Working around Seminary Education

Do mainline churches find traditional seminary education an obstacle to thriving? “As churches shrink and pastors retire, creative workarounds are redefining ministry,” reported Elizabeth E. Evans recently in Religion News Service. A workaround, by definition, is an alternate path used when the main path is not longer serviceable. Workarounds are required when existing structures no longer meet the needs of the people involved. As someone who works in and around seminary education, I see a disconnect between the traditional Master of Divinity program and the creativity needed for mainline churches to thrive.

Scarcities of money and time are forcing a redefinition of ministry in the mainline. Congregations are smaller, attendance is sparser, and budgets are shrinking. The old model of a fully-compensated, professional theologian in the pulpit is no longer viable for the majority of congregations. Financial and demographic realities have foisted many congregations into the realm of bivocational and multivocational ministry.

Multivocational ministry is an existing and emerging need of the church. To fully embrace multivocational ministry as a strategic priority in their educational programming, seminaries would need to explore and identify various changes and initiatives required to reform their curriculum, extracurricular offerings, programs, structure, and ethos around this priority. However, many schools of theology cling to traditional curricula, becoming the obstacle around which churches must creatively navigate.

What if North American seminaries were to risk reinventing themselves by adopting a multivocational mindset? I explore the this question in my open-access book, Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry. Theological educators will be especially interested in my concluding chapter, in which I reimagine theological education in conversation with the work of Justo González on the history of theological education and Daniel Aleshire on the future of theological education. If you have read any of the books in the series “Theological Education between the Times,” you will find this discussion an important addition to the conversation.

Mainline seminaries must determine how they will contribute to the thriving of mainline congregations. In the meantime, churches will continue to find creative workarounds.

The Diaconate of all Christians, part 1

During these summer months, I have been teaching and learning about the diaconate of all believers at Otterbein UMC, Lancaster, PA. We started by sharing how each of us volunteers in service in the community. Then, we asked, Where is God in these relationships?

Listen to our podcast about “Diakonia, how and why we serve God.”

This program at Otterbein UMC was funded by a Dewees grant from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Service is part of discipleship. When a new member joins a United Methodist congregation, the pastor asks, “Will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?” Each new member affirms, “yes.” Then, as a congregation, we respond by renewing our covenant to do the same. But what does service have to do with our faith?

All of us serve others in some way or another. We might offer a kind word, a friendly greeting, or perhaps a meal for someone recently out of the hospital or someone who does not earn enough money to make ends meet. Sometimes we experience such joy serving others that it does not really seem like work.

“Doing good” is one of John Wesley’s three simple rules. Wesley believed that we love our neighbors as ourselves through good works. When we serve others, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. In theological terms, Wesley taught that works of mercy are a means of grace. We can experience God by loving each other!

Wesley was careful to say that we do not earn our salvation by serving others. Rather, service is one way that we practice our faith. We grow in faith by exercising our spiritual muscles. When we attend to the needs of others as if they were our own, we grow closer to our neighbors and to God.

At Otterbein, we learned that every Christian is called to participate in service to neighbor, self, and community. “Diakonia” is the Greek word in the Bible for faith-motivated service. From this word we get the titles deacon and deaconess. Diakonia is the gospel in action, through our hands and feet. Diakonia describes our participation in God’s ongoing activity of love and justice in the world.

Where is God showing up in your life? If you are looking for Jesus, look no further than the persons you encounter every day in our neighborhood. What can you do to serve your neighbors? Through service, we not only participate in the work of the church. We also gain a glimpse of the Kin-dom of God.