There’s been a lot of blogging in our little Church of Christ corner of the world about staying and leaving. My friend, Sean Palmer, wrote out of his experience about why some Church of Christ ministers are leaving. I think his observations are largely on the mark, and most of the things he identifies are and have been sources of frustration for me as well.
In thinking about this a little more, I’ve decided that the reasons people leave are actually a sign of our vitality. I know that sounds crazy and maybe I’m wrong, but let me explain.
In Churches of Christ, we have always valued critical thinking. While other traditions were resisting modernity by establishing Bible Colleges, Churches of Christ were establishing liberal arts universities. And by making that choice, we were avoiding the impulse to put a certain vision of the Bible like a lid on top of all other areas of learning. Now, places like Harding and ACU and Pepperdine and Lipscomb, et al, were hardly bastions of liberal learning. We wouldn’t confuse any of them with Cal-Berkley or Harvard or the University of Chicago. But our professors of physics and literature and psychology were encouraged to prepare themselves in the best way possible, and that meant the best schools you could get into.
The same was true in biblical studies. Our profs didn’t go to places like Trinity or Westminster or SWBS, but places like Harvard and Cambridge and Emory and Vanderbilt. As a result, our graduate schools (seminaries) have always been staffed with people who have been trained to take a critical approach to biblical studies, theology, etc. Our School of Theology and Ministry faculty meeting at Rochester College this morning was represented by Princeton, Emory, Vanderbilt, Luther Seminary, Marquette, and Baylor. Our schools of ministry preparation have modeled less the desire to tell us what to think, than how to think. Because of this, our seminaries are often more progressive than the rank and file in the pews.
Add to this dynamic the fact that we have been a non-creedal tradition. We have no agreed upon confessional framework under which we do our work. As a result, we often pick up various theological instincts based on the influences received in doctoral studies. When I taught in the Graduate School of Theology at ACU, we had pretty impressive theological diversity. Some of us were more Reformed, some more anabaptist, some more Orthodox, some more Catholic in our theological commitments. All of us were Church of Christ by practice.
My subsequent time at Luther Seminary was startling in some ways. Though the faculty was ecumenical, the Lutheran confessional tradition was very pronounced. I felt less theological elbow room there than I did at ACU.
So, our ministers are trained in what I consider a very generative environment. It’s open and thoughtful and committed to following wherever the discussion leads. As a result, I recognize in a lot of our young ministers a desire to make it on earth as it is in seminary. They can’t understand why our congregations aren’t ready to embrace Advent or a broader worship heritage or aspects of classic spirituality or a greater inclusion of women in ministry.
I recognize this in others because I felt, and sometimes still feel, the same way. I couldn’t understand why the congregation I served wasn’t eager to trade in their shabby and worn-out theology for my updated, shinier version. As a result, I often treated the congregation as my enemy. They wouldn’t do what I wanted them to! I felt bitter and under-appreciated and stifled and frustrated.
But here’s the thing. It was precisely the vitality of our tradition that made me feel this way. I was given gifts that pressed against the known limits of our tradition. What I was not given was a strategy for re-entry into congregations that was both hopeful and peace producing.
So, part of the reason I stay is also because I have found our tradition a deep commitment to inquiry. And this commitment will inevitably lead some to leave and some to stay, and both are actually a sign of our vitality.
Wow, those are insightful and helpful observations!
Thanks for sharing.
Hadn’t thought of it in this light. Folks leaving is often a sign of a sinking ship. I like your take on it.
“What I was not given was a strategy for re-entry into congregations that was both hopeful and peace producing.”
This is so true. I do think I was fairly warned about the difficulty though. Over the years, I have developed my own strategy–partly out of the desire to survive, but mostly because it is what seems to work.
