Seven Stars Presbytery

In the Presbyterian system, there tend to be four levels of decision-making bodies (sometimes these actually function as church courts): (1) the local church council, session, or consistory; (2) the regional body, presbytery, or classis, (3) the synod or gathering of regional bodies; and (4) the General Assembly or General Synod. In Chinese these are 小會,中會,大會, 總會.

In my home denomination, we tend to place a lot of the decision-making authority at the regional level, with the regional body or presbytery. This is the group that accepts or rejects candidates for ministry or pastors who transfer in, organizes much of the shared mission, and (traditionally) funded a fair amount of common activity. In Taiwan, the church pushes more of this authority up to General Assembly, but presbyteries are still very important. Emily and I had inquired about joining a presbytery a few years ago and were recently placed in Seven Stars Presbytery 七星中會.  I have seen the “seven stars” refer to the Big Dipper, to a mountain range, and to a beach, so I’m not totally sure of the source. For us it is a good presbytery, because it is the home of the place we live, the church we attend, and a good number of alumni and local pastors related to my Seminary. Because Emily was ordained as an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, she is also a member of the Presbytery now (she was listed as the one hundredth elder on the form today).

The meeting are similar to those in the US. Presbytery meets only three times a year: in December, in January, and again in July. These are basically all-day meetings. Like PCT General Assembly, it has a General Secretary and then four elected offices (vice secretary, secretary, vice moderator, moderator) that in PCT go to clergy and one (treasurer) that goes to an elder. They also elect representatives from regions within the presbytery to serve at General Assembly. I don’t know the exact statistics, but the presbytery seemed to be 70-80% men and all the elected officers were men. Elders must first serve as deacons and then are elders for life. This means the office of elder is treated as a higher calling with a matching level of commitment, but also reinforces the traditionalist (and, honestly, paternalistic) tendencies of the church. For me the voting was a little strange. There is no background information or nominations for votes. Instead, you simply begin voting. On the first ballot the results might be split between a dozen people and eventually through subsequent ballots this is narrowed to a single choice. The oddness for me comes from the fact that choosing candidates is almost entirely a matter of reputation and word-of-mouth campaigning. I sort of miss getting a page about why so-and-so wishes to be moderator and what they would like to do if elected.

There were things that were fun about the meeting. I saw students from eight or nine years ago, as well as the recent crop. We sat next to Rev. Peng from our home church and saw a dozen pastors we know. The meeting was nearly 100% in Taiwanese. Most PCT gatherings are now a mix. Our judicial committee is probably 90% Mandarin and General Assembly is 50-50, but since the presbyteries reflect ethnicity, it means that groups like this are all Taiwanese. My Taiwanese is not that great, but this was an incentive to keep studying. It also was a good reminder of where students will serve and what our base constituency looks like.

I enjoyed seeing local humor and hearing reports from schools, hospitals and the like. There’s a lot of excitement throughout the church now because the PCT is approaching its 150th anniversary. The meeting today talked some about that and introduced t-shirts that people can buy. It was a good opportunity to learn more about the local church. I’m kind of glad that presbyteries only meet three times a year but am also grateful for this opportunity to see what 80+ congregations in the Taipei region are up to.

Human Rights

Last Thursday one of our faculty members, CHIU Kaili, spoke on human rights and Christianity for a Thursday lecture series. Kaili just finished her PhD in Religion and Society at Princeton Seminary and studied with Mark Taylor, who writes on things like incarceration, globalization, and other issues of faith and culture. Kaili’s lecture talked a bit about the human rights as an idea and how Christians relate to it. I was grateful that her presentation was a bit less deterministic than some I hear (Christian faith => human rights). It was also interesting to see her interact with students. She’d earlier worked with the Church Press and had a background in sociology. I actually haven’t talked to her much since she came back, but knew her when I came to Taiwan during PhD and when she studied her first year at PTS. Students seem to appreciate her introduction of new (for Taiwan) theories. She also mentioned gender-inclusive language in prayer, which I believe is the first time I’ve heard this in Taiwan.

