Anxious about all the crises at home and abroad? Here’s a tip: Attend a seminary graduation this spring! Soak up enthusiasm from fresh waves of clergy eager to roll up their sleeves and work in communities around the world.
At the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. this week, the most influential voice in rethinking youth ministry—the Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary—laid out dire warnings and high hopes for 170 graduating men and women. They were surrounded in the cathedral by about 1,000 supportive faculty, friends and family. The graduates were preparing for their first congregations or were returning for doctorates in ministry from across the U.S. and various countries around the world.
HIGHLIGHTS OF KENDA CREASY DEAN OF ‘ALMOST CHRISTIAN’
PREPARING PASTORS FOR MINISTRY AT NATIONAL CATHEDRAL
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Warnings of global instability were heard throughout the two-hour graduation ceremony for Wesley Theological Seminary at the National Cathedral this week, but educator, researcher and author Kenda Creasy Dean made light of apocalyptic fears.
“According to the billboards along I-95, the world is scheduled to end a week from Saturday. That means the apocalypse is coming on May 21, 2011, which by the way is the day my students graduate,” she told the crowd to a roar of laughter. Dean is Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. By this week, a cross-country caravan of campers painted with May 21 doomsday warnings had reached the nation’s capital where they were hard to miss—parked strategically along major streets to show off their startling claims about the world’s end.
“These are earnest church people … They’ve given up jobs and families and they’ve sold their homes and they are traveling the country right now to announce the end of the world,” Dean said. “So, I will try to keep this message short—in case you don’t have much time for ministry.”
Again, the graduating clergy chuckled.
But Dean grew as serious as doomsday herself in her overview of the challenges clergy face nationwide in a rapidly changing and often self-absorbed culture. “Disappointment is an occupational hazard for people in ministry,” she said. “The single thing I remember most clearly in my own orientation to Wesley seminary back in 1985 was a dinner where a professor spoke and told us to look around our table at the other students we were sitting with, then he said: ‘Half of you won’t be in ministry after five years!’ So we spent the rest of the night trying to figure out who would be left behind.
“And, it’s true! We hope the church’s dry bones will come to life on our watch, but statistically there are as many former clergy in the United States as there are clergy,” she said.
The students receiving their diplomas at the cathedral clearly “are chomping at the bit to get in and play the game,” she said, but “one of the first skills we have to learn is how to deal with disappointment. We’re in a vocation in which we have to navigate dry bones and dead churches and frightened disciples every day. How will we cope with disappointment?”
DEAN’S ‘ALMOST CHRISTIAN’ RESEARCH ON YOUTH
Understanding the challenges congregations face starts with young people, which is Dean’s research specialty and the subject of her new book, “Almost Christian,” which ReadTheSpirit covered when it was released.
In her cathedral message, Dean talked about the significance of her “Almost Christian” work: “I was part of a research team for the National Study of Youth and Religion. Many of you are familiar with this. It was the largest study to be done on young people and religion to date. We interviewed 3,300 teenagers and their parents and found that the vast majority of American young people follow a kind of watered-down generic faith that the study called ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’
“That’s a mouthful but what it means is this: Religion is to help you be nice; it’s moralistic. It helps you feel good about yourself; it’s therapeutic. And God pretty much stays out of your way; it’s Deist.
“The funny thing is: Where did young people learn this? They learned it from their parents and their churches. In other words, young people do not practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because they misunderstand what we taught them in church. They practice it because this is what we taught them in church.
“Are we surprised that the church’s track record with young people is so disappointing?”
BUT, IF YOU DOUBT THE RELEVANCE OF CONGREGATIONS,
YOUR VIEW OF THE WORLD ISN’T BIG ENOUGH
It’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by the downward spiral in much of what passes for organized religion in America, Dean argued. The country’s leading mainline denominations are obsessively focused on the crises they face from losing so many young people, declining attendance overall and shrinking budgets. Church leaders can wind up discouraged by a host of management problems resulting from those trends.
Instead, Dean argued, “if life is what we’re after, then the first order of business has to be what God is doing with people and not what we are doing with structures. When the church is a life force, it’s because God has breathed life into us.”
Part of rediscovering that life force is making sure our view of the world is focused far beyond our own immediate problems. If we doubt the relevance of the church, it’s because our view of the church isn’t big enough, she said.
“If you want to counter disappointment—stop people from dying,” she said in a jarring turn of phrase that drew another chuckle from the crowd. But what came next was a somber challenge.
“What would that look like?” she asked. “Let me take you to the new Anglican seminary in Sudan. What are the first four classes you have to take if you’re part of that seminary? The first four required classes are: Hebrew, Greek, Agriculture and Public Health. Turns out, this is not unusual among African seminaries.
“What does that curriculum tell you that Africans think ministry is for? In Sudan you don’t go to seminary to learn how to run a church! You go to seminary to learn how to stop people from dying spiritually and physically. In Sudan, the church is a life force. And people who lead churches in Sudan have to put people in touch with living waters—at the same time they are staving off predators like malaria, HIV-AIDS and starvation.”
Dean challenged the new clergy: “Think about why you came to seminary in the first place. Did you come to learn how to run a church? Or did you come because you want God to use you to help bring life into the world? Did you come because you want to help keep people from dying?”
Even the final blessing that ended the two-hour ceremony echoed the apocalyptic-sounding events of our era. These students are the children of seemingly endless American wars in Asia and they started their studies around the time of the latest recession. They have no illusions about the conflicts and crises in our world. Nevertheless, Dean and the students left the cathedral on a sunny afternoon to hug each other, laugh, hoist children on their shoulders and snap final photos as they head to congregations nationwide.
Care to read more?
You can read our earlier in-depth interview with Kenda Creasy Dean on her research behind “Almost Christian.” Or visit Dean’s own website for more about her work and speaking schedule.
If you are part of a discussion group, you may want to ask group members to read both Dean’s remarks here—and Celtic Christian teacher John Philip Newell’s interview on his new Praying for Peace movement. There are a number of parallels between Dean and Newell, including Newell’s blunt conclusion that problems in organized religion run far deeper than the simple question of why teens don’t want to attend anymore. In Newell’s words: “The status of Western Christianity is in collapse, largely because we’ve taken our eyes off the core of the tradition.”
(Special note from the staff of ReadTheSpirit: Congratulations on graduation to Megan Crumm, an occasional ReadTheSpirit copy editor and daughter of ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, and to Megan’s fiancée Joel Walther, both of whom soon will be clergy serving in Michigan!)
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.