Seminary

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

 Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Please Insert Cassette Two

By Colton Lott

 

Over the past few years I’ve become skilled at talking about my calling to ministry. For example: unless I am directly asked, I don’t mention I am going to be a pastor at the fish-fry/quasi-family reunion. Because, once I do that, the person I'm not actually related to finds it necessary to apologize every time he grabs a beer from the cooler. When a guy is trying to plow through a twelve pack, my meek, “I don’t mind/even like beer,” is drowned out by the incessant plea of, “Please forgive me, brother Lott!”

There is also that part of my calling that makes me kind of freaky. I first discerned that I was headed for ordained ministry at thirteen. I hadn’t even started shaving! I went to church camp in junior high, got the obligatory calling like all the good Christian boys and girls, told all my counselors, and then seemingly forgot that I was supposed to forget about it by fall break and resume saying I wanted to be something practical when I grew up again. My family was rooting for something like a doctor, or a lawyer, or an insurance salesman, you know, something that actually makes money. I think ballerina-astronaut would have been a more convincing career path.

So bit-of-a-freak me went through junior high school, where I learned to tell peers reluctantly that I wanted to be a minister when I grew up. I remember being backstage of my teenaged, theatrical debut in Disney’s: Mulan (Junior) with my peers, who were asking very pressing questions between scenes. “Can you get married?” “Can you say cuss words?” “Why do you even have to go to college? I didn’t think ministers needed any special education.” “Will you ever have sex?”

High school was a different ballgame because we all knew that I was ‘unusual’ and my sarcasm had developed nicely. While my friends were looking at state schools and maybe a research institution or two in Texas, I was fervently emailing Disciples colleges, asking if any of them had money for weird high school kids who knew they wanted to be a minister.

“No, sorry.” “No, but is your parent a minister?” “No, but we can get you half off!”

And then… “YES!”

From a little school in the godforsaken cornfields of the Midwest. EUREKA! I hit the jackpot with… Eureka College. So, off I went on a scholarship designed for students who knew at seventeen they desired to go into ordained ministry (HA! I had that beat by four years, suckers!).[i]

As devoted readers of my article know, because my “devoted readers” are mostly friends and family, I graduated from Eureka this past May and am now in the last few days before my M.Div. program begins in Divinity School. After nine years, I am sitting where I always wanted to be.

Foolishly, I am now realizing something embarrassing, albeit inconsequential:

I never really imagined what this time would be like.

I started researching seminaries before looking at colleges, which I’m pretty sure is not the correct way to do it. High-school-me saw college as a stepping stone and college-me (thankfully) was busy living in the moment, so the projected images of my life that I created in those tumultuous years of adolescence start cutting out…now. Now that I am where tape one ends and I need to insert tape two, I’m not sure where I exactly left tape two.[ii]

This is not bad, per se, but does create an interesting season for my life. I don’t have a playbook that is as solid and fool-proof anymore. Now that I’m actually knocking on the door, I forgot what happens when the door is opened unto me.

In some ways, I think our churches are like this. We set arbitrary goals and wishes with no expectation of how these goals and wishes actually help with God’s mission in the world. Oh, how lovely this sanctuary would be when it is full again! Or, how revitalized we will be with 100 in worship on Sunday! Or, if we could just afford a full time pastor again!

I continually struggle with figuring out what’s on the church’s tape two. I get tape one—working toward this goal that will bring happiness and awesomeness—but what would the church do if that actually happened? What’s on tape two that everyone is so jazzed about?

My sinister suspicion is that, just like for me, there is no tape two! (*Lightning crashes in the background while I manically stick my index finger high in the air.*) Churches have spent so much energy imagining life up to a certain point that they have forgotten why that certain point exists in the first place.

Am I bothered by my first realization of the day: that I didn’t imagine in crystallized detail what my graduate experience would be like? No, I’m actually grateful. It’s still weird that I’m in this long term relationship with the church and that next summer will be a decade of my discernment in a prayer labyrinth made of flour at church camp. I know, and am comforted, that I still have the goal of ordination on the other side and the opportunity for life in public ministry in some form.