For me the human rights discussion is a quite interesting one. Taiwan has a very vibrant public sphere, a fairly rich democratic life, and a commitment to human rights as an ideal. Christians like Lee Teng-hui have sometimes advocated for these ideals, and much of the Presbyterian Church’s identity is staked to a series of public pronouncements it made in the 1970s and a confession that was written in 1985 (one of our professors, Yang-en, said that the Chrisological section of the confession had been revised from the original, which I hadn’t known). Many of the most interesting themes in East Asian studies, theology and the social sciences revolve around these topics: the nature of the nation, the development of civic culture, and the relationship between faith and public life.

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《人權與信仰》 Human Rights and Faith

Cub Scout Thanksgiving

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We’ve had some eclectic Thanksgivings over the years. During my first year of seminary a half dozen international students joined me at my parents’ house (1999). In our first year married, Emily was a secretary at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and we had some guests from the UK and China (2001); it was a fun time but we were pretty clueless cooks and things came out in batches. At one point we went to take the pie out of the oven, and since it hadn’t set, it simply folded in half! There was also “dumpling thanskgiving” (2005) when coworker John McCall’s friend, an elderly dentist, invited us to a thanksgiving meal at a dumpling restaurant. We also had a thanksgiving with language students (2009), one where Emily’s family was visiting and we couldn’t get the turkey done (2010), a gathering of neighbors (2011?), Em’s family visiting us in Princeton (2012) and a surprise family gathering where Emily’s brother Alan managed to get leave from Okinawa and was able to get a direct flight to Taiwan (2013). Pretty interesting years… This year there was a potluck at church (I missed it to stay home with Eli, who was sick), and we decided to have Sam’s Tiger Scout Den over (more on that another time). It was a very fun group. All kids with connections to the States, but also a nice mix of English and Mandarin and playing and talking and drawing. We did turkey by tracing hands, something some of the kids hadn’t done, and one of the moms did balloons. There’s something about Thanksgiving’s mythology that makes me really enjoy these mixed gatherings.

Christianity in Taiwan

Christian Faith in TaiwanToday we had a guest lecturer, Professor 蘇國賢 SU Kuo-Hsien, for our Thursday chapel series. The topic was Christianity in Taiwan. Su is a National Taiwan University professor in sociology (and a Presbyterian elder at Songshan “Pine Mountain” Presbyterian Church). I was only able to stay for part of the lecture, which described a fairly large-scale, high-response phone survey given to Christians and non-Christians. Christians were then split into a variety of groups by category (Catholic, Presbyterian, traditional, charismatic, etc.) and the answers were compared.

There were a few things I found interesting. Christians are 4.9-5.6 of the population. Catholics are a fairly tiny .7 percent of the population (which surprised me). I think he put Presbyterians at 28% of the Protestant or total Christian population, which means they (we?) are still the largest Protestant body in Taiwan by a fairly substantial margin. About 60+% of Christians attend church weekly and about one in ten go only once a year or not at all; there was not great variation between denominations here. Many of the US trends (“nones and dones”) don’t appear in Taiwan in a notable way.

Students later pointed out some aspects of the research which are a challenge. For instance, the survey didn’t ask about ethnicity, and both aborigines and immigrants probably have a higher rate of Christianity. Immigrants and others (those without phones or who don’t speak Mandarin) would not have been included. This is also, as far as I know, a unique “one shot” survey, without earlier surveys that can be used for direct comparisons. Every study requires limits, so none of these are intended as criticisms. The scale of the work was very impressive to me and raises a lot of interesting questions.

The speaker briefly addressed themes like secularization and competing theories on Christian responses (i.e. growth of diversity of opinion or isolation from mainstream society). I wish I’d been able to stay for the rest of the discussion. Often the questions that are most compelling for me are about conduct. How/does faith influence actions? To what degree are Christians similar or different to the larger population? How much diversity of belief and practice is there among Christians? The survey also offered some findings on broader religious trends in Taiwan. I’m bogged down in other work now, but hope to eventually read the full study.

DSC_0606Professor Su speaks to gathered teachers and students

Office life

When we moved off campus into the city, I knew one of the things I would miss would be the wild life and the patches of green on the mountain. Our seminary is on Yangming Mtn., about half way up to Chinese Culture University. In our time there I’ve seen a half dozen snakes as well as a variety of mammals, birds, and insects.

