“Old Forms are Passing Away”: YDS Graduates Ponder the Future of Congregational Life

Yale Divinity School Alumni

Yale Divinity School graduates were front-and-center at the Spring 2009 YDS conference on the “Future of Congregational Life.” Two slates of graduates, most working in local parish ministry, served as panelists to discuss challenges facing churches, their mission in the world, and their relation to twenty-first century culture. Reflections seized the moment to submit questions and record their responses on themes ranging from the “Post-Protestant” landscape to the realities of managing a local congregation. Here is a sampling of their remarks:

On Jesus Christ and Fenway Park – Jesus crossed borders. He healed people. He challenged things. He taught in ways that were so exciting. I propose that church needs to be a place that is truly exciting, where people are connecting with things that matter deeply. I would propose, coming from Boston, that church can and ought to be as riveting, as enthralling, as compelling – in its own way! – as is Fenway Park when the Sox are in town. We experience a palpable sense of community. We lean into it when the preacher comes up to preach. We expect that person to break that thing open, that Word – to open it right up – in a way that helps us to see and feel God’s presence. I think some excitement, as well as elegance, beauty, and contemplation, is what’s wanted.

the Rev. Nancy Taylor ’81 M.Div., minister, Old South Church, Boston, MA

On opening 10,000 doors – A single voice in the sanctuary shouted, “10,000 …” and the crowd responded ” … doors!” Then the voice called out, “Rethink …” and the crowd replied with a hearty “… church!”

Gathering inside a Manhattan church, about 100 United Methodist volunteers then boarded buses and headed out into the various corners of New York City to do random acts of kindness while promoting the United Methodist Church’s new media campaign, “Rethink Church.” (www.10thousanddoors. org.) The campaign emphasizes the thousands of ways, or doors, people can enter into our churches and ministries.

At our church, the evening service is carefully and prayerfully planned with the understanding that people come to worship in order to serve and praise God, grow in faith, be healed and forgiven, and be in community with one another. Though the service is contemporary in some ways (praise band, PowerPoint), it has a fairly traditional order of worship, and Holy Communion is served every week. Those who gather for worship with us come from diverse backgrounds, faith and life experiences. Many live and share their faith through the congregation’s social justice and outreach ministries: mission trips, disaster relief trips, lunch programs, Habitat for Humanity, and beyond.

Yes, mainline church identity and practice need renewal if they are to survive! Nevertheless, we do not need to scrap everything our long history has given us and completely start over. Rather, we need to revive, enliven, celebrate and awaken both ancient and new practices within the church. The United Methodist Church is already encouraging its people to think outside the box.

– the Rev. Jessica Anschutz ’07 M.Div., associate pastor, Park Avenue United Methodist Church, New York, NY

On remedial religion – (Catholic) students arrive at Yale very advanced intellectually, and we know that their acumen in philosophy and languages and physics will grow exponentially.

But they typically also arrive stalled at an eighth grade level of catechesis. If they don’t develop an adult vocabulary of faith, then they will not engage in discourse in religious matters. If they think they appear ignorant about their faith tradition or matters of faith generally, they won’t engage in discourse about matters of faith. This needs to change. Campus ministries, local parishes, parents – anyone who is invested in a vibrant welcoming church community has a role to play.

– Kerry Robinson ’94 M.A.R., executive director, National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management

On spiritual identity and zombie attacks – There’s been a curious trend on Facebook over the past few months – the enormous explosion of identity quizzes. My friends and I have been taking all sorts of tests claiming to help us understand our- selves better. For example, I now understand the country I should live in (France), the color of my personality (orange), the decade I belong in (the “revolutionary 40s”) and how effective I would be in case of a zombie attack (very).

I’m very curious about this trend because I think it shows we don’t want to be “people,” we want to be ourselves, our very own personal selves – authentically so. We don’t want to be molded into a structure that doesn’t reflect or involve us. We want things to be different because we’re there. The quizzes show me that some of us need some help figuring out just who we are, and, because life is the way it is, the “who we are” right now is not necessarily the same as who we’ll become in a few years. The church is eminently relevant to this search.

I believe the church can have an integral role in the development of the self, but also of the self in the covenantal relation to others. I believe the church should always adapt and change and grow with each person; in other words, to a certain degree, when a person becomes part of a church community, that church should never quite be the same as it was. And as change happens to the church, I should change, too. I want church to help me to be me, to help me to figure out what that means as a child of God, and to help me to figure out what that means as a citizen of God’s green earth with neighbors all about. I want church to help me to understand what it is to be loved, to feel loved, and to love. I want church to help me to recognize God around me and others, to see God at work in and through me, to assure me of my place in God’s grace.