I always assumed that my theological education would be in service of the church. But when my education forced me to question everything from my political inclinations to my view of Scripture to my view on current hot button issues like the role of women and the homosexuality, it was rather shocking to re-enter churches that were still very much like the ones that I grew up in. It is so tempting to try and “fix” congregations the way we suspect we were “fixed.” Like you said, at ACU, we were exposed to a wide variety of perspectives and we as students also formed widely diverging theological perspectives. Many of them are ministering outside of the Churches of Christ now or have dropped out altogether. No matter who they are, I can usually resonate with their reasoning and I don’t fault them at all. I appreciate your perspective–that it is a sign of our vitality. That is a generous way of looking at those that leave as well as the tradition they are leaving and I doubt I am the only one that needs help coming to a perspective like that.
Personally, I get why people leave. I resonate with your reasons for staying though more. And I try not to forget the churches in which my desire for ministry was formed. I still want my education and experience to be of service to them–my people. Trying to force feed “Advent or a broader worship heritage or aspects of classic spirituality or a greater inclusion of women in ministry” or anything else to which we were exposed doesn’t work just because it resonated with us. But it does give us a bigger and more robust set of tools to address the real problems that arise in our congregations. While I might like to tinker with any number of aspects of our congregation in order to form it more into my own image, my education only serves the church if I use it to help them think theologically and to act prayerfully when they are faced with problems whether they are areas of congregation-specific conflict or symptoms of our day and time. In addition (and this may be the most important), I am far better equipped to help the individual Christians that have been let down by the system we have inherited. People often go through epistemological crises that are rooted in issues that the rest of the congregation is either clueless about or does not see as an issue that needs addressing. To be able to talk to those members thoughtfully about what they are going through, to reassure them that they are not as alone as they assume, and to point them toward resources that can help them manage their personal crises without giving up on God or the church are all skills that I never could have developed without the kind of education I received. I think a lot of ministers get too frustrated about their inability to move the masses with their sermons or Bible classes and miss too many opportunities to walk with the very people who need what only they can offer them. We get so bogged down in whether or not we are making an impact on the practices of the church that we forget to disciple and minister to the people that we fear our current practices and attitudes are hurting.
Amen. That is all.
I hope some day that Wineskins archives will be back online so we can all look back at the perspectives expressed in the “Why I Leave / Why I Stay” edition.
As someone who studied at a Restoration Movement liberal arts college but is now living in the shadow of a Restoration Movement Bible College, I find the difference between the two can’t be overstated – both in the type of education provided and the kind of character that education creates. While some institutions of our movement reflect this wide and generous sense of Christian orthodoxy and an openness to critical scholarship and inquiry, it is certainly not what characterizes all of them.
Lord have mercy on us all.
Mark, I’ve been reading your last few blogs since some of my friends are linking them on facebook. You’ve shared some really excellent stuff that has been worthwhile reading.
I feel compelled to comment here because I’m a 28-year-old pastor with a Bible degree from LCU serving now in a nondenominational church in OR (I believe we swapped homelands, eh?)
I don’t know if I have anything to say that will be very novel, but in my own case I’ve had people look at me and say I “left the Church of Christ”, and I always shook my head at them as I tried to even piece together how to respond to this idea I found so misbegotten. I mean, this was the church that baptized me not into the CoC but into the Holy Spirit. The church that taught me to seek truth not through the CoC, but through the Scriptures that it so rightly revered. Then the CoC seemed quite flustered that following the Holy Spirit and the Bible are what carried me out the door.
That heritage did so many things right in my youth, and played the critical role in my knowing Jesus as a young man. But once the church had worked to arm me for the battle, it seemed like they weren’t interested in going with me to the front lines where justice meant living sacrificially beneath my means, and where all the wounded need a medic, not just the ones that will exclusively sing a-capella worship. And it didn’t take me that long to figure out that there were other churches out there equally concerned with realizing the Kingdom of Heaven, but their process didn’t involve the constant embattlement of what my brothers and I now refer to as “The Issues.”
In the end though the lost of young leaders has been a blow to the image of the CoC, but not to its mission. The mission was always the Gospel, and for better or worse, most of us “non-com missionaries” who have walked out the Church of Christ’s door took that with us.
Kory, thanks for the comments. I like how you see your story as one of continuity. And yes, you are living in my heart’s home.