Luckly, my office is in just about the quietist, greenest corner of campus, on the side of the Centre for the Study of Chinese Christian Thought 基督教研究中心. It looks out on a plot of wild land that rumor says was once or is still a graveyard (the plot doesn’t belong to the Seminary).

DSC_0602The picture above is a panaroma view. It’s hard to make out but there’s a patio over to the left, Papaya trees left of center, and some really nice flowering trees.  On the right is the wooden walkway that leads to offices for non-admin faculty (it’s slightly terrifying in the dark at night). I’m now the longest-lived faculty member in this area. For many years, this property had belonged to Presbyterian Church US, but was traded c. 2000 to help the Seminary.

Today’s a warm November day and I sat on the patio with a cup of coffee–almost perfection. In about five minutes I saw a gargantuan wasp, a half-dozen butterflies, and some spiders and grasshoppers. Below is a moth caterpillar I found on my door frame:

caterpillar

It’s not uncommon to see giant spiders, beetles, or lizards. I’ve seen a large turtle before and on one afternoon a golden serpent-crested eagle perched in a limb nearby. It’s not exactly a backyard, but something like it, wilder and more beautiful.

When Sam was two or three, we’d often go outside and look at bugs for a while before going to school. He’s now an amateur bug collector, and has a beetle (“Roxanne”). I saw a quote once–I can’t find it now–attributed to Thoreau, about how a backyard is a microcosm of the universe. It’s true: in a few meters of overgrown land it’s amazing how many creatures can burrow, crawl, hop, fly, or nest. I’m a happy urbanite now, but also grateful for my plot of green.

Six Seminaries

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Communion Gathering of Six Seminaries: Weishen and Taishen presidents

Today was the annual gathering of Taipei’s seminaries. Some years back there was a partnership between Taiwan Seminary (where I teach) and China Evangelical Seminary, an evangelical Fuller-type seminary in Taipei. The Baptists joined after a few years, and then the Methodists followed. Last year Logos Seminary (a Taiwanese-founded seminary located in California but with a branch in Taiwan) joined in, and then this year the historic (almost 50) China Lutheran Seminary in Hsinchu joined in.

The seminaries are known by abbreviations: 台神 Taishen,浸神 Jinshen, 華神 Huashen, 衛神 Weishen, 證神 Zhengshen, 信神 Xinshen.

The gathering felt pretty smooth in implementation. The Methodist president kindly limited his sermon to seven or eight minutes, and communion and gift-giving went off without a hitch. The Methodists have a much higher liturgy. For those who have seen A River Runs Through It and remember the line “Methodists are Baptists who can read,” in Taiwan things work differently. Here the Methodists are a quite small but elite denomination, the denomination of the Chiang family. The liturgy included four readings, a confession of sin, a confession of faith, and a responsive communion liturgy (these things are all pretty rare in Presbyterian churches).

It was also interesting to learn more about the other churches. The Baptist Seminary sent the most teachers this time. I’d learned that they are independent and hold connections to both the Southern Baptist Confession and also the broader world Baptist communion. I had a good conversation with one of their Old Testament profs. They’d homeschooled their kids and the oldest did a lot of AP credits and tested out of a year of college in the US. I also know their mission professor fairly well (he retires next year). I’d been a second reader for one of their MDiv thesis students. (Our family is now geographically closest to the Baptist Seminary and they are an interesting group.) The student who wrote her thesis had actually written on a Korean Presbyterian sending agency (GMS). Both of the teachers I’ve mentioned also have family members in PCT (father or brothers), so there are still a surprising number of connections across church lines.

I was happy to see a friend of mine, Jukka, who teaches systematic theology at the Lutheran Seminary. Jukka is Finnish, but grew up in Taiwan and did most of his studies in the US. His seminary has the highest rate of mission workers and a very strong Lutheran identity. In the US it has a connection to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and hosts professors every year from Concordia.

My seminary had the most women, which made me happy. The Taiwanese church culture is pretty conservative. At the same time, changes are happening. The only female president today was of China Evangelical Seminary, and I read she’d also taught at Logos.