But I do worry about the churches I love. I hope they are really thinking of the story they want to write and that they begin gathering up their second and third cassettes. Because maybe, just maybe, they’ll realize that tape one gets boring. We don’t need more people or more money or more staff hours. Maybe we just need to see what life is like on tape two, heck, I’d settle with just moving to Side B! Maybe we need to re-dream and loosen the ties.

I don’t know. But today I sit in a bit of stupor and am continually thankful for the churches that prayed for me up to this point.

-----

[i] This scholarship has since evolved into the Disciples Leadership Program. A full-tuition scholarship for four years, it is open to any Disciples of Christ student who has a record of academic success, service, and leadership. Candidates no longer need to be ministerial in nature, just committed to a life of faith-based service and a deep love of God’s church. Visit: http://www.eureka.edu/admissions/doc/ for more information.

[ii] For younger readers “tapes” are VHS or cassette tapes. Long movies, or books ‘on tape,’ have two, or more, cassettes. 

Photo credit: 
http://www.undertheradarmag.com/news/sony_unveils_185_terabyte_cassette_tape/

UnCommon Acceptance

By Rev. Mindi

Two years ago, I sat in a breakout session at my first UNCO—The UnConference for pastors and church leaders—and in the first fifteen minutes of the session titled “Show Me The Money,” I learned more about fundraising and stewardship campaigns than I had in seminary—and I had taken an entire January term course on stewardship and church finances. I listened as church leaders shared what had worked in their congregation, ways of talking about stewardship, and focusing on the positives (“Look what ministries we participated in last year”) rather than the negatives (“Our budget shortfall means we will have to cut programs unless we raise enough money”). 

Two years ago, I connected with pastors and church leaders that I still go to regularly for ideas, support, and encouragement, as did my husband who was planting a new church. But more importantly for us, it was the first church conference that not only provided space and childcare for children (called KidUNCO), but fully welcomed our child AJ, who has autism, into the full life of the UnConference.

Last year, when we returned to UNCO, not only did we receive our warm welcome again, but as AJ ran across the gathering space, where we livestream our worship services and large group “brain-dump” sessions, people who knew AJ from the previous years but could not attend tweeted their greetings to AJ.

UNCO has created a community of church leaders who are connected not only after UNCO meets via Twitter and Facebook, but a way of connecting those who are physically present and those who participate via Twitter and livestream. And following last year’s UNCO, those of us involved in new church communities and the challenges of raising funds for our new ministries began using Google Hangout on a monthly basis—not only to share ideas and knowledge, but also to check in, and lift up one another and our ministries in prayer. The networks created within the larger UNCO gathering, including a writer’s group and synchroblog, provide support and encouragement for creativity in leadership.

UNCO has given me and my husband the opportunity to attend a leadership gathering together—and to bring our child with special needs to an inclusive and welcoming environment. Because of KidUNCO, my husband and I have been able to attend breakout sessions without one of us having to care for our child while we are learning and sharing.

More importantly, UNCO has provided close friendships with colleagues facing similar challenges in ministry. UNCO is not a conference you attend and take back with you what you learn—UNCO is the UnConference, in which you are participating all year long and in person for three days, if you are able to be there.

UNCO West is October 26-28 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Click here for more information and to register. You won’t find a more affordable continuing education event that will benefit you throughout the year. You can also read Carol Howard Merritt’s excellent article on UNCO in the Christian Century.

#MissionSummit2015

By Rev. Mindi

That’s an awfully a long hashtag. American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in using social media effectively.

American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in including our marginalized folks.

However, there was progress made at our biennial gathering in Kansas City last weekend. Besides more people tweeting this time, three out of the four general worship service preachers mentioned inclusion of LGBTQ folks. The first praised the SCOTUS ruling as a just and right ruling. The second said for far too long we have pushed LGBTQ folks out. The third said “If you have a problem with someone’s sexual orientation, go talk to Jesus.”

