Apr 3 2013

Small Groups in Congregational Life

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Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website

Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley.  We have each benefitted from their leadership.

Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708.  Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.

In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas:  someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.

The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.

Leadership is what brings the group together.  Leadership takes a number of forms:  a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few.  In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.

A commitment to stay together is also critical.  This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose.  A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete.  Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon:  how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.

The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group.  They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:

A small group should study together.  This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.

A small group should do mission together.  Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community.  When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.

A small group should get together for fellowship.  Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things.  Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.

Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth.  Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.

As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking.  Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.

First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over.  Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.

Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in.  How are the above six characteristics on display in that group?  Is there a clear investment in shared leadership?  Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group?  In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present?   If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God!  If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members?  Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose?  Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?

Tim HarveyTim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!

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Feb 12 2013

The Joy Candle

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Image Courtesy of Flickr

The following sermon, by Katie Shaw Thompson co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren, was delivered on December 16, 2012. With clear pastoral insight, Katie places the then recent tragedy at Sandy Hook within the season of Advent. 

Instead of the words of John the Baptist, I feel moved to bring you a different scripture reading this morning. This scripture is part of the Christmas story that is understandably often skipped over.

It is also a verse that flew around the internet and Facebook after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.These words are all too relevant for the grief experienced by so many.

Mathew 2: 16-19

 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated,and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ’A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; She refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’

Sometimes I can read this passage and let it be something that happened far away a long time ago, or maybe never, maybe just another part of a great story. But not today. Now, after the news of yet another shooting I read this text and it hits close. Too close.

 

I don’t think you need to have an 11-week old son at home to feel how wrong, wrong, wrong this story is and how wrong, wrong, wrong the terrible violence that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school was.

As the president said in his address,

Our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.

Our hearts are also broken because we are reminded once more just how real evil and suffering are in this world. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned that any human being could massacre innocent children, whether it is a man in Connecticut, or Herod, or Pharaoh.

I wish that I could pretend I didn’t believe that God’s peace and forgiveness could extend to men like that. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned at the thought that those could have been children that I know and love.

I wish that I could have some guarantee that I could keep my baby safe from violence of any kind. It would be easy in times like these for parents like me to be tempted to want to deadbolt our doors seal up our windows, and keep the world away from our children.

Yet, we know we cannot. And we know that to do so, would be to let evil win. To do so, would be to let murderers win.

In my New Interpreter’s commentary on this passage of Matthew, one wise scholar writes: “God does not will these deaths, but until God’s empire is established in full, rulers will do such things.”

I would add that those who seek power over others by violence will do such things, until God’s empire is established in full. I do not believe that God willed this terrible tragedy in Connecticut or that God willed that long ago terrible tragedy in Bethlehem.

But I do believe that God is in the midst of those tragedies. God walks right in and sits beside Rachel as she wails, and God mourns too. I do believe that God is a God big enough to hold all kinds of grief. I do believe that God is the spirit that ignites a spark of hope, and love, and yes, even joy, in the midst of the greatest darkness.

It would be easy in times like these for Christians like me not to want to light the joy candle. But it is precisely in times like these that we must. For in lighting the candle of joy even in the midst of grief we declare that joy will come again.

We declare that violence and hatred and suffering do not get the last word. It is precisely in times like these that we need all the celebration of Christmas. Not to celebrate with superficial smiles and shallow warmth, but rather with defiant cheers and tearful gratitude.

That is the true spirit of Christmas, That is the message of Christ.

No matter how dark the night,the light of Christ is brighter. No matter how terrible the violence, the peace of Christ is stronger. No matter how hot the hatred, the love of Christ is warmer. THAT is indeed something to celebrate!

At the beginning of this week I heard songwriter Tracey Thorn’s new Christmas album, I was particularly caught by her the words of her song entitled simply, Joy.

“When someone very dear,

calls with the words everything’s all clear.

It’s what you want to hear.

But you know it might be different in the new year.

That’s why, that’s why, we hang the lights so high.

 

You loved it as a kid

And now you need it more than you ever did

Its because of the dark

We see the beauty in the spark.

 

So light the winter fire

and watch as the flames go higher.

We’ll gather up our fears

and face down the coming years,

and all that they destroy

and in their face we’ll throw out JOY.”

It is important to take time to grieve and not to simply glaze over difficulties and pain. Yet, experts tell us that re-establishing some routine and order is important after trauma to re-establish a sense of safety and normalcy.

Even in the midst of their grieving a local church in Newtown, CT did just that. They held a live nativity service Saturday re-enacting that first Christmas night. Their celebration in the midst of grieving flies in the face of all the evil, suffering, and pain they continue to experience and reminds us all of light that is stronger than any darkness.

So we must celebrate with joy this Christmas, not with superficial smiles and shallow cheer, but with faithful warmth and tearful gratitude.

So, muster all the joy you can this season and invite someone to share it with you. For I find joy is grown and amplified when we share it with others, when I see it in the eyes of children or in the eyes of someone who needed it badly this season.

This need to witness to the joy, this need to share and amplify joy is why we tell children about Santa Claus. Its why we give presents, and prepare meals and go caroling, to share joy with others.

We light the joy candle on our advent wreath this week

In defiance of all that is dark and evil in this world.

In defiance of suffering.

May the spark of Christ shine brightly in our hearts this season despite the darkness of our world.

May it be so. Amen.

Parker and KatieKatie is a 2012 graduates of Bethany Theological Seminary. She is  co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren along with her husband Parker.

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Jul 15 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read part one of this series…

Liturgical Place

Early Brethren meetinghouses arranged their liturgical furniture in a rectangular or circular fashion. The benches faced inward to emphasize the community of believers gathered for worship. The presiders, often a panel of elders and ministers, occupied a bench as part of the group. There was no hierarchy of status, only a distinction of role. God’s presence was manifest in the faces of assembly.

Our first step was to re-arrange our liturgical furniture in this manner. Guided by our heritage and the prevalence of Table imagery in the biblical narrative, the pews were detached and removed. Of the 28 pews on the floor level of our chapel, we retained 11. The remaining pews were stored in the back portion of the chapel underneath the balcony. Our worship space transformed from a long rectangle to a square. The pews were positioned in a circle facing two tables joined as a “T.” These tables held dual representation: the section holding the Bible and cross (from which the presider would lead), representing the remembrance of God’s revelation in story and symbol; and the section holding the meal elements, including bread, cup, towel and basin (representative of Love Feast), and three candles representing the presence of the Triune God in the assembly’s midst. Each table was covered with purple paraments, the liturgical color for Lent. The tables were to serve as a visual representation of the larger Table of God, realized as part of the Love Feast celebration and now as part of weekly worship. We positioned the presider’s chair, formerly on the elevated chancel, as part of the circle to represent the shared presence of God and ecclesial authority in the midst of the assembly. The musicians were also included in an opening in the circle to accompany the congregation’s song.

