Fledglings take flight: Helping churches make the shift in a new religious landscape.

By Molly T. Marshall

I have recently learned that there are eagle voyeurs in our midst. Normal people otherwise, they are absolutely fanatics when it comes to following the progress of these raptors. Through the wonders of “eagle cams,” which provide smart marketing for colleges, these watchers trace every move, from the laying of eggs, to the feeding of hungry (and mostly ugly) chicks that grow almost daily, to the day that they take flight. My friends rapturously document this journey and wonder why I am not similarly enthralled. Perhaps it is because I am watching my own nest.

A couple of days ago the Pew Research Center released a new study about the ways in which religion is being re-set in our day. Christian hegemony is waning, and the rise of the unaffiliated is palpable. The work of spiritual communities continues to matter greatly in this demographic shifting, and how seminaries prepare leaders is an urgent concern.

The churches send them to us, and the churches have high hopes about their leadership. Of course, I am talking about those completing seminary, for this is the season of their fledging. For the past three or four years (some may have tenure), these students have juggled classes, family responsibilities, and internships. They have learned that the practice of ministry is one of the most complex and demanding of professional pursuits, and that the terrain they must cover is expanding.

A new church is coming, I have been contending, and leadership must shift as the church is changing. I do not lament what is being left behind; rather I believe there is an opportunity for Christ’s body to occupy a new role in society, both more marginal and more necessary. Active Christian communities have a profound impact, and they spur involvement for the common good far beyond the walls of the church. They will do it now more as remnant than privileged legacy of civil religion.

In a recent issue of Theological Education, Nancy Ammerman writes: “Being a religious leader no longer means stepping into a ready-made community; it means building one.” Seminaries are “stewards of the mysteries” through teaching biblical and theological studies, and we propel students into the arts of ministry — preaching, pastoral care, missional engagement, and spiritual formation. Will this traditional curriculum prepare leaders to build communities? Yes and no.

The very helpful text Educating Clergy insists that seminaries prepare ministers through four signature pedagogies. These are interpretation, formation, contextualization and performance. Each has something to say about building communities.

Members of congregations surely want clear engagement of Scripture as they gather for study and worship, but they want more than information. They want a sense of how the narrative of their battered lives intersects with God’s revelation through the Bible. The “word of the Lord” is not relegated to historical reporting, but offers guidance in the present when interpreters skillfully mine its treasure. When they do, they will determine how these texts are all about building community after the image of the Triune God, where hospitality, diversity and generativity constitute holy relations.

People who attend church are longing for a connection with God, even if they do not know how to articulate this intrinsic human reality. Spiritual formation is the process of opening one’s life to the truth that seeking God is the natural arc of persons created after God’s likeness. Discovering that God is seeking us is the most transformative part of spiritual formation. Pastoral leaders must know deep in their bones God’s searching presence in order to invite others into full participation in the Body of Christ, which forms authentic community.

Another signature pedagogy is that of contextualization. Adept ministry requires the capacity to read a new context, especially as the intercultural dimensions of ecclesial life are burgeoning. Building a community out of disparate origins — the vision of Pentecost — tests the minister’s perceptiveness and willingness to learn. Hospitality may be the key virtue for this practice.

Performance is a critical competency, also. Performance entails worship leadership in proclamation, prayer and presiding at the table, and it also includes a sense of how to approach the dying, grieving and the suffering. Beyond these traditional aspects of “care of souls,” ministers also need to know how to connect with their parishioners — and beyond — by using all the methods currently in motion. As Ammerman observes: “Networking by all means possible will be as much a part of a leader’s toolkit as was the mimeograph machine of old.”

Vibrant churches are the result of ministers’ attention to interpretation, formation, contextualization and performance. Aided by the Holy Spirit, these competencies can build communities that are graceful instruments for gospel work.

As the fledglings take flight, they will encounter a different religious landscape, and they cannot soar above the constraints that challenge contemporary persons. Yet filled with God’s Spirit, they can do the transformative work of Christian ministry. And we will be watching them.

Molly Marshall is president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Shawnee, Kan.