Back around Pentecost, the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) sent out a letter to the PCUSA laying out some of the things its members had been kicking around a while related to Vocation (the whole getting people where God calls them thing), Education (the seminary part) and Preparation (the connection future ministers have to their local church and presbytery). The reality of the decline in the denomination overall and the ability of churches to call and support ministers is of great interest, as is the lack of decline in numbers of people seeking seminary education with hopes of entering the call process. The task force looking at this concern in particular drafted a letter asking the PCUSA to ask What if… and provided a handful of questions to ponder.
First, I must confess, this is my favorite way to start a conversation. I am a What if… junkie. Not because I lack a grounding in reality. My husband accuses me of being so logical that I must be part Vulcan. But even as I am grounded in reality, I love to dream with friends and colleagues about where we could go… where we would like to be… and then how we might take some first steps to get there. What if we….?
And so as I think about my own reality, what keeps me from being able to just say “God, here I am; send me. I’ll go anywhere” I also think in terms of “What if…?”
For instance, my husband and I have a mortgage that is – like all too many in the US right now- higher than the value of our home. I’m not sure how long it will take the market to get back to a place where we could break even, but I hate to be place-bound until then. It’s hard to imagine I am the only candidate in that situation, especially in some of the hardest hit real estate markets. What if we looked at some of our endowments as a way to offer some mortgage amnesty? What if I could to put my house on the market for fair value, knowing that there were a fund that would cover up to (insert some amount) – if I were to accept a call in a place where pastors were in short supply?
Like many seminarians, I have acquired a fair amount of seminary debt as well. It is not uncommon for students to amass $30,000 or higher, depending on circumstances. What if we expanded the debt assistance program to assist those who are still waiting for calls? What if we developed an “adopt a candidate” program, similar to those used to feed and clothe children around the world. At just $30 monthly ($30 x 12= $360) it would take about 85 people one year to cover $30,000 of debt. What if just 1,000 Presbyterians agreed to adopt a student a year for 5 years? That would be $1,800,000 of debt retired in a truly connectional effort, which actually translates into an average of 12 new pastors a year freer to discern a call in smaller or less conventional settings. That would be a pretty sweet graduation gift!
I have been working full time while attending school. It wouldn’t be all that weird for me to continue working– perhaps pull back some more on my hours and be a bivocational minister. I would need some salary, but not full time. And my primary health benefits can come from my husband. What if I could opt out of BOP benefits, but pay in the retirement portion? I’d be more than happy to show proof of insurance coverage (I have to do that at my current employer, too) so that the BOP could assure that I am well-taken care of. But it makes no sense to burden a small congregation with mandatory coverage.
I know these seem self-serving- but the reality is that almost everyone I talk to, particularly young pastors who still had debt from college before adding to it in seminary is dealing with one or both of these situations. When vocation (placement) folks talk about the people not getting calls, they make it very clear that it is because “they are just not willing to move”. Sometimes that comes out “able” but the tone still says “willing”.
What if we also took a realistic look at who is being called into ministry today. There are almost equal numbers of women and men, and the average age is well above the “just graduated college” years. That means that you are looking a more married couples that will be answering a call to ministry, but not necessarily as clergy couples. The picture of a pastor being highly portable because his wife keeps the house and raises the kids is as ridiculous as the image of the today’s church serving Ward and June Cleaver and their two clean cut boys. As often as not, the seminary graduate is a woman, and the future “pastor’s wife” is a husband with a career of his own. That means that discerning God’s call for the family is doubly complicated. Mix in the fact that many adults find themselves in the sandwich between raising their kids and caring for their aging parents, and the picture becomes even more muddled.
All that to say, I think there are plenty of opportunities for ministry out there. But we may not be able to see them or get to them if we continue to see things through old (and even current) lenses.
I think we need to ask our seminaries to consider how to bring in some people to describe, model and teach new ways of leading (including imagining new ministries).
I think we need to start helping committees (those responsible for preparing candidates for ministry and those responsible for oversight of ministry) in our presbyteries to see the need for some imagination, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit in ministry. And help those committees see they will be on the front line of discerning, describing and encouraging new ways of being church in the coming years, as the Spirit leads.
I think we need to be asking each other What if…? more often, but not in the blowing off steam sort of way. We need to be listening with ears and eyes that expect God to speak through collegial imagination.