The shifted pew arrangement in the chapel resulted in the elimination of our projection and screen. The reduction in technological dependence created anxiety in some, particularly because of an increased amount of paper being used each week in the printing of the bulletin. All prayers and song texts that were normally projected were now included in a 6 page folded bulletin. In our initial conversations, I encouraged the congregation to make use of the bulletin for their personal devotional practice during the week. I drew their attention to the ancient breviary, an abbreviated form of the worship used by priests and deacons for personal worship.

Engaging the Scriptures Together

The new pew arrangement involved a rethinking of proclamation and the delivery of the sermon. Since the entire worship space faced inward as a circle, there was no place to stand where the presider faced the entire congregation (except seated in the presider’s chair as part of the circle). In the week leading up to the first worship service in-the-round, I began practicing with various ways of delivering the sermon and addressing the congregation. Standing at the table portion containing the open Bible was one option, though it meant that my back was to part of the group. I decided to approach the act of proclamation as I was approaching the entire liturgical event itself: ecclesiologically. If the authority of the presider comes from the assembly where the presence of God is manifest, the work of telling the stories of Scripture and engaging the community in its interpretation must also be rooted in the actual gathered assembly. This meant adopting a conversational approach to the sermon.

The work in preparing for this method of delivery began in the research. Rather than preparing a written transcript as I was accustomed to do for the past several years, I spent that time immersed in the topic itself. I engaged in reading, reflection, and conversation with a small group of persons for the purpose of preparing for communal engagement. I then approached the delivery of the sermon conversationally. Our worship series during Lent focused on the parables of Jesus from Luke’s gospel, traveling with Jesus through Samaria to Jerusalem. This content provided the necessary framework from which to present the Scriptures. I memorized each parable to present as a story-teller, circling the table and addressing the congregation while moving. The interpretive work of the parable each week proceeded with full community engagement. Questions were asked, discussions enabled. The deep work in research allowed me to serve as the guide for the discussion, threading component parts together (either in circling the table or from a seated position in the presider’s chair). The conversation would lead into moments of silence for reflection, leading then into our day’s prayer for change. The interpreting of the Scripture became a communal act.

The Ritual Meal

As part of the emphasis on the biblical Table image and socio-spatial awareness, we participated in the ritual meal weekly during this project. Though the Brethren have historically limited their participation in Eucharistic activity to the Love Feast (or a handful of additional times annually), our specific context includes those from more liturgical traditions. Our group, though divided evenly on whether to engage in weekly Table communion, agreed to treat it as an exercise in submission and forbearance.

I decided to broaden our understanding of the meal service at the Table. Using our Anabaptist emphasis on the life and example of Jesus, I explored ways to move from an exclusive focus on the Last Supper in Eucharistic practice to involve the entire meal tradition of Jesus seen throughout the Gospels (which included the Last Supper narrative). This approach to content, coupled with the traditional Eucharistic prayer form of the historic church (the Great Thanksgiving), served to fuse our ecumenical leanings with our mandate to speak liturgically with a distinctly Brethren voice.

For the first three weeks of the ritual meal service, the congregation stood around the Table. This presented a physical difficulty for many as we attempted to pass the trays of bread and cups to each other while also holding our worship orders. In the final weeks, we adapted by gathering around the table for the sursum corda (opening greeting for communion) following the passing of the peace, and then returning to our seats. To maintain an Anabaptist ecclesiological perspective, we shared the bread and cup in pairs. One person from each pair would come to the table to retrieve a small wooden tray which held two cups and an unbroken fragment of bread for sharing. When each person returned to their seats with the elements, I led the congregation in the recitation of our sharing line (“Bread/Cup of heaven, hope of the earth”). This proved to be a more effective method of engaging in the meal service.

Assessment

It became clear to the congregation’s key leadership over the course of our exploration together that our tradition’s emerging practice of forbearance and submission took greater shape in liturgical exercises. Those who may have been opposed to weekly Table service or engaging in worship in-the-round willingly submitted their preferences to those who found it particularly meaningful. We discovered that while some experienced the presence of God most fully in the music or silence, others experienced God’s presence in the bread and cup. While some found circular seating distracting, others discovered new joy in seeing the faces of each other as an act of worship. For many, the horizontality and verticality of the worship act met in the choice to seek the betterment of each other through self-limiting. Though none of us walked away from the experience with a complete worship service we would want each week, we discovered that we were engaging in the actions of liturgy that we needed as a community. Our joy in loving God was realized in our willingness to love each other.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 

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Feb 15 2012

A Look at Ordination the Church of the Brethren

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Dana Cassell.

In its entry on “Degrees of Ministry,” The Brethren Encyclopedia declares, “traditionally, Brethren have not been concerned with precise titles or names for their elected church officials.” This is true, and sometimes maddening. This paper was originally prepared for the Ministry Advisory Council, and grew out of research that I had been doing for last year’s celebration of the 50thanniversary of women’s ordination in the Church of the Brethren. That initial research was frustrating because of the lack of unified titles in our ever-changing credentialing system. Some of the early women in leadership listed themselves as ordained, some as permanently licensed, some simply as “ministers.” This work led me to investigate the history of ordination in the CoB in an attempt to answer this one question: What does it mean to be ordained in the Church of the Brethren?

There’s no readily apparent answer to this question, but I have some findings to share with you. You’ve probably heard or known at least some of this before, but my hope is that this compiled history is helpful in telling a somewhat coherent story of our history of choosing leadership, and in our current and future discernment about how we continue to do so.

For two hundred years, Brethren ministers operated in a plural, non-salaried system. Each congregation had several ministers, or elders, and none of these men (and they were all men, except for a very few instances where a woman fulfilled the duties of her incapacitated husband) were paid. In 1855, Annual Meeting described three ministerial offices, filled by congregational elections conducted by adjoining elders. The degrees were to be identified by functions and duties associated with them:

  • 1st: The “speaker” was to preach or conduct worship service with permission of 2nd or 3rd degree minister.
  • 2nd: Elected from membership or an advanced 1st degree minister, a minister of the 2nd degree was authorized to preach, appoint or schedule worship meetings, administer baptism, perform marriages, and officiate at love feast in absence of an elder.
  • 3rd: Those elected into eldership/full ministry were senior members of the 2nd degree ministers. They were the only leaders ordained through the laying on of hands, and were authorized to preside at council meetings, to install deacons or ministers, to anoint the ill, and to conduct love feasts.

