When church leaders (clergy especially) get together, the talk sometimes turns to what we know, what we need to know and what we never knew we needed to know. This is also known as the “Things they never taught me in seminary” conversation. Based on recent, anecdotal evidence, gathered in committee meetings, staff training, post-worship coffee fellowship; and noted in responses flying around the intertubes related to upcoming decisionmaking across a variety of denominations, I’ve come up with a short list of five much-needed courses:
- Leadership in the Pentateuch: How to Guide People on a Path Nobody Wants to Walk
- The Prophetic Witness of Amos, Hosea, and Micah: How to Cast a Vision Nobody Wants to See
- Preaching the Parables in the Synoptic Gospels: How to Tell Truths Nobody Wants to Hear
- Practical Pastoral Care for the 20th Century: Case Studies in How to Usher in Changes We Need that Nobody Wants and That In Reality Are Already in Our Midst (Penny in the air: yes I said 20th century. Look at your church/judicatory/community and think about that for a minute.)
- The Parish and the Pastor: How to Survive in Ministry in Spite of the Fact that the Church Says It Wants a Visionary Leader But What It Really Wants is a Caretaker Who Will Turn Out the Lights After the Last Person is Gone
Apart from the fact that the titles are too long and waaaayyyy too grounded in reality, the truth is, these classes can’t be taught because it would first require our institutions (churches, seminaries, divinity schools, high schools, universities, preschools, you get the point here) to step away from the enlightenment and into and beyond post-modernity (nb: this will require skipping a few centuries of pedagogical value which can be covered in a sixth class entitled: The Implications of the Late 19th and Early 20th Century Methodologies on Pastoral Formation and Congregational Survival).
To teach what we need to know in order to navigate these contextual waters would mean providing practices, pedagogies, and methodologies which help church-leaders-in-training (and we’re all, always in training, cf. life-long learning and remaining relevant) to translate head knowledge into contextually vibrant, culturally relevant praxis. And more importantly, this would require a shift from educating clergy in seminaries and continuing education events to providing resources to help clergy and the People of the Pew navigate the reality that almost nothing about the way we do church – not our history, not our traditions, not our denominational proclivities, not our embedded values nor our explicit practices – has prepared us for the moment we find ourselves in.
There’s a lot we could do (are doing). We could wring our hands and wring out our hankies, mourning the loss of what was once a full sanctuary and a thriving Sunday School. We could fix our roofs, refurbish our organs, add sparkly new drum kits, spruce up our flower beds, recarpet our parlors, buy new books for our libraries, hire new staff, even put powerpoint screens near our pulpits as we wait in the hope for the new neighbors from the new buildings just down the street to somehow find their way into our renewed, refreshed sanctuaries, complet4e with fancy new signs that say:
WELCOME! No food or drink, please!
Or, we could sit together and argue that we should have seen the signs. We could make the case (or bemoan the fact) that we should have been taking note of and maybe even leaning into the opportunities for change. We could point the finger at our denominational entities, our regional leadership, our colleagues, our current (or past) pastors, our congregation members or even (and yes this is happening) our dechurched, pre-churched, unchurched neighbors.
But the hard truth is, none of this will change the reality that the world around us has changed, is changing, continues to change. None of this will tell the truth that for the most part, everyday life is full of change. We think nothing of trading in our cars, buying new throw pillows for our sofas (maybe because we brought food and drink into our living rooms). We are quick to swap out cell phone technologies every couple of years, to change our social media profile pictures, to move from job to job. To be honest, change in the real world (read, in the world outside the church) is what we have to do, not just to survive, but to thrive.
(Parabolic Parenthetical: Let those with ears – Listen up! There’s a reason that car manufacturers are working hard at reducing emissions and improving gas mileage. If they don’t, they won’t survive the competition from the ever-improving, every-day-more-affordable electric and hybrid vehicles. Sure, it takes energy and resources to retool manufacturing plants built when the industry was at its peak. Make no mistake, it takes different management competencies and expanded visions to make those decisions become reality. Of course, it takes different skillsets for the workers to be able to transition to new ways of manufacturing new iterations. But nobody is saying – let’s keep building 1959 Pontiacs or 1984 Lincoln Town Cars because the market is going to change and people are going to want vast quantities of these 3 ton, 10 mpg, no seat belt/airbag vehicles. NOBODY.)
Let’s be honest. We’re all afraid to admit that we might be witnessing the end of the church as we know it and we don’t feel fine. And we don’t know what to do about it either. Even talking about it out loud is risky because when judicatory leaders share that with the congregations under their care, when seminaries share it with their students, and when, God forbid, pastors share it with their congregants, there is usually hell to pay. In truth, though none of us really wants to be the one to turn off the lights and lock the door that last time, that’s where we’re headed.
And though we sit in the middle doubt and confusion and fear and worry, the least we can do is start asking: What do I need to do to gather enough courage to lead? How can I develop resilience and sustain energy when resistance comes? What do we need to help folks be more willing take the risks necessary to bring the good news of God’s justice and grace to a world so very much in need of hope in the here and now, and not just solace in the sweet-by-and-by?
If we aren’t working these questions into every conversation, into every prayer, into every class, every sermon, every meeting, then we may as well pick up the ring of skeleton keys and stand by the light switch because it won’t be too long before our purpose will be very clear.