Ok, I’m quite sure there’s plenty of conversation to be had in lots of directions about this, but here are a few thoughts under the heading: “What would it look like to appoint pastors with a missiological approach?”
First, let’s agree that one central goal of establishing churches in the “mission field,” that contributes to the long-term health, and therefore missional faithfulness, of a congregation is to transition to indigenous leadership as early as is healthy to do so. If we can agree on that, we’re at a good starting point for some of my thoughts, as what I’m mulling over begins with that assumption.
Second, let’s consider that, anecdotally at least, and perhaps in studies (I’ve heard them referenced, but haven’t tracked it down to quote here), many or most of our present incoming clergy (in the UMC, perhaps others as well?) are from metropolitan and suburban congregation backgrounds. But the career path of most clergy includes, if not begins, in small towns and rural areas, or even in moderate-sized towns, but not in places like the suburban and metropolitan areas from which they came. In this scenario (played out many times over), the assumptions about and picture of ministry in the church differs significantly from one’s background to the place one is sent to lead.
Now, on the one hand, we can talk about the need to equip our metropolitan and suburban new clergy for ministry in many, many of our churches that are far from the culture of metropolitan and suburban life. Perhaps (anecdotal experience backs this up) we look down upon the person who is ill-equipped for a smaller town church experience that the present career path assumptions to them to because their ideals were poorly paired with a set of different realities in the smaller city. This seems to me to be the tack we as a denomination (at least those who have thought about and spoken to this dynamic).
But there is another angle to this issue. Two thoughts come to mind.
1. If we are working from the first assumption and applying it to North American Christianity–assuming a missological approach that does not take for granted cookie-cutter Christendom churches, then we might acknowledge that indigenous leadership of congregations is arguably not happening when “city folk” are sent to smaller-to-medium towns, and vice-versa. Now, it is important to acknowledge up front that sometimes persons discover affinities for places that are unlike that in which they grew up. That said, affinity for place is closely related to being “indigenous” in my view.
2. If it is, in fact, true that we currently have few persons entering the clergy from churches serving rural and smaller-to-medium sized towns, then we would be wise to ask ourselves, “What is it about our denomination, that we find this dynamic to be the case?” I assume here the addage that an organization is designed to get the results it is getting. While both of these two thoughts are germane to our present situation in American Protestantism in general and the UMC in particular, this one is the more disturbing in my view.
So, we appoint numbers of persons with an affinity for metropolitan, suburb, and ex-urb areas to rural and smaller-to-medium town areas, presumably for two reasons. One, fewer of the former congregations that the number of persons with an affinity toward that sort of place. And two, the economics relative to career path trajectories typically works in that direction as well.
Another thought to consider is the increasing value on longer tenures would seem to suggest that matching persons with a natural affinity to the place they are sent to lead would contribute strongly to that desired end. But back to my main point in this post.
Might we live into our future in a stronger place if we worked toward this missiological concept of raising up indigenous leadership for our churches in the clergy ranks? One element of this would include solving the riddle concerning the relative lack of persons in rural and smaller town areas responding to a call to ordained ministry. Is a “culture of the call” lacking in these places? Is there something about our denomination’s organizational culture that works against this? A second element of this would involve a commitment to creative thinking about opportunities for ministry that we are not seizing because we are sending persons with a metro/suburb affinity away. What if they were invested in the place of greatest affinity? We are a shrinking denomination, so surely there are opportunities we would do well to seize in the metro/suburb context?
Answering a few potential objections:
1. “You say this because you have an affinity for metro/suburb places. This is really pretty self-serving.” Suppose that’s true. So what? Is my thinking off base? Do I have a point or not?
2. “You’re putting down the rural/smaller-town church.” I’m not taking sides. I’m looking at the direction things are going in the present reality. If it went the opposite direction, that the lion’s share of our new clergy leadership were coming from smaller and medium towns, thus producing a situation in which clergy leaders of our metro/suburb churches were persons with strong affinity elsewhere, the point to be made would be the exact same.
3. “I’ve got a story about how I didn’t want to go somewhere, but the bishop/cabinet sent us and we discovered we loved it.” That’s great. I acknowledged that sometimes we do discover affinities for places we didn’t expect to. How many anecdotes do you have about persons who lack that experience? The anecdotal evidence is valuable, but I don’t think it adequately answers the problems that we see these days in the church. Seems to me that we face a balancing act here. On the one hand, we never underestimate the possibility and power of that sort of blessing. It is wonderful and quite worthy of celebration. On the other hand, we do not succumb to old thinking that says, “All we need to do is whip the people doing it now into shape and have them try harder and things will turn around/work out/improve.” Realistic thinking says, “We don’t need to try the present, ineffective methods harder. We need new, creative methods that are true to the substance of the faith and mission of the Church.”
Help me out with this. Thoughts?