When I became a seminary dean in 2010, I knew there was a lot I didn’t know and especially, if I dare echo Donald Rumsfeld, a lot that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. But among the more important things I didn’t know was just how dominated my tenure would be by unravelings and ways this would call for constant assessment of what was worn out, what was working, what needed to be thrown out, what needed to be rethought, renewed, or reaffirmed.
In light of such ferment and sometimes chaos, which has been constant yet is also perhaps even intensifying at the moment, I’d like to think “aloud” about what’s happening and what we might do about it through a six-part series of blog posts asking, can we find “Hope as Church Unravels?”
The first and introductory post is this one, on “The Unraveling.” Here let me first say more about what is unraveling then preview the next five posts.
Indeed denominational structures and loyalties are unraveling. This is true of many denominations, not least my own. As I write, the structures of my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, have been thrown into near-chaos not only by all the larger forces tugging at all denominations’ stability but also specifically by explosive effects of divisions over how LGBTQ relationships should be viewed. Regional conferences are processing whether to secede from MC USA. Congregations are discerning whether to leave conferences. Individual participants debate whether to stay or leave as their congregations sometimes confirm and sometimes repudiate their personal beliefs.
Reflecting on such realities, Paul Schrag, editor of Mennonite World Review, has asked this dramatic question: “What if Mennonite Church USA stopped being a denomination? Or stopped being, period.” He makes the provocative point that if instead of remaining bogged down in managing declining structures amid constant divisions, we could invest our energies in building a looser but much larger tent for a host of Anabaptist-related entities.
Longstanding quid-pro-quo understandings between pastors and congregations are unraveling. It used to be the case that this was the basic pact: Future minister, denominations and congregations would say, you go to seminary for three years, and even if you come out in debt things will be fine; we’ll give you a job and we’ll pay you enough to make at least a modest living and not be swamped forever in debt. We might even help pay for your tuition.
Ministers would say okay then, I’ll invest in getting the scholarly and formational training that will allow me to serve you with passion, wisdom, and integrity.
And together we’ll generate enough mutual commitment to maintain salaries, buildings, programs drawing many congregants in turn willing to provide support when the offering basket comes by. We’ll celebrate a virtuous cycle producing good will, high morale, and long-term sustainability.
In many established congregations and contexts this pact, in fact, remains intact. But under stressors of declining loyalties, shrinking congregational participation and giving, the sometimes welcome but often forced need to make ends meet through bivocational pastoring (not to mention external economic pressures), in many other settings this pact is unraveling.
In tandem, long-standing patterns of theological education are unraveling. This is evident in a simple statistic yet one that has had high impact on my seminary work: for over 10 years, since reaching a peak in 2004, cumulative enrollment at seminaries in North American has declined most years by about half a percent a year.
Many are sounding alarms or analyzing causes, but let me touch on just two.
Take, for instance, the thinking of M. Douglas Meeks, Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. As summarized by reporter Heather Hahn in “Does U.S. Theological Education Have a Future?” Meek believes that due to a growing shortage of teachers amid the headwinds denominations and seminaries are facing, “United Methodist theological education in the United States is in a crisis, and a longtime scholar says if trends persist the modern way of training pastors could disappear altogether.”
Or take the bracing view of Kyle Roberts, Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. His very blog post title, After the Fall of Professional Ministry, What?, makes a riveting claim. Roberts says that
As much of the American church continues to decline (especially mainline Protestantism and now also conservative (white) evangelicalism) and as the “nones” and “dones” increase by leaps and bounds, particularly among millennials, major questions loom for institutions in these circles. Fewer people means less money, less money means fewer jobs, fewer jobs means declining human resources (and therefore less creativity and energy) to “right the ship.”