I know it made some people uncomfortable. I saw the walkouts. But I also recall sitting in far too many American Baptist biennial meetings and walking out with my lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender friends as they were told, from the pulpit, that they were an abomination, full of sin and bound for hell. I have walked out to comfort so many with tears from the pain and violence of exclusion. So for those who felt they had to walk out, I didn’t have much sympathy. As another friend said, “For now, we get to stay.”

For now.

We still have a long way to go. As Baptists, we believe in Soul Freedom, and that means that I cannot tell you what to believe, and you cannot tell me what to believe. It means that you and your church are free to determine your theology and your stances on issues, and me and my church are free to determine our theology and stances. That is how it should be. And at times it may be uncomfortable when we express our Soul Freedom in ways that bump up against each other.

But will this progress continue? Will the ending of exclusion actually happen? Will our LGBTQ friends feel safe in attending a Biennial gathering without worrying about the threat of vitriol from the pulpit?

We still have a long way to go. We claimed #BlackLivesMatter from the pulpit but have yet to come out with a unified voice to work on racism within our own congregations and communities. Many of us signed a statement pledging to work on anti-racism but met resistance from some who felt it didn’t do anything. Thank goodness our outgoing President viewed this as an opportunity and read the letter from the pulpit, and we can continue the work long beyond our Mission Summit. You can read the Epistle of Metanoia from the 2015 Mission Summit here.

We still have a long way to go. We have fabulous young preachers who shared their gifts in the Festival of Young Preachers and young seminarians getting ready to enter the search process, but so many churches are cutting back salaries and opportunities. There are pastors retiring but then staying on or taking another church in their retirement instead of encouraging congregations to take the opportunity to call a young pastor. And as I’ve shared before, our definition of “young” sometimes stretches well into middle-ages, leaving the truly young pastors still looking for a call.

We have made progress. I believe it. I left with a lot of hope for our future and actual excitement about attending our next Biennial “Mission Summit” Gathering as American Baptists. But until we call younger pastors, have younger leadership represented at our national gatherings and in our national leadership, and work to include those who have been pushed to the margins because it makes some of us uncomfortable, we still have a long way to go.

The Myth of the Ten-Year-Full-Time Pastorate

By Rev. Mindi

I don’t know where I learned the myth—somewhere along the way in attending church in my youth to my college days and even into seminary and my first call—somehow, I believed that the average call to pastoral ministry in congregations was about ten years. After consulting with a few other seminary friends, they tell me that they also heard this myth in seminary. I believed that churches provided full benefits and adequate salary and housing that would help cover my student loans from college. I believed I would be able to have my own one-bedroom apartment and take my day off and work a 40 hour workweek.

That all changed very quickly. My first call was full-time and did offer me retirement and health insurance for me—but when I got married, not for my spouse unless I paid for it. My first call did not pay an adequate salary nor was the housing allowance enough to cover my rent—I found a house with three other roommates to split the rent four ways (I did have my own bedroom), and I was able to pay a car payment on a used car—but without consolidating my student loans I had $45 after every paycheck. After consolidation, I had $145 to pay for groceries and gas. Needless to say, I opened a credit card in order to survive that first year and a half until I received a raise. Then my roommates moved, and I had to move into an apartment with a roommate with higher rent. The debt caught up quickly.  This was all while working at one of the most prominent churches of my denomination in that state, connected to a seminary and regarded as a pillar church, a church that did not pay its staff a livable wage.  In addition, I was often working 50-60 hours per week. I was in charge of starting and building the youth group, running the church school, participating in worship and other duties in the life of the congregation. However, most of the time I did manage to take Friday off. I stuck with that, though I worked several 12 hour days during the week.

It wasn’t until my second call, just less than four years later, when I moved into a parsonage and I received a salary in which I could meet my expenses. Here, I was paid a livable wage, my family was covered under health insurance, and I worked reasonable hours during the week (40-50). In my first call I was an associate minister; in this call, I was the senior pastor of a smaller congregation.  It seemed perfect. I imagined myself there for seven, eight—even ten years. We wrote a family leave policy into my contract and I had a child. I began to work on writing in sabbatical leave, as the congregation wasn’t used to sabbatical leave before.