So, so true. I felt such disorientation leaving seminary and going back into the real world of normal COCs. This line resonates deeply: “What I was not given was a strategy for re-entry into congregations that was both hopeful and peace producing.”
I was ready with a critical approach to the text, lots of questions and doubts, but not exactly a hope-filled peacemaker. To respond to Sean Palmer’s comment about our seminaries training students for churches that don’t exist.. This is something I heard addressed at ACU. I’m glad that ACU has chosen to prepare students for churches that we hope will exist. And more than just hoping, there are some there who are actively involved in consulting with churches to help bring about various shifts. If ACU hadn’t been committed to this, I don’t know that I would have been admitted. I’m glad to have been trained and ready for the day when doors will open.
Great comments, Jen. And I like the line, preparing for churches we hope will exist. I think preparing congregations for this future is just as important as preparing ministers. And ACU has done a lot to try to help in precisely this way. Elderlink comes to mind.
I still vividly remember the shock I had my last semester at Harding Graduate School of Religion when I was in the library looking at the list of churches asking for ministers, when a fellow student who was also just months away from graduation, walked over and said: “I’m so scared about leaving! I’ve never worked for a church before!” It was his own fault, of course. I had worked part-time with congregations continuously since my first semester at the undergraduate level. Like the prophets, ministers are often straining to bridge the gap between what is and what God wants. Since unity of beliefs is just a myth in our fellowship, one can’t really expect the schools to prepare their students for every possible future situation. And many congregations have never been properly exposed to the possibility that God might want something different or something more. Yes, they should know better, because they have the Bible. Jeremiah probably felt the same. Until Jesus returns, the “what is” will never be all that God wants. That is true regardless of the fellowship/denomination involved.
“Until Jesus returns, the “what is” will never be all that God wants.”
Friend, I, too, appreciated Sean’s remarks, but I appreciate even more your thoughtful response concerning “staying.” The issues and the general ethos of our heritage on which Sean remarks have confronted any of us who have spent much time ministering among “us,” and it is understandable why some choose to leave. But for me there is great value in staying, despite the very things Sean cites and the several more he could have listed beyond his top three. I find that there is a thoughtfulness concerning the church, its practices and beliefs exhibited by many–and in growing numbers–that in many contexts is stimulating and boundary stretching. Sean’s own position exemplifies this. My experience in ministry over the last 30 years is that a growing number of us have the freedom to continue stretching and growing and sharing with others our fresh perspectives, and often, and certainly in a general way, the ethos of our fellowship permits and even has encouraged this. I know for many this is not the case–their relationships, fellowship, and even their employment are threatened by the existence of important differences of opinions. But this reality is becoming less the norm, not increasing, it seems to me, and this fact is exciting and a sign of something very healthy. And, as you pointed out, although the grass may look greener elsewhere, countless Christian fellowships are as circumscribed as is ours, with little wiggle room for those wishing to depart from the theological staus quo. We have so far to go, but unlike some (perhaps many) fellowships we are moving in the right direction, and there already have been, in fact, significant changes made. To my view, now is not the time to leave, but to thoughtfully and patiently contribute to the progression. That is not to criticize those who have left, some of whom are my dear friends, but to encourage others to thoughtfully stay who may be considering otherwise. In comparison to many other options around us, I think what we are building is and has the potential to be even more impactful and Kingdom nurturing than what we at first may think when we consider our inadequacies. Thanks, Mark.
Amen. Go Ducks!
Due to commitments and TV limitations I will miss the game. I will get to it late, on the computer, probably in the 3rd or 4th quarter. I don’t think of ducks as avian cannibals, but tonight they need to feast on the Cardinal.
As one living outside the Church of Christ orbit, and part of a denomination that is often a recipient of Church of Christ pastors (Disciples), I want to commend the healthy concern for broad scholarship. I can say that Disciples pastors find our congregations sometime difficult to penetrate as well. And so my colleagues drift away to other denominations or out of ministry all together. The question is, therefore, how do we find ways in which to bring insights to congregations that will open minds and hearts.