This past summer, I had the opportunity to represent Calvin Theological Seminary for an initiative called the New Faces of Ministry Tour. This nation-wide project, including 59 students from 27 seminaries and divinity schools who traveled almost 14,000 miles across 30 states and Ontario, Canada, was a journey to redefine and re-imagine the landscape of ministry.
The tour focused on redefining the public understanding of ministry by lifting up its many roles and expressions, reclaiming a commitment to young adults and the causes they care about, and rebuilding relationships with a generation searching for meaning and strength in the midst of their service to the world.
As we traveled, we connected with people and organizations that are committed to building community in various and unique contexts. From school programs to summer camps, from creative non-profits to microbreweries, from coffee shops to prisons, we wanted to hear how people were investing in their place, engaging issues imaginatively, and creating a safe and healthy community with their community.
These folks were dismantling barriers and building bridges between different people groups! They were working towards reconciliation and equality. They were developing safe places for people to connect and feel welcomed and loved.
We visited Bridge Street House of prayer, here in Grand Rapids, and learned that safe places are created through hospitality, consistency, relationship, organization, and dependence upon the presence of the Holy Spirit. We spoke with Reesheda Washington in Chicago, who is developing a series of coffee shops called “L!VE,” where all of the baristas and servers are trained life coaches, prepared for pastoral care, so that they can offer a space that serves its visitors what they need in that moment, whether it is a cup of coffee or a conversation with an empathetic listener. And these were just two sites!
We met with Sunshine Gospel Ministries, who saw the need for economic stimulation in their community on the southside of Chicago, and planted not only a church down the road but a business in their storefront location. The Greenline Coffee Shop is a missional for-profit! It brings outsiders and their cash into the community, it increases the presence of police who are simply looking for a cup of coffee, it offers wider exposure for others in the community as they showcase or advertise their work in the shop, and it has created a revival in the businesses around it!
We talked with Community enCompass, in Muskegon, and Culture is Not Optional, in Three Rivers, both of which were exploring the creative renovation of public spaces. They were taking the run down and dilapidated and transforming it into a place for people to inhabit, places that restored a sense of worth and cultivated the community’s capacity for imagination!
We shared at all of our stops the reasons we thought theological education still has relevance, why it has a place in justice, peacemaking, and community building. We also listened and learned about the ways they and their organization saw community at work, and how, as institutions of theological education, we might do the same. We wanted to learn how our schools could better prepare students to enter into the work of Kingdom building.
As I reflect upon the priceless collection of notes I have taken from my visits, I am quite humbled by the insight and reaction people were able to offer regarding seminary education. Some said, “Seminaries have become a telling business. They ought to be modeling and equipping students for lifelong listening and learning.”
Others remarked, “It’s wonderful that seminaries are teaching Greek and Hebrew and how to exegete Scripture, but when do they learn the ‘language of the street?’ When do they learn to ‘interpret the neighborhood?’”
Time and time again, people shared, “There is a need for training in praxis, for ministry at the intersection outside the church office and library.”
“These schools need to grow beyond transitional molds of leadership, for modeling and training students, of all backgrounds, for diversity and sustainability in leadership styles,” was an all too common response.
All too often I heard the prophetic lament that seminaries and divinity schools are highly academic institutions, removed from the realities of life – simply ivory towers. They have become just like the prestigious intuitions and universities whose status they wish to emulate.
So I ask – Have we made an idol out of the image and status of these academic institutions? Have we carved our face into an ivory tower – becoming a generation of schools that “have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear”?
I entirely believe that God is at work in seminaries and divinity schools, and that the work of academics has a vital role in the life of the church. But we’ve become a little too preoccupied with, or perhaps distracted by, one aspect of the learning that illumines the work. If we are genuine in our commitment to turn a new face to ministry, then this thing we call theological education, needs our holistic attention.
What would it look like for seminaries to teach students how to communicate the Gospel in the community’s tongue, customs, traditions, and art, to think with a multicultural lens, to dialogue and work well with other faith traditions, and to create safe spaces for all people?
What would it look like for seminaries to use the city and the streets as the classroom, to integrate the life and ministry experiences students bring to seminary into their learning, and to welcome those who are called to the work but have no degree or higher levels of education into formation at our schools?
What would it look like for seminaries to train students for the variety of ways ministry can be expressed, to help them discern the specifics of their call, to equip them with leadership training and discipleship, that they might go out and do the same for others?
What would it look like for seminaries to engage the economics of ministry, integrating bi-vocation, grant writing, fundraising, business management and basic financial accounting training into preparation for ministry?
What would it look like for seminaries to equip its students to think long term about their life in ministry, commitment to a community, sustainability of leadership and programs, building and maintaining healthy relationships, and avoiding burnout and isolation?
We must turn our eyes that we might see a vision of the ways we might equip those who are called. In turn, students may go forth to creatively serve those to whom they are blessed to be a blessing – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for mercy, for pure hearts and for peacemakers.
We must turn our ears that we may humbly hear what is being asked of ministers in the world. In turn, students are prepared to imaginatively respond to the cry of those who need the love and compassion and the voice of Christ, who calls us to them– the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the diseased, and the prisoner.
This is the task.
This is the work that lies ahead.
This is the prayer that is perched upon our lips.
May we indeed be observers and listeners of the ways God is moving, growing closer to God in the Divine work of redemption, training and equipping the future hands and feet of Christ to cultivate vivid Gospel-filled imaginations, even in divinity schools and seminaries, that change the world! a