We are back! Last time I talked a bit about my "listening tour". Thanks to my flexible sabbatical schedule I am able to visit my friends and colleagues and hear a bit about how their church lives are going. The upshot is that people are frustrated. Just as we see in pretty much every other area of life, the way people are doing religion is changing and old, steady, tried-and-true institutions are having a hard time adapting. My colleagues and I are on the front lines of this shift. Trained in the "old ways," part of our job is to meet those old (and still important) expectations while looking ahead to what comes next.
In this second installment of the "New Church" Series we will examine another couple of areas where people are finally noticing the massive shifts in our church life. Last time we talked about denominations. This time let's discuss clergy. I will include a link to Chapter 1 on the bottom of this page.
Clergy Must Learn Different Things and Learn Them Differently
When I went to seminary I received the usual education. There were excellent theology classes. In fact any academic discipline was well-provided for in quality staff and literature. I use what I learned from them pretty much every day. This is a good thing because there were a lot of those sorts of courses. I spent a great deal of time learning about the Bible, the history of the church, religion and science, religion and philosophy.
Then there were practical courses that were frequently also taught by academics who--while they had more experience than me--didn't necessarily have a whole lot of actual experience in what they were teaching. To counter this, at other times they would bring in people who had some experience (not as much as one would hope) but who frequently couldn't teach! They were on campus for other reasons and were dragooned or seduced into classroom time. Many of us left seminary with a deep well of spiritual and religious knowledge that has served us well. That said, if it wasn't for my excellent internship under the guidance of Reverend John Corrado and the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church I am not sure I would have survived my first settlement. The fact is, some of what I learned in school about the practice of ministry was simply wrong. Maybe it would have worked in a vacuum. However, the void doesn't have protestant congregations.
It has been a while since seminary for me. My experience since tells me that things are changing for the better. When I enrolled in my Doctor of Ministry program I was delighted with the results. It was practice-based. It adapted to our ongoing ministries. The adjunct practitioners were top-notch. Best of all, these big-name homiletics professors knew their strengths and weaknesses. What a blessing it was when I asked a question in class one day and my teacher (a publisher of many books) responded with "I don't preach nearly as much as you do. I bet you can answer better than I can." Thank you.
I am pleased with the direction that seminaries are going. I also know that more change is on the way. Of the four seminaries I know best one is dead, two are in the process of completely transforming themselves and one still looks the same but I know it is constantly adapting. In two years none of these four will be on the campuses where I studied. There will be more losses and transformations to come. I am actually pleased that they have risen to the challenge. Clergy need to learn new and different things. We need to be flexible enough to let that happen when (as we have noted) we don't really know where God is taking us.
Churches Need to Ask Themselves if They Need Clergy
Yeah, I said it. The fact is, as we develop new models for congregations (or whatever we choose to call them) some of these models will not need a religious professional. At least they won't need one all the time. They may need a consultant or a theology teacher every once in a while if they are a small yet high-commitment church. Maybe they need a circuit rider to come preach every once in a while. It is possible that many of these new religious communities won't be meeting for one big worship every week. When you add this to the changing view of clergy and of "leadership" in general, even congregations with a full time pastor or two may want to think creatively about how they want to use that person's time.
The decision can go either way. The trick is to be creative. As I was leaving my first settlement I remember telling the congregation that what they really needed was an administrator more than a minister. They were already pretty good at doing a lot of the pastoring themselves but could use some coordination. In my current settlement everyone is so busy they need a minister. It is a small and dedicated membership afflicted by all the busyness that comes with suburban life. We have talked about it and it is hard to imagine a healthy congregation in this context where the clergy staff isn't heavily invested in whatever the "new thing" may be. Incidentally, we are also a teaching church if there are any seminarians out their interested in experimenting...
So, practically speaking, what does this mean? It means some creative thinking for everyone, but particularly for lay leadership. Obvious changes like bi-vocational ministry (ministers having another non-minister job), part-time pastoring, "yoked" congregations, and licensed or lay ministers are the sorts of things that religious professionals are familiar with. Right now my friends and I are having a semi-humorous Facebook conversation about who would do better in the food service industry when we need to scale our ministries down! In short, we are ready for change...but maybe not all of us for professional kitchens.
The problem (and to be clear, it is nobody's fault) is that we are stuck in a cultural vacuum. The perception of the church and clergy in the current culture is based on an "ideal"--and primarily fictional--image from two or three church-phases ago. To most people a protestant church pastor is married but very old and almost certainly male. He has to be, because in our heads his wife is still running the Sunday School...for free. This hasn't been the situation for a long time. It probably never was the situation. However, while most congregants as individuals would acknowledge that fact in a heartbeat, the system still acts like this is the way things are. We all (clergy and lay) play into it. We see our divergence from this model in terms of compromise and failure. How do we change this to terms of opportunity?
A different sort of pastor may be just the thing for many congregations. A leader who is also a teacher, a lawyer, a musician, an artist, a warehouse worker or barista would naturally open up different sorts of ministry. It would also give the congregation a flexibility it wouldn't otherwise have. That new leader of the "new church" would have experiences to draw on that other clergy would not. It would be an exciting, unique and different opportunity.
We face an entrenched image if "respectability" and "success." We need to break out of the trap and go on the road willing to be more like the prophets of the past. Only then can we open ourselves and our community to the variety of opportunities that abound for the spiritual life.
That is all for now. In many ways this area is the place we have seen the most change. That shouldn't be surprising. If the clergy are doing their job--and rest assured the vast majority of us are working very very hard--we should be out ahead. Another big challenge might be in how we learn from the transformation (and yes, death) of our schools. What can we take with us to the people we serve?
Anyway, food for thought. Thus ends Chapter #2
Here is the link to Chapter #1
TO BE CONTINUED