Being a “Church-for-Others”
by Prof. Katie Day
In late April the campus was once again filled with the laughter and conversation of reuniting old friends and cultivating new as Spring Convocation brought graduates and others from far and wide to The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP). It is always so wonderful to see students I’ve taught, going back to 1985. (Yes, I’m a relic.) I can’t always remember names right away but the faces, even softened by time, are always recognizable. We talked about how LTSP has changed (or not), the twists and turns of life journeys, how our families are doing, and memories of those dear to us who have joined the cloud of witnesses.
Of course, we who are teachers are always eager to hear about the ministries of our former students. Did the education they received here in fact prepare them for a changing and challenging church? With the cultural shifts impacting church as well as society, we are always needing to retool our teaching and adapt our program. “New occasions teach new duties …” James Russell Lowell wrote back in 1845 in that chestnut of a hymn, Once to Every [Man] and Nation.
In many conversations with alumni last week, I heard two basic narratives when talking about their ministries. (Note: this is not a scientific sample. Do not report me to the American Sociological Society!) Whether related by recent graduates or more seasoned pastors, the general arc of the narratives was the same. The first was a narrative of frustration and went something like this: “My congregation is not at all interested in reaching out to the community. They want the ministry of the church to focus on the members only and there are fewer and fewer of them. It’s frustrating.” Some of these graduates were even seeking another call. A second general narrative sounded like this: “Things are going really well. Our church has been very involved in starting a food program (or addressing homelessness or joining a community organizing effort…) It has brought new energy to the congregation.” There were variations within these narratives, but the basic storyline was remarkably similar.
All of us need to pay attention to the “new occasions,” the new realities that will require of us “new duties” or approaches to ministry. How do we, as teachers, prepare our students adequately for leadership in insular churches? How do clergy learn how to move congregations — or move with congregations — from focusing their mission on the spiritual care and feeding of themselves to the looking outside their walls? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison that he had come to realize that the church that is not for others is no longer the church. Jesus was the One-for-others, and as the Body of Christ, how could we be otherwise? We might affirm this theologically, but how do we practically, “concretely” (a favorite word of Bonhoeffer’s), make that a living reality?
As Spring Convocation was happening, Baltimore was erupting in the wake of the death of a young African American man taken into police custody. Many faith leaders in that city were working hard to make sense of events there (You can read the thoughts of some of our Baltimore alumni elsewhere in this issue), and to work for peace and justice for an embattled neighborhood. But, to be honest, many other communities of faith and their clergy were on the sidelines, praying for peace but not wanting to get involved. My prediction is — and this is based on solid research — that those communities of faith which are engaged in the messy and challenging realities of their contexts will more likely be thriving as congregations in five years than those drawn inward and away from their community’s struggles. There is a demonstrated correlation between community outreach and congregational vitality.
This is not to say that those bystanding congregations are made up of hard-hearted, selfish people (or at least not more so than everyone else). But it takes some theological imagination, civic courage, and leadership skills to become engaged. We are trying to provide resources to leaders wanting to learn new duties required by new occasions.
This summer, LTSP is offering a number of intensive courses to help revitalize congregational ministries. All can be used for course credit or for continuing education units (CEUs). I would like to highlight two. The first is a course on “The Church and the City,” to be taught by Dr. Drick Boyd of Eastern University. Dr. Boyd has long been involved in urban ministry (American Baptist Churches) in Minnesota, Boston, and Jersey City, and is now based in West Philadelphia. Besides teaching courses in areas such as poverty, leadership, and social movements, he is also involved in faith-based community organizing in our city. For those in, or considering, city ministry, this course will expand your awareness of what is needed and what is possible in being the church-for-others.
The second course, “The Stewardship of Bricks and Mortar,” is being led by Partners for Sacred Places. This highly acclaimed national organization will focus on buildings — not only how to maintain them but, more importantly, how to make them an asset in your ministry rather than a drain on resources. They will also cover an area on which they often consult with churches, developing capital campaigns. This course could be a game-changer for stressed congregations and clergy. More specifics and registration information for these courses can be found here.
I hope you’ll consider taking a summer course. And I further hope in future Spring Convocations there are more of the second type of narrative, of congregations deeply engaged in their communities and finding that their ministries are being revitalized.