Monday, September 03, 2012

Mere Orthodoxy--Jeremy Mann proposes three reasons why fewer people see pastoral work and fewer may be great at it

Jeremy Mann proposes that we're at a problem point in America because there are more seminaries but enrollment has stalled or declined and fewer people enrolling in seminary plan to do pastoral work.  Mann proposes that there are problems of numbers and a further problem of the quality of people who enter seminary study.  Fewer people are interested and those that are are not necessarily the best and brightest, though it's hard to assess how to know who the best and brightest in a field would be.  At a practical level that may be moot.  Man suggests there are three reasons fewer consider themselves called and those that consider themselves called are not, charitably speaking, quite at the level of earlier epochs.

Now for those who view seminaries as places to bury the dead none of this will matter.  But these reasons intrigue me because they overlap in some ways with those who consider institutions and organized religion to be problematic.  There may be some real overlap here.  If these days in America Christianity the people who are considered truly called are of a self-nominating variety with experience-tales to back up this doesn't fit a broader history of the Church.  It's true that in some cases the called get trained but Paul was a rabbi before his conversion experience and so in his case he was arguably trained BEFORE he was called.

There's a sense in which pastoral work is like a career in politics, while it may be admirable to want to serve the body of Christ there's another sense in which those who most want the job in whatever fashion may be those who least need that level of influence.  Those who by vocation are truly called into that work may persist in doing that work in some fashion whether they realize it or not and whether or not they are always formally stamped with approval.  But I digress.  Here's a length extract with a few spots highlighted that caught my eye.

I see three reasons this is happening:

A Deficient View of Calling: If you ask bright young evangelicals why they aren’t going into church leadership, they will probably tell you they have not been called. Probe a little deeper and you’ll find “calling” is understood almost exclusively in terms of a personal feeling or inward sense of commission.  This is not how the church through history has understood calling, especially calling into ministry. Instead, ministry calling would have been largely discerned in community, particularly with the thoughtful, proactive guidance of elders and pastors. A desire for the work was important, but wouldn’t have been the most significant factor, and definitely not a required precondition for consideration. [emphasis added]

Our contemporary conception is hurting us. When young men do not expect guidance and old men do not regularly (and in unique prompting by the Spirit) seek them out mentorship into ministry will not happen. The current norm is to first wait for volunteers, and then mentor those who bring themselves forward. As a result many spiritually-sensitive young men, who are most leery of pride or self-promotion, don’t end up in ministry. [emphasis added]

Strong Alternatives: The decision to pursue vocational ministry has never been made in a vacuum, but in our era the viable alternatives are more attractive than ever. [emphasis added] More than any other period in recent history, talented, well-educated young people (the leadership quartile) are able to secure positions that at least feel significant, pay well, offer partnership with gifted like-minded friends, and lots of opportunities for development, all with little risk. And while it’s no secret that consulting, tech, and finance dominate, there are now many superfast tracks (Teach For America, where I spent four years, has in many ways a similar payoff). Furthermore, in contrast to vocational ministry, these other paths employ aggressive and skillful recruiters. They start guiding college students in their sophomore year to ensure strong applications and established trust two years later. They connect students with older mentors in the field, and offer internships, fellowships, and flexible deferment options.

One more factor to note on this front: the vitality of many Christian colleges poses another challenge to encouraging vocational ministry. Ministry used to be an attractive option for bookish types, given the opportunity it gave for further study. But now instead of assuming ministry with the off-chance of full-time scholarship, the leadership quartile’s thinkers assume scholarship with the chance of ministry or, better, some sort of broader public influence. Why is this? First, the specialization of the academy sidelines pastoral scholarship. Second, many Christian college professors are viewed by their students as some of the first adults that “get it.” It’s difficult to describe, but very common. After growing up in a diluted, trivializing youth ministry, the excitement of awakening to the life of mind in college makes lots of people want to stay forever (see the huge glut of underemployed Christianity-related PhDs, perhaps even worse than the secular glut.)

Inaccessible/Weak Church Leadership: Suppose one key factor for recruiting and training future leaders is close contact with strong examples. There are then two ways this can fail to happen. In the many churches, the pastor is not a strong example. He might serve the congregation faithfully, but he does not attract apprentices. On the other side, most large churches do not foster close contact with pastors (except in some cases for those who already volunteer, see above). [emphasis added] Beyond basic mentoring, however, there’s the tendency in large toward lower rates of service in the church. This means fewer people are joining in the work of the church; there’s less close contact with ministry itself. This means confirmation of gifts or awakening of interest are less likely to happen.

There is a lot more to say on this topic. I haven’t addressed the trend away from seminaries toward church-based training (which while encouraging, is both not enough and introduces some new problems). I haven’t talked about the enormous inequality of church leadership and accessibility to training between high-income area churches and low. I also haven’t defended my assumption that churches and their leaders have a significant responsibility in raising up new leaders. I’m hoping this post prompts a larger conversation, where some of these finer points can be developed. Consider this my opening statement.

“…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…” Ephesians 3:9-10

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