Separate them into four groups. Arrange for them to mix within their respective groups for three days, then repeat four or five times a year, and continue for three, four or even five years. In the process, ask them to reflect, research, and discuss such subjects as the present and future shape of pastor formation, seminary education, and governing body nurture. What do you get? Theological friendships.
Or, at least, that’s what the Re-Forming Ministry project has produced. Funded by a Lilly Foundation Grant and organized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Theology and Worship (OTW), participants in the program concluded their journey by gathering altogether in Colorado Springs for three early summer days of reporting back and discussing together what they have learned.
According to Barry Ensign-George, the project director and associate for congregational ministries publishing in the OTW, participants explored many topics and tested their outside-the-box thinking. But in the end, the most treasured result was the discovery of theological friends.
The Re-Forming Ministry project was developed to respond to a widespread perception of disconnection in the life of the church, particularly within the PC(USA) branch of the church. The OTW had already been addressing this concern by forming pastor-theologian colloquia, The Company of Pastors, and Excellence from the Start (later renamed The Company of New Pastors). But the OTW staff recognized that some of the biggest disconnects stood between the three major pillars of the “web of pastoral ministry” — congregations, middle-to-upper governing bodies, and seminaries.
This “pastoral-ecclesial system” has been breaking down in our day, with too many professors playing to their academic guilds rather than to the local churches, with governing body leaders tapping local congregations for funding but providing little care in return, and with local pastors dismissing the two other groups as irrelevant at best and parasitic at worst.
Tragically, the disconnect has fueled what repeated studies have exposed, he added, “the loneliness and sense of isolation that so often invade the work of ministry,” producing a longing “for vibrant connections that have the feel of God’s own vast connectedness.”
What a stark contrast to Calvin’s Geneva, he said, where the Compagnie des Pasteurs met every Friday morning for Bible study to assess how each pastor’s sermon was developing for the coming Lord’s Day, and where, once a quarter, the colleagues operated as “an instrument for censura morum” (mutual censure), in which “any office-bearer could take this opportunity to speak in a brotherly way about the doctrine or conduct of another” (Willem van’t Spijker, Calvin, A Brief Guide to His Life and Thought, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
According to Ensign-George, most of today’s ministers maintain a safe distance from their colleagues. “Those who do not really know you cannot challenge you. Disconnection can and does serve our desires for autonomy.” In radical contrast, “We in Re-Forming Ministry are embarked on a journey that walks – slowly, patiently – toward something better.”
The recent years’ journey entailed the formation of study-discussion groups in search of a more entwined way of relating. As this first round of groups neared their completion, Ensign-George and other staff members interviewed several participants to seek feedback on the program. Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Church, Glen Ellyn, Ill., summarized the big gain as “friendships.”
Ensign-George pressed him. Just “friendships?” he asked.
No, not really. The Re-Forming Ministry friendships have grown because Christian faith and its understanding actually drove the friendships. “These are, Jerry said, ‘theological friendships.’”
Ensign-George expanded: “Theological friendship is friendship in which the triune God is both the object of and an expected participant in our conversation and relationship. Theological friendship with one another is a way of naming what we are called to in Jesus Christ. … Theological friendship, which is to say, incorporation into friendship with Jesus Christ is what we are empowered to offer to a world rife with disconnection’s long and deadly reach (even in our world that prides itself on being connected!).”
Elizabeth Nordquist, retired associate professor of spirituality, San Francisco Theological Seminary, summarized, “What we concluded is that what pastors need are covenant relationships that provide a context to reflect on our work as pastors.”
John Burgess, James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, reminded the group that theological friendship only works when it has an outward-looking vision. We in the church need to give attention to “what is going on beyond us … being drawn beyond ourselves into some new vision of Christ’s work in our midst.”
Darrell Guder, academic dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, agreed. “Relationships are not ends in themselves,” he asserted, “and ordered ministry is not the heart of the gospel. The heart of the gospel is the forming of a people for witness … going all the way back to Abraham.”
The success of the Re-Forming Ministry project gave its leaders pause. It was fueled by an enormous investment of time (from the participants) and funds (from the Lilly Foundation), whereas the Presbyterian system is supposed to facilitate the formation of such relationships on its own. The connectional system envisioned and organized by John Calvin generated a web of theological friendships that empowered deep and significant theological friendships. But today’s church is marked more by institution-building than by friendship-forming. “Do our institutional forms bind us together, or do they simply bind us?” Ensign-George asked.
He answered his question, at least in part. “Re-Forming Ministry,” a creation of the denominational institution, “is one small effort to find our way to the web of covenant relationship which is the best and most basic layer of who we are.”