Religious fluidity


The blog medium is wonderful, in many ways. But sometimes people have a bone to pick with me about something I wrote 3 months ago, and I can’t even remember what they’re talking about. Also, all writers learn to eat their words, at one time or another, but in this format, I have so many more words to eat.

I spoke to someone recently about this post. I deeply respect this pastor, and he had been a faithful part of the written ordination examination process for many years. And he wanted me to hear the other side. You know, the careful process that they go through to make sure the exams are fairly graded. He assured me that the failure of the appeal process was unique to my case.

I found myself getting a lot more heated than I should have. It started when he said, “People just need to pass. They don’t need the highest grade. They need to shoot for the lowest passing grade. Smart people get in trouble when they get too creative or start showing off.”

At that point, I protested, “What? We have enough average uncreative pastors. Why would we have a system that could possibly weed out smart, creative ones?”

We argued for a few moments, until we finally found a place where we agreed. I said, “I didn’t grow up Presbyterian, and there’s something about the way that Presbyterians do things culturally that I don’t get.”

That was it. There were certain things that I didn’t get then, and I don’t get now. But I’m not alone. There may have been a time in our country when people were born and bred into a certain religious tradition, and they stayed there for their whole lives. That time is long gone.

Many people have weighed in on the latest research tracking the fluidity of the religious landscape in our country. The migration is something that often marks adults in their 20s and 30s, but it’s not just us.

We had a new member class in our church yesterday, and as I looked around the table, there were Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and one Episcopalian. And they varied in ages. Often they tried the churches in their own tradition, and something didn’t quite fit, so they ended up in our congregation. Anyone who’s been in a growing church in the last ten years knows the reality of people coming from other religious traditions, or from no tradition at all.

We need to encourage our pastors to be vibrant, smart, and creative. And we need to realize that a healthy, growing denomination will have very few candidates that will come from their own tradition.

That was the biggest cultural change I went through. In the Evangelical church, when someone joins from the mainline, everyone welcomes him. They figure that conversion into Evangelicalism is absolutely the most logical thing that one can do.

Entering the PCUSA was much different. There was a whole lot of skepticism. When my husband and I were examined for ordination, people asked, over and over again, “Why did you leave a growing church to be a part of a dwindling one?”

On good days, they couldn’t understand the shift. On bad days, some acted as if we had a nefarious conservative plot to take over the denomination. During a very low point, our own local congregation thought that we were trying to steal their money.

(I guess I better explain that. Our pastor promised us book money from the church when we went off the seminary. He gave us the church Cokesbury card number. When he left the congregation, the church didn’t know about the promise. We used the card. They were furious. They wanted their money back. We were shocked. And we didn’t have any money to give them. It was explained to us by an elder who said, “Well, you know, you didn’t grow up in our church….” When we finally got through the ordination process, the interim pastor preached a blistering sermon about how the church SHOULD be proud…).

As I read UnChristian, I’m struck by the radical inconsistencies between people aged 16 to 29 and the Evangelical churches that so many of them grow up in. They’re tired of people trying to convert them, they don’t understand anti-homosexual attitudes, and they appreciate diversity. Very few of them are conservative Republicans.

In the coming years, it will be the most logical thing for young Evangelicals to begin entering the mainline.

Now the question will be, can we accept them? More than that, can we welcome them? Can we appreciate their leadership in our pews and in our pulpits? Can we become aggressive about planting new churches, where new leadership can flourish? If we can somehow learn to do this, this could be a very vital time for our congregations.

15 thoughts on “Religious fluidity

  1. My answer is definitely a yes. I don’t even care if they are conservative Republicans – but if they’re not, we’ll have less to argue about, which is nice.

    But what I’m afraid of is Evangelicaphobia in the PCUSA among other progressives. I think lines are shifting though. I hear more and more about social justice and the environment from Evangelicals, and frankly its pretty exciting. Makes me feel, sometimes, like I’m in less of an uphill battle. And yeah, if they want a hand talking about personal morality, I’m doing some of that myself so that’s fine too 🙂

  2. Now that I have been doing assessment in higher education for a while, I have wondered about the ordination assessment process itself. I am not sure it is all that adequate.

    I have wondered about the ordination exam process itself in terms of outcomes. I think a far better assessment would be like what they do for teacher education. There you put together a portfolio that includes your exam results, but it also includes how well you have met standard outcomes in your teacher education program, your philosophy of education, etc. It is a far better assessment tool since it gives you a well-rounded understanding of that