Roberts offers a summary of how seminaries are addressing such dynamics which I find painfully familiar, given that we’ve been working at precisely such possibilities at EMS:
Many seminaries are experiencing the implications of the dramatically changing landscape. Some are trying their best to adjust expectations and to creatively and constructively adapt to the change. They can do this by shortening curriculum (and therefore lowering cost to students), by revising marketing strategies, by seeking out creative partnerships, etc. Others are simply doubling-down on what they’ve always done: pushing harder for donations, marketing the same but more intensely, trying to be even better at academic theology, practical ministry skills, traditional pedagogy, and so on.
Roberts’ next statement, however, sends a chill up my spine even as it also makes me want to take up his challenge:
But for these institutions to survive, must less thrive, into the uncertainty of the looming future, I wonder if something deeper and more fundamental is needed. We might need to think again about the nature of ministry itself.
Evident in both Meeks and Roberts, and frequently articulated by others, is the possibility that what we face today in our denominational and seminary journeys—as well as in the larger cultural dynamics with their own chaotic, fast-changing impacts—is not just the need for incremental adjustments. Rather, much of what we’ve taken for granted, held dear, clung to for generations may need to be rethought and reinvented.
At the same time, persons of faith have always encountered periods of particularly intense change, not least during the first century, or when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion after centuries of the empire’s persecution of Christians, or during the 1500s Protestant Reformation.
Still, even if sometimes in dramatically changed forms, the gospel has persisted and even flourished. This suggests that rethinkings or reinventions shouldn’t simply start anew but should draw on the wisdom of those who have wrestled things out over millennia.
So how do we move forward with due benefit of what has been combined with requisite openness to what is to be? I don’t claim to know the answers. I’m as bewildered sometimes as any of us by what to do when on the one hand business as usual isn’t working yet on the other hand employees deserve to be paid and the budget needs to be balanced and if we don’t change it may all crumble yet if we do change and don’t get it right it may all crumble.
However, each year at about this time I particularly try to reflect on this or that aspect of such matters in start-of-semester seminary convocations. So in each of the next five posts I’ll draw on materials prepared for an Eastern Mennonite Seminary convocation, culminating in the still-in-preparation presentation I’m due to present on September 1, 2015, and will share as a post soon after. Here is a preview of the posts:
Part 2 will be “A Bible As Big As the Universe.” I see this post as laying a foundation for what is to come. Here I explore how I’ve learned to love the Bible as an endless source of wisdom and guidance for any people in any circumstances over the millennia–yet also to trust that the Bible is strong enough for us to tussle with it, argue with it, challenge it when old verities seem to unravel.
Part 3 will be “From Position Statements to Communities of Discernment.” Here, amid our many divisions regarding what the Bible says or what understandings God is calling us to, I look for ways we might move from win-lose patterns of relating. How might we instead join in communities of discernment focused on the teachings of Jesus under guidance of the Holy Spirit in which even our differences—and sometimes especially our differences—become resources and treasures? I draw on case studies related to slavery, understandings of same-sex relationships, the role of women, or war and peace.
Part 4 will be “Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing.” Here I explore “Christian Formation in an Age of Nones.” I suggest “We should plunge into the yearnings and questions giving birth to the Nones” (those answering “none of the above” when surveyed regarding their commitment to a given faith tradition). And I offer this guess: “Courageous exploration of how the church has died needs to be paired with hope that not all structures, not all traditions, not all sacred scriptures and holy rhythms and rules are ready for the dead-bones heap.”
Part 5 will be “Recognizing Jesus When Phone Booths Vanish.” Here I draw on the Luke 24 story of the disciples, grief-stricken and bewildered on the Emmaus Road, being joined by a stranger who is precisely the Jesus they’re grieving. How do we, like they, not recognize the Jesus already among us? And how does this connect with the question of whether we’re sometimes structuring church life or seminary training as if the required expertise were to repair phone booths—when in fact in an era of cell phones, phone booths have vanished?
Part 6 will be “Present at the Big Bang.” Here I want more than anything else to testify, starting with observing the process in my own granddaughter, to the miracle of our becoming ourselves. And I want to ask how, in deep and primal ways, seminary training and our lives in community with each other form us as the selves God invites us to be. Much is unraveling; miracles of weaving and reweaving also abound.