And, were zombies to attack, I would want church to know what to do with those of us who would be effective in such a time.

– the Rev. Kaji Spellman ’06 M.Div., associate pastor, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, New York, NY

On congregations and the kids – Long before I arrived at St. John’s, the parish decided to implement programs to keep our youth involved. We plan annual retreats for the kids, regular outreach ministries and weekly Sunday school classes. More than 50 volunteers are dedicated to helping young people learn the life of faith, the lan- guage of faith. The adults are comfortable talking about what they believe about Jesus. That integrity is obvious to the youth. When it isn’t, the kids pick up on that right away.

– the Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak ’85 M.Div., rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church. Ellicott City, MD

On Christian light and lite – We in the mainline have suspicions about megachurches, of course. Most of these churches set out to be intentionally non-denominational; they wanted to be different from us.

But I’ve been fascinated with them for a long time. They do something right. They are earnest about meeting people’s hunger for God. They’re not afraid to try corporate business models to figure out how to lead churches. Those models work in some contexts. They’re what people understand.

We find these churches kind of threatening because that stuff can look slick and because they so often seem aligned with a particular political stance that doesn’t favor peacemaking or justice.

We suspect they are successful because they don’t challenge values of the culture at large. We see them as Christianity lite.

But I wish we’d feel a little less threatened. I love my tradition, but it comes with a lot of baggage. Not all that baggage is essential for proclaiming the gospel with sound theology. Some non-denominational megachurches understand that.

We can align our justice work with prayer and Scripture and also meet people so that the gospel truth really grabs them as individuals. We’re jealous of large churches, but a church doesn’t need to be big to be holy. Pastors (and denominations) too often measure success in numbers.

– the Rev. Sarah S. Scherschligt ’04 M.Div., associate pastor, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Gaithersburg, MD

On the competition of 500 channels – Several years ago a minister said to me, “There’s a lot of good TV out there now” – that is, there are a lot of other non-church options people have. I’m very aware that people spend more time in the gym each week than in the pews. But in my experience, when people find something that lights their pas- sion, they connect with church. By itself, worship attendance doesn’t necessarily keep people connected to the life of the parish anymore. Instead, it might be going on a medical mission trip to Jamaica or helping an inner-city school in Baltimore. Those are two ministries we sponsor. When people see they have made a difference in the lives of others, then they want to share that experience and help others make a difference too.

– the Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak

On spiritual maturity – Take spiritual formation seriously.

Develop spiritual discipline and health – mental, physical, moral. Without introspection and reflection you can do real damage.

Don’t be shy about being creative and innovative.

Don’t be afraid.

Too many talented people end up applying to a church where the description is narrower than their passion and they become misfitted and frustrated. There might not be a template for what you feel called to do.

You may have to actually create it and market it to an employer – church, corporate America, or a community organization.

– the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray ’88 M.Div., executive director/minister, District of Columbia Baptist Convention, Washington, DC

On quantity vs. quality – My own parish – like many parishes – is situated in an instant-gratification, consumer-driven culture, and the church is often viewed as a purveyor of goods and services. People can and do have a very proprietary attitude toward their church. The great benefit of working in a larger, programmatically driven corporate parish is that there is always great enthusiasm built around many things. The down side is that we can become overly concerned with quantitative measures – number of people in the pews, numbers of dollars raised – rather than qualitative measures. But are any of these measures a good indication of how the needs of our congregation are being met?

What has not changed is the deep or even desperate desire to have a real sense of belonging through relationships, with God and with other people.

– the Rev. Rob Leacock ’05 M.Div., associate for liturgy and worship, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Dallas, TX

On Catholic identities – What I’ve seen in the college student population are three general groups. The first is a small group of people who seek greater engagement with Catholic social teaching out of a concern for justice, inclu- sion, and care of the poor. These students seem to find the church hierarchy out of touch and prefer a more community-based view of church.

They worship alongside a second group, which relishes church tradition, loves the identity that tra- ditional piety seems to provide, and prizes orthodoxy. This neo-conservative movement is growing in appeal to young adults, many of whom in post-9/11 America desire structure, certainty, and something they can look to for clear answers. (See the book Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in their 20s and 30s by Mike Hayes.)

