Reflections on Summer Summit

Below is a reflection on the 2016 Summer Summit by Sean Witty, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church Newton Centre.  View original post here.

I sat in on the recent Reimagining Theological Education: Online Conference (June 28, 2016). To those close to it, the need to rethink the training of religious leaders is obvious. What is less obvious is how to gather interested parties to collaborate and begin building what is not-at-all obvious – an effective approach to training religious leaders for the 21st century.

Doug Pagitt (who joined us here during Lent) and Jeremy Fackenthal hosted the online gathering with graciousness, deftly navigating the challenges of online communication with humor and ease. Panelists included: Brian McLaren (who will join us for a special event in November), Philip Clayton, Kelly Lamon, and Erik Samuelson.

The two-hour session was divided into three formats:

  1. Panelists shared live, often responding to questions from Doug.
  2. Panelists shared videos which reported on conclusions from different work groups charged with reflecting on different topics related to rethinking training religious leaders.
  3. “Breakout” sessions divided the 70+ participants at random into smaller groups to discuss assigned questions.

The bulk of the content will be available elsewhere, including a video. What I will offer here is a reflection on my own “training” as a way of contributing to the conversation. Ultimately, what I hope will be clear is how my experience affirms many of the insights and conclusions thus far.

I will address three specific points mentioned in the conversation.

  1. Most people are not following a “traditional” path into ministry.
  2. A “modules” approach has been effective and will be effective in the future.
  3. Being “problem centered” is not effective.

Most people are not following a “traditional” path into ministry
My childhood did not include a religious tradition, other than Sunday mornings at home with Bach and the San Francisco Chronicle (when I lived on the East Bay) or New York Times (when I moved to a Manhattan suburb). All in all, not a bad religious tradition! Nonetheless, my identity in relation to institutional church is as an outsider. Consequently, so was my entry into organized ministry.

Para-church youth groups provided a bridge to institutions. My identity as an outsider was valued and provided an abiding and deep appreciation for the experience of those outside the community of faith. My own faith was the result of the “outward focus” of para-church groups and churches. I instinctively understood what it meant when I heard it said that “the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of those outside of it.” While this is not entirely true, what it meant to me was that the heart of Christianity was the “Great Commission.”

I have been fortunate to been involved with growing ministries for as long as I have been involved in organized ministry. Youth ministries, worship services, and new churches all grew numerically and outlived my involvement. Some extraordinarily so. In each setting, my gifts and passions were acknowledged and put to use regardless of formal training. I learned to learn. I sought out mentors, I attended conferences, and participated in ongoing local leadership groups. I was sought out and invited not based on my academic credentials, but on the apparent effectiveness of my work.

Ultimately, I enrolled in seminary. I began with a few courses, including some online (which in 1996-7 was quite ground breaking – hat tip to Leonard Sweet). I continued working full time, had my first son, and took classes. My ministry was growing, I was growing, and I was learning more at work than in school. Full-time theological school did not make sense. It gave me numerous gifts I treasure. However, an appreciation for what I was doing was by-in-large not one of them. How could it? I was not “sent” from a denomination or even by a church. I was not in a “calling” process or ordination track and my church did not fit neatly into a typical category. Despite my desire and efforts, I could not find a denomination that would support what I felt called to pursue. I could not afford the cost of membership.

I did graduate from theological school. It took a long time to complete part-time. There is a cost, for sure. However, I would choose it again in light of what at the time appeared to be the only alternative – feeling shackled by the limitations of failing institutions.

A “modules” approach has been effective and will be effective in the future
I pursued education and training with a decidedly pragmatic approach. It could easily be categorized as “modular.” Among other things, having one foot firmly planted in the emerging “information age” convinced me that the thriving churches of the future would not rely on “experts” – experts in Biblical interpretation, theology, or pastoral care. Churches would need different kinds of leaders in the wake of the internet boom, just as businesses have. Churches would need leaders that functioned more like “curators” who facilitated gatherings and settings where transformative encounters could occur.

