21st Century America and Ministry – Jesus’ Social Justice Project in Action

Hey All!

I realized the other day that the next 9 months include a great number of changes. Within the next 5 months, I will be a college graduate, and in the next 9, I will enter seminary and take the next step toward fulfilling my dream of being a minister. As I said prior, I have wanted to go to seminary for the past 4 years. Before I got into seminary (thereby making my pipe dream into a reality), I would have given everything to go. That fact has not changed, but now the desperation that comes along with waiting for that life-changing decision has subsided substantially. I no longer anxiously check application deadlines and statuses, or look longingly at seminary websites, trying to photo shop my head into the crowd of current students. I know that come Fall of 2011, I will join the ranks of other Masters of Divinity students. Until then, however, I must be content with simply looking at the website for Princeton Theological Seminary and enjoying my final semester at Smith College as an undergrad.

So…Smith College…Final semester, right? I get the question frequently, “So. What are you planning to do with your Smith education?” I proudly respond, “I’m going to graduate school next year.” I’m extremely proud of what I am doing with my life, but at times, it seems evident that there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation floating around the world about what an M.Div and ministers do and mean in 21st century America. I often wonder the same thing, even though I am so sure that this is what God has planned for my life. I think the most important way to answer this question is through a personal anecdote.

This past summer, I worked for the Center for Student Missions in the San Francisco Bay Area. CSM is most commonly known for running short-term domestic urban ministry projects for church youth groups in 9 cities in the US and 1 in Canada. Their biggest mission is to connect intimately with each community through social justice and mission work done in the name of Christ. What they do most effectively is they bring the mission and Word of God to the people on the ground, rather than simply preaching from some lofty pulpit in a million dollar church. Each person that comes to work for them understands that they – for however long they are a part of the organization, whether it be for 6 days as a group, or 12 weeks as a host – are bearers of the Word, and thereby are individual ministers, shedding light into the darkest areas of America’s cities. In their weekly prayer tour, usually done on the first night or first full day of the trip, CSM’s San Francisco Bay Area office utilizes the quote from Matthew 5:14-16 that says “You are the light of the world.” Ultimately, their goal is to emphasize that as Christians, it is not our duty to remain on our high horses, seeing only that which is equal to ourselves; rather, it is our duty as Christians to care for (even show radical LOVE for) our neighbors, whether they live in a multi-million dollar home in a Manhattan suburb, or in a cardboard box outside an overextended city shelter. Ultimately, what I learned most fully (and most importantly) this past summer was not how to navigate BART effectively between Oakland’s 12th St/Civic Center station and UN Plaza in SF, but rather how to minister to each and every one of God’s creation, regardless of who they call or how they see themselves. I suppose that is a part of what ministry will be like. But I don’t know as much as the next non-minister. Despite the cloudiness that covers the land of ministry, I know that for myself, it is where God means for me to be, and that is all that matters.

I have also seen how important ministers and ministry is to people, and how they can serve as the guiding beacon for entire communities. People look to ministers in times of trouble, turmoil, frustration, heartbreak, and suffering. All this is right and good (well, no, frankly, suffering is the worst, but as humans, I suppose it is our condition no matter what we do), but I often wonder: Do people approach ministers for advice when things are happy, joyous, delightful, and prosperous? Or are “we” a commodity that simply functions because of the misfortune of others? I embrace warmly the idea that I will be able to guide people through troubling times and times of sorrow, but I would greatly rejoice in the opportunity to say, council a newlywed couple, or coach a couple with a newborn. Are those included in the job description as well? I do suppose that having the ability to affect the course of a person’s week does hold a significant amount of power and authority, and the information jammed into a 30 minute sermon can encourage and inspire those who might have felt low or hopeless. But that in itself is a tremendous burden for any one person to bear.

So. What about ministers in the 21st century? What about being an aspiring minister at Smith? What does this all mean for my life after college? After graduate school? All valid and legitimate questions, but only a few have concrete answers at the moment. I know in my heart which direction I’m supposed to head in, and I have a foggy idea of where that path will take me. But I need to remember each day to rejoice in the fact that each day, God will guide me in the right direction, and all I have to do is shut up and listen. I mean, ministry in America is a mixed bag. There are the pastors that build mega-churches and claim to please God  through the enlarging of their congregations, while completely forgetting to take a look at their most elementary actions. And then there are the ministers like the ones I grew up with, who step up in the pulpit each Sunday and lead their congregations by example, using their own actions and lifestyles as the living templates for what is pleasing to God. Obviously, this is an incredibly subjective comparison, and does not stand without its own set of objections and problems. But it seems evident to me that the two aspects – the two worlds – exist, as they exist within any calling.

Enough for now, more to come.

Liz

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One thought on “21st Century America and Ministry – Jesus’ Social Justice Project in Action”

  1. Hmm, I would not say people mainly seek out ministers in times of suffering. That is a lesser part of the job (unless you’re a hospital chaplain). I think the main part is they seek you as a spiritual/Christian leader, teacher, role model, guide to their children’s character, and partial source of inspiration and uplift–a conduit to point them toward God and help them draw near God. A source of hope on how to live well. A caretaker and counselor in some ways, a teacher and scholar in some ways, a motivational speaker in some ways, an all-around “spiritual service provider,” is a more crass way of putting it. What I love is the total variety, the window into people’s world, the way you get to be present at so many rites of passage and life stages, that are truly sacred: baptisms, confirmation, sacraments class, senior send-off, weddings, funerals, crises, celebrations, Easter, Christmas. You see the whol cycle of life. Even people who are not “religious” see you as someone who has something to say about life as it is, life as it should be, and what this “way of Jesus” has to show us. People yearn to live for something beyond themselves, and they look to ministers to point the way. It’s an awesome responsibilty, a tremendous privilege, and every once in a while–a royal pain. Because people project on to you what they want to see. And yes, even in this day and age, a woman has to work harder to get respected and taken seriously, and not just have people in the hand-shake narthex line say, “What a sweet little girl–why, you do have something to say!” [sigh]. Some weeks I get more comments about my shoes than my sermons. But I will still keep wearing colorful shoes, because it’s a part of expressing myself, and busting out of the stereotypes of boring-minister-dress-&-robe. I think ministers have to stick with a church at least 4 years before feeling a sense of belonging, respect, thick-skin, and “being themselves” in a place. So much is trial and error, and at first it seems like everyone has a better idea of what you should be doing there than YOU do! But like those famous youtube videos for GLBT teens: “IT GETS BETTER.” That’s what I want to say to seminarians, interns, and ministers in their first 1-3 years in a church. KEEP GOING. Be YOU. Follow your passions, don’t let the church consume you, but give them your best. Remember: if you’re psyched about it, and find God through something–THEY WILL TOO. They need you to be rested, energized, excited, and well-rounded. They don’t need you to be a burned-out, slave-to-the-church, over-sensitive martyr. I found this out the hard way, when I interned at a church in Nairobi, Kenya, and when I first started here. They need you to be you, to stick around, and to care about them. And dude–my friend Christy was so right: she said when you hit your 4th year, in a halfway healthy church–you start to hit your sweet spot. That’s my two cents, from a 4th year associate pastor!!!

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