This description from Annual Meeting seems to be descriptive and not prescriptive: this is, roughly, what was already happening in congregations. It describes an organic system of homegrown leadership: there was a built-in mentoring program, each leader required full congregational approval, and the “credentials” or “titles” were associated with functions and practices – not personal qualities or “leadership ability,” though these things certainly factored in. Leadership was chosen in response to congregational need and not personal initiative: ministers were “advanced” to the next degree of ministry based on seniority when a congregation needed another elder. Volunteering for a position of ministerial leadership was a surefire way NOT to be chosen. Peter Nead, a passionate member of the conservative camp, insisted in his theological writings that there are 3 types of preachers:

 usually the self-called preacher was out to start a new sect, and was therefore accountable to no one. The man called preacher was a hireling, and therefore was most interested in pleasing his employers so that he would have a good living. Only the called of the Lord was motivated to please God and seek Gods approval…the only way to know who the Lord called was to consult the church…The ministers of the true church are not hirelings: it is the love of God; and not the filthy lucre, that constrains them to preach the gospel.1

Nead’s fears that ill-chosen leadership would lead to sectarianism and customer-service mentality were not unfounded. Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata cloister experiment was a classic example of ministerial leadership gone awry. Beisel claimed for himself a divine status and authority, and those in his group submitted to him. For those in the cloister, Beissel’s word carried more weight that either scripture OR the gathered discernment of the body – sources which had held utmost authority in traditional Brethren ecclesiology. Similarly, Brethren had long been at odds with “hireling” preachers, citing the failures of the institutional clergy as one of the initial reasons for leaving the state churches in Germany. Nead’s warnings came from collective Brethren experience, and they arose in the beginnings of what was to be an unending debate about how to define “the ministry.”

In the mid-19th century, Annual Meeting began to deal with divisive and confusing issues surrounding the ministry – what ordination meant, how it should be granted, if ministers ought to be paid, whether or not education was necessary or problematic for those in church leadership. These questions were part of a larger struggle between conservatives and progressives that would lead to serious fractures and the eventual institutionalization of the Schwarzenau movement into the Church of the Brethren and other denominational bodies.
The first major question to come before Annual Meeting was whether or not a minister ought to be compensated for his work. Like so many queries, this was a practical question that veiled a larger struggle: ought the ministry be a professional vocation? Compensation was a hot topic, generating impassioned speeches, sermons, and periodical articles.

The Conservatives were firmly against an educated, paid, professional ministry, but progressives insisted that the professional minister was the only way to keep up with a swiftly changing world. This particular issue factored largely into the splits of 1881-1882. The Conservatives focused on biblical precedent, citing Jesus’ commission to the disciples, sending them out without silver or gold in their purses. Similarly, they appealed to the Acts account of believers sharing their possessions (Acts 4:34) to warn against personal income. The salaried ministry was “deplored as a corrupt, parasitic system which was dangerous to vital Christianity, also against an educated ministry, which was viewed as despising the humble, unassuming lifestyle of primitive Christianity.”2 An 1845 Henry Kurtz sermon, quoted in John Kline’s diary, paints the position vividly:

I have to say that God never meant for the Gospel to be used as a means for getting water to the preacher’s mill, or grain into his garner. When the Gospel is converted into merchandise, the preacher becomes a merchant, and like all other merchants it becomes his interest to handle his goods in a way that will please his customers, and put them in such shape and procure for them such kinds, whether good, bad, or indifferent, as will suit their fancies and please their tastes. The love of money is a root of all evil, no less in the ministry than anywhere else.3

The Progressives, whose opinions would ultimately shape the Church of the Brethren, argued that a paid ministry would free ministers from the distractions of full-time employment, enabling them to devote their full attention to the ministry of the church. In a changing and urbanizing society, they argued, the church must change to keep up with the needs of the world:

The church’s historic belief in imitating Jesus’ love and living according to the Sermon on the Mount necessitated a change in attitude toward industrial and urban society in the latter half of the 19th century. The work of ministry was progressively seen as an adaptation to and an extension of Christ’s message to a society in need.4

Debate raged at Annual Meeting, as the church gradually accepted an educated, salaried, professional ministry. But change did not happen all at once.

In 1856, AM insisted that payment for ministerial services was against the gospel, and not allowed. In 1861, however, AM agreed that financial support for ministers was appropriate in “times of necessity or hardship.” In 1866, “supporting the ministry” became allowable, but a stated salary remained unacceptable. Again in 1882, AM affirmed that there is to be “no specified sum per day, week, month or year, paid to ministers on missions or any other work; but the Mission Board or Committee having control of funds may donate to ministers such sums as in their judgment their circumstances require.”

As is often the case, practice changed before polity, and in 1891, Tobias T. Myers of Philadelphia became the first full-time salaried Brethren pastor. It took another 20 years, however until Annual Meeting finally officially allowed congregations to pay their ministers set salaries. Despite its long history of plural, non-salaried ministry, the church had gone from adamantly opposed to a professional ministry in 1856 to grudgingly accepting it as inevitable in 1911. In another 25 years (1939), the General Brotherhood Board would actually be actively encouraging congregations of 200 or more to hire a full-time, seminary-trained, salaried minister. A 1951 statement explains their motivation: “We believe that a consecrated, trained pastoral ministry, properly supported both financially and with the cooperative efforts of the membership, will be the most efficient ministry in making the church an adequate influence in the community through an adequate organization of its resources for worship, fellowship, and service.”

In addition to compensation, the shift to a professional ministry also meant changes in processes of calling out leadership and in educational expectations. In 1915, Annual Meeting agreed to allow individuals to volunteer for ministry. The same decision advised the establishment of educational standards for ministry, and permitted employment of pastors – though ministers were still encouraged to give their services to the church for free. In 1921, the General Ministerial Board was created to “promote the growing trend for each congregation to have its own professionally trained and salaried pastor,” and in 1922, the designation of “licensed” pastor was created – allowing beginning ministers (including women) to preach, but perform no other functions. Responsibility for ordination officially shifted from the congregation to the district in 1921, and in 1923 the first official Pastor’s Manual was published – an official guide that confirmed the breakdown of the personal mentoring inherent in the old degree system of ministry. Perception had changed so drastically that Edgar Petry could write in his 1942 Bethany thesis that

The full-time pastorate represents the maximum adaptation to modern life. It is the result of the movement to meet the needs of people in a scientific and industrial world…It provides for a more systematic and efficient carrying out of the functions of the minister and of the church. It elevates the place and work of the minister in the church and community and releases him from the task of making a living.

These changes led to a lack of uniformity across the denomination – some congregations still used the degree system of ministry (even though AM had combined the 1st and 2nddegrees into the category of “ministers” in 1917), and others were employing licensed or ordained pastors. In 1957, to clarify the functions of the various leadership positions, Annual Conference listed the duties of elders and the duties of pastors. A decade later, in 1967, AC finally discontinued the office of elder, combining elders and ministers into the category of “ordained ministers.” Despite this merger, no new list of duties or functions was created for these “ordained ministers.” In one century, ministerial leadership had undergone a complete transformation in the Church of the Brethren – but nowhere did the denomination define or document what, exactly, these changes implied.

