1 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. (Luke 4.1)
We are in the season of Lent – a time when we reflect on Jesus entering into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights. This event of temptations happens after Jesus is baptized and God publicly claims him as God’s own. We, as Presbyterians, are in our own kind of season of Lent. There is a lot of talk about division, loss, dying, perishing, wondering, and revisioning. In some ways, we may feel that we are wandering in the wilderness and wondering what it is going to be like when we get out.
I often believed that Jesus being led by the Spirit to enter into the wilderness was in some way a test: a test of faith, a test of commitment, a test of worthiness. However, I wonder if it is less of a test and more of a reality check. Here, Jesus has just been baptized and claimed as God’s own and now his eyes are open to what it means to be called, to be chosen, to be claimed, and to do ministry. As the saying goes, “It’s a jungle out there.” Well, in our case, “It’s a wilderness out there.”
I just got back from attending the Next Church Conference in Dallas, Texas – a wonderful conference bringing mostly Presbyterian church leaders together to collectively wonder what is next for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. At this conference, I had the opportunity to share about the collaborative ministry that is happening in the Presbytery of San Francisco. I am extremely grateful for the hard work that First Presbyterian Church in Dallas and the Rev. Joe Clifford did to make this such a wonderful event. Having been on many conference planning teams before, I know the amazingly and consuming time and energy it took to pull off such an event.
Now having a whole plane ride home to reflect on the event, I want to offer some observations of my time at Next, but also what the next steps may look like for not only Next, but for the denomination.
We Are Not Perishing
Stacy Johnson, a Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, gave an in depth presentation on what is needed in order for the Church to move forward in our current culture. He began by giving some sobering statistics on not only PCUSA but on today’s culture. When you look at the statistics and certainly when you hear people talk around the denomination, there is a huge sense that the Church is perishing, the Church is dying. For me, this is a reality check. Depending on one’s perspective, you can view the Church as perishing or you can view the Church as this is just what ministry is all about. Let me explain.
My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is the wilderness. This is ministry. For smaller congregations, there isn’t a sense of perishing because the hey day left over 50 years ago. You have to HAVE something to feel like you are LOSING something.
The difference is that it’s not only the smaller churches that are wandering the wilderness. Now, it’s the larger churches wondering what’s next. It’s the presbyteries, synods, and the whole denomination wondering what’s next. And all I can say is “Come on in, the water is just fine.” This is a wonderful opportunity to collectively reimagine, recreate, and refocus what ministry can be TOGETHER.
We aren’t perishing. We just need some readjustments.
There Are No Experts
In both my workshop and my presentation, I had the opportunity to share a way that Presbyterian churches are using process modalities to build community and discern a collective sense of call together. Some of the comments that I heard were “How will this model work for churches in suburbia or presbyteries that are spread out geographically?” “Theresa, can you come and do this in our presbytery?”
The answer is “I don’t know” and “No.” I do not share this particular experience as A MODEL for people to use in their ministry. The reason is because this particular experience is very contextual, organic, and perfectly tailored to those churches in San Francisco. The reason I shared this model was to highlight a few things:
- Context is crucial. What made this gathering successful was that it was local pastors designing something within their own context. What made this gathering challenging was figuring out how to get all the San Francisco Presbyterian churches into one room. But who better to design and figure that out than leaders who work, serve, and live in that context. This exact model will not translate in a suburban area because the context is urban. This exact model will not work in a wide geographic location because the context was a 7 by 7 mile urban city. The task is to gather those leaders in your own area who are passionate to do something and willing to wrestle with how to get people in the same “room” to talk, meet, pray, and vision together.
- It’s not rocket science. I don’t find what I did utterly cutting edge or terribly innovative, which is a wonderful thing because it means that anybody can do this. It is amazing what happens when you put a people in a room together to wrestle with a particular dilemma or challenge. I wish I could take credit for what came out of these gatherings, but I can’t. It came from the conversations bubbling up at the tables and I just knew how to listen and collate all the thoughts.
