Do you see that as a growth industry?
A few years ago, on a flight back from presenting at a synod assembly, I was seated next to a venture capitalist, someone who invests essential and initial money to support start-ups, hoping in return to reap great rewards if that fledgling enterprise thrives. He told me about a variety of opportunities in which he was currently investing, describing the potential he saw in each. Then he asked me what I did. I shared that I was a teacher, a seminary professor, someone who trains leaders for the church. “Church,” he said, pausing for a moment, then asking, “Do you see that as a growth industry?”
I laughed. Out loud. I couldn’t help it. “It’s been a little while since folks have described the church as a growth industry,” I eventually answered. He nodded, turned away, and I didn’t hear from him the rest of the flight.
No, we haven’t been considered much of a growth industry in recent years. In fact, not one major Christian tradition grew in North America in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The “mainline malaise” that afflicted many of the more progressive Protestant traditions in the seventies and eighties has spread to the Evangelical and more conservative Christian traditions in the last two decades. Roman Catholicism has neither grown nor declined because of the influx of immigrants from predominantly Catholic, Latin American countries; absent those immigrants, its population would also have shrunk significantly.
No, we are not considered a growth industry. But not for lack of effort. Indeed, “clergy burnout” has been a growing concern in recent decades, the result, I believe, of giving more and more effort for what feels like ever-diminishing returns. Moreover, many church leaders with whom I’ve spoken, still mindful of the growth of the church in the fifties and sixties, wonder if they are doing something wrong. If perhaps they are simply less faithful or creative or hard working than their predecessors. Yet the leaders I’ve come to know are incredibly creative, faithful, and hardworking.
Which leads me to believe that the problem isn’t that we don’t have good leaders but that the world for which they were trained exists in fewer and fewer places. Indeed, the major shift in congregational attendance can be traced, I’d argue, to the simple fact that the larger North American culture simply doesn’t encourage congregational participation the way it once did. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that the culture is hostile to the Christian faith; rather, it is indifferent. Moreover, North American culture is terrifically busy, even rather frenetic, offering all kinds of opportunities and distractions and saturating us with countless stories beyond the Christian narrative to offer meaning and purpose.
In this kind of world — too many choices, too little time, next to no encouragement to be part of a congregation — people won’t simply go to church because their parents did. They will commit themselves only to those activities that help them make sense of and navigate their crazy-busy lives.
This might, in turn, help us name the distinct challenge facing this generation of Christian leaders. For decades — perhaps centuries — we constructed and ran our congregations as spiritual destinations for persons looking for religious sustenance. Yet the culture no longer trains people to want what we have to offer.
In this sense, many of our churches are something like concert halls, designed mainly to attract people who already love classical music and want to be inspired by a great performance. Today, however, the culture no longer has a vested interest in promoting the Christian tradition any more than it does classical music. For this reason, we might learn something from orchestras that, in order to address their struggles and loss of “market share,” are reaching beyond their concert halls to equip a new generation of people to enjoy and excel at classical music. Toward this end, they are offering their players as supplemental instructors to public schools that have cut their music instruction budgets, they are offering sessions before and after concerts to educate people about the music they are hearing, and they are giving concerts in settings well beyond their hall, no longer expecting people always to travel downtown to hear them but meeting them where they are.
To continue the metaphor, congregations might consider viewing themselves less as concert halls and more like community music schools. Music schools also offer wonderful concerts, but you typically don’t choose a school based on its concerts but rather on how well it can teach you to play.
Which raises an interesting question: What if we imagined our congregations like that — as places that help our people learn to “play their faith?” To use their faith, in other words, to help them make sense of their lives. To share their faith with others. To live their faith in word and deed because it provides the anchor for their lives. We have so many, many choices and decisions each and every day, and most of us would be grateful for a coherent center, a framework that helped us navigate these choices and make better decisions. And if today’s generation — even those raised in the church! — doesn’t find this in their Christian faith, they will look elsewhere.
Here’s the simple truth: Church decline will change when our people can a) identify why their faith and church participation matters to them and b) articulate that — share that — with others.
All of which is why we have decided that the curriculum of United Lutheran Seminary will not be a blend of the best of the two curriculums of the existing school (and there’s much in these curriculums that is wonderful!). Rather, we are starting from scratch in order to ask how we can train leaders who are not simply good performers of the faith but rather exercise their leadership to form others in the faith.
This shift from performative to formative leadership can perhaps best be seen in the criteria employed to assess competence. In a performative model of leadership, we assess how good the leader is at central elements of the Christian faith — preaching, sharing faith, praying, caring for others. In a formative model, however, we ask instead how much better the congregation becomes at these same tasks over time. Congregational leaders, from this point of view, are no longer the star athlete or solo performer but rather are more like coaches, teachers, conductors, and guides. Their job is to help everyday Christians get better at understanding their faith, use their faith in everyday life, and share their faith with others.
I will have more to say in the coming months about the new curriculum, but I wanted to start here: with our excitement to rethink how we train leaders who are responsive to a changed and changing world and who see their task, as the Apostle writes, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). We could not dare to make such a bold shift, or have the resources to do it, without your encouragement and support. Thank you and, even more, thank God for you, as you help us live into a future I believe God has already prepared for us.
On a personal note, I wanted to share with you that I recently met with the Congregation Council of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis as the candidate being recommended by their Call Committee to serve as their next senior pastor. It was a positive conversation and vote, and so I will be presented to the full congregation at a special meeting to be held on November 20. While I did not seek out this call – and truthfully am still rather surprised at how it has developed – I am delighted at the possibility of working in and with this community of faith. In many ways, it feels like it brings together a number of things I’ve worked on over the years while a teacher, and will certainly draw on the leadership experience I’ve been blessed to have at LTSP.
I wanted also to share with you that the folks at Mt. Olivet know of my commitment to the work we have been doing to bring together LTSP and LTSG in a new venture of theological education and leadership formation, and they have agreed to respect that timeline. For this reason, my start date at this point is July 1 of next year. While I have begun thinking about what next year will hold for me and my family in Minnesota, my priority during these next nine months remains to work with all of you and our colleagues at LTSG to successfully launch United Lutheran Seminary.
Thank you for your prayers and support during this time of multiple transitions, and know that you are in mine and that I regularly give thanks for the time I have been privileged to spend as a member of this community. I look forward to the work ahead as we walk together into a future God has already prepared for us.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. David J. Lose is President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia