The Changing Shape of the Church

This reflection was written by The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community. You will find reflections from previous weeks here.

Dear colleagues,

It will not surprise you to learn that if you work in theological education, you spend a lot of time thinking about ministry. What is the nature of the ministry for which theological education is preparing people? But one of my core beliefs about theological education is that we can’t think about ministry without also thinking about the church. What is the nature of the church in which the people we are preparing for ministry will serve? Our theologies of ministry and theologies of church are inter-related. This is especially important at a time of significant change in the life and structure of the church. If we think the church is moving in one direction, we will prize one set of things in our ministry preparation. If we think the church is moving in another direction, we may value something else.

I don’t claim any great insight into where the church is headed. But one thing that seems clear is that the church is moving in a direction of having fewer financial resources. For a couple of generations, the model of the church’s ministry has relied on the church having sufficient financial resources to employ educated, qualified ministers and compensate them accordingly, usually on a full-time basis. For all kinds of reasons, this model of church is now changing. The number of full-time clergy with responsibility for a single church has been on a decline that seems set to continue. This will have significant implications for our ministry, and they are never far from our mind in class and elsewhere.

This past Monday evening (February 19th), the college hosted a new kind of event online, which I’m calling Principal Meets Author. I interviewed Jeffrey MacDonald, author of Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy. Jeff is himself a part-time clergy-person who believes that churches that cannot afford full-time clergy have not failed. Indeed, they may be pointing the broader church in important new directions. I really enjoyed reading this book. Jeff thinks and writes clearly about where the church is headed and how the ministry of the church may need to adapt moving forward. If you weren’t able to make it last Monday and you’re interested in watching the interview, you can access it here.

This event also reflected another core belief of mine, namely that as we discern the changing shape of the church, it helps to read books. This is not the only thing we need to do, of course, but it’s one of them. A lot of ideas about church and ministry these days are exchanged online. Social media, blogging, and so on are all valuable and I’ve certainly benefited from all of this. But it’s also important that we allow people to develop ideas at book length and then seriously, generously, and critically engage with those ideas. It’s one way we discern where God is calling us in this season of change.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink