Re-framing Ministry

Tuesday, Aug 28th, 2012

    Preparing creative leaders for diverse ministry contexts is the task of theological schools.  It is a perplexing and propitious time to discern the shape of ministry as we experience what Diana Butler Bass is calling a new “spiritual awakening.”  Her influential book, Christianity After Religion, suggests that faith communities will look different because of this inflection point in history, and they will require new leaders.

    Mark 7 narrates a conversation between Jesus and religious leaders about eating “with defiled hands.”  Evidently Jesus’ disciples were not following the tradition of the elders in proper hand-washing protocol, and the Pharisees and scribes upbraided Jesus for their indiscretion.

    Jesus uses this occasion to move the conversation from the surface to deeper concerns, i.e., what really defiles is the evil that belches forth from internal deceit.  “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” he observed (7: 21).  If his disciples only paid attention to traditions of little consequence, they will not address the urgency of the Reign of God.

    The urgency of the reign of God requires seminaries to think afresh about leadership development.  Social entrepreneurship, problem-solving skills, and creativity will lead new expressions of church to transgress old boundaries for the sake of Gospel witness.
Students at the Abbey
    Nine new create students gathered at Conception Abbey for four days this past week to explore spirituality and creativity.  As they begin their Master of Divinity studies, they are opening themselves to a process of discovery as to the shape of their vocation in ministry.

    One student asked if the goal of the seminary was for her to leave her role in the corporate sector.  “Not necessarily,” I responded.  The goal of formation in seminary is for you to interpret vocation differently.  Every gift put in the service of Christ is a spiritual gift, and the work done in her present setting could take on new depth.  In addition, the wonderful skills she has honed could well be used in the service of community development through her church.

    Re-framing ministry in our day moves in the direction of bi-professionalism.  Graduating students will serve during a time when religion and church will be pushed further to the margins.  Actually, both may become more authentic as civil religion recedes.  Full-time guaranteed lifetime employment in churches is waning.  It is imperative that persons complement ministry with other professional competencies.

    Another result may be that bi-professional congregational leaders will create space for laypersons to exercise their giftedness more fully.  Jointly they will pursue how best practices of efficiency and wise stewardship of resources interface with the labor-intensive processes of proclamation, teaching, spiritual formation, and pastoral care.  

    Ministry will reside less in the hands of the few, becoming the work of the whole people of God.  Sustainability is a key aspect of this vision of the future.

Molly T. Marshall     

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