One of the courses I enjoy teaching is ecumenics. I’m always fascinated by how to make sense of the denominational imprint on churches in Taiwan. To what degree is their formation a product of missionary identity, of confessional traditions, or of national identity?  My seminary has most clearly staked out its identity in terms of Taiwanese language and culture. “Taiwanese” is often contrasted to “Chinese,” in ethnic, national, and theological terms. Several of the other seminaries contain the word “Chinese” in their titles. Gatherings like this don’t really get into the nitty-gritty, but hopefully they help build some friendships so that serious conversations can happen later, or so that when there is conflict churches have some basis for communication. It was pretty impressive to me that the six seminaries’ students could share in communion. That they all may be one…

PCUSA PCT Consultation

PCUSA PCT Consultation*adapted from a recent newsletter*

In October,  PCUSA and the PCT (Presbyterian Church of Taiwan) hosted a joint consultation, the first in about a decade. The event was marked by shared meals, multilingual worship, and gift giving. We were grateful for the chance to see friends and leaders from PCUSA, including David Shinn (a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board), the regional liaison for East Asia (Choon Lim), the Area Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific (Mienda Uriarte), the program associate from Presbyterian Women who directs global exchange (Kathy Reeves), the director of PCUSA World Mission (Hunter Farrell), and the Associate Executive Director for Mission (Roger Dermody). [See articles on the visit in the Presbyterian Outlook and on the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan site.]

One of the great things about the gathering was the chance to share information, ideas, and experiences. We split into visitation groups that went to sites throughout Taiwan to see PCT’s ministry in action. My group was in Tainan visiting a young adult service and regular Sunday worship. When we returned together we met and planned. One afternoon I moderated discussions over evangelism and social justice led by Roger and Mienda and also by PCT evangelism secretary Tsai Nan-Hsin and PCT social witness secretary Lin Wei-lian.

At the conclusion of the gathering the groups identified five areas for future work: (mission/evangelism, social justice, women’s ministry, minority partnerships, and youth and young adult work). At the end of our time together, a working groups was put together to plan specific future partnerships, such as exchanges between minority leaders, development of ministries related to land justice and human rights, and presbytery and other partnerships.

One of the more interesting conversations at the consultation was over PCUSA’s 1001 Worshipping Communities and PCT’s “101” Evangelism movement (or “1 leads 1”). There are some interesting resonances between the two movements. PCUSA hasn’t undertaken something like this in many years, and for PCT the outreach movement is more intentional and growth-focused than in the past. PCUSA’s campaign focuses on creative worship and innovation in mission, while PCT’s approach has been more on developing training and resources for individual and congregational invitation to the community. Tomorrow the evangelism secretary is coming to my class to talk more about 101.

For me, the two denominations are interesting mirrors for each other. PCUSA has been (more or less) slowly shedding members for decades, and PCT has stalled at the same size for the last generation. I know there are a million theories on why denominations grow or decline. Some are macro (the context, the culture) and others specific to the institution (in PCUSA, we simply haven’t had a campaign like this in a generation, and in PCT there have been a secession of plans that haven’t shown clear results). Churches also struggle over how to relate to the rising generation. There are analogies between the “worship wars” in the States and the competing language services in Taiwan (Taiwanese for the older generation, Mandarin for the younger). It can also be hard to balance calls for integration (of ages, ethnicities and generations) and community formation (which often relies on exactly these commonalities). Both denominations are a source of joy and challenge to me and I hope that we’ll find some ways to continue our discussions.

 

Retreat

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A CWM student hoists the three…

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Butterfly? Moth? (Photo by Sam)

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Sam and Eli by scenic windmill

Every year Presbyterian Church of Taiwan hosts international students, resident mission workers, and some guests for a retreat. I’ve gone 4/7 possible years (we were in the US a year ago and I was travelling two years ago, and the babies came a couple of weeks before the retreat one year). In the past it has been in Kenting, Tainan, or Nantou. I like these retreats because I get to be around a host of people with similar experiences. At the retreat this year there were several pastors working in ethnic churches (Korean, Thai), there were several people attached to seminaries, and then there were a number of people from the General Assembly, including the ecumenical secretary who is around my age and with whom I share some interests.

