Guiding the Church’s Future
  • Monday, August 18, 2014

America’s landscape for Christian ministry in the 21st century bears some resemblance to decommissioned farmland: it’s becoming woodsier and wilder with each passing year. Middle-aged and young adults are far less likely than their parents to claim any religious affiliation, according to Pew Center research. Cultivating faith in this largely unchurched wilderness excites the entrepreneurial and mission-minded, and it requires pastoral skills that were not needed a generation ago. Who will teach the shepherds of tomorrow how to lead a new, enigmatic type of flock? And what will Episcopal seminarians learn from these pioneering educators?

To find out, TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald recently interviewed four on-the-rise professors at Episcopal Church seminaries. All are between the ages of 39 and 42. All draw deeply on Church history in their respective disciplines. And none are cradle Episcopalians: they have migrated along the religious landscape, like many of their students.

As these professors serve as guides to the past, they equip tomorrow’s clergy with inspiration and practical models, often in corners where prior generations did not look. —Ed.

The Rev. Thomas N. Buchan III, 42
Associate professor of Church history
Nashotah House Theological Seminary
Historian Thomas Buchan can relate to the Millennial generation’s struggle to find its niche within Christianity. He was raised in what he calls a liberal American Baptist congregation, attended a fundamentalist grade school, and joined youth mission trips with charismatic groups before matriculating at Wheaton College, an evangelical flagship.

“When I got to Wheaton and heard this word evangelicals, I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew what they didn’t like,” said Buchan, the first in his family to attend college. “What they didn’t like was fundamentalists, charismatics, and liberals. … And I had been kind of formed by all three of these things.”

Buchan ultimately landed at Nashotah House, where only about half his students are Episcopalians. The rest are connected to either the Anglican Church in North America or Anglican provinces abroad.

Despite their varied affiliations, Buchan’s students bring a common set of questions to the seminary. They wonder how to be effective leaders in times of declining attendance. They ask what good, if any, might come from edgy internal debates about scriptural interpretation, sexual ethics, and other hot-button issues.

“To the extent that people in the culture at large have a conception of historic Christianity, it’s mostly in terms of negative stereotypes,” Buchan said. “So a common question from my students is: How can I present the story of Christianity to people who don’t know anything about it?

When Buchan points them to the past for wisdom and guidance, he does so as both a pastor and a teacher. He serves as priest-in-charge at St. Anskar Church in Hartland, Wisconsin, where about 45 worship on an average Sunday. His pastoral manner comes to the fore in the classroom, too. He nudges students to be inspired by the past without sugarcoating it.

It’s with a pastor’s heart that Buchan offers a long-range perspective on today’s stubborn fault lines within the Church. Remember the Council of Nicaea, he urges. Nearly six rambunctious decades of debate on trinitarian language crafted in A.D. 325 paved the way for the Council of Constantinople’s confirmation of the Nicene Creed in 381. One lesson from that period: sometimes the Church needs what seems like an endless, debate-filled era in order to usher in clarity and new unity.

Great leaders of the past were not discouraged, Buchan reminds seminarians, even when all their cultural advantages seemed to be crumbling. Instead they grew creative. Pope Gregory the Great, who led the Church through hard times in the fifth century after Rome was sacked, relished the discovery of new roles, such as caring for a recently impoverished class of people.

“This is very much an age when the glories of Rome have dramatically diminished,” Buchan said. “It’s not what it was. And Gregory is a great example of someone who doesn’t lose heart and finds a way to be a pastor, not just to people nearby but to people far away as well.”

Andrew Irving, 41
Assistant professor of Church history
The General Theological Seminary
When Andrew Irving teaches history to his students, he sees the work as more than laying a foundation for their careers in church leadership. He regards it as spiritual formation.

The study of history requires honesty — admitting what we do not know — as well as humility and accountability. In this way, it becomes a formative, character-shaping discipline.

“Helping people confront the unknown, and become more and more honest in the face of the unknown … is, to me, a ministry,” Irving said.

It’s no small task for Irving to make today’s students accustomed to meeting a high, objective standard. They are often shocked if they receive a C, he says, because they believe a grade should reflect their substantial efforts. He informs them that effort alone is not enough; only when they reach high bars do they receive high marks.

In imparting this lesson, Irving aims to shape not only tomorrow’s priests but also church culture. He says Anglican bishops, priests, deacons, and lay leaders need to help one another grow in Christ, but they are not held to meaningful standards for doing so. He laments how diocesan structures routinely will not intervene in congregational life unless a situation involves a lawsuit or an imminent financial collapse.

“There is a sort of extraordinary lack of accountability,” Irving said. “That’s really eating us alive.”

Irving believes a seminary education that demands accountability at every stage can shape expectations and habits that could translate culturally over time into much-needed accountability.

Irving’s zeal comes by way of New Zealand, where he grew up on a dairy farm. His mother was a devout teacher who brought him to Baptist and Presbyterian churches. Intrigued by worship and its continuity with tradition, he earned a master’s in liturgy en route to a doctorate in history. His specialties include histories of doctrine, worship, and medieval Christendom.

