It’s always a difficult question to ask Carla Sunberg where she’s from. She considers three places home: Frankfurt, Germany, where she was born and lived her first eight years while her family was on missionary assignment; Kansas City, where she attended junior and senior high school before completing degrees at MidAmerica Nazarene University and Nazarene Theological Seminary;
Sunberg has lived almost half of her life in Europe, but each of the three places she calls home has contributed powerfully in shaping her life and theological outlook. She says, “I never experienced the period of legalism that marked the American church.” Reflecting on her time in Moscow, she added, “After seventy years of communism, most of the people were atheists and like blank slates. It’s a humbling experience to realize that you’re the one who will teach them about God for the first time.”
In 2005, Carla and Chuck returned to the United States to pastor Grace Point Church of the Nazarene in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she served as pastor of evangelism and discipleship. In 2011, she and Chuck accepted a call to serve as co-district superintendents for the East Ohio District. During her return to the United States, Carla completed a PhD in historical theology from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. She calls this one of the most significant experiences of her life, both intellectually and spiritually. She says, “For six years, you just absorb yourself in research, digging incredibly deep. I am forever grateful for that experience and what it taught me.” On January 3, 2014, she was elected as the tenth president of Nazarene Theological Seminary, the first woman elected in the school’s history. Sometime after her election, she sat down with Grace and Peace Magazine to discuss how her background and education would inform her role as seminary president. For those wondering, Carla’s responses didn’t always reflect the Queen’s English, but she did throw in a few impressive Russian colloquialisms.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.
G&P: What have you learned from your service as a missionary in Russia, especially with respect to education and pastoral preparation, that now influences how you look at theological education?
SUNBERG: When we lived in the former Soviet Union, there was no infrastructure. We had to form a system to educate and disciple people from scratch. By using Jesus as an example, we came up with three major points for developing a church, which focused on preaching, teaching, and healing. Every church we planted had to have this DNA, and we learned how vital it is to the mission of the church to foster and cultivate theological education. We designed a modular course of study for pastors (which later gained traction in the United States). Since Communism emphasized education, the people had a high literacy rate, and we required our ordination courses to be done at a bachelor’s level. It turned into a positive step because the Russian government is now planning to make this a requirement for all licensed ministers.
We did not have literature in Russian, and had to create all the textbooks. We started off by translating one of our systematic theology textbooks into Russian, which proved incredibly difficult, and required the help of philologists. These translated books, created through the help of the Church of the Nazarene, contributed to Russian culture, and we now have an entire series of textbooks.
After we introduced people to Christ, we worked on discipleship. The process from salvation to discipleship to ordination took about ten years for our first pastor. At one point, we had 250 students in the program, students from six different countries of the former Soviet Union studying in three different languages. We had disciples who were passionate about knowing Jesus, and it was amazing to see this spread. We had disciples who were passionate about knowing Jesus, and it was amazing to see this spread. We later partnered with Nazarene Theological Seminary to provide graduate education to a small group of students who had the skills to become our first Russian speaker, and many classes in Armenia are taught by Armenians. Not only do we have teachers educated at the graduate level; we have students with PhDs. It’s an incredible faculty that influences the church around the globe. This experience helped me understand that theological education is intricately involved in everything we do and plugs into the entire mission of God.
G&P: How has your most recent service as a local church pastor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and as superintendent on the East Ohio District, shaped how you look at the needs of ministry and ministers?
SUNBERG: When I got there, I discovered how similar East Ohio was to other parts of the world in which I’d served. Our district was geographically small, three hours from the northern to the southern border, and two hours from the eastern to the western border. Even in this little area, I could identify some distinct cultures. We had Appalachian culture, Amish and urban settings, and union cities, like Youngstown and Warren. I realized that, even in America, we need pastors and leaders who know how to exegete a culture, look at the context, and realize, I have to think like a missionary. For far too long, we had pastors who were trained simply to take care of existing churches. We can’t think that way anymore. The mission field is everywhere, and requires that we deal with unique cultures.
All this has made me realize that my childhood experiences, my missionary training and experience, my ministry experiences in Fort Wayne and East Ohio, and my doctoral work all inform me as a leader at Nazarene Theological Seminary (NTS). I think NTS provides a place where we can learn how to be missional in every part of the world. We have to think differently and realize that what is happening in post- Christian and postmodern Europe is likely to be America’s future. We need to ask what’s helping us in Europe that can help us with ministry here.
G&P: What were your largest takeaways regarding your doctoral work in Manchester?
SUNBERG: There were a few things that drew me as I pondered where to direct my PhD studies. During my experience in the former Soviet Union, I was fascinated by the culture, especially as I watched the Russian Orthodox Church come back to life, and wondered where women fit. As new churches opened in Russia, the only thing I saw women do was sweep the floor and light the candles. I thought maybe there was something in their history that could explain this, and with tradition being important in the Eastern Church, I researched the place of women in the church. I was drawn to the fourth century because of the Cappadocian Fathers, like St. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. I was drawn to their process of coming into union with God, which they called theosis. I studied the transformation that happens within individuals who are sold out to the Lord, and it proved to be transformational for me. We believe the Cappadocian Fathers influenced John Wesley’s understanding of holiness. So my focus was twofold: to study influences on Wesley’s understanding of holiness, and to look at the role of women in church history.
