Clergy without borders


Every once in awhile, I read one of those blogs or articles about what doesn't get taught in seminary. Usually, this list includes things like parish finances, capital campaigns, roof leaks and/or boiler malfunctions, and conflicts within congregational groups or among the staff. There seems to be some level of shock that in, at best, three years of academic preparation, in which future priests will likely receive all the education they will ever really get on Scripture, theology, church history, ethics, preaching, liturgy and music, they are somehow not also taught parish dynamics and congregational management. It seems as though we downplay the importance of some of these topics, the likes of which the general public will never study or contemplate, and instead complain that we are not versed in finance, teaching, psychology or business practices, things that many others are far better trained to deal with. Can we even imagine a doctor rueing the fact that they took anatomy classes rather than learning how to market their practice? Come to think of it, maybe today we can. The way the landscape is changing in so many areas of professional life, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, and many others are having to re-think who they are and where they fit into a high tech, global world. Clergy are really no different in this regard. The ways we have practiced ministry for the last few decades are getting increasingly harder to sustain, as congregations generally become smaller and young people leave the church in huge numbers, or never find it in the first place. As spirituality and religion become lifestyle choices fewer and fewer are making, instead of the foundations of communal and individual life, clergy of all denominations are having to face the fact that with these changes comes also the increasing difficulty of congregations to support the salary of a full-time priest. Or even one who is part-time. Lots of clergy, newly ordained and experienced, are facing the prospect of being unable to find institutional work at all, not just in congregations, but also as chaplains, campus ministers, and pastoral counselors. This, they definitely did not teach in seminary.

There is usually talk, at this point, about bi-vocational ministry: essentially getting paid to do some other kind of work, and serving a church for a very small stipend. But I think there is another way of looking at this as well. Given that more and more of the population is becoming unchurched, and fewer and fewer churches can support salaried clergy, is it possible for clergy to re-imagine our vocations outside of the congregation? Beyond other institutional ministerial roles, beyond bi-vocational, is there an invitation to think about how we bring our priesthood to the world (and also get paid for it)?

Part of the frustration that I feel in the 'what they don't teach us in seminary' conversations is the presumption that budgets, buildings, and congregational management are a necessary part of a clergy person's vocation. In a world that is starving for the Gospel, I feel pretty convinced that our focus should be on what we uniquely and importantly bear in this world: the sacraments and the traditions of the Christian faith. And these are precisely the things that are increasingly not being shared with the wider world, a world full of people who would not dream of entering a church, but who have spiritual longings that could be fulfilled by understanding and following Jesus. The question becomes, how to do this.

Of course, I have no more answers than anyone else, but I do think that social media, teaching, and life events are all areas that clergy can and should explore. For instance, many (most?) weddings today are done not by clergy, but those 'ordained' by filling out forms on the Internet. Furthermore, those Internet officiants are now organizing to become professionals, setting standards for how weddings are to go, and offering training. I think that one way that clergy can be who we are called to be outside of the congregation is to get back into the wedding business, offering (and charging) to marry couples in the Christian tradition, and with this, doing some evangelizing and teaching of why marriage is important and what it means to Christians, how it is tied to a tradition deeper than just two people in love. This goes double for funerals, where increasingly, anything goes, at a time when people most want and need to believe in something larger than we are, and especially in resurrection.

Social media is also changing our lives in ways that are profound and permanent. The implications of how we engage in ministry are vast and ever-changing, but here, too, I think clergy could and probably should start seeing ministry opportunities everywhere. I think of my social media presence as an extension of the pulpit, and try to engage theologically with everything from cat videos to serious world events being discussed and debated. What does it mean to be a priest in the spaces where half the world interacts daily? It might mean that the whole idea of having a congregation gets re-imagined entirely.

Ultimately, I think the most important challenge is not to decide what it will look like, but to be open to the idea that we are increasingly called beyond the traditional idea of a stable congregation in a single place, gathering on a regular basis. This kind of community will no doubt continue to exist, but not for everyone. We must keep looking to see how we are being called into the future, and to this, we must keep asking ourselves what are the basic gifts are vocation requires us to carry into it. I believe they are Scripture, sacraments, history, tradition, worship, prayer, theology. The very things we learn in seminary, and those that are ultimately what matters to the life of the church in the world.