discussion, meaningful worship, as well as some pretty incredible pictures from our global travels. My most cherished blessing from the program, however, is the gift of friendship that will continue to carve out a new path for my life and my ministry.

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