The confusion persists. In nearly every decade, Brethren voices have called for clarification. In 1950, Floyd Mallot contended that “the future of the church depends upon the surmounting of the problems that arise out of the change from the free to the professional ministry.In 1978, Floyd Bantz wrote in a Brethren Life and Thought article;

We know deep down inside ourselves, apparently, that there is a set-apart ministry, but we aren’t sure why there is, nor what it is to do. We certainly do not want that set-apart ministry to have any intermediary power. We want to control its institutional authority and we are not sure just what are its unique training and skills…We are not sure we know what ordination means but we do raise questions about continuing ordination for those who do not do what ordination means.5

In 1987, a Believer’s Church conference took on the subject of ministry. The Findings Committee listed pressing questions about ministry for the Anabaptist communities:

  • We need a more precise working definition of “universal ministry,” “ordination,” and “gifts.”
  • We are uncertain about the process for employing spiritual gifts. What is the balance between the individual’s leading and the faith community’s calling?
  • What structures and forms at the local and denominational level are best suited to carry out the vision of ministry of all believers?
  • There was uneasiness expressed with formal graduate level training programs for vocational profession of “minister.” What forms of training are most suitable for the universal ministry of all believers?6

A 1997 Survey of Brethren women in ministry by Rebecca Slough and Debbie Eisenbise showed that ordained women in the Church of the Brethren tend to see their ordination less as a spiritual or communal commitment and more as an institutional pass or credential needed to fulfill their calling. These findings, the authors say, “leave open the question of what ordination actually means for Church of the Brethren women pastors.”7

The implications of this confusion and lack of clarity on what, exactly, ordination means are not pretty. Because we lack a working definition of our leadership credentials, the title and office of “minister” has been used as an instrument of injustice. Granted, the old 3-degrees system was certainly not free of nepotism, sexism, and prejudice. But since moving from that mode of ministerial leadership to this institutionalized system of ordination, the Church of the Brethren has found itself with an undefined credential. We are very reluctant to define or delineate who CAN or SHOULD be ordained, but have not hesitated to create a list of those who CANNOT or OUGHT NOT be: remarried people (1933), women (until 1958), homosexual people (2002).8

I don’t mean to paint this ambivalence about institutional leadership as all bad. I think there are, in fact, some benefits to operating without clear polity and doctrine. And yet, we continually call ourselves to define ordination, to call gifted leadership, and to figure out what it is that we expect in the ministerial leaders of our church. And so, my question is, is it possible to define ordination in the Church of the Brethren, given the crooked path we’ve taken to get to where we are today?

  1. Peter Nead, “Theological Writings on Various Subjects; or, ‘A vindication of…” (Dayton, OH: B.F. Eller), 1850. []
  2. “Ministry,” Brethren Encyclopedia, Donald Durnbaugh, ed. (Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc) 2003. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Floyd E, Mallot, Studies in Brethren History (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House) 1983. []
  5. Floyd Bantz, “Liturgical Connection: Reflections upon the Meaning of Ordination,” in Brethren Life and Thought, 23 no 2, Spring 1978. 72. []
  6. David B. Eller, Servants of the Word: Ministry in the Believers’ Church (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press) 1990. []
  7. Rebecca Slough and Debbie Eisenbise, “The Significance of Theological Education in the Career Development of Women in Ministry: A Case Study in the Church of the Brethren” in Brethren Life and Thought, vol. 42 no 1-2, Winter-Spring 1997. []
  8. Each of these decisions came in the form of an Annual Conference decision. []
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Feb 7 2012

Leaders Living Integrated Lives

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

 

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Anna Lisa Gross.


Narrative and identity

In postmodernity, narrative and identity are key. Narrative is the method of truth-seeking, meaning-making – and just like so many movements that we’re experiencing, this is not new, as the Old Testament and parables show. So, narrative is the method of meaning-making. Identity is the way of moving through the world, the foundation for our living. No one can speak with authority outside their own social location (class, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, ability, age, education, et cetera), and identity is increasingly about social location more than any one specific role that we play in our lives. I can’t speak with authority on being a mother, or having disabilities, or being a gay man because they are outside my social location. This is one of many reasons that leadership needs to be representative of the full spectrum of humanity, so we can hear the real narratives of real people, rooted in their own identities, especially as the Church of the Brethren and the culture are increasingly asking for multicultural conversation. But first, we need to talk and reflect deeply about our own ethnic identities before we can hope to build strong multiethnic relationships and we need to talk and reflect deeply about our own sexuality before we can make proclamations about someone else’s, et cetera.

Integration and boundaries

How many of you have an email address?

  • How many of you have a single email address that you use for work, for family, for school friends, for community involvement?
  • How many of you have a separate address for many of these aspects of your lives?
  • How many of you use Gmail, or another program that pulls all of your email accounts into one inbox?

Technology allows for and encourages integrated lives. We are available 24/7, as we’ve already talked about, to our work, our family, our friends, our community involvement, and each of these aspects of our lives can show up when we’re trying to focus on another. Technology will only increasingly affect culture in this way. Is that good or bad? Who knows? Perhaps we won’t know until we’re able to look back on this time. For now, what feels right for you?

How can the church, especially congregations, support leaders whose lives are integrated in these ways? We’ve moved from a model of leadership that had few boundaries, to one obsessed with boundaries, to this time of integration. Take for example, Ed. Ed IS a pastor, he claims this as his identity, his fundamental way of interacting with the world – no boundaries between work identity and home identity, because work is everything. Or, Sue. Sue is a minster, Sue is a friend, a daughter, a writer, etc. She has clear boundaries between each role, and seeks self-care (sometimes by switching to a different role that is more comfortable). Or, Alex. Alex is Alex. Alex ministers, is married, studies, serves on boards, but Alex is Alex.

I am part of this emerging model, and because that is my perspective, it’s easy to prefer it. But certainly there are strengths and weaknesses of each model. And certainly these movements are not determined only by generation: personality and culture matter, too.

Ed’s model of no boundaries could invite integrity – he’s a pastor everywhere he goes, so he probably wants people to see him fulfilling that role with integrity – and we know we have high standards for pastors’ morality. But many leaders in this model desperately need time to let down their guard and live into their flaws. In fact, the more we try to show a public, flawless face, the stronger our faults can be in our lives. For many pastors and other leaders, this has meant that a secret life emerges, where those with less power – often their children or spouse or others, suffer.

Sue’s model of clear divisions between roles could invite secrets – a part of her home life that she doesn’t share with her workplace, for example. And I’m not talking here about specifics – I don’t mean to suggest that anyone give all the details of their sex lives to their congregation, but that ministers be comfortable acknowledging that they’re even dating – and I know pastors who will NOT share this information with their churches. But the element of self-care can allow for healthier home life, work life, and greater longevity in all of these roles. Intentionally choosing a place in life to be a flawed person can mean that faults are lived into, rather than taking on a life of their own.

