Apr  2017 18
The Future of Ministry

NOTE: The 2018 Remind & Renew Conference at Phillips will focus on “sustaining ministry.” What kinds of support will sustain the profession? What does it mean to minister in a sustaining way? Please comment below this blog if there is a speaker you’d recommend who could address topics related to sustaining ministry, resilience in ministry, or the future of ministry.

Every generation of ministry has and will have its challenges. In the 36 years since I graduated from seminary, the challenges have changed markedly. When I graduated from seminary, the challenges my class faced included:

  • Becoming pastors to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
  • Women and men working alongside each other in ministry and exploring how to be genuine partners. At the time, there were very, very few women appointed/called as senior pastors and there were not yet women bishops.
  • Demographically changed urban neighborhoods where the remnant congregation did not look like the people who now lived in the neighborhood.
  • The first instances of cross-cultural and cross racial clergy appointments, often with little preparation for either the clergyperson, their family members, or the receiving congregation.
  • Declining worship attendance, membership, and financial strength, along with envious peeks into the windows of first generation megachurches “which must be doing something right.”
  • Rediscovering whether or not the Protestant mainline could do evangelism.
  • Graduating from seminary with a goodly biblical and theological education, but spiritually unprepared for the storms and energy-drain of ministry.
  • Reagan Administration policies and the consequent burgeoning of food pantries, job programs, sanctuary churches, and fear for Armageddon arriving in a rain of nukes because the alleged deterrent of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) might fail.

For the seminary class graduating in May 2017, the challenges they will face include:

  • Finding church-related jobs with a full-time income sufficient to live on.
  • Repaying student debt.
  • Congregations that need to deal with race and sexuality but are not at all equipped to manage conflict. Like the whole U.S. culture, they are ill-equipped to listen to each other deeply enough to see both points of connection as well as real differences.
  • Churches on hospice, churches in denial regarding their life-cycle, churches burning through small endowments, churches that have made heroic attempts to change but the changes might not make a difference, churches that have a chance, some churches that clearly have a vital future, and many communities of faith and practice that need to be gathered and developed.
  • Forging their own career paths.
  • Holding up high standards for a profession devalued by the culture and by the behavior of too many clergy from prior generations.
  • How to demonstrate the authenticity of one’s faith.
  • Re-learning how to do and be church in an increasingly post-congregational culture.
  • Building networks and institutions that make sense to them.

What will be the challenges for ministry in the U.S. 20 years from now?

The following list differs from the lists above because I have a better sense of cultural “what if” scenarios than I do of what millennials and successor generations will do with institutions. So, here are my guesses concerning cultural challenges about which Christians should have something to say:

  • Climate change that has created undeniably real weather disturbances and will cause hundreds of millions of people to seek new homes.
  • Soil sufficiently alive, air and water sufficiently pure and clean to sustain life.
  • Questions of justice and equity when there are about three billion more people on the planet then there are today.
  • A white minority in the U.S. still trying to hold onto white privilege.
  • A less overtly Christian culture, and the growth of non-Christian religions and of the un-religious.
  • Persons of color more and more in positions of power.
  • Many large and vibrant congregations wherever African, Asian, or Latin American immigrants live.
  • Successors to today’s progressives and conservatives (generational and demographic shifts are undoing that polarity).
  • So many technological replications of reality—from super-realistic companionship and care-giving robots to holodecks that might be like something on Star Trek—that the wealthy world will be of two minds. On the one hand, they substituted the virtual for the real and choose companionship bots over persons. On the other hand, they so crave human touch that human caring will be one of the scarcest experiences in society and, therefore, among the most valuable.

I’ll close on this last point. I am taken by Dr. Sherry Turkle’s research, drawing on a variety of disciplines, that human beings are best raised and formed into persons in face-to-face relationships—as in by looking into the face of a caregiver and seeing human eyes meeting human eyes. Read either Alone Together or Reclaiming Conversation, or watch her TED talk to grasp the importance, the foundational nature, of seeing, face-to-face.

A goodly part of ministry in any generation, but perhaps especially in a digital age, is to assist people to become human beings through the power of human eyes meeting human eyes and showing compassion and understanding.

Or remember this scene from Hook? This scene is a great example of the power of seeing someone, really seeing them. And really seeing someone is a core challenge and a core practice in ministry, in any generation.

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