But even there, I ended up moving before four years. My husband received a call to a church in another state, and it seemed an opportunity he could not pass up.  It was bittersweet—a great opportunity not only for my husband, but for us as a family as I could be home more with our son—but leaving a wonderful church community and call.

To be honest, I really wrestled with leaving in this time. I felt that somehow I had failed to live up to the standard of a ten-year pastoral call. But then I began having conversations with other, older pastors and I suddenly learned that the ten-year pastoral call is a myth. And then it hit me: my grandfather, a pastor I had looked up to as the model of the perfect pastor, never had a ten-year call, either. Most of his were 4-5 year calls, several were shorter than that.  Many times it was because of unhealthy aspects of the congregations he was serving. Sometimes, though, it was because of family dynamics and choices made for the entire family.  Sometimes he served part-time congregations and did other work on the side. My grandfather had a slew of odd jobs over the years to help make ends meet at times.

I was so worried in leaving that church that I was leaving behind any chance of having a full-time, long-term call again. That somehow I would be marked by this. Thankfully, this has not been the case—in talking with search committees, most have been very understanding of the decision to leave full-time ministry to care for my child and to move for my spouse’s call.

At this time, I am serving at two part-time calls. I do not have full benefits—I rely on my spouse’s insurance to cover the family.  It is working, though it is hard to be in two places—as my husband, who also serves two congregations, can attest as well. Neither of us can envision a ten-year pastorate any more.

At a recent gathering of younger clergy, none of us saw ourselves in a ten year pastorate. Most of us were averaging a vision of about five years. Times have changed. And congregations, for various reasons, are no longer preparing for long-term pastors. It’s not only that fewer congregations are not providing full time salary, housing and benefits, it’s not only that there are unhealthy congregations that run through pastors every few years--it’s that our understanding of vocation, call, purpose—it is all changing. This is not to say pastors are still not called to congregations, but that perhaps the Spirit is moving in new ways.

It seems to me that one of the shifts that has happened is that the leadership within churches has become more long-term, fixed (even bylaws have been changed in churches I have served to allow for continuous terms), the pastor’s tenure has become shorter.  In congregations with history of long pastorates, often the leadership within the church went through periods of transformation and change. New people were brought into the lead, new styles brought on, new models tried out. Now, in my experience with congregations with shorter term pastorates, the leadership has stayed the same, but the pastor is the one who changes. Sometimes this is good; sometimes this is stagnant and the problems are associated only with the pastor.

A short term pastorate is not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy congregation or pastor—sometimes, the Spirit is doing something new, and the work that was done between the congregation and pastor needs to shift or move on. And often, in places where there perhaps was an unhealthy element within the congregation that didn’t get addressed by an interim (and intentional interim ministry is a key point that I am not addressing at this time) a new pastor is able to help the congregation move forward and become healthier, and once that new health is achieved, it may be time for a new transition, a new shift.  

Pastors are all unique and have different gifts and abilities. As the kinds of pastoral ministry change along with the settings (there is no one-size-fits-all pastor for an “average” church, as may have been perceived in the past) perhaps certain skills and gifts are needed in certain times of the church’s life, and the pastor find themselves wanting to continue to use those gifts and skills in new settings.

Pastoral ministry is changing, as much as the church continues to change, as much as pastoral ministry has changed. I’ve reflected on this before: in my twelve years of pastoral ministry, I have gone from having a cell phone as an emergency phone for my car only, to using my cell phone as a way of providing pastoral care through text message, tweeting prayers, and connecting with others in leadership. I have moved from being in the office 8-5 to being at the coffee shop in the mornings and a bar in the evenings. As the world of pastoral ministry has shifted in the past ten to fifteen years, so has the focus of gifts and skills in pastoral ministry, and so has the vision of the pastor’s role within the congregation. And while there are still full-time pastors serving in congregations 10+ years, the ones I know I can count on one hand. The myth is not holding up as it once did--if it ever really did.