In Alex’s emerging model, all of who we are is present in all of what we do. In a counseling session, Sue may find that a parishioner’s struggle with her mother is triggering Sue’s own painful relationship with her mother, but because she is in “pastor” role, she shuts that door to focus on the parishioner. But Alex might think, “wow, I feel strong emotions rising that are about my own relationship with my mother, not about this woman’s story. What does this emotion teach me, and what are the differences between our stories that I need to remain aware of?”

Our struggles, failures, and doubts must be able to enter our lives in all aspects, including our leadership in the church. Have you heard these things during joys and concerns time?

  •  I’m drowning in credit card debt.
  • I’m ashamed of my sexual desires.
  • I can’t pray.

How can leaders model this vulnerability? Are there things we do NOT want ministers to be vulnerable and honest about? Should any of these things preclude someone from church leadership? I don’t think so – in fact, I think leaders who can hold these struggles in tension with their faith and commitment are particularly strong. Leaders in the church should not be morally perfect people – even if we could agree on what that would mean, it’s impossible. Leaders in the church should be as imperfect as anyone else, but willing to share vulnerably their imperfections. The very stories of their struggles – and their successes over struggles – are valuable testimonials.

And leadership is more than just airtime – we must lead with listening, and lead even when no one can see what we’re doing. How do we honor the vulnerability of others? How do we facilitate communities that honor each others’ vulnerability?

I said earlier that, beginning in our own narratives and identities, we need to talk deeply about our own sexualities, for example, before we make proclamations about other’s sexualities. This summer, Annual Conference passed revisions to the Ministerial Ethics Paper that specified that ministers should not have sex outside of marriage. I know many of you here, and I know that most of you, including myself, have had sex before and/or outside of marriage. So how can we pass a paper saying that ministers should not have sex before marriage, without acknowledging how many of us have and exploring why?

Those of us who are now married may be able to more easily vote for a paper with this language. Even if we did have sex before marriage, or even if we’re having sex outside of our current marriage, we’re much safer in the eyes of the church. But married people passing such a ruling has significant implications for single people, and people in committed relationships not generally accepted by the church (most obvious of which are same-sex relationships).

So this brings up privilege. It is just a fact that some identities give us more privilege than others. When we speak out of our privileged identities, for example, when I speak as a white person, I need to be particularly intentional about language and power. And I believe that Matt used his own male privilege very well earlier, pointing out to other men that the talking space was being dominated by men. Matt, as a man, can do this without eliciting the backlash that a woman might – you know, being called a feminist, or something. Matt can be called a feminist without it threatening his social influence.

Back to Alex’s model – living integrated lives means that self-care takes a very different form. We don’t necessarily find healing by switching roles, because our core self is involved in all aspects of our lives, and our core self is what needs rejuvenation. So we don’t shut the door on work to relax. Instead, we try to make work better. We don’t settle for poorly facilitated meetings, knowing we can go home, turn on the TV and forget about it – we strive for better facilitation. We don’t lose ourselves in an 80-hour work week to avoid the problems we’re having with our spouse – we know the problems we have at home affect who we are at work, and must be addressed directly. Similarly, we’re resisting the current over-mobility of our culture – moving around the world for school and jobs. Instead we’re seeking a deep relationship with a specific location, and technology can aid us in this. Of course, telecommuting and similar technology is still not available to all – we can’t assume it’s a common ground.

This model really is emerging – many of us in this room are still in Sue’s model, some, perhaps, in Ed’s, perhaps a combination of two or three. But I believe that most people 20 and younger are living primarily in Alex’s model. Facebook can be an example, here, as well. There is serious concern about what of our personal lives might end up on Facebook and affect our current or future employment. But the teenagers I know with Facebook accounts are not concerned about a picture of them with a beer affecting their future work opportunities. This may be youthful ignorance or short-sightedness. It may be a desire for complete authenticity. It surely is a combination of both. And this integration will only increase as the technology that fuels it advances, and as people relish their integrated lives.

What do you want as a leader in the church? To keep parts of your life fully private? To live a life that can’t be criticized? To live in a community that sees all of who you are, accepts you fully, and joins you on an authentic journey toward wholeness?

What narrative do you tell with authority that the world needs to hear?

How is your life boundaried? How is your life integrated?

 

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Jan 31 2012

United Without Confusion and Without Mixture: An approach to Brethren Ecclesiology

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Joshua Brockway.

There comes a time in the life of every member of the Church of the Brethren which arises as a kind of rite of passage. Inevitably someone has asked, or will ask, each of us where we go to church. To which we name our local congregation; Something Church of the Brethren. It’s the puzzled look on the face of the questioner that lets you know you have reached this rite of passage. “So, what religion is that?” Now, I am not venturing into the discussion of our name but simply saying that trying to explain the Church of the Brethren is an endeavor that is akin to explaining Cold Fusion. So we really dumb down the answer and say something we think they will understand: “Oh, we’re like the Mennonites.” Or we get historically and theologically accurate and say (in one breath): “Well we are part of the Radical Pietist movement as it took shape in the late 17th early 18th century in Germany. We also took much of our thinking and practice from the Anabaptist groups that often resided in the places where we fled to when local princes and governors began persecuting.” By now the eyes of our inquisitive friend change from puzzled to crossed, and we resort to the simplified response: “Well, we are kind of like the Mennonites.”

For any who have read Carl Bowman’s recent survey of the Brethren this is not just an anecdotal example.1 The numbers are showing that we indeed barely know who we are. When those surveyed were asked about topics from our denominational tagline, that is Peacemaking, Simplicity and Community, it was clear that a growing element of our membership does not identify with traditional “markers.” I do not want to engage in a conversation about so-called core testimonies or markers of Brethren identity, but to simply ask how it is that we understand ourselves as a Church. Unfortunately, the study is also showing us that a more reliable identifier of our members is where we fall in terms of issues in the political landscape of the United States. I also do not want to venture into the pile of issues which divide us, but to wade rather into that which defines us as the Church. In that spirit of asking and wading, I will argue two things: First, that our way of thinking about our Radical Pietist and Anabaptist elements is too often defined by our political and economic culture. Second, and more constructive I want to offer a Christological re-interpretation of those same elements.

Part of the Culture question we wrestle with as a tradition within the left wing of the Reformation is to ask what defines us, both as individuals and as the Church. In the last year the economic crisis has revealed an answer, at least in terms of the American context. Our social order, the bedrock of our culture is the economic exchange between persons. Art, education, and science are all grounded by the exchange of goods or services for money. In the past, persons involved in these vocations shaped their context. Today such influence is limited or enhanced based on the practitioner’s ability to return on the investment of finances of others. A quick look around the news stands or the television news channels and we see that the primary mode of understanding is in terms of exchange, money, goods, services, credit and debit. This frame of economics is the new totalizing force in culture. We might, as good Brethren, argue this is not the case for the Church. Yet, consider the way we discuss evangelism and service: The common thread becomes the sharing of services, the selling of our faith, the buying into a particular community by a person, or even the removal of buying power when a member leaves. Let’s be brutally honest here, how much of our anxiety over the decline in membership is a fiscal fear, an anxiety over the market value of our tradition. We would like to say that our culture, our thought, and our practices are defined solely by the vision of the Kingdom of God in scripture. It is clear, however, that the wider culture of money has a tremendous impact on our way of understanding the Church.

