Why I Went Back to School

Questions I carried with me in my early years of ministry have changed. It was during my second call as an ordained pastor that I began to realize the shifts under way in the church and in me. In February 1999 I began serving a rural congregation outside Holmen, Wisconsin. The people of the congregation needed to figure out the church’s identity and to discover its mission in a world that seemed to be shifting. At that time, they normally expressed who they were by invoking  the negative: “We’re not [that big Lutheran church in town that we started decades ago.]”

It was challenging to work with the good people of that faith community. Leading a renewal of a church’s sense of mission and purpose is difficult work. It involved the re-norming of leadership patterns to move the congregation beyond some entrenched and unhealthy behaviors. Over time the congregation began processes of redevelopment that continue today, though I took another call and moved from it in 2006.

Toward the end of my time in that call and the beginning of my current call, I began reading about leadership issues. I was thinking about changes I was observing in the church’s role in society. Much had changed since I entered ministry in 1989. I was seeking understanding. My desire to be equipped for leadership challenges presented by these shifts increased after attending the first of two ELCA seminars for heads of staff.

I was increasingly reading more literature about leadership. Much of the material I was reading was from the business world and I wondered how to connect it with the church and how what I was reading might inform my pastoral leadership in the congregation. I wrote an email and sent it to two professors at Luther Seminary, asking them for guidance on books to read. Dr. Craig Van Gelder received one of those emails and responded with a long bibliography for me to consider. I bought his book The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Baker Books) and began reading. I instantly recognized the dilemmas of the church with which I had been wrestling and resonated with the blend of ecclesiology and missiology present within Van Gelder’s book.

Little did I know then that reading I was doing was preparing me to be a student again. Several books later I began investigating advanced education in order to examine leadership issues in light of ecclesiology and missiology. This quest led me into a doctoral program that I am now completing. The thesis I’m now writing began with questions I started asking more than ten years ago.

Being a student again, I gained more than new language with which to talk about what I’ve been observing. My studies have equipped me with theological categories to help me make sense of the changes happening in the church so that I am better able to help congregations find their way during confusing times. The rigor of the academic program challenged me to think more clearly about what it means to be a church that participates in the life of God by entering into God’s mission for the World. The extended and structured examination of missiological ecclesiology has given me hope that God’s church is being reshaped. It is not dying.

As the church struggles, it is drawn into the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are clumsily finding our way, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be God’s reconciling presence for the world. We are the presence (body) of Jesus: God’s intent embodied and a community of reconciliation and life.

My studies and my thesis project caused me to enter into a deep conversation with the community of faith within which I am a pastor. They prompted me to get to know the dynamics of the context in a deeper way than I had in previous congregations. I am now more aware of systems at work within my congregation and am thinking about issues related to organizational development. I have integrated what I have learned with practice.

Questions I bring to tasks of ministry have changed over the course of study; lamenting questions of “why” have turned to questions of “how might we.” Fear of the future has shifted to optimism. I find myself asking questions about how God’s intended future informs situations in the present. I no longer am content to keep doing church as I had been trained. The church for which I was trained no longer exists. Therefore, I frequently ask how what we do might give witness to God’s intent and propel us into meaningful action that gives witness to God’s reconciling presence that is active in the world. I approach ministry differently as a result of my studies.

The foto entitled Bockman Hall was taken by McGhiever. It is used in accordance with Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) License.

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