“I am the vine, you are the branches.” — John 15:5a
A Consultation on Ministerial Leadership on May 7-10 in Elgin, Ill., brought together some 90 people from across the country to think together about issues and questions related to ministry in the Church of the Brethren. Participants included pastors, lay leaders, district and denominational staff, and Annual Conference officers. The four major areas of discussion were “calling, training, credentialing, and sustaining” ministerial leaders.
The meeting was sponsored by the General Board’s Office of Ministry, in consultation with the Ministry Advisory Council and the Council of District Executives. Participants attended by invitation, and funding for the meeting came through designated reserves of the General Board, accumulated over about six years.
Organizers designed the consultation as preparation for an upcoming revision of the 1999 “Ministerial Leadership Paper” of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference. The consultation became a kind of “think tank” for those responsible to rewrite the paper. A revised ministerial leadership document may be ready to present for the 2009 Annual Conference.
The meeting included worship, and brief presentations from denominational staff and faculty of Bethany Theological Seminary. But the heart of the event was the discussion that took place in small groups. The gathering was invited to “conversation about what questions God wants us to be asking for this age and season of life in the church. How do we grow, sustain, value our ministerial leadership?” said Mary Jo Flory-Steury, executive director of Ministry for the General Board and one of the main organizers of the consultation.
Some of the discussions began as Bible studies, using texts such as Matthew 28:16-20 and John 15. Other discussions were introduced as theological reflections, with questions about personal experiences of ministry, signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and the naming of tensions in ministry–which ranged from the practical, “when the pastor is perceived as an employee and the church as an employer,” to the abstract, for example between worldly success and faithfulness.
“World Cafe” conversations–short, intense bursts of discussion on the four major topics of calling, training, credentialing, and sustaining–took up most of one day, with participants moving from table to table for 15 minutes at a time as new topics were posed and new questions asked. Scripture passages included Luke 1:39-41, 1 Kings 3:9-12, and John 13:3-5, among others. That afternoon, working groups continued to focus on the four major topics, and presented their conclusions in an evening session.
Throughout the consultation, discussions were recorded in a variety of ways, including on large sheets of newsprint posted on the walls of the meeting room, or laid out on the tables for writing notes and comments.
Through this active discussion process, participants came up with many ideas for changes in the way the church calls, trains, credentials, supports, and grows ministerial leadership. Just a few of the ideas were: using “discernment” rather than “search” language in pastoral placement, active mentoring for ministers, requiring ministers to have intercultural competence and attentiveness to spirituality, retraining pastors every five or ten years to meet changing societal needs, focusing on bivocational ministry, credentialing churches as well as pastors, including a new level of credentialing “below” licensing or ordination, using deacons to help call out leaders with discernment, creating a system of training that is local or regional, partnering across denominational lines to create support networks for pastors, improving models of self-care for ministers and congregations, creating a database to help churches find ministerial resources, coaching for committees that interview prospective pastors, and a calling process that includes young, old, male, female, and all races.
There were also many opportunities for participants to speak up on issues, and a variety of concerns were expressed. One thread of conversation focused on the tension between ministering for the church, as opposed to ministering in the world. Some expressed an urgent need to become missional. “If Jesus is not Lord, we can go no further,” said one person who urged ministers to “get out of the four walls” of the church and extend ministry to the community. Ministers are “appointed to go and bear fruit. It’s an assignment,” added another.
Other threads of conversation focused on relationships in ministry. Success in ministry is “defined as relationship,” one person said. A table group asked, “What if we treated each other in the congregation as if everyone was a minister? How would this affect the calling process?” Another small group asked, “What if we moved away from a focus on agreement on issues, to a focus on a vision of being radical disciples?”
Some identified the financial and physical health of the minister and of the congregation as key factors in the quality of ministry. “The impact of financial health is something that needs great attentiveness,” said one participant. “We want for the congregation a sense of wholeness and sustainability. It’s not the minister and the congregation, it’s a whole,” said another.
“You’ve made it clear that Christ is central to ministerial leadership,” said Dan Ulrich, Bethany’s associate professor of New Testament, as he summed up discussion. “We are called also to combine authority and humility,” following Christ’s example, he said.
In the Church of the Brethren, “ministry is not just for the set-apart,” observed Jonathan Shively, director of the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership, during the theological reflection. Much discussion at the meeting related to the Brethren concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” Shively observed that the group struggled to describe the relationship between the ministry of all, and that of set-apart leaders.
“We are confident that God is doing something with us in the Church of the Brethren right now,” Shively added. “But we have a lot of change and growth to undergo together.”
A closing session gave participants a chance to reflect and pray about issues raised during the week. Some took the opportunity to share personal commitments they made because of their participation in the consultation.
“My commitment to you is to take this enormous amount of material, record amount of newsprint, and compile it,” said Flory-Steury. The consultation, she said, “will make a difference.”
A photo journal from the event will be available soon at http://www.brethren.org/.