God at Work Everywhere

The future of the church – how it breaks from the past, how it stays true to its roots, how it responds to a world in pain – is much on the minds of those who will shape it, today’s seminarians. “The question is how to do creative things in ministry while maintaining the integrity of the tradition,” says Lucinda Huffaker, Director of Supervised Ministries at Yale Divinity School. She places some 60 YDS students a year in field education work, mostly in local church settings.

This year, 188 YDS students are M.Div. candidates, out of a total YDS enrollment of 395.

The world they are preparing for is frantic, wary of commitment, also pragmatic and willing to make spiritual connections, Huffaker suggests.

“There is hope in the denominations,” she says. “Students are preparing themselves to be agile, open-minded, collaborative in parish ministry. The idea is not ‘Christ versus culture’ – it’s very much Christ in the world, Christ in the marketplace. It’s God at work everywhere. Everyone has to face imagining the church of the future.”

Reflections invited several M.Div. students to remark on their future ministries. Here is a sample.

The Ground Under Our Feet

By Alissa Kretzmann

The church has been changing since the beginning. After Jesus’ death, his earliest followers were forced to grieve and respond in the profoundest of ways – their ground was literally shaking. In our time, societal shifts, violence, and inequality – the shaking earth we stand on – demand that we too respond in faith and creativity.

Crucial to congregational ministry is staying alert to what is happening on the ground around us. In a church in Milwaukee, where I worked before entering Yale Divinity School, this meant hearing our neighborhood’s need for food and using the church’s enormous space to host communal meals for those who were hungry for nutrition or friendship.

At St. Lydia’s in New York City, where I served as an intern last year, attention to the ground meant listening to the desire in the congregation and community to engage children. Now congregants at St. Lydia’s are adapting their normal worship time and structure to welcome more of God’s youngest people to the table.

These examples remind me that the places where we live, work, and minister are too beautifully diverse to be forced into a one-size-fits-all solution. But as I prepare for ministry I continually have to remind myself that the church is not a problem to be solved by religious professionals. In my best moments, I have great hope in a creative God who tends to show up in unexpected ways and sticks around even when the ground we stand on is shaking.

Alissa Kretzmann is a third-year M.Div. student, graduating in May 2016. She is a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Loving and Protecting Our Neighbors

By Pauline Samuel

To hear that nine innocent members of a church community were senselessly killed in a sacred place rocked me to my core. As the funerals were held for each victim after that heinous act at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, my heart ached. My heart ached for the families now left with a void that cannot be filled. I saw the pictures of the daughters of former Senator Clementa Pinkney at his funeral – pain, sadness, and confusion etched across their faces – and I wept for their loss.

When unspeakable tragedy occurs the question always arises, “Where was God?” What is the church called to do when violence enters its holy spaces? How does Jesus want us to respond? The church is called to mourn and share in the loss of those who grieve, to comfort and pray for them and with them. The church is also called to take a stance and to protect not only its members but the community. We are called to love our neighbors. Protecting our neighbors is part of loving them. As the body of Christ, it is our responsibility to speak out against gun violence locally and nationally. We must be visible and vocal in the fight for effective gun control. Ordained and lay alike should be involved in conversations and actions with those elected to serve in government. The church has a voice to speak not only the word of God but a word of hope and shed its light in the face of dark and hateful acts.

Pauline Samuel is a second-year M.Div. student from Brooklyn, NY, and a postulant in the Diocese of Long Island. After graduation in 2017, she hopes to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

Extraordinary People

By Kevin Farrar

I do not consider myself much of a crier or a dance aficionado, but at least one tear welled up when I saw pain splash across the en pointe dancer’s face – his arms outstretched, his wrists wrapped in red cloth – during this year’s Palm/Passion Sunday service.

Watching the crucified Jesus’ desperate gaze to heaven, then his lifeless head fall to his chest, sent a chill down my spine. In just a few minutes of dancing, a congregant somehow summarized the entire message of the service. I could not wait to show the video to friends who like dance and bring them to church so they could experience it themselves.

I regularly hear conversations about how churches are shrinking. Nevertheless, I never cease to be amazed by the number of interesting people I meet there. Professional chefs, saxophonists, entrepreneurs, accomplished academics – many of the most exceptional people I know are friends from church.

