Mar  2017 07
Recruiting Students for a Movement

One of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s fundamental insights about Christianity is that it is more a movement than an institution (read more). Institutions carry movements from generation to generation. If there were no institutions, movements would die in one generation. Institutions are born in movements, reformed by movements, and replaced by movements.

Today in North America, thousands of congregations are dying every year. Thousands more Christian communities—some of them churches—are being formed, including satellite sites of megachurches, house and bar communities, and congregations comprised of recent immigrants and asylum-seekers.

In terms of seminary education, what if we understood the present age as an Age of Movement in which the forms of church and ministry that made sense 60 years ago no longer make full sense?

Now, it is mistaken to assume that the disruptions to former institutions are evenly spread and utterly complete. Some institutional forms of church will persist for years more. But many forms are passing, the models are crumbling, and new forms of ministries are emerging.

What might a seminary education oriented more toward movement than institution, but which has also not abandoned educational preparation for ministry in existing institutions, look like? That is one way to phrase the question and worth exploring as, indeed, many schools are.

Another angle is: What kinds of students should church leaders, within and without the seminaries, be recruiting? For whom do we search?

This is a provocative angle, and one that should unite church and seminary leaders. The question of what kinds of students should be recruited for seminary in an Age of Movement begs the question of what forms one thinks ministry will take.

For example, one can see or imagine all the following types of emerging ministers and ministries. Each form of ministry implies a theological expression of how to be the People of God today, a sense of integrity/longing to be whole, a personality type necessary to do the work, a curriculum, and the desire to witness to the Gospel where people gather.

  • Monastics. Philosopher Alasdair McIntyre famously wrote several decades ago that the West is entering a Dark Age (bad term, from an historical perspective) which would call forth a new monasticism. There are, indeed, experiments today in urban monasticism, building sustainable communities in the “abandoned places in the empire,” as well as on sustainable farms.
  • Social entrepreneurs. From web programmers to bakers, from public charter school starters to renewable energy producers, social entrepreneurs are blending ministry with a business model. Do good and be good, make a profit, make a living, do more good with the profit.
  • Community planters. Ancient Christian congregations were comprised of a few handfuls of families. There was nothing like the megachurch—and certainly not in today’s numbers—prior to a few decades ago. New churches need to be planted, but only some new Christian communities will eventuate into relatively traditional churches, and many will remain a few handfuls of families.
  • Chaplains. Sure, there have been all kinds of institutional chaplains for over a century. But some pastors double as chaplains in places people gather organically, such as coffee shops, bars, and companies.
  • Pastors for congregations. While there will be fewer congregations in ecumenically-oriented denominations in the near future than there are today, there will be congregations, and those congregations will still need and employ clergy.
  • Opinion-influencers and leaven-spreaders. Outlets such as create an astounding publication platform for religious writers who seek to influence opinion and spread the leaven of the Gospel.
  • Love and social justice warriors. I affirm the framing from the other Niebuhr, Reinhold, when he wrote that justice is the social form of love. There is much honorable in the term “warrior,” such as putting oneself on the line in a disciplined way to protect and defend vulnerable persons being exploited by the powerful. Social justice warriors use anger in the service of protection. But justice is the social expression of love. Without linking justice to love, I fear we on the social “left” re-baptize “an eye for an eye” understanding of justice.
  • Curates of souls. This is a very old term for a clergy role, to care for and cure souls. Brene Brown writes and speaks eloquently about the desire for whole-hearted living. What makes for integrity, a sense—based in reality—of whole-hearted living? In our age of social fragmentation, there is a powerful passion to live as a whole persons in whole communities. Thankfully, living whole-heartedly is a hope many persons have not shed.
  • Can you help me think of others?

Each of these ministries is risky. In fact, in an Age of Movement, I’d say tolerance for risk rates high on the list of attributes for persons entering ministry today.

Each ministry requires an economic model for support that is different from an offering plate (which is a less and less reliable form of church funding, anyway).

Each ministry is a vulnerable place to live. Each requires courage. Each requires critical reflection on the content of seminary degree programs.

Each requires a community of support to foster personal and professional practices of resilience, because the seas will be rough and the obstacles daunting.

How prepared to live well in an Age of Movement are the religious leaders and institutions you know?

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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