This was probably our best retreat in a long time. The kids were just too little before, and this one was in nearby(ish) Wanli, along the northern coast. Travel was not taxing and we had chances to rest. In fact, we’d been to the hotel some years back, when the twins were less than a year old. This time the kids enjoyed playing in the sand and swimming in the pool and frolicking on a playground. Sam made friends with the Thai PK (pastor’s kid), who is in second grade. We always like learning what other parents are doing. In this case, the Korean family in Hsinchu had come here from China and their children are close to taking exams for high school here. The Thai boy does the extra “cram school” program and had very good Chinese; he did say it’s a lot of homework and his mother agreed.

I had more chances for one-on-one conversations, and got to know some of the international students, who are here via a Council for World Mission (= Presbyterisn related to the English church in some fashion) program at Tainan Seminary (our sister seminary/rival in the south).

I’m always grateful for the General Assembly office here. I often say I have three employers (PCUSA, PCT, Taiwan Seminary). PCUSA sent us and employs us. We’re here at the invitation of PCT (Presbyterian Church of Taiwan). I teach at Taiwan Seminary. PCUSA and Taiwan Seminary supervise me more closely. I fill out paperwork for them and they oversee me fairly directly. These institutions also have faced more transitions. In this equation, PCT is a bit more like a fairy godmother. They’ve often talked things through with us when we are struggling, they have a breadth of experience in Taiwan that the other institutions lack, and they have the capacity to pull us out of the fires if things are ever too intense.

Even though it’s the middle of the semester (because it’s the middle of the semester?) this was a pretty nice break. The next retreat is a year away, but I’m already looking forward to it…

Seminary Struggles, continued

Background

I wrote earlier about the conflict at my seminary. At first I thought it better not to say a lot more, but I’m beginning to realize that these types of conflicts are in a way “a part of the job.” I’ve been mentally comparing the recent conflict at General Seminary in New York (see, for instance, here, here, and here), where there are some obvious similarities (competing visions for the seminary; multiple constituencies with different goals; lack of communication between board and faculty; students placed in a difficult position; social media as an accelerant) even as there are a lot more differences (different culture, denomination, structure, etc.)

In brief, at my seminary one of our foreign teachers was let go by our faculty committee at the end of the spring semester. Here the faculty committee consists of only associate and full professors, or the more senior third of our teachers (seven people). The meeting to dismiss was held in secret with members initially bound to silence and forbidden from saying how they voted, but news got out quickly. The decision reopened some old wounds, alienated many students, alumni, and faculty, and led to symbolic protests on campus (students and alumni put black streamers throughout campus and decorated a flag on campus).

The conflict surprised me because it came about over something that is rather common (a professor being let go, which has happened at this seminary probably a half-dozen times in the last six or seven years), but took on a life of its own. In this case, another senior faculty member protested and was joined by a number of students and some other faculty members. Although it is now six months later, there have been two sermons on the conflict in the last weeks, one by a teacher and another by one of our seniors. As a faculty, we’ve only discussed the conflict all together once, and it was not a particularly fun meeting (clearly things are still boiling). That meeting was in September and it was the first time I’d heard specific reasons given for the dismissal. The reasons were a bit of a hodgepodge of theological criticism, teaching critique, and participation in campus life. Up to now, no public rationale has been given to students or the general public. Our board of trustees declined to get involved and while I think the hope was that things would die down, instead, it has highlighted all of our divisions and antagonisms.

The Deciders

The conflict over this type of decision-making isn’t entirely new to me. When I arrived at my first full-time teaching gig at a small college in New Jersey, the faculty had recently unionized in opposition to the president, and my alma mater, Princeton Seminary, also unionized during the tenure of the last president. In most cases, there has been a power triumvirate that is tough to resolve (president/admin, faculty, board of trustees). Traditionally faculty have had great leeway in governance, but in recent years administration have gained more power throughout higher ed with the rapid growth of an administrative class. Each body has different goals, biases, and hopes for the institution. In some cases, seminaries have an even more difficult time because they also answer to an ecclesiastical hierarchy and they rely on churches and alumni for much of their support and work. (My seminary, like General, has little endowment.) At my seminary, things are even a bit stranger. Our Board of trustees is nominated by a Synod and consists solely of pastors and elders. This means that it doesn’t include minority members (who belong to ethnic presbyteries here), and it also rarely has academics. Because of sibling rivalry between seminaries, it’s almost impossible for us to have board members from other seminaries. This means the board is a “closed loop.” In the past faculty and board have met together over dinner, but I don’t think that’s happened recently.

