Jason Byassee: Smart guys on the future of the mainline

The economic squeeze can bring out more creative faithfulness in ministry. Here are some examples.

One advantage of my job is getting to meet the smart, dedicated church leaders who attend our Leadership Education events. Recently I got to meet with two: a terrific young UCC conference minister named Mike Denton and the well-known author Brian McLaren. I put the question of the future of the mainline to both of them, and asked especially about the effect of the economic downturn.

Denton, a member of the UCC’s Pacific Northwest Conference staff, lives in culturally liberal Seattle. It’s a region that often called “the None zone,” since so many people check “none” in survey boxes for their religious adherence. The UCC, like other churches, has been hard hit economically out there -- so much so that ministers have been forced to take sabbaticals every year. Many take the summer months off. This has had two surprising benefits. One, the pastors come back refreshed and ready to do ministry. “They read, they think expansively about their ministry, and they come back recharged with ideas and energy and ready to go,” Denton said. Two, lay people are learning that the minister is not the only minister in the congregation. For a quarter of the year, while the pastor is on forced sabbatical, the place is theirs and only theirs. “We’re going to do more lay training,” Denton said.

I asked whether his job as a denominational administrator is especially difficult in such times. “Wouldn’t you rather have the authority of a bishop?” His answer was emphatic: No. “I would much rather have soft power than hard,” he said. As it stands he has plenty of influence over a church’s hiring. When a congregation in search of a new pastor narrows its choices to a few candidates he calls around, looking for red flags. He can help a committee learn to ask itself the right questions on whether a candidate is a good fit. And because soft power is the only kind he has, he has prepared the way relationally to be influential in such conversations. When the church’s pastoral hire works out, he’s a genius. When it doesn’t, he doesn’t get blamed. It’s the best of an episcopal setting without the baggage. Would that we had more young institutional leaders like him.

McLaren is well-known as a leading light of the Emerging Church Movement, though he spends less time these days with his former travelers among evangelicals and more with mainline church leaders. He draped praise on the heads of denominations with whom he was meeting, saying such dedicated churchmen and women give him hope. He pointed to one innovative idea from a mainline denominational executive that will see several thousand seminary graduates next year. The communion only foresees having some 200 openings, and most of those will not go to fresh-faced newbies just out of school. There will be hundreds of young ministers without work. What should they do?

McLaren sees the Anglican movement called “Fresh Expressions” as a source of creative inspiration. Here the Church of England has granted status as recognized ministries to whatever an ordained pastor chooses to bless with her or his time and ministry. So, one priest has chosen to take on a local skating group. Kids were using a church parking lot illicitly, to the consternation of the church, especially for insurance reasons. So this priest said the gathering would now be a “church,” got the Church of England to recognize it as a “Fresh Expression,” and baptized several dozen skaters.

What could this kind of innovation mean for the American denomination with a lack of jobs for seminary graduates? McLaren is encouraged to see many mainline leaders turning what some would call problems into opportunities. How can these new graduates be encouraged to find or found fresh and new ministries? How can congregations and denominations recognize these innovations as a legitimate extension of their ministry and provide support -- space, status, maybe health insurance -- to help them grow? Many will miss the opportunity. But McLaren is confident that some are seizing it. There will be problems: what do they do with their seminary debt? But there may be further unforeseen possibilities: a bi-vocational pastor goes back at least as far as St. Paul.

Who knew that a crisis of too many pastoral candidates for too few churches could be turned into an opportunity for mission? Would that the glut of mainline pastors indeed make for seed being thrown all around the path: the more thrown, the more likely some will take root in surprising places.

Denton’s and McLaren’s stories give me hope, that perhaps the mainline future is not simply one of decline, but of innovative responses to scarcity that may produce a new abundance.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.