This kind of exchange model is not new for the understanding of society. In birth pains of the Enlightenment Jean-Jacques Rousseau formulated a theory of government which has defined the American landscape ever since. His theoretical discussion of “Social Contract” described political agreements as a process of exchange. As a basis of this theory Rousseau begins with the Individual, who, in his state of nature, is free and autonomous, attentive to his own needs. This Individual only enters into a community for ego-centric needs. That is, the community offers something which the Individual cannot provide for himself, and so the Individual relinquishes some of his freedom in exchange for the good of the community. The initial example of such a pact comes quickly in Book 1 of Social Contact making heavy use of the image of a family. Here he says that children only remain attached to the father “so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as the need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.”2

Though Rousseau is working within a conception of authority, politics, and governance his theory is, at its core, an economic one. Some have appropriated Rousseau’s theory for thinking about the Church. These ecclesiological theories present an individual’s participation in a community as a rational choice, a kind of cost benefit analysis. Thus, when a seeker enters the doors of the Church building, they immediately and subconsciously begin weighing the benefits and losses on an imaginary scale. On each side of the scale first impressions are weighted against the theological ideas, which are then weighted against factors as rudimentary as how far the building is from home. The individual then buys into the community based on this cost-benefit equation. Will this community give as much if not more than it asks of the seeker? Only the individual can decide. Rousseau’s Social Contract helps highlight two underlying assumptions within these kinds of ecclesiological theories; 1) primacy of the individual and 2) that this same individual must give up elements of his freedom to take part in the community.

When we consider the murmurs of a split within the denomination these two assumptions come right to the forefront of the debate. When the larger community is seen as no longer offering the needed services or for that matter contradicts the values of the individual, the only valid option seems to be to break the bonds of the relationship.3 Lest you think I am making too much of this economic example, think back to my longwinded description of the Brethren above. When we say that the Brethren are some kind of mix between Radical Pietism and Anabaptism how do we understand these two traditions interacting? Most often the two are portrayed in constant tension, as if the spirituality of the individual is some how trampled by doctrine and practice of the community, or that the decisions of the larger community have no impact on individual practice. In a more concrete example look at what the Radical Pietist marker of “No Force in Religion” has come to mean in terms of Annual Conference Statements: If the delegates agree with me, then the statement has weight, if not, then there is no need to follow what it says. I wish I could say this is new, but the reality is that this is how many of our Brethren scholars have interpreted the relationship between the Anabaptist and Radical Pietist elements of our tradition. Unfortunately, it is more reflective of American conceptions of democracy and social contract than it represents the Christian witness.4

So how else can we talk about these two elements our tradition which does not place them in opposition to one another? As a student of the Early Church one easily comes to mind. In the sixth century the Church wrestled with the relationship of the divine in the human being of Jesus of Nazareth. Without presenting an exhaustive survey of creedal developments or various Christological formulations, it is important to note what the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451) tried to avoid. On one hand it rejected monophysitism – that is, when only one of the natures, divine or human, is present or where they are so united as to created a third kind of being. On the other hand the council set out of bounds any rejection of either the humanity or the divinity of Jesus Christ. Basically the council stated that Christ is “acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.” In a really simplified version, you can’t talk about Christ the man without also talking about Christ the Divine.

In many ways we need to be able to say the same thing about the Church of the Brethren, that the Radical Pietist and Anabaptist, the individual and the community are one and the same. This is to say that the Rousseau-like tension, where the individual must relinquish much to be a part of the faith community, or that the faith community must see itself as a distributor of religious goods, has to be exorcised from the way be think about “Being and Doing Church.” How is it that we can talk about individual Christians without the frame of a community, and how is it that we talk of the Church as if it is not comprised of faithful people? To adopt a Chalcedonian ecclesiology is to finally recognize that there is no individual Christian without a Church, and there is no Church without individuals.

Anthropologists, ritual theorists, liturgical theologians and even philosophers all in many ways understand this Chalcedonian way of being a community. In their own ways these thinkers describe the way community practices such as worship and even a congregational potluck shape the way people think about the world. What they have not grasped is that these communities are comprised of individuals whose very experiences of life give content to these ritual structures. What we as Brethren hold in “tension” is really a way of working out the age old dichotomy of the individual and the collective. In a way we have been trying to do what these theorists only pondered. Yet, we get stuck in a way of thinking that is based on the economic and political models of the North American context and constantly fight about the authority of the denomination and the freedom of the individual. Our own grounding in Jesus Christ offers us a way to see the dynamic interplay of communal formation and individual participation that reaches beyond what politics and money can offer. To understand our way of being and doing Church in incarnational terms – that is, two natures united without mixture and without confusion – we arrive at a uniquely Christian way of thinking about the world and ourselves. So when we are asked about who the Brethren are, maybe we finally say with some conviction that we are an incarnational people. That seems to me to be the best starting point for any discussion.

1 Carl Desportes Bowman, Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2008).

2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk 1.2.

3 See Greg Davidson Laszakovits, “I Am Not Saying…I’m Just Saying…” in Messenger November 2008, vol 157.10. Though Davidson Laszakovits does not follow the typical formula for discussing the prospects for division he does confirm the social contract approach to ecclesiology. The thesis of his editorial asks if the factions within the Church of the Brethren could minister more effectively and energetically if there were to be an amicable split. In essence, the individual desires for ministry are hindered by remaining in the denominational community.

4 Meier, Marcus. “Anabaptist and Pietist Influences on the Early Brethren.” In Lines, Places, and Heritage: Essays Commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the Church of the Brethren, eds. Steven Longenecker and Jeff Bach (Bridgewater, VA: Penobscot Press, 2008), 157–68. Meier recently argued in this essay that the historical evidence shows that the two traditions were not as distinct as we have often portrayed them. Instead, the Radical Pietists and Anabaptists mutually influenced one another.

