What's Tony Thinking

A Post-Denominational Church?


I am in Indianapolis for a three day conference put on by the North American Association of Theological Schools (ATS). I’m here as part of the team from the Vancouver School of Theology, in Vancouver, B.C.  where I am a project consultant on the work VST is doing to strengthen it’s Theological Field Education component.

The ATS is administering the “Pathways for Tomorrow” program, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment for Religion. Lilly, a longtime funder of various programs to strengthen congregations and their leadership, has really invested big in this one.. Each seminary receiving a grant came up with their own ideas for what they needed to address to strengthen their school and its work in preparing leaders for Christian churches.

The schools represent a wide array of denominational affiliations. Some are relatively new schools that are preparing leaders for growing immigrant congregations. Others are more established schools which are targeting under-represented groups, e.g. African-American, Latino or indigenous students and churches.

There’s a lot of energy evident . . . which is not something one often experiences in church-related gatherings these days. What accounts for the energy? As noted a number of the schools are new start-ups, which takes and generates energy. But overall these are schools are risk-takers and innovators. Grant money is helping them to take risks in response to shifting conditions on the ground.

Notably absent, in any official capacity, are the historic denominations. To clarify, many schools are denominationally-affiliated, including VST which is affiliated with the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of Canada. There are Mennonites, Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelical Covenant, Lutheran, Baptist etc. affiliated schools. But the denominations, per se, aren’t running what is arguably the single biggest effort in a generation to reframe and strengthen leadership development for the Christian churches in North America.

That work has been taken up by Lilly, ATS and another entity focused on theological education, “In Trust.” Bottom line, addressing the critical challenge of leadership is being done apart from the structures, tribes and histories of the increasingly moribund and conflicted denominations. That is not to say that individual denominations don’t have their own leadership development programs. I’m sure they do. But if the United Church of Christ (my denomination) is any example, these tend to be too limited to really meet the challenge of providing able leaders for the church of the future.

This shift — from denominationally-led  to a post or trans-denominational mode — seems to me significant. Back when I was leading Seattle-based Congregational Leadership Northwest, we also worked on a non-denominational and ecumenical basis. Our experience there was that a lot of the sticking points were removed by simply disregarding denominational pedigree or gathering in ways that were outside the usual denominational clusters.

Another thing I note here as I listen in is a lot of emphasis being put on what one school terms “affective maturity” on the part of candidates for ministry. Others use the term “emotional intelligence.” Both mean that a student who will become a pastor, priest or minister is asked, and helped, to develop self-awareness, which includes being able to identify and understand one’s feelings and emotions, and the ability to self-regulate one’s emotions and emotional responses. Sometimes this is spoken of as spiritual formation or character development.

Such an emphasis does not replace the academic side of preparation for ministry, but is a necessary complement. I’ve put it this way, effective ministers don’t need a big ego, but they do need a strong ego. A big ego, which is really unacknowledged emotional neediness, is a hindrance that undermines God’s work. But this work is not for sissies. A strong ego and healthy self-awareness are critical.

Based on my experience as a consultant with congregations the single-most important factor in having a healthy congregation is healthy leadership. Such leaders understand leadership not as a status or entitlement, but a task and a trust. I’m grateful for the priority being placed on this by this truly excellent, post-denominational effort.



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