The third group, in my estimation the largest on our campus among the churchgoing Catholics, frankly doesn’t want much from the church – or rather, doesn’t expect much. They attend Mass with fair regularity on Sundays and would certainly identify themselves as Catholic, but there is a question about how much the spirituality of our faith permeates the rest of their lives. They feel “good” when they attend Mass (usually because of the presence of their peers), but church teachings appear either inconvenient or out-of-touch, so there is a limit to how much the students embrace the faith tradition. They still experience a level of spiritual thirst, but they question how well the Catholic Church can meet that desire. Yet they have limited ambition to try to find it.

– Angela Batie ’07 M.Div., campus minister, St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO

On the “Post-Protestant,” post-whatever era – Personally, I don’t look back to the age of Christendom with longing. In the age of Christendom, I couldn’t have served the churches I have served thus far, because de jure or de facto segregation would’ve kept me, a black woman, out of these historically white churches with historically male pulpits. So the only personal meaning these labels evoke is that they are of an era I’m grateful to experience in history books rather than in my own life.

As Protestants, I wonder what we now are and should be protesting. I think the church (Protestant or not) does well not to take itself for granted. I like moving away from assuming that people will just show up because that was what people did once upon a time (as I’m told). At the same time, I see the church’s role as rightly ordering the place of the self. And this refashioning of the self is, of course, countercultural. So, what a blessing that this is a post-whatever era!

– the Rev. Kaji Spellman

On Twitter theology – We’re just starting to develop a technology plan at our church. How should we use technology? How much of it? How to do the newsletter? Should we blog? If a church wants to be a sanctuary from a world of too much technology, then don’t put a flat- screen TV in the narthex. There’s no one right plan. But don’t just pooh-pooh technology because you don’t know how to use it.

These are things to think about; we might well be in a “Gutenberg moment.”Denominations need to be quicker about understanding the technical options – YouTube, Twitter, DVDs. But we must not lose our identity or just strive to be the next big thing and lose the Bible. You can’t put the Bible into 140 Twitter characters. To me, our identity still means being a community marked by forgiveness and self- sacrifice in working for justice. It means not just ensuring our survival for the sake of the gospel but risking survival for the sake of the gospel.

the Rev. Sarah S. Scherschligt


On institutional relevance – Is the institutional church relevant anymore? I would argue that it is, on the basis that the institution of the church has never been as institutional as we have made it out to be. When has the church ever been of one mind about ecclesiology, church governance, the role or authority of Scripture, the nature of the sacraments?

Even belonging to an institutional church, I do not believe that I am called to uphold its institutionalism above all else. When we pray for the church throughout the world, “that we all may be one,” it is not an institutional intercession. The reason institutions, be they churches or divinity schools, are imperfect is not necessarily because they are institutions per se. Rather, they are imperfect because they are full of wretched sinners, of which I am one!

– the Rev. Rob Leacock

On post-denominationalism – Too often we are obsessed with altering our ministry to fit the culture. Although the church must seek ways to remain relevant we should not stray from what Christ has intended the church to be. I think these “post-denominational” labels are misleading; we are just living in a time where Christianity is in decline but it is nowhere becoming extinct. We just happen to live in a day where people are not overly concerned about which denomination they are worshipping with – as long as there is a connection between the message (both verbal and non-verbal) and the hearer.

– the Rev. Jason Turner ’06, M.Div., pastor, Community Baptist Church, New Haven, CT

On the audacity of change – By clinging to ill-defined notions of tradition (notions of “Well, this is how we’ve always done it, so we’re not changing!”), and by resisting the refreshment and re-interpretation of our Christian faith, the churches are hurting themselves. We’re driving our own decline. We’re giving past or potential church- goers every reason to seek their connection to God outside our denominational folds because we are not meeting them where they are. We’re not finding ways to meet people’s spiritual needs with both integrity and innovation. However unintentionally (and it is clearly unintentional, for no church seeks its own irrelevance or demise), we are forsaking Christ’s own commandment to spread the Good News to the nations.

As Christians, we have a sacred story to tell. But we do not – and we cannot – tell that story when we eschew any and all change, when we value our own comfort over attending to the discomfort of others, and when we seek a fixedness of tradition and of spiritual experience that dampens our ability to channel God’s love and to meet people where they are.

– the Rev. Jeff Braun ’04, M.Div. senior minister, First Congregational Church (UCC), Cheshire, CT

On rejecting business-as-usual – I initially approached pastoring as though I were an executive director and lecturer-in-chief of a business operation called “church.” I believed religiously that if only I preached theologically correct sermons and organized the people around a compelling business model with enough chores we could fix both the church and surrounding neighborhood in a three- to-five year jaunt.