  1. Carl Desportes Bowman, Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2008). []
  2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk 1.2. []
  3. See Greg Davidson Laszakovits, “I Am Not Saying…I’m Just Saying…” in Messenger November 2008, vol 157.10. Though Davidson Laszakovits does not follow the typical formula for discussing the prospects for division he does confirm the social contract approach to ecclesiology. The thesis of his editorial asks if the factions within the Church of the Brethren could minister more effectively and energetically if there were to be an amicable split. In essence, the individual desires for ministry are hindered by remaining in the denominational community. []
  4. Meier, Marcus. “Anabaptist and Pietist Influences on the Early Brethren.” In Lines, Places, and Heritage: Essays Commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the Church of the Brethren, eds. Steven Longenecker and Jeff Bach (Bridgewater, VA: Penobscot Press, 2008), 157–68. Meier recently argued in this essay that the historical evidence shows that the two traditions were not as distinct as we have often portrayed them. Instead, the Radical Pietists and Anabaptists mutually influenced one another. []
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Jan 24 2012

Contemplating Our Changing, Challenging Culture

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Matthew E. McKimmy.

How do we even begin a conversation on a topic as broad as culture? There are so many angles from which you might approach it, and it can mean so many different things. Therefore, I think that my first order of business should be to state what aspect of culture it is I intend to address.

Like any modern young adult looking for a quick and general overview of a topic, I headed to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about how we might define culture. Some possibilities I was presented: that culture is a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; OR a particular way of life, whether of a people, period, or a group; OR the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity. The article then goes on to muddy things even further by saying culture can also be a mixture of these three.

So examples of culture can be anything from the particular, individual social constructions we use to relate with one another to the broad patterns and structures of human activity that define the entirety of our lives. As I speak to you today, it is the later, more “macro” aspect of culture I plan to address: the broad social constructions we operate within on a daily basis.

There is a definite advantage to being the first person to present at an event like this, where our topics intentionally begin broadly and then circle closer and closer to a more defined focus. The way I see it, I get to set the ball rolling by giving the pot a good stir, priming the pump, and bringing up some of the big questions that our subsequent topics and conversations must be mindful of.

Despite what some folks may say, or hope, or even preach, culture is inescapable. We cannot fully remove ourselves from culture, we can only seek to experience it differently.

The phrase “in the world but not of the world” gets tossed around a lot when the subject of culture comes up. I think it’s a good description of the inescapable nature of culture. We cannot help but be in the world, taking part in culture, but we must also recognize how that affects us. We are called to be aware of culture and avoid being blindly shaped by it, as best we can.

So who am I to talk about culture? Who am I to be here and a part of this presentation at all? This is an important question for all of us any time we attempt to discuss culture, for our social locations greatly impact our perceptions, opinions, and understandings.

A bit of background; some transparency about where I’m coming from as I speak on culture: I’m a white, twenty-something male from a lower-middle class background. I’ve spent over a third of my life as a full-time college student, and now, after finishing my M.Div. at Bethany in May 2008, I’ve been a full-time pastor since June 2008. Until relocating to attend seminary my predominant life experience was semi-rural and medium-sized-city life in Southwest Virginia. Now I call the small city of Richmond, Indiana home.

None of these places are the sort you might consider to be at the cutting edge of culture. If anything you might say they’re more likely behind the curve when it comes to the big-picture cultural shifts of the 21st century.

In many ways, our culture today is defined by such shifts. We are in a liminal time, a time in-between, in transition from what has been to what we are moving towards. While there are people who may refute the very existence of some of the particular trends and movements that I’m about to touch on, few can deny that there are massive cultural shifts underway in the world today.

The modern era has been shaped by a continual push for progress in all areas of human life, rooted in the ideals of the enlightenment. But somewhere in the middle of the 20th century we began to realize we might not be capable of the constant progress we hoped for. In a milieu of world wars, genocides, and other local and global atrocities the concept of post-modernity began to emerge. In our current age of seemingly endless information and advanced communications technology, post-modernity continues to gain traction. Absolute truths are looked upon with utmost skepticism. Traditional understandings of every realm of human experience are openly questioned.

Yet we are not a fully post-modern culture. We may be moving in that direction, but we have not yet arrived. Who knows, we may never fully arrive! It’s not an either-or proposition, whether we experience life and culture as modern or post-modern. Rather it is always an awkward mix of the two, which inevitably causes conflict and confusion along the way.

Similarly, our culture is shifting away from when Christianity has greatly influenced and shaped the predominant worldview. We’re moving into a time of post-Christendom where the influence of the church is greatly diminishing. Many people are questioning the relevance of the institutional church, wondering what role it will play in their lives and in culture in general. Not only intellectuals, scholars, and so on, but everyday folks in small cities and towns like Richmond, Indiana. This is especially true amongst us young adults. There are very few churches in the western world where the proportion of young adults is reflective of the number of young adults in the general population.

Some writers and thinkers have even gone so far as to say that rather than just moving into a period of post-Christendom, we are instead moving into a post-Christian or even post-religious era. This is less a statement about our culture’s overall desire to connect with the transcendent as it is a critique on the institutional nature of the Christian Church. I’m mindful of books like Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church and Spencer Burke’s Heretic’s Guide to Eternity that speak to many people’s desire to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus but also reflect a cultural backlash against how these are commonly put into practice within the church.

As we enter into conversations on the Church and Leadership, this cultural trend towards re-thinking the role and shape of the church as an institution cannot be ignored.

Another place this trend is reflected is in the shift towards post-denominationalism. Even for me, someone who has been brought up in the Church of the Brethren and is deeply committed to it, I can see where this is coming from. For decades now most denominations have been in decline. The churches where the most growth is now taking place tend to be non-denominational, or at most loosely associated with various evangelical or Pentecostal movements.

Whereas denominational identity once more clearly defined the beliefs and practices of a congregation or individual, now at most it might give an idea of preferred worship style and general theological leanings, and often not even that. These days it’s more common to find greater differences within denominations than between them. For example I know Brethren who feel a closer spiritual kinship with Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, or Episcopals than with other Brethren, despite still holding firmly to their identity of being Brethren.

If there is one constant in our culture it is that we are constantly in a state of flux, changing between what was and what is still emerging. Our constant is change, and it seems to be taking place at an increasingly rapid rate.

Deep change is afoot within culture, society, and in turn the church. Change that we haven’t experienced in centuries. Phyllis Tickle and others have likened this time we live in to other so-called “great” periods in the history of the western world, such as the Great Schism or the Reformation. If you haven’t already read her latest book The Great Emergence, I highly recommend it.

As I look at the tremendous cultural changes that have taken place in the lives of people my grandparents age, just a couple generations older than me, it’s difficult for me to imagine that the social and cultural changes I will likely face in my lifetime will be exponentially greater.

One question comes to my mind in the midst of all this cultural and social change: why are we so determined to define ourselves in terms of what we have been and are no longer, post-this or post-that?

Instead, why can’t we be proactive, recognizing where God is at work in our time, our culture, claim that for what it is, and seek to faithfully take part? Rather than lamenting change and trying to put the brakes on it, why not find it an opportunity for transformation. Our recent Annual Conference theme comes to mind: “The old is gone, the new has come, all this is from God!” Is it possible for us to claim aspects of these cultural changes as God at work in our lives?