Probably General Seminary faced similar issues, in that it had a very large board with almost no academics; this meant that when the crisis erupted there was no one to interpret between the different governing cultures (church or business vs. academic institution). It can also be easy to forget that some teachers gain a personal following over the years, so when they are mistreated it can stir deep anger among hundreds of students or alumni.

Histories of Conflict

Taiwan Seminary has a history of conflict, so I went into this call with my eyes open knowing that there might be a conflict like this during my time here. When I first came to Taiwan in 2005-2006, the seminary was recovering from its last conflict, which had resulted in a major purge of teachers and a large administration change (a new board of trustees and president, and with most faculty relatively new). One of my colleagues told me when I came back that the Seminary “will never be healthy.” There was a similar conflict in the mid- to late-1990s. In talking to people who have been at the seminary longer, there were similar crises in the past, typically every eight to ten years. Presidents here have a reputation for having a fair amount of power. I don’t think they necessarily want this for themselves. Instead, the culture vests them with a lot of the decision making power, which means that whether or not they are the best person to decide they often are given this responsibility. (It’s often the case that when I ask about something like a worship schedule, I’m told the president has to be consulted.)

When we talked about the conflict as a faculty, there were two questions I asked that I thought provoked interesting answers. (1) I asked if anyone remembers a past conflict at our seminary with a positive resolution. The answer: silence. (2) I also asked whether the seminary had had any “golden era.” Was there a time we could look back to for working through these things better? Ironically, here the only answer that came was from one of our associate profs, who saw the period after the last conflict as a golden era. I can’t tell if this is simply because the enemies had been cast out, or because real change occurred. Either way, it’s a difficult model for our current situation. Essentially, there are no positive models for reform, repentance, or change. This makes for a warped institutional history. There are odd pieces I’m trying to make sense of. I’ve never met any of our former presidents, even though several are alive. Because they “lost” past conflicts or were replaced by an antagonistic group, they are no longer welcome on campus. It kind of amazes me that current faculty/administrators don’t see this exile in their future. Somehow they believe things will be different for them.

My Personal Takeaway

One of the things that’s helped me has been to depersonalize the situation, to realize that our system was set up for this type of crisis. When decision-making rests with a few people and there’s no ability to discuss or resolve conflict, it means that things will simmer. The system also means that power has been used capriciously. Moreover, it’s hard to resolve the crisis internally, and there’s little possibility for appeal to a higher body. In fact, because the whole system is interrelated, whenever there’s a conflict it dredges up past conflicts (the chair of our current board of trustees is also the brother of one of the faculty who was pushed out before I came, and also has a brother who works at the large hospital downtown, which is one of our major sources of support).

I go back and forth on what to make of this type of conflict. My father pastored for part of his ministry in conflicted churches (he did post-conflict interim ministry), and his takeaway was that after the fact it is almost impossible to identify a sole cause for conflict. The tendency towards escalation, recrimination and scape-goating means that you realistically you can’t get to the bottom of things. I think that’s part of the problem here. The faculty who feel wronged here have often been on the other side of firing enemies or denying promotions to juniors. Now they would like to change the system but there’s no reason to believe they would run things better and it’s unlikely they’d be chosen to lead change. Those in power have no incentive to make changes, but are alienating the newer faculty who will eventually replace them.

