I love the book Tribal Church, and I was excited when I got onto Twitter to follow its author Carol Howard Merrit @CarolHoward. I didn’t expect for her to start responding to my tweets or to fall into conversation with her. After posting an article on The Christian Century called “Ten Church Models for a New Generation” there has been some chatter among seminarians and ministers about finding jobs and student debt and the process of ordination. Some positive, some negative, some confused. Carol Howard Merritt then asked me this:
Do you feel like you’re learning about innovative ministry in seminary?
Now, this is the kind of question I got in to blogging for. I knew my answer would take explanation, far more than Twitter allows, so here I go.
I love seminary. Academically things have been difficult. Memorizing outlines for different books of the Bible, slogging through biblical languages, preparing for an oral exam on sacraments. Personally things have been difficult at times. Examining my call over and over again, living in a dorm for almost two years, some transitions in my family that I have been a part of long-distance. But seminary can be fun, at times. I entered seminary six weeks out of college, and it took me a while (and several people telling me multiple times) to make seminary “work for me.” Meaning, using the courses, programs, and opportunities that the seminary offers to enrich and speak more directly to my interests, my strengths and weaknesses, and my discernment process. It was a good mental move to make! I no longer felt like I was meeting requirements. I was on a personal journey that coincided with meeting requirements for graduation and ordination.
I didn’t know anything about “innovative” ministry when I entered seminary. I thought there was essentially three kinds of ministry: congregational, chaplaincy (hospital, military, college, etc.), and specialized counselors. Those were the three kinds of pastors I had met. Looking back, some of the ministers I knew were being innovative. I just wasn’t aware of innovation when I saw it.
My seminary is starting to offer classes that I consider innovative. For example, last fall I took a class entitled “Towards a Theology of Church Leadership” team-taught by professors from the theology and practical theology departments where we studied and attempted to apply leadership theories (specifically The Task of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow). This January a class was taught called “Theology and Practice of Broad Base Community Organizing” which I couldn’t take, but my friends in the class loved it because the class did what the title said it would. There are also many classes in which professors offer flexible options for papers or projects, so students who want to pursue innovative ideas in a specific area can. I’ve written hymns as part of final projects. You may not consider that innovative; but writing gender-inclusive, LGBTQQI2-supportive, racially-sensitive, anti-poverty, eco-friendly, biblical based hymns with good theology is not done in many Christian circles. (Things have to rhyme in hymns.) Things like this are student-driven, and not all students’ callings lend themselves to innovation via final essays.
There are professors and staff who are modeling innovative ministry to us. This is something easily overlooked by members of the community, including myself. There are members of the PTS staff who work at PTS, live their lives, and also pastor a church and/or do other church-like things. Professors often teach Christian education at local churches, serve on presbytery (or similar) committees, and write books. Many other staff and professors have a wealth of knowledge and connections to people out “in the field” who are doing innovative things. People need to ask questions, create relationships, and listen to people’s stories. It’s in some ways this is counter-intuitive to me. In some other schools, in colleges, etc. expectations of relationships between students and professors or staff are different than they are at a seminary. This is a professional school, essentially; and we’re all involved in church (in the widest sense of the term) leadership. The students might be padawans (people with some innate skill and a calling), but one day we will be jedi (people with skill, a calling, who have been trained and are in roles of authority). When I first came to seminary I was fairly intimated to sit at lunch with or attend the same church as a professor. They’re just people further on the journey, and the good professors and staff don’t expect their students to follow directly in their footsteps. They do expect us to take responsibility for our own learning and know they can’t teach us everything.
I’m learning about innovation in existing contexts as well as innovative ministries. Listening to the stories of those more experienced than me has helped me develop some perspective what I consider innovation. Particularly as a young woman I seek out the people who fought for female ordination and the first generation of women to become ordained. Their stories are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes give me great hope. It’s a struggle I connect to personally and often take for granted. In my life I’ve known lots of people who have told me I can’t or shouldn’t be a pastor because I’m cis-gender female. (And when I explain “cis-gender” to them they usually get really nervous.) But I’ve always been a part of a community with strong female leadership and at least a passive verbal thumbs-up to female ordination.
