I am often asked if the transformation that the mainline church is going through (with the fast and marked decline) scares me as a minister. My answer is a bit complicated, but I will try to summarize it here. The very short answer is: yes and no.
Let me explain…
As a minister, the decline of the mainline denominations makes me scared. First, because I grew up in the mainline church. It pains me to see an institution that had such a huge impact in my life declining. The mainline church – in my case, the American Baptist Churches, but also the two other denominations that have welcomed me, the
United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church – has been my spiritual home for all of my life. It was in the mainline church that I learned the stories of the Bible, the teaching of the “Golden Rule”, the hope for a coming kingdom and the eternal reign of peace that God will bring. It was the mainline church one of the institutions, along with school, that fostered my leadership skills and gave me a chance to begin learning how to be a leader. Sure, experiencing its decline is both scary and sad.
Second, as a minister, I rely on the church for my income. Contrary to what the media may portray and to what popular culture tells you about ministers, the truth is that this is like any other profession. I went to graduate school. I took psychological tests to examine my readiness for serving people under stressful circumstances. I did an intensive internship unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to help me understand myself and gain knowledge on how to serve others who are undergoing major challenges in their lives. I also learned about history, economy, sociology, religious pluralism, political systems, non-profit administration, rhetoric and debate strategies, philosophy, literary criticism, multiculturalism and a bunch of other areas that are transferable to non-religious positions but that very few places would recognized as such because of preconceived ideas about religious leaders. Moreover, I took student loans because it was the only way to pay for graduate school and because the opportunities for scholarship when studying theology are minimal (although, I did receive some scholarships from religious organizations and the school itself.) Thus, if I lose my source of income, my family would be in a really difficult position. Of course that scares anyone!
With all that said, the transformation of the Church – in this case, the Church with capital “C” – is not what makes me feel the most scared. Why? Well, because the Church, and its expression in the mainline denominations, is not of my own making. The Church is, as the New Testament attest and we proclaim every day, the body of Christ. The Church has been around for a long time, and it will continue to be around even after all the institutions we have built around it have faded into history. Sure, there will be – as there have always been – enormous transformations of the institutions. Some of them will not survive. Others will merge and create new things. And still others will grow and expand steadily.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12.27: “You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.” Paul’s words are an expansion of what Jesus himself said earlier in his life. The gospel of John 14.19a-20 tells us that Jesus said: “Because I live, you will live too. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.” If the people of the Church is the body of Christ, then we must not be afraid of the transformations through which the Church goes. Sure, the institution will look very different than the one we were raised in or are currently a part of; but the main truth remains: the Church will continue to live.
I believe that our fear to lose the institution that we so much love has stood in the way of letting the Church grow and transform. Many of my colleagues who, like me, depend on the church’s salary to feed our families, are too afraid of losing this source of income. As I stated before, this also scares me. But I am also confident that the tools and the experience I have gained while serving the mainline church will serve me well in finding a suitable position should the time come when the institutionalized church cannot offer a position for me any longer. I believe that we must let go of the fear of losing what we know in order to let the Church and its mainline expression to go through whatever transformation it has to go through.
This also means that we should find ways to give each support. All transformations are both traumatic and difficult. We will go through painful moments. During this time, it will be important to have the support of those who are close to us and who can extend us a hand in making whatever transition may come less painful. However, fear is not, in my opinion, the answer. And thus, my invitation is to let go of the fear of change and accept the transformation that is already present within the mainline church as the manifestation of an ever present Spirit of newness and renewal. Remember that we confess an ever creating God. Let God do a new thing and show us what wonders and awe-inspiring new things God is bringing to us!