My own goal is to get a bit more distance from the institution, to do everything I can to support students, and to use whatever leverage I have now to work for change in the system. Part of the history of reprisal relates to things like housing, so I’m really glad I’m off campus now, and also that I’m in one of the smallest offices on campus. I’m going to try to escape the promotion system, which would mean I wouldn’t be taking anyone else’s spot. I also have a PhD student now, who I hope could conceivably be a successor down the road. I’m fond of systems theory, with its emphasis on differentiation, nonanxious presence, avoiding scapegoating, and expecting escalation. Because I’m not hired directly by the school, I have more freedom. I’ve also often said that I like all of coworkers individually; it really is the system that confounds me.

One of the ironies is that as we continue to struggle with where we are, we’re also in our fundraising month. For the last two Sundays, I’ve been doing fundraising sermons on behalf of my school. What I said is basically: our students are great and they deserve any support you can give them; they work very hard and love the church; I’d love to have any one of them as my pastor. Despite it all, I really do like this place. I don’t think that is just Stockholm syndrome. I think that most institutions are like this, even if they hum along a bit more efficiently. It’s a challenge because often when we tether ourselves to an institution, we can gain support, friendship, shared vision, and community, and yet institutions are always flawed and broken. It’s challenging to invest so much of yourself in a place and yet realize that it is ephemeral.

Schooling / Family Updates

We’re now two months into school, and so far things are going well. Sam is at “Lih-Jen International School,” which is one of the bilingual schools and has targeted itself towards Taiwanese English-learners while also being a bit more welcoming of foreign students than other places. They bill themselves as “The Leader Inside” school and they use Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” This may sound like a bit much for 6-14 year olds, but the school has a light touch about the seven habits and seems generally healthy. We had our first teacher meetings and Sam’s English teacher said that everyone is a leader and the habits are designed to guide students to share and work together. I have flashbacks to the Franklin Planner my father bought me c. 1994, and I’m still not sure what “sharpen the saw” means, but for now we’re going with it. In general I’d say Taiwanese education is a sort of blend of classical education (Sam has been memorizing a version of the 弟子規), MBA lite philosophy, and middle class economic-success aspiration.

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Here’s hoping Sam finds the Leader inside…

lihjenSam is doing solidly “okay.” He has improved really quickly and we’re very grateful for his teachers. He was not writing much at all and now in about eight weeks he’s made progress in both English writing and in the Taiwanese writing system (bopomofo). He has a very caring Chinese as a Second Language Teacher (who retired from full-time teaching but stayed on to run CSL and is apparently married to a former general). I think he probably could have stayed in the regular class, but it’s been nice to be in a small setting and he gets more one-on-one time there.

Our one caveat is that we’re not loving the homework. I think the homework is designed to be about fifteen or twenty minutes per subject, but this translates into: 20 minutes English, 20 minutes Chinese, 15 minutes math, 10 minutes fidgeting and bathroom breaks, 15 minutes complaining about homework, and so on. Weekends are even worse. That said, the alternatives are worse and either involve us putting Sam in public school and teaching him English ourselves (which didn’t work so well in kindergarten), or putting him into a foreigner school and living more in a bubble. And my sense is there’s a lot of homework everywhere, and parents want more intensity rather than less. A visiting pastor here said that schooling seems to be a lot of worksheets. I don’t know what to make of it. Taiwan always ranks highly in international education, but there’s also a lot of hand-wringing about the challenges of parenting, the costs of tutors and cram schools, and the general not-fun-ness of being a Taiwanese kid.

Eva and Eli, meanwhile, are loving their school. They’re now at Catholic Faith and Light Kindergarten 天主教信光幼兒園, which is a Montessori-style school (we actually didn’t know this when we enrolled them–it just seemed like a very caring place). Eli seemed to be having trouble transitioning at first, but he has the mostly saintly teacher I’ve ever met. She loves him and is so incredibly kind to him (beloved teacher Lee). Eva has Teachers Jenny and Hong. Eva went in pretty easily from the start and likes singing and dancing. The twins have just turned four, and are now in the sweet spot where they understand what we are saying and can play by themselves, but don’t have homework.

I’ll try not to have this degenerate purely into a cross-cultural parenting blog, but a lot of the viability of the expat / missionary / immigrant life hinges on kids’ ability to adapt. So far everyone is doing well. If we can survive the homework, we should be fine.

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Eli in his first days at Catholic Faith and Light Kindergarten…