Before accepting the role of dean of Earlham School of Religion (ESR), I served as a Friends pastor for fifteen years. Someone once asked me if I ever regretted leaving the ministry. I responded that I never once thought that I had. The form may have changed, but the call endures. That comment lingers with me as a reminder that a narrow view of ministry persists in the minds of some.
There are a multitude of ways to serve God in this world. One of the delights of position as dean at a Quaker seminary is the opportunity to explore new possibilities when traditional categories are clearly not sufficient. Ours is a very inclusive definition of ministry and I hope this welcoming spirit will continue as new students join us. Anything to which God calls an individual and for which the Spirit equips the individual should aptly be described as one’s ministry. When such leadings are followed, the path frequently leads to non-traditional, or even entrepreneurial, forms of ministries. It is a wonderful strategy by which God’s work permeates the neighborhood, far wider than traditional meeting or church ministries are prone to reach. And, in an era when the so called NONES, DONES, and others seek meaningful engagement and spiritual fulfillment in unusual places, we should expect and even hope this trend continues. For ESR graduates, it happens with some frequency.
Let me tell you about some of the interesting understandings of ministry that we have welcomed among our students. A 2015 May graduate carries a burning vision to utilize farming as a means to create community, combat poverty, and share the Gospel. Farming among the educated carries a stigma in his country but for this alum the call to connect the Good News with socio-economic challenges that burden so many is exactly what he feels released to do. He has already managed to raise funds to purchase a few acres of land and is moving toward the launch of this ministry. Both the form of ministry and the funding of it require innovation on the part of this alum. As one who was reared on a farm and has made several connections between my own agrarian roots and spiritual formation, I confess it has been enjoyable to watch a student make some of those same discoveries, He has sought wisdom from farmers in the Midwest that deepen his understanding of how to work with the soil and animals, and is willing to confront social attitudes that further discourage people from participating in a solution rather than succumbing to lifelong victimhood.
If farming is an unusual example of non-traditional ministry, spiritual direction is somewhat more common. For decades ESR has witnessed a significant interest in the practice of spiritual direction as an expression of ministry. It is one of the most direct, intimate methods of assisting individuals in their effort to deepen their relationship with the divine. The practice can be a genuine catalyst in spiritual growth toward health and wholeness. In an ideal world, every church would have at least one on their staff, but alas, that vision has not yet caught fire. As a consequence, graduates who wish to offer such ministry must “hang out their shingle” so to speak and cultivate a clientele. Generating enough income to support a modest lifestyle with this practice is no easy task!
Two graduates come to mind who are combining their ministry with other activities. One offers spiritual direction, physical fitness, and yoga as a range of opportunities for interested persons. In the process, she finds that the latter two bring individuals into her orbit who would never seek her out for spiritual direction. Over the course of their relationship that is precisely what happens. Ministry emerges outside of the usual context! The other individual combines spiritual direction, workshops, and writing as a set of ministries. It is interesting to watch her use of social media as a means of cultivating interest, advertising, and remaining connected with those to whom she ministers. In each case the work is demanding, compounded by the background work necessary to create the actual ministry opportunities.
Sometimes non-traditional ministry is not a “stand alone” operation. A student scheduled a meeting with me recently to discuss the completion of his degree. He arrived as a lawyer answering a call to pastoral ministry. He continued his practice as a student as a means of supporting his family. In our conversation, he said that he wanted to finish his degree at ESR, but he no longer thought he would pursue ministry as a pastor. He has discovered that there are many open doors for ministry in his law profession. His seminary work has transformed the way he approaches his legal work, so much so that this is now his method of ministry.
A favorite story of the joys and woes of starting a ministry comes from an alum who was gripped by the injustices of the U.S. penal system while a student at ESR. That, plus his interest in process theology, framed a ministry in which he developed a program to work with inmates before their release. His goal was to address the high rate of recidivism, particularly among African American males. This individual started a non-profit, secured enough funding to launch the ministry, and established a successful track record. He also felt it was important to keep many of these men involved in the organization as volunteers and board members. In particular, he believed it was important to empower those oppressed by unjust systems by giving them power within the organization.
Non-traditional ministries don’t always assure the participant of job security. But isn’t that true of pastoral ministries as well? When funding ran thin, the board terminated the founder of this prison ministry, only to discover that the organization’s benefactors were not interested in supporting the organization without the vision of its founder. In some ways, it is a sad story—or at least one without the desired happy ending, but is a reminder that adhering to the principles of our Guide may demand vulnerability and trust, and perhaps even the loss of that which one has created with love and conviction.
Judging from conversations I have had with alumni/ae and current students over the past six months, I am convinced that ESR should continue giving greater attention to equipping non-traditional ministers with a set of skills not typically covered in a classical seminary curriculum. I will not be surprised if these types of ministry increase in the coming years. There is a particular risky beauty involved in stepping out in faithfulness to a ministry without the security of an employing institution, guaranteed salary, health insurance, or even a work space! Like the wind, the Spirit blows where it wants. Those who would be faithful can do no other than step out in trust.