Some one, bless his/her heart, grumbled to me Sunday whilst leaving worship that if I were a part of the older generation I’d change my tune about what is broken and what needs to change in the church.
You only think things should change because you’re young.
Young people always want to change things.
Cue wag of the finger: But if you were older…
I honestly considered the possibility. Really, I did. Sans snark.
And then decided, no, I’d still be pushing the same view. Because it’s not a ‘young person’s view.’ It’s naming reality. Reality with a ticking expiration date on it.
And to prove this, I offer this snippet from Bishop Will Willimon, who will be preaching and lecturing at Aldersgate next Lent.
Willimon, as you can see by his pic, is old, put out to pasture by the mandatory retirement age. His membership in the AARP, however, does not determine what he says about his membership in the Body of Christ.
He also says exactly the same things I say:
Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined.
Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic. My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.
From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.
One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation. Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”
I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God. By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.
Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership. Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.
North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving. Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books.
Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.
A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness.
Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result.
I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop.
Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.
The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off. If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy.
I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.
Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary. Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves. Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.
As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism. We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce. Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require. Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation.
The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith.
As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”
In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting.
After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches. Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.
My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.” “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.”
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