I discovered that local churches don’t easily lend themselves to the principles of business manage- ment, despite sincere intentions and high-sounding mission and vision statements. People don’t always report to church with the sense of duty and consistency that they might carry to a secular job.

In addition to leading a healthy physical, spiritual, emotional, and moral life, I now seek to:

Form long-term relationships with individuals as a spiritual companion or mentor.

Journey with others as they discern the meaning and demands of call in their lives.

Lead congregations to become communities wherein individuals and small groups respond creatively to God’s call.

Impress upon my own children and others the meaning of Christian discipleship, call, and service to others.

– the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray

On mainline rejuvenation … and jello – My denomination, the ELCA, developed a handbook to help people understand the practices of faith. In it, they included a section on church potlucks that included something about jello salad. That’s funny and relevant to Lutherans in the Upper Midwest. To those who didn’t grow up on green jello and cool whip, that means nothing. Much of what we think of as Lutheran is actually German or Norwegian. Culturally bound (and increasingly archaic) signifiers of denominations need to change. For us it also means challenging things like our music: can you be Lutheran and never have heard Bach? Of course you can – check out the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia.

Renewal means understanding new challenges to a traditional arc of faith. Yes, for some, truth is obviously faith in Jesus, but for many others, “My best friend is Jewish; my grandma doesn’t believe in God; my parents don’t like our church; I’m living with my girlfriend; I’m gay, etc …” These are too huge to ignore. Renewal means engaging the priority of authenticity and experience that young people use to test their faith. It means understanding that mobility and transience affect communities deeply and change what people are looking for in a church. Context, context, context.

– the Rev. Sarah S. Scherschligt

On the religion of daily reality – At YDS, my greatest concerns were intellectual and theoretical. My imagination was ignited by theological questions and my energy absorbed by topics like church structure, justice, liberation, and all manner of enlivening subjects. I have since found, though, that most students are only mildly concerned with such questions when they come to me. Their questions are rarely, “How does the language we use in liturgy shape our understanding of community?” but far more often, “How long until my broken heart stops hurting so much?” or “How will I know what I’m supposed to be when I graduate?” Though exploration into the deeper theological questions in- forms my ministry and is vital for my own spiritual growth, it is much less explicit in my day-to-day work than I expected.

– Angela Batie

Advice to future church leaders – Get enough sleep and be sharp about your prayers. Leadership in the church is difficult. You need to develop a healthy set of calluses in order to be effective. I used to think that sincerity would get the job done, but sincerity and four bucks will get you a latte at Starbucks. Personal care and spiritual discipline are essential to your survival as a pastor. Finally, trust takes time. It takes a while for a congregation and a pastor to bond. It is a powerful thing, though, when a congregation and a pastor begin to trust each other enough to tell each other the truth.

– the Rev. Scott Black Johnston ’89 M.Div., senior minister, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY

On getting things done right – There’s a cultural shift going on: more and more in parish life, I find appreciation for the idea that excellence across the board is a key to parish vitality. It is no longer acceptable to excel only at pastoral leadership. There is an expectation to excel in the church’s temporal affairs too – a zeal for excellence in communications, managerial, financial and personnel endeavors that go hand-in-hand with leading a local parish. Seminaries don’t teach best practices in management and financial accountability. I wish they did. But no church leader can ignore this cultural shift any longer. In the meantime, we need to look to laity who have these competencies, and prevail upon their baptismal call to enlist those talents in service to the faith community to which they belong.

– Kerry Robinson

On vocation and gratitude – Discern and celebrate your gifts. Then apply them, humbly. Discern and celebrate the gifts of the congregation, then cultivate them with sincerity. Assess the growth edges and opportunities alike, then bring the full suite of resources, both within and outside the congregation, to bear. Seek every chance to partner and to ally, within and outside the parish walls and hallways. Don’t forget to pray. Don’t forget that if you ignore yourself and/or your family (who are your FIRST congregation), then everything you do at church can so quickly be hollowed.

And never forget, not ever, to give thanks for the blessed, mysterious chance to be called to lead – and to be led by – a portion of Christ’s body of believers. There is no more rewarding, no more essential, and no more critical a vocation or calling than this.

– the Rev. Jeff Braun

On seizing the moment – This is too good a crisis to waste. People are open. Too many are living lives that are shallow and flat. If we are doing our job well – if we are, indeed, helping to bring people into the very presence of God – we are bringing them deep things, placing their lives in the context of eternity. We are at an evolutionary moment in the life of the Christian church in America. I believe we have a message the culture isn’t hearing. We have something amazing that too many people are missing out on. If only they knew!

– the Rev. Nancy Taylor