I guess I should admit I’m very much a practical theologian. After all, what good is thinking and talking about what is going on in our culture and society and where God fits in if we as people of faith aren’t willing to act accordingly? Yes the world and our culture are changing, and so must we!

I challenge us all, in our conversations both here and beyond, to not simply lament what is no longer and how we’ve become so disconnected from culture, but to instead speak of how we can and are rising to these challenges we face.

Yes, we live in a time where spirituality is of much greater societal interest than traditional, institutional church participation. We’ve probably all talked to folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” How do we help ourselves and others to recognize God’s movement in that desire for connection with the Spirit, and to respond?

Our culture is moving in ways that value relationship and authenticity more than hierarchy and expertise. Servant leadership and flat, shared administrative structures have been gaining traction in the world outside the church for a while now. With tremendous repositories of resources available at people’s fingertips, via the internet and other means, learned expertise isn’t as crucial to gathering raw information we as it once was. How can we seek to be more relational and authentic in ways that reflect Christ to our culture?

As Christianity finds itself farther on the margins of mainstream society how can we adopt a sense of mission that recognizes our own cities and towns to be just as viable mission fields as locations on other continents? How can we cultivate a missional attitude that reflects the mission of Jesus: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and bringing good news to the marginalized and oppressed people that we live among?

We all know our denomination is struggling with its identity. So are many others. Is there a way for us to reclaim a distinctive Brethren identity in a way that is welcoming of our internal diversity and also relevant to a changing culture? How can we claim our history of ecumenism and continue to nurture it in radical new ways as what it means to be a denomination continues to change?

Brothers and sisters, these are just some of the challenges, or rather opportunities, that our current culture affords. This is the context in which all our conversations during this forum are taking place. It is the context in which our lives and ministries as individuals and as the church take place. We cannot allow our visions to become too narrow because we choose not to see what is happening around us, for our voices to become constrained by the fear of speaking the truth to power, for questions to go unasked because we know there are no ready-made answers.

As we prepare to boldly, openly, and authentically begin our conversations in this space, I leave you with you this question to contemplate concerning culture: Which of these many cultural shifts and changes do you feel present us with the greatest challenges and opportunities as followers of Jesus?

 

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Jan 17 2012

Young Adults and the Church

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Jordan Blevins.

Gregory Boyd writes, in an article in the Christian Century,

Jesus revolted against the powers that fragment relationships by modeling what communal life under the reign of God looks like. Though he was the Son of God, he didn’t try to go solo in his life and ministry. He had a network of friends, like Mary and Martha, on whom he could rely when he traveled. He banded with a group of 12 disciples who traveled and ministered with him. And he chose three people (Peter, James and John) to form his most intimate circle of friends. His life manifested the truth that where God reigns, individuals will be united together in close-knit communities.1

I have been extremely blessed over the last 6 months or so with my involvement in the Young Adult community in the church – both the Church of the Brethren and the larger ecumenical church. I serve on the Young Adult Task Force of the US Conference of the World Council of Churches, the Young Adult Steering Committee of the Church of the Brethren, and was a part of the planning committee for this gathering of young adults that took place in Arizona in December. And as I reflect on all of these experiences, one thing jumps out – young adults get what Gregory Boyd is talking about.

Roughly 30 of us gathered in Arizona in December 2008 to talk about what the future of leadership in the Church of the Brethren should look like – particularly in the context of the Church of the Brethren Ministerial Leadership Paper, and looking at revising that. But, it couldn’t just be that simple. To consider what leadership would look like, we had to think about what the church looks like. And to properly consider what the church looks like, we had to think about what the culture in which the church resides looks like. And so that is how our conversations moved. As Dana Cassell, Matt McKimmy, myself, and Josh Brockway wrestled with the framing of this conversation – and as I looked back over our planning notes, one particular piece of our conversation stuck out at me. Young adults don’t necessarily want to be a part of a committee or team that meets regularly and just does church business, but part of relationships and conversations. We want a more organic process, a more casual form of leadership. This also caused me to reflect on another piece of Gregory Boyd’s article, when he wrote

Think about it. Once a week we go to church (a religious building) rather than seeing ourselves as the church. As good consumers we typically choose a church on the basis of our own preferences, conveniences and needs. Since we’re conditioned to assume that ‘the customer is always right’, we believe we have the right to have things our way. If one church fails to please us, we simply shop for another that will. Since there are only so many of us religious consumers to go around, churches have to compete with one another to acquire and keep as many consumers as possible. This, of course, puts pressure on pastors to sweeten the religious product they’re peddling by adding as many blessings as possible to their message and by refraining from saying or doing anything that might drive consumers away.2

It’s not just in the church but in our culture as well. Young adults don’t want to be “programmed for” but rather “participate in.” It’s not just about program for program’s sake, but relationships in groups that are doing the work of the church. People want to feel like they’re a part of something larger than just themselves.

As such, that is what we tried to do. We began each of our sections for conversation with two brief paper presentations, in order to frame our conversation. Each presenter was invited to leave the group with questions, and once the presentations were over, we moved into a world café style session to wrestle with the questions. World Café moves people from table to table – aiming to get you talking to the largest number of people in the room as possible. We also had sheets of paper down on the tables, with markers, to provide for continuing reflection and conversation in that form, too.

One of the things that really amazed me about this group, and all the gatherings of young adults I have been apart of, has been that desire to enter into relationship with one another. We aren’t just coming together to make procedural decisions, or plot out a plan, but rather to figure out how to be the church, in relationship with one another. Around those world café tables, people disagreed with one another – a lot. I think it is safe to say that at the end of our time together; people still disagreed with one another – a lot. But no one was going anywhere. We were committed to figuring out what the future of the Church of the Brethren was going to look like – together.

We encouraged current church leaders to share are some reflections on leadership with us. One of those reflections came from Deborah DeWinter, of the US Conference of the World Council of Churches. She shared some thoughts to help us frame our conversation, and she said,

To be a leader in the church is to recognize in the other the image of God and to call each other to accountability in this relationship we have as children of God. There is one family: God’s family. One family table: the Lord’s table. One calling (the family business): to love one another, as we have first been loved.  Everything else is commentary. It is to live a life of expectancy (expecting God to work for good in all things)….to call others to join together in experiencing the Advent spirit…eyes and ears, hearts, bodies and minds focused solely on the manger where the unlikely Messiah, the Prince of Peace, promises to turn the kingdoms of this world upside down….doing this, using our gifts; using us.  Imagine that!

I think that vision of leadership is what we were seeking to come to – one that seeks to transform the church into a vital community of believers.

1 Boyd, Gregory. “Created for Community: Out of My Cave”. The Christian Century. 19 May 2009. http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933.

2 http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933

  1. Gregory Boyd, “Created for Community: Out of My Cave” The Christian Century. 19 May 2009. http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933. []
  2. Ibid; http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=6933 []
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