No Jobs to Go to: Reflections on Seminary Education

By Jeff Gill

Seminary in general among Protestant clergy, and Christian Theological Seminary in particular for me, has been a place for residential formation in learning, reflection, and worship together, usually in tandem with field placement as a leavening agent, though increasingly field placement has been the necessary financial keystone of the process. Seminary students needed the job, and indirectly, the seminary needed those congregational dollars to flow through those students back to the balance sheet of the institution.

As field placement became more important alongside of student loans, the seminaries could shape less and less of the time and experience of students -- the priority was finding where a student placement could be made, and the student looking at what they were doing to themselves in terms of indebtedness, and anticipating how that would push them in certain directions on graduation. And even in the late 1980s, the number of students who were in my position, where I could choose to stay at Centenary Christian Church because of the quality of the learning experience, and not need to find a better paying position, and then could go to Newark Central Christian Church as a choice, not because it was the only option in front of me that would cover my loan payments, was very low.

Since then, the continued decline of student church positions has followed the declines in attendance and relative decline in ability to cover comparable pay & benefits. There are fewer, and pay has necessarily overwhelmed the issue of placement, Hobson's choice. Some regions have maintained a regular, every semester (or more!) process of formation with seminary students - yes, Indiana, I'm praising you! - but most have had annual (at best) meetings with most "formation" focused on the suite of final ordination requirements, which themselves tend to be academic in nature (papers, sermons), accenting what's already going on in classes, not taking up unaddressed areas of student life. Financial support from regions has almost entirely gone to nothing, even to helping them come to the CoM appointments.

So where we are is, in retrospect, no surprise, even though there's a great deal of shock and dismay that's been rattling through the "order of ministry" these last few years in the Disciples, as Lexington Theological Seminary has become a virtual shadow of itself (love what you're doing, but from 200 to 40 is more what I mean than even selling your campus), Phillips Theological Seminary ditto, CTS/Indy made their announcement this week, and my perception is that Brite Divinity School is pursuing creative options to maintain student counts somewhat better than its peers, but that still means that the number of M.Div. students enrolled and going through to graduation & ordination for service in the local church is shrinking there as well.

And why shouldn't it? The number of full time, benefits bearing positions is drastically lower today that it was in 1989 when I was ordained. Hard numbers continue to be difficult to obtain, but along with fewer congregations and fewer total worshipers, I know as a full time associate pastor in 1989 I had a peer group in Ohio, some 20-40 of us not all of whom had health insurance, and pay was a mixed bag with housing mixed in (always hard to find apples-apples comparisons), but we existed as a "class." Today, that number is . . . ? Most of the so-called full time associates are non-benefited, barely into five-digit pay positions. I don't want to get into numbers, but there are almost zero positions I think really are fairly paid as a "full time" post, even if the title is maintained.

If there's no jobs to go to, why would you encourage people to incur crushing debt to qualify themselves for them? No jobs is an exaggeration, but if there are 3 openings for every 10 M.Div.s looking, then for 7, "none" is the answer. Meanwhile, the resistance to commissioned ministry as a full partner in the wider church to ordained, seminary-trained clergy, and a certain amount of outright hostility to apprentice-track processes for ordination continues. The perception among those who went to seminary "back inna day" and are formally ordained is that those two expressions of ministry are taking jobs away from seminary graduates. At street level, I have to say I don't see that being true. Won't say it didn't ever happen anywhere, but in general, no. Full time jobs in ministry are being taken away by changes in the church, and only a flexible, adaptive response (including biovocationality as an option, even for M.Div. ordained pastors) is going to sustain the church.

Which means whatever seminaries, including my alma mater, are going to be in ten years, they will be different. Radically different. A brief mourning period will be allowed, and then the caravan has to keep moving. We are a pilgrim people, and there's no one earthly institution (or art collection, or degree program) that's necessary. Stuff has to be left by the road before the rough patches. Even the heirloom manger scene becomes excess baggage on some uphill pulls -- so set it aside, pick up the little baby Jesus from the box and put him in your pocket, and walk on.