The seminary welcomed alumnus Bo Sanders in 2016 as a visiting assistant professor of theology. Ordained as a minister by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Sanders worked the previous five years as a minister of children, youth, and families at Westwood United Methodist Church in Westwood, Calif. Also, since 2012, he served as co-pastor of Loft LA, a venture that uses an interactive and immersive model of music, media, and conversation to impact the spiritually hungry and unchurched of West Los Angeles.
Previously, he was a teaching pastor at Light and Life of the Free Methodist Church in Olympia, Wash., from 2008 to 2010. Sanders gained teaching experience as an adjunct professor at Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack, N.Y., (2008 and 2015). He is a doctoral candidate in practical theology: religious education at Claremont School of Theology and holds a master’s degree in theology from Portland Seminary (2010). He also earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Simpson College (1997)
Adam McGuffie recently sat down with Sanders to talk about his role at Portland Seminary.
Adam: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your pastoral background before joining the seminary.
Bo: I grew up in ministry. My parents were Free Methodist ministers and then my dad went to teach at a Christian and Missionary Alliance seminary. When I received my own call to ministry, I was ordained in the CMA. I've been pastoring for about 18 years in different contexts and it's been a wild ride!
I had been a church planter in upstate New York for eleven years when I started to have some questions after 9/11 and the development of the internet. Ministry changed a little bit, and people were asking different questions than I had been trained to answer. Like (Brian) McLaren says, I liked their questions better than I liked my answers. So, I started looking into people like N.T. Wright and Len Sweet and that's how I found Portland Seminary (then George Fox Evangelical Seminary) and that was the beginning of my theological exploration. So the seminary holds a special place in my heart, and it came at the perfect time in my life and helped me frame ministry differently and answer some of those questions that had emerged.
A: After you graduated from the seminary, you moved to L.A., right?
B: While I was at Fox, I had begun in the M.Div program so that I could go on and do the Doctor of Ministry with Len Sweet, but my first semester here Roger Nam and I had a heart to heart conversation and he proposed the idea to me of switching to an MA and then going on to do a Ph.D. program. He spoke things to me that opened up a new horizon for me and began to imagine myself in a different way and go in a little bit of a different direction. I'm so grateful that somebody believed in me. That's one of the things that I love about this place, and the opportunity to be on the team. Whether it was Laura Simmons getting me ready to write my master's thesis, Randy Woodley walking me through writing my thesis, MaryKate Morse doing my assessment -- these faculty have meant so much to me. A couple of years ago I was at a conference and I bumped into Dan Brunner, and he came up after the panel presentation I was participating on and we went out to lunch. Life had been pretty hard on me in that season and Dan was there pastorally for me. So, the team means a lot to me and to be back here is a dream.
A: After completing your MA here, you went on to Claremont for your Ph.D. work. Who are some of your favorite scholars who have emerged from your research?
B: My two favorite scholars are both in my field of Practical Theology. Elaine Graham -- her book Transforming Practice is, for me, one of my main resources. She uses Judith Butler's notion of performativity, that we perform our gender, but she applies it to faith -- that we perform our faith.
I'm writing my dissertation on critical race theory and I'm trying to integrate the idea that we also perform our understanding of race -- the way that we act our whiteness, specifically in our denominational leadership. That's an exciting project that I'm working on -- finishing up my dissertation this year!
Another person who, probably, I depend on more than anyone else is Bonnie Miller-McLemore. She has named the ways in which the field of practical theology has changed in the last 30 years. Recently, she was the editor of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology -- which, in my circles, is the big thing that everyone is engaging right now. So I get to bump into Bonnie Miller-McLemore at conferences, and she's just an amazing person and I'm really grateful for her work. She has this notion that practical theology is not just one thing, it's actually a constellation of things. All the way from an activity of faith by the people of God -- all the way up to an academic pursuit of the way that faith is lived out. So, between Elaine Graham and Bonnie Miller-McLemore, I have my two main conversation partners.
A: What would your greatest hope be for students who study with you?
B: Theology, sometimes, is very abstract and theoretical/speculative. That's how it was always presented to me. Practical theology integrates and is fascinated with, the way that we are shaped and formed by the way we participate in faith. Practices, in that sense, are more important than ideas, but they are not independent of each other.
We are, in a sense, reflective practitioners -- Schön would say that -- so in practical theology we have theories, but they are based in practice and they subsequently inform our practice. So, you have a hermeneutical circle. We practice our faith, we have an acted embodied, incarnational Christianity that is located in concrete practices -- we reflect on that as a community, whether it is a community of faith or a community of scholars, and then theorize about that -- then come back and see how that forms our practice. That circle, for me, is life-giving.
I'm not interested in theories and speculation as much as I am fascinated by with what the practice of faith looks like on the ground. So, the conversation I most like to have is about the shape of faith. Not the idea of it, but what it actually looks like and how it functions in people's lives.
That's a different take on theology. Specifically, as a Wesleyan, I have a distinct advantage, because of the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. That last component of experience goes from, what has historically been, kind of the tri-fold look at faith. When you add experience to faith, it opens up possibilities that if you only focus on scripture, tradition, and reason -- it doesn't validate people's experience of faith and how communities practice. So, as a Wesleyan, I always have another horizon of experienced faith that opens up possibilities that weren't present in previous generations.