I have studied at several different theological/seminary institutions in addition to my degree granting school. Each setting could be viewed as a “module.” I sought out different places for different things. A growing interest in the experience of the Early Church led me to study theology (liturgical and dogmatic/systematic) with the Eastern Orthodox Church (St. Vladimire’s Orthodox Seminary). Arguably, the Eastern Orthodox church has been the best caretaker of Early Church practice and thinking.  As their name implies, they have also retained a more “eastern” approach, less influenced by “either/or” thinking and more interested in “both/and” thinking. This has become especially relevant in our current cultural context which has a deepening appreciation for eastern approaches to spirituality like yoga and mindfulness or mediation.  It could be said that western Christianity is rediscovering its eastern roots.

I earned a certificate in Youth and Theology from Princeton Seminary. The spiritual formation of adolescents has been a central focus of much of my career and led me to deepen my understanding of child and adolescent development, and especially rites of passage. I developed a confirmation program and a leadership development process while actually working with hundreds of students over more than a decade. My academic engagement was fueled by specific concerns, a specific context, and specific people.

My education has not stopped since receiving my degree. My interests in the last decade have led me to explore continental philosophy more deeply, especially the religious turn in the philosophy of religion and radical theology. Most recently, I studied with the Global Center for Advanced Studies, a fledgling collection of researchers and instructors from around the world largely focusing on critical studies. The center provided the opportunity to study Radical Theology and interact directly with world renown figures in this area (John Caputo, Thomas Altizer, Peter Rollins, Creston Davis, et al). This work has been intensely practical and inspiring at the ground level of leading a church. It also provided me with an ongoing network of people with similar interests whom I draw upon regularly. All of this was accomplished online.

I also competed an 8 week mindfulness training at the University of Massachusetts designed by John Kabat-Zinn. This course was personally transformative, but has also deeply impacted how I approach “spiritual formation” in my congregation. Perhaps paradoxically, the experience built upon what I have learned from the Easter Orthodox Church.

Lastly, I would consider the small network of personal mentors I have cultivated over many years to be a form of learning “module.” Building and nurturing this group is an ongoing process requiring intention and skill. The value of such a group was impressed upon me as a young adult. I have worked diligently at cultivating a diverse group of people I admire with whom I can go to for encouragement and wisdom. In my experience, it is a skill that can be taught and one that is under appreciated.  Some of these mentors are from the world of business and have offered the equivalent of mini-MBA courses in leadership, fundraising, and organizational development.

Being “problem centered” is not effective
Brian McLaren noted that many of us in professional ministry have been trained to be problem solvers. However, what we are experiencing now is systemic change. Declining church attendance is not a problem to be solved, but a product of systemic cultural change. Systemic change requires adaptation and takes longer than typical problem solving. For perhaps the first time in history, the church is needing to answer the question, “Why do we exist?” Decades ago, Peter Drucker popularized two similar questions every organization needs to answer: “What’s our business” and “How’s business?” The first question must be answered before the second. Costco’s profit from sales does not define their business because they are not in the business of selling goods. They are in the business of selling memberships.

Those who are effectively adapting to the systemic cultural changes see opportunities. While launching a new church, we noticed many people who felt marginalized by traditional expressions of church. Consequently, we created opportunities which connected with these people. In truth, the number of things we did differently may have been outnumbered by the number of things we did not have to do because we were a new, younger church. Notably, our life together took on an increasingly liturgical, even traditional, shape. The frequency of communion increased, contemplative practices became more commonplace, and interest in rites-of-passage like baptism and confirmation were increasingly requested by those outside of the church community. What was obvious from the beginning, however, was that culture was critical.  Borrowing from Andy Crouch, culture is comprised of cultural “artifacts.” Consequently, our approach was less about solving a problem and more about creating “cultural artifacts” which reflected who we were aspiring to be (grace filled, creative, relational, intelligent, etc).  Eucharist, baptisms, and confirmation were all valued, but offered in a context which reflected the values and context of the local community.

As a way of contributing to the ongoing conversation, what I have offered here is a reflection on my own experience in ministry and my “training” in light of the recent Reimagining Theological Education gathering. My experience affirms many of the  insights and conclusions thus far and I look forward to seeing what emerges in the days ahead.

Sean Witty
Senior Minister