Historical knowledge is power, in Irving’s view, and should be used to advance God’s purposes for the Church. Christians must be able to understand, in historical perspective, their choices and the decisions of the Church.

“The inability to do that, or to have a framework in which to do it or to participate in it, is gravely weakening for the strength of the body of Christ,” Irving said. “And it makes you much more dependent, essentially, upon whatever the powerful people are saying at the moment.”

Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, 41
Associate professor of Church history
Seminary of the Southwest
Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski has found that students have very different needs and expectations than those of seminarians 10 or 15 years ago. One big example: today’s students cannot expect to serve in full-time pastorates after graduation.

“Many of our students are going through seminary with their bishops saying to them, ‘You need to be bivocational. We don’t have all the resources to support you in a full-time parish job. So what other skills do you need?’” Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said.

In this challenging environment, he sees seminarians grasping for models of how to be leaders when there is no long-established, steeped-in-tradition congregation around them. For that, they need to see how Christians have lived through the ages — in other cultures, as religious minorities, and as fledgling groups trying to blaze a faithful path.

They ask not only what Augustine of Hippo taught, but also how his contemporaries practiced their faith day-to-day. The answer might hold clues for how to live as 21st-century Christians.

“The discipline of Church history is moving a lot,” Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said. “It’s starting to ask those questions in really specific ways by looking at practices of Christianity historically, both pastoral practices and congregational practices.”

Today’s students routinely come to the Episcopal Church from another denomination, as Joslyn-Siemiatkoski did. Having been raised a charismatic and evangelical Methodist, he knows how a particular church’s history takes on special significance for newcomers, who inherently bring a distinct set of urgent questions to their study.

“They want to know their story,” Joslyn Siemiatkoski said. “They come out not feeling so much like critics of the Christian tradition, but as people who are faithfully aware of all of its complexity.”

To be sure, those who studied Church history with Joslyn-Siemiatkoski at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where he taught until this year, covered many of the same topics as seminarians of generations past. But they were also interested to dig into sidebar stories that might be uniquely instructive for today’s ministry environment.

He observed, for instance, that many were inspired by the example of Russian monks who settled in Alaska in the 20th century, retained their ways of life, and planted what became vibrant Orthodox communities. He urged students to consider what it might entail for them to follow the monks’ example and live as holy, inspiring people.

“It’s going to take a lot of work and commitment on our own part to develop our practices and prayer, to be serious about spirituality and be transparent about it in ways that other people around us might see,” he said. And students were drawn to that. “It was an attraction that was challenging them to grow spiritually in their own lives by looking at that historical example.”

Donyelle McCray, 39
Instructor of homiletics
and director of multicultural ministries
Virginia Theological Seminary
Today’s seminarians can often relate to non-church types since they have, in many cases, spent time on the margins of church life themselves. But they need training in how to proclaim Christ’s message far and wide to growing numbers who do not natively speak church.

For that, they need to consult the work of preachers from the past, and not necessarily the most famous ones, according to Donyelle McCray.

“There are these just fantastic and amazing figures who barely register as preachers, but are doing proclamation,” McCray said. “That’s where a lot of the insight is for our current situation, where the nature of the Church is shifting and there are so many people who camp out on the fringes of the Church. How do you reach those people?”

As an instructor in homiletics, McCray aims to help liberate the authentic preaching voices of these Christians who can relate to outsiders. She helps them drink from the fountains of past preaching as they vie to find their niche and range.

In her classes, students read Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic who proclaimed the faith at great personal risk. They listen to audio meditations from Howard Thurman, a university chaplain and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. They consider sermons of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who championed justice for the poor and was martyred while celebrating Mass.

Studying such preachers attunes students’ ears to how scriptural texts can resonate with those who do not feel part of the Church establishment or the power structures of society. It’s a homiletic project fit for an era marked by widespread distrust of institutions.

“What the fringe has is longing,” McCray said. “They have desire — the desire for God, the desire to connect with other people — so the preacher has to be in touch with his or her own sense of longing for God.”

McCray comes to the seminary faculty by a unique path. After graduating from Spellman College, she went to Harvard Law School with intentions of becoming a teacher. But her passion and curiosity led elsewhere: the study of Christian consolation as offered to the faithful in funeral sermons. Along the way, she migrated from the African Methodist Episcopal Church of her youth to the Episcopal Church, in which she discerned a calling to teach at the seminary level.

Lest the language of sermons and mysticism seem abstract, she makes sure students keep their theologies grounded in concrete experiences. Her “dislocated exegesis” assignments require that the discipline of unpacking scriptural meaning be done far away from a pastor’s study. They do it instead in places where they wouldn’t ordinarily hang out, such as on a city bus or at a Walmart.

“One student, Francie, went to Walmart and was able to see how one of the men serving at the checkout was the light,” McCray said. “He was spreading all this joy and making God present in a Walmart. That’s the language people speak.”

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