Every church I have attended is home to such people. Even so, not every church takes advantage of the special gifts in their midst. In my experience, the healthiest and most dynamic churches weave the talents of laypeople into a lively mosaic of passion and skill offered in worship, community, and service. Many churches already have people within – like this liturgical dancer – who could be empowered to bring a new faith witness to the congregation.

I hope more churches will have eyes to see spaces for such individuals. This is all it took for me to get excited about returning to church the next week.

M.Div. candidate Kevin Farrar plans to graduate in 2016. He is pursuing ordination in the ELCA.

Preparing for Rebirth

By Jessie Gutgsell

I am hopeful for the ministry ahead of me. I am hopeful because I have faith in Jesus Christ and His presence and role in our church and world. We are not alone on this journey, and we have the compelling and life-giving story of Jesus to guide us. We can’t forget that our faith in Christ should shape all that we do.

I’m hopeful for a second reason: the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me at Yale Divinity School. The faith and creativity of my classmates and teachers at YDS fill me with the assurance that the church is not dead but is preparing for a beautiful rebirth in the world. I’m filled with hope to imagine my classmates entering ministry, sharing their gifts, and inviting others around them to share theirs. Over the past two years I’ve watched my classmates share their faith through music, food, liturgy, governance, and more. Through their witness, I’ve grown to imagine a church of the future, where more and more people seek to build relationships with each other, their community, and the divine.

There are few limits when we commit ourselves fully to serving Christ with all that we are. Together, with faith in Christ and our own creative passion, we can embark on the world of ministry with abundant hope.

M.Div. candidate Jessie Gutgsell plans to graduate in 2016. She is pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church.

More Than a Social Club

By J. Michael Cobb

I know of a congregation where members have said that seeing their friends is the primary reason they attend. I’m certain they aren’t alone in this. But a congregation that isn’t looking beyond its walls to the broader community is at risk of becoming so insular that it ceases to matter to the larger world. Service to people who are not members – and who may never join a church – is one of the best gauges of a congregation’s mission.

Congregations that downplay or forget that mission are no longer healthy. A church – even one with a great music program, busy youth groups, and popular community activities – becomes nothing more than a glorified social club if it neglects its mandate of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of a congregation’s activities should feed into that fundamental reason for being.

This approach influences the core of my own call to ministry – reaching those who have been harmed by the church, or who have left the church because they were unable to reconcile a loving God with their experiences. I have met gay men who have been kicked out of their church (and out of their families) for being queer, and women who have left their church over barriers to women in leadership or over the use of scripture to control women’s bodies and freedom.

I know there are many people who have rejected the church, just as the church has rejected them. They are best served by a congregation that reaches out to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ above legalistic moralizing or ideology. My prayer is that my own ministry will help these very people to see a church that serves them and others, a church that embodies the healing love and acceptance that permeated everything that Jesus did.

M.Div. candidate J. Michael Cobb plans to graduate in 2017 and pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church.

Liturgy for an Unfolding Cosmos

By Andrew Doss

We need liturgy that better reflects a modern cosmology. As many of us see it, the church’s first 1,850 years regarded salvation as redemption from a static state of exile from the Garden. After 150 years of Darwin and further advances on the frontiers of astrophysics and metaphysics, that old framework feels obsolete.

Today we experience ourselves as members of a participatory, dynamic, and evolving universe in the process of formation, not managers of a fixed earthly plane who seek spiritual deliverance to a prior state of perfection.

Our liturgical choices ought to explore these new conditions. This is not a call to “start over” or run from our liturgical history. We should examine that history thoroughly and discover how we can give ourselves to its evolving story.

As a founder of the Worship Society of Saint Polycarp in New Orleans, a Council member of the Associated Parishes of Liturgy and Mission, and a student in the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, I’ve been surveying these liturgical questions. I’ve seen people who had previously stopped going to churches (“all we do is just read aloud the same old dead words”) become deeply moved by dynamic and vulnerable participation in paperless a cappella singing that allows space for improvisation. Young people are discovering new energies in extended, shared silence (up to 20 minutes) during worship. Across the country, old and newcomers are responding to the Eucharist re-centralized as a community meal.

These are only starting points. In the face of shrinking parish membership, let’s draw on our everexpanding historical experience and listen to the hunger of those outside the church. It might inform the way our liturgy can speak more deeply to our own hunger to participate in God’s evolving creation.

M.Div. candidate Andrew Doss plans to graduate in 2017 and pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church.