- Just try something. Stop reading books or trying to find the conference that is going to give you the skills because honestly there are no experts in how to do ministry in the 21st century. We are just beginning this century so how can there already be experts. Okay, don’t completely stop reading books or attending conferences, but don’t waste another minute waiting to find the right technique or solution. Talk with people and network to get ideas and then just try something and see where it goes. Working at a small church with limited financial resources, most of my ideas have come from colleagues sharing on Facebook or Twitter.
Be warned. I am about to say something very unpopular right now. My colleague, Jud Hendrix, shared some of the exciting things they are doing with the Ecclesia Project. In his presentation, he talked about the need for more bivocational pastors, meaning “Pastors, don’t quit your day job.” More and more churches are not able to afford pastoral staff or can only afford Presbytery minimum. If you are living in an expensive city like San Francisco, Presbytery minimum doesn’t go very far. There were a lot of comments regarding Jud’s endorsement of bivocational ministry. Some of it was around seminarians who will graduate with huge seminary debt.
I find it interesting that as we move and live into the 21st century, we know that it is calling us to think outside the box, think differently, and embrace a new reality. More and more pastors having to enter into bivocational ministry may be a new thing, but bivocational ministry in itself is not a new thing. We all have to be careful when we confuse or closely intertwine vocation and sense of call. The danger with combining the two is that it begs the question, “Am I not called if I am not paid?”
- I graduated seminary ten years ago. When I graduated, I did not have a call. I had no expectation, given my race and gender, that there was a call out there for me. All I knew is that I felt called to go to seminary and now that I graduated I had to figure out what that call looked like. Now after 8 years of ordained ministry, I work at a church of 150 members and get paid Presbytery minimum. The wilderness is my reality.
- My husband is in his mid-40’s and graduated from seminary over ten years ago. It took him five years later to finally find a call and be ordained. After he was ordained, he was a part-time organizing pastor of a new church development and a part-time church secretary at another church. Now, he works part-time at two churches. Both are unofficial calls (meaning he has no official PCUSA-approved title). But he is doing ministry. He is called. We are still paying off or deferring his seminary debt. The wilderness is his reality.
- My Head of Staff has been ordained over 25 years and has been at St. John’s going on 21 years. He has moved this congregation from 30 members to now 150 plus 85 kids. One of the ironic things about having seminary interns is that sometimes after they receive their first call, their salary in their first year of ordained ministry is more than my Head of Staff’s after 20 + years. But that is urban ministry. That is working in a small church. The wilderness is his reality.
- Many of my Korean-American clergywomen colleagues still can not find calls, but that hasn’t stopped them from doing ministry. One of my colleagues, Jean Kim, has been doing amazing work with homeless ministries. My colleague, Ann Rhee Menzie, has done incredible work regarding domestic violence issues and will receive the Women of Faith Award this year. The wilderness is their reality.
We need to be careful about combining vocation with sense of call because we are vulnerable to acquiring an attitude of entitlement. Does eight years for ministry mean I am worth X amount? The fact that I am not getting paid what I think I am worth, does that devalue my sense of call and ministry? Don’t get me wrong. Please hear me out. I am NOT saying that as a denomination we shouldn’t do everything to support seminarians regarding their debt; or ensure that pastors are being paid fairly; or keep congregations accountable and assist them in financially providing for pastoral leadership. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that we are not entitled to it AND for many it is the reality of ministry.
So What Is Next for Next?
To be honest, Jud and I were a little nervous about providing Open Space time after our presentations: 1) the space was limiting; 2) the time was limiting; and 3) we were not sure if people would be willing to spontaneously hop up and suggest to host a small group around a particular topic. The conferees amazed me. The topics were diverse, engaging, interesting, and thoughtful. The energy in the room showed that people were not only willing but thirsty to have such conversations.
My only suggestion for the next Next conference is that if we are gathering to look at ministry in the 21st century then the conference itself has to model a 21st century model. If we are to look at ministry in the 21st century then worship should showcase the different styles of worship out there. I’m all for traditional. The church I serve is traditional, but what Next can offer to leaders of today is a taste of what it can be for tomorrow. Maybe that means designing a whole conference around Open Space. Maybe it means less scheduled activities and more time to organically network. Whatever it is, how we meet and have conversations must model the future wilderness we want to live into.
Until next time, Next . . .