“I bet they didn’t teach you that in seminary,” folks say when the pastor springs to action responding to a flooded bathroom or a leaky roof. “I bet they didn’t teach you that in seminary,” as the pastor enters the world of grant-writing and creating sustainable revenue streams for a century old congregation. “I bet they didn’t teach you that in seminary,” when the pastor creates a facility lease structure for non-profit renters in old Sunday school classrooms.
Well, of course they didn’t.
It was already asking an awful lot of seminaries to teach everything a pastor might encounter in her years of ministry when church life was self-contained and program-centered. And it may well be asking the impossible for a seminary to train a pastor to anticipate and adapt to every twist and turn in a rapidly evolving, perpetually shifting landscape that is 21st-century parish ministry. If I am lucky enough to work another 25 years as a minister, few traditional pastorates will exist for the full length of my career, and we certainly never discussed that reality when I was in seminary. It is not surprising to me that the final lessons my seminary is teaching me are in its closing.
“The next steps for all churches will require us to bless and release much of how things have always been.”
Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond closed officially on Jan. 31. Many alumni are sad, shocked, angry and grieving. Many are taking action, caring for faculty, rallying together in support of the seminary that shaped them. I get it. But the shock and disbelief reminds me of a funeral my former colleague Justin Joplin officiated for a 100-year-old when we were working together in Richmond. Justin went to meet with the family, and the man’s daughter said, “We’re just so shocked. We didn’t see this coming.”
We love the people who form us and shape us. We love the institutions that challenge us and stretch our imaginations. Both people and institutions are constantly changing, and the story of one seminary’s closing, even if it is my seminary’s closing, will not be unique. Instead of piling on with unsolicited advice about what could have been done differently, I am listening for the questions in this final lesson from a place that taught me to ask really great questions. In listening, I wonder how my love for the people and place that formed me for ministry might be teaching me to bless what existed for a season, leave a legacy gift for the future, and say goodbye to what no longer serves.
Here’s one truth I keep hearing in these questions. Across the country, churches are closing every week. Many more are going to close over the next three decades. Experts and strategists and hand-wringers of all sorts are trying to figure out just how many (it’s in the thousands), but the predictions don’t really matter to me in this last lesson. What matters is facing our reality head on, without fear and anxiety.
“To move forward with integrity, we all must dream, innovate and discern what the next, right steps are.”
Something is shifting and changing forever. Period. Once we calmly face that truth, we can then ask ourselves: How might we respond to this reality from the best part of who we are while we have some say rather than delaying decision making until we are forced to permanently lock the church doors, shutter the windows and turn out the lights?
I thought about this last Friday night as my husband and I toasted his birthday at the new Hotel Peter & Paul here in New Orleans. It’s a $22 million restoration of the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church and School in the historic Marigny neighborhood. Their website touts, “The former school house, rectory, church and convent have each been carefully restored and repurposed for new congregants.” The new congregants, of course, are patrons and tourists.
This is not a one-off. This is not the story of one congregation and school that could not survive in a changing neighborhood. In my town alone, I can have lunch at Vessel Restaurant, a 100-year-old, formerly Lutheran church; attend an afternoon wedding at Felicity Church, a popular event venue in a deconsecrated Methodist church; drop by a cocktail party at St. Alphonsus, a formerly Irish Catholic church built in 1855; then round out the day with dinner at Hotel Peter & Paul. And that’s only one day in one city.
Something has changed forever. Something is changing forever.
“Our creative work must be more about authentically embodying faith than frantically shoring up institutions.”
With all of this swirling in my head, I continue to listen to the last lesson BTSR’s nearly 30-year venture as a free-standing seminary might just teach all of us. In my immediate context, pastoring a 120-year-old congregation, when I walk the halls of our beautiful, historic building I am clear about this: Much of my future work at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church was not covered in a seminary classroom. As a pastor trained by the 20th century but living and serving in the 21st, I know the next steps for all churches will require us to bless and release much of how things have always been. To move forward with integrity, we all must dream, innovate and discern what the next, right steps are.
Those steps won’t be the same for every church or divinity school or other religious organization. Some will face the hard truth of needing to close their doors. That could mean giving themselves away to a nonprofit closely aligned with their missional heartbeat, selling the building and establishing a foundation to support continued ministry in the name and essence of that congregation. Or it might involve dramatically restructuring sacred space to support a dozen non-profit organizations and multiple faith communities within one physical plant. Wherever this journey takes each of us, our creative work must be more about authentically embodying faith than frantically shoring up institutions.
How will we know which path is ours to take? Well, that’s something I did learn in seminary. We sit in holy quiet together, embracing ancient practices of contemplation and discernment. We follow the threads across ancient texts and look for the ways God has always been finding new and wildly imaginative avenues to know and be known by a people. We foster honest, brave, healthy, truth-telling communities that step even more fully and boldly into their calling as followers on the Way of Jesus. We ask really good questions and listen to each other in hopes of getting to even better ones.
Maybe it’s the preacher in me, but I really do believe that in doing all of this, we will be able to respond to true Spirit leadings. Everything has changed forever. Everything is changing forever. We get to be part of dreaming with the Divine about what comes next. It is our next lesson as the Church, to be sure.