Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fresh Air from the Past…

The other day, I ate with a kind, thoughtful man who eclipsed me in age, and he made a claim similar to others I’ve heard before. “Young man, I grew up in a very different world than you.” We were talking about broccoli and grocery stores, but this observation applies to much more. My mother did not learn computers until receiving a college degree in computer programming in her thirties. Because of that knowledge, I grew up thinking digitally. My grandmother remembered “Whites Only” signs at local stores. I don’t. She also remembered nights of culinary ingenuity during the Great Depression, when a tasty dinner appeared- somehow, someway. I was ‘privileged’ to grow up believing that eating ‘only’ McDonald’s was a downgrade. McDonald’s was still a dream in Grandma’s youth..

The point is my generation grew up in a different world than my father’s, and he his father’s, and…well, I wonder how far back that goes. I suspect every generation has something unfamiliar to comment on in subsequent generations. Sometimes it’s a lament, “Oh, how I miss the old days.” Sometimes it’s a celebration, “I’m glad that doesn’t happen anymore.” Sometimes it’s just an observation, “Life sure is different now.”

Our denomination is now dealing with a unique kind of old/new dynamic: We’ve just resurrected an idea from the past as a ‘fresh solution’ to a changing world. At General Assembly a few weeks back, our church voted to endorse ordination for some folk who have not gone to seminary. Like I said, it’s an old idea, but to many, it sounds strange and new.

Now, by “endorse,” I don’t mean that seminary has become unimportant or superfluous. Far from it. Seminary education is still the default path for ministerial preparation. However, the world has changed since the 50’s, when seminary education first became mandatory for Disciples of Christ pastors. These days more and more ministers are second-career students, with families they can’t uproot for three years to go to school. The debt load many seminarians must now assume is difficult, and for many impossible. Our denomination has seen wonderful growth in Latino and Asian congregations, but seminary training in the US occurs, of course, in English. What all this means is still up for debate, but it seems we were due for an update. And so we went with the oldest of solutions- Mentors.

I say ‘old’ because that’s what Jesus did. He spent a great deal of time training leaders, those whom we now call “the 12 Apostles.” In fact, I believe that Jesus’ work of mentoring his inner circle was more effective for the future of his movement than any other act outside the resurrection. Seriously. So by endorsing a path to ordination that substitutes seminary with mentorship, we’re emulating an effective model.

Such ministers will still, of course, require training and education, just like the first disciples. But their learning focus will occur in practical settings- with congregations or college groups or other places for ministry- rather than primarily with books and professors. There will be those too, but they will be secondary. Every Region has freedom to design their own programs, but there are “competency areas” every candidate must address. And, of course, the Spirit will continue to call and lead.

I have intelligent friends in ministry who like this change much less than I. Fair enough. As a Disciples of Christ member, I accept that my interpretation is just that, mine, and therefore it is limited. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this important topic. Indeed, this vote may be the most important our church has taken in the past three decades. But whether you think this is a good idea or not, we can agree on one thing: the old has become new again.

Oh, and we can agree on this too- Whether or not these changes help our church step more boldly and faithfully into the future, the God of all who loves all will be with us when that future comes. And if I know God, what God’s going to do in that future will be…amazing. In all things,

Grace and Peace,