April 25, 2016

The Paschal Rhythms of Ministry

      On a recent road trip through southern Kansas, I witnessed a spring rite, the burning of the prairie.  The billowing smoke and red glow of distant fires are quite the vista—and a sign of renewal.  Lightning strikes have lit up dead trees and overgrown pastures for centuries.  Seeing the benefits, farmers and ranchers now set controlled times of burning so that new life may come.

      As I drove through the haze in the late afternoon, I pondered where some Christian ministries might require some “controlled burns” in order to move from surviving (barely) to thriving.  Churches and nonprofits and institutions of higher learning have a hard time ceasing to do what is no longer productive.  We often preserve programs or patterns rather than clearing the brush so that the power of greening (how Hildegard described the work of the Spirit) might flourish. 
      Resurrecting power requires death.  The life of Jesus conveys this most clearly; however, it is the paradigm for all creation.  Old forms of life become the nutrients for the new to emerge.
      I recently saw a brief documentary on the production of bananas.  It is a complicated, labor-intensive process that moves from the plantation to our cereal bowls and lunch bags.  Most interesting is how the stalks and leaves of the no longer productive mother plants are left between the young plants to nourish the new harvest.  They have completed their bearing cycle and now die in the service of their progeny.
      Over the years, I have witnessed congregations and individuals willing to relinquish their present life so that they might encourage a new yield.  Central has benefited from those who looked toward the future and sowed their lives into the promise of theological education.
      Our lectionary texts from Acts narrate such generative activities.  The wind of the Spirit propels new patterns, as the old cannot contain the mighty power of resurrection.  God has plans for the entire Roman Empire—and beyond.

       When Paul encounters Lydia, he realizes that the new mission to Europe depends upon her faithfulness.  The beckoning man from Macedonia turns out to be a woman!  He has a new apostolic partner, and he relies on the church birthed in her household more than any other.  Not only has he turned toward the gentiles in his ministry, he now has a female ally, a business entrepreneur.  We know that his beloved Philippians were a continuing source of encouragement and support, no doubt prompted by the witness of Lydia.  Prompted by the Spirit, the earliest proclaimers of the gospel cross many borders and put to death many notions about whom God chooses to include in a cross-shaped church. 

      As we move toward Pentecost, where wind and fire blow in new directions, I pray for discernment about the paschal rhythms—the dying and rising—of ministry in the lives of the many communities Central’s faculty and students serve.  The joy of the resurrection renews the whole world!

            Molly T. Marshall
                        Central prepares leaders for global Christianity.

April 18, 2016

God's Inclusive Call

            The early chapters of Acts tell the story of what it means to live in the power of the resurrection.  People hear the good news in their own language; afflicted persons receive healing; apostolic faith calls persons back to life; and the outward spiral of the Gospel continues.  The Spirit of the Risen Christ now fuels new insight, new expressions of discipleship, and new communities, formerly excluded.

            The lectionary text for the Fifth Sunday of Easter narrates Peter’s awakening to God’s radical inclusion of Gentiles.  Indeed, chapters 10 and 11 of the Acts of the Apostles detail God’s desire to include the many deemed unclean.  His mystical experience of the great sheet from heaven containing all sorts of creatures transformed his understanding of God’s purpose, transgressing old boundaries through the larger understanding of the scope of salvation.
            I returned Friday evening from an important colloquy at Valley Forge.  Once a year the Presidents and Deans (or other representatives) of the closely-related American Baptist seminaries gather to learn from one another and consider how to craft collaborative initiatives. This meeting was especially meaningful.  Not only did we mourn the departure of the beloved president of American Baptist Seminary of the West, Dr. Paul Martin, but we also welcomed Dr. William Shiell, new president of Northern Seminary.  We strive to form thick connections and be a source of renewal for our ABC denomination.
            One of the most important aspects of our conversation was our reflection on the ways in which God continues to call persons to service, especially those creative leaders that propel the church to engage our broken culture.  We lament the reality that vibrant youth groups who are learning about service often fail to produce vocational ministers.  While it is very important that our Christian identity shape whatever profession we pursue, the church always requires new leadership.  What if we believed that a key index of congregational health is whether we are helping voice God’s call to ministry?

            Many persons do not feel worthy of becoming a minister; if one did feel worthy, it would probably indicate lack of humility and presumption.  Yet God includes persons who might seem unlikely candidates so that God’s own glory might be revealed.  Some do not pursue ministry because they have witnessed too little appreciation of their pastoral leaders, and the pay is not great, either.

            As seminary leaders we reflected on the practice of “noticing, naming, and nurturing” gifts and aptitudes for ministry.  God continues to call persons to become faithful leaders for the people of God, and persons usually discern this calling by the gentle guidance of those who observe their lives.  This is one more example of how God invites us to participate in God’s own mission; we voice that call in community, a wonderfully inclusive practice.

            Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders to serve God, shape church, and serve humanity.