The innovation happening that shocks me most, though, is the incredible, diverse callings the people in this community have. I had no idea someone could be called to camp ministry or translating the New Testament from Greek to American Sign Language. Innovation is happening as students are realistic about calls and job expectations. We have to be, and most students are always discerning whether formally or not about their callings. If doors are closed, most students don’t mind re-interpreting their callings in light of new events.
Back to seminary courses. Course offerings will be slow to catch up when talking about innovative ministry, but the practical application of those courses can be innovative. As student we can’t expect our professor to teach us what innovative ministry is. Innovation happens in specific contexts. What works for one community will not necessarily work for another. It’s a big problem within churches, seminaries, and other communities when we start liking cookie-cutter things. I like cookie-cutter. Give me the outline, and I’m good. Tell me to write my own, I panic. I’m working on that, and I’m a lot better at embracing chaos than I was in 2009 when I graduated from college. (Wow. I feel so old.)
Here’s the thing. All my life I’ve been told to fill in the bubbles. Standardized testing. Course requirements. Punch in and out of the time clock at work. It’s easy to get lulled into that. As I said earlier, it took multiple people telling me to make seminary “work for me” before I actually made seminary work for me. After all, my strengths, weaknesses, passions, and life path are a unique combination. I heard all my life “you can be whatever you want to be.” That’s just not true, and it’s a shame that we’re teaching children that. The fact is some of us will never be astronauts even if we want to be. It’s kind of funny that I needed permission to not seek permission and make things work for me, my call, my background, my growing edges, and overall who I think God is calling me to be in the world.
That is one of the beautiful things about the post-1950′s church. There has been an explosion of non-cookie cutter Christianity. We can talk about all the different kinds of liberation theologies, the desire to honestly connect with world-wide Christianies, the expanding role of women in leadership positions, the fast speed of communication, and more that have helped transform ministry. It’s hard for me sometimes to understand this sometimes. I mentioned in a sermon class last semester that I looked at Wikipedia as part of my prep, and my professor laughed and said “I’ll forget that you said that.” Well, what’s wrong with looking at Wikipedia while writing a sermon? I consult it often for lots of things without even thinking.
Innovation isn’t something that is going to be taught. Innovation is something that we constantly reach for and only sometimes grasp, but innovation is always on the horizon. When the church, the academy, and/or the seminary get comfortable and refuse to innovate, we will stagnate and become useless to the world that is in desperate need of new movements of the Spirit all the time. Some have argued that many places in the church have stagnated and is disconnected to the world we are called to be in.
Even though innovation is always on the horizon, the best innovating I’m learning is learning the history of how spiritual leaders have innovated in the past and seeing how honestly absurd their communities thought they were. What was that, Anthony? Go into the desert and live simply with God? That’s absurd! What, Patrick? Go back to an island where you were a slave to minister to them? That’s absurd! What, Hildegard? You have visions from God and want to teach theology? That’s absurd! What, Paul? You want to go preach to Gentiles? That’s absurd! Plenty of people are going to think innovation is absurd, foolish, unrealistic, or even anti-Gospel. There are people who think innovation should (and yes I mean “should”) not be taught at seminaries because of something they think the church should be. In the end innovation means things are changing, and change is scary. We’re afraid of losing things that are important to us, and we don’t know whether or not these strange innovations will fail.
God, help us not be afraid to fail! We’re not perfect. We live in broken systems and broken relationships as broken people; but the crazy thing is God can still work through us, around us, within us to transform those systems, relationships, and people. And THAT is the biggest innovation I have learned in seminary. This idea was innovative in ancient Israel, and it’s still innovative today. Innovation doesn’t happen by itself, and there’s no Introduction to Church Innovation on my seminary’s course list. We look other places. We look to the past, we look to the present, and we work to transform the future. Call it whatever you like. Transformation is innovation.
–written by Emily Hope, a millennial pondering questions of the new millennium