Nazarene theologian Tom Noble was my primary advisor because his doctoral dissertation had been on Gregory of Nazianzus. Spending six years under his teaching, leadership, and guidance was absolutely amazing. That journey helped me understand holiness, not only in the fourth century, but also how it unfolds through the centuries into our day, and has rendered a more complete understanding of holiness in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. Holiness is universal, and has threads that reach across every culture and context. My hope is that NTS is an incubator for honest dialogue, a place where people can wrestle with the issues they face and think about their journeys, about God, and go to the places where God leads them and make a difference in the church and the world.
G&P: Is an emphasis on holiness what you want to bring to NTS as a mark to bestow on the next generation of church leaders?
SUNBERG: Yes. The early Church of the Nazarene united around its understanding of holiness. This deeper holy life mattered to them and united them as a body of believers. There are different cultures out there and different places where we practice our faith, and if we’re not careful, sometimes a certain culture can become the loudest voice that influences us theologically. Those who founded Nazarene Theological Seminary envisioned that this could be a place where everyone can come to the table and be heard, and that NTS could help the church have a central theological voice.
Our world is hungry for the holiness message because it’s hungry to see reflections of Jesus Christ in our world. My hope and prayer is that NTS inspires that vision in the hearts of our students so we can go out and serve as reflections of Jesus in this world. NTS wants to be a theological voice for the church that speaks about the transformational message of holiness that offers hope. In my mind, that is the best theological message out there, and I think we can communicate it better. I want us to spread that message to the world.
G&P: Some of NTS ’s largest challenges are financial. How do you plan to address these challenges in your work as president?
SUNBERG: First of all, we have to identify a viable business model, and we are doing that. Our goal is twofold: Cut our costs, and work to increase our revenue. We want to look at both objectives realistically. We’re also looking at reshaping some of our programs in terms of how they would best relate with the mission of the Church of the Nazarene, particularly in the United States and Canada. We want to prioritize what is truly important as we work together with our Nazarene family to advance God’s kingdom. Despite financial challenge, our commitment to prepare pastors, preachers, leaders, and missionaries for the Church of the Nazarene will remain.
G&P: How do you see NTS ’s relationship to other Nazarene colleges and universities in the United States and Canada?
SUNBERG: I am deeply grateful for the relationships I have forged from working with many of our Nazarene institutions in North America. I have been fortunate to teach at several schools, and many faculty members are my colleagues and friends. I am grateful for the voices they have to offer. NTS wants to be partners with all of our institutions. I believe we are much stronger when we’re united and working together for the kingdom’s sake.
G&P: How do you see NTS ’s importance to the life of the denomination?
SUNBERG: NTS has influenced the church in powerful ways. As I travel the country, I meet NTS graduates everywhere I go. I was recently at a retirement service for six district superintendents—each was an NTS graduate. NTS has done a great job of preparing preachers and leaders for the Church of the Nazarene. This came home to me a few years ago at a graduation ceremony at Olivet Nazarene University. I stood with a group of friends, chatting, laughing, and having a good time. As we looked around the circle, we realized we were all engaged in different forms of ministry in different parts of the country. We agreed that the one factor that brought us all together was attending NTS at the same time. Thirty years after we graduated, we were in different positions of leadership around the church, and I thought, That’s something NTS does for people. It helps unite us as a church. It brings people together from different parts of the United States, Canada, and around the world, and it gives us one place that we can call home.
G&P: At the last general assembly, you did a workshop on human trafficking. Why do you think this social issue needs to be addressed, and how can the church help?
SUNBERG: In the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of engaging with women throughout the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, and we have come to understand that we are called not only to love God but to truly love our neighbor. We are stewards of the best theology for women that is out there, and as stewards, we must take the initiative to care for it. That thought has driven me to be a voice to speak against gender-based violence.
As God’s holy people, part of our responsibility is to speak up when we see injustices in the world. Holiness means Christlikeness, and Christ spoke up about the injustices he saw in the world. I cannot take that part away from who I am. Yes, even as a seminary president, it remains important for me to speak up and become a voice about these kinds of issues in our world. Gender-based violence, human trafficking, human slavery—that’s where Jesus would be. Jesus would be speaking up, and I believe he calls us to do the same.
G&P: You recently co-authored a book, Reclaiming Eve, published by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. What prompted you to collaborate on this project, and what do you hope will result from the book’s publication?
SUNBERG: In 2005, I moved back to the United States, and I experienced reverse culture shock. One of the things that concerned me about our culture was our understanding of women in the church. As I shared, my PhD studies helped shape my view on this subject, and I realized there needed to be a voice that helped us understand our theological perspective on how God sees women. So a couple of friends and I created a Bible study for the women at our church in Fort Wayne. We had a great time doing that together, and it was fun to join with women from all walks of life on different journeys. My friends were both younger, and it was nice to hear different perspectives. The women in our church were so moved by this experience that we were inspired to dig deeper into what our roles as women in the church should look like. This pursuit turned into the book. We wrote it over the course of several years, and we’re very excited for women to really understand what God’s intention is for them in the kingdom. This is a powerful concept, and my hope and prayer is that women will understand the message, embrace it, and see themselves fulfilled in the kingdom the way God intended them to be.
G&P: What books have you been reading lately?
SUNBERG: I tend to read several at the same time. I just finished God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer, by Pete Greig. It talks about to deal with life when it feels like God is not answering prayer. I find it important to read books on faith and how God can speak to me even about practical things, like prayer. Another book is Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Sometimes we think we’re the little guy with no advantage, but maybe there is unrecognized strength that can aid work in fighting giants. Perspective is important. I’ve also been reading David McKenna’s Christ-Centered Leadership: The Incarnational Difference, which gives several examples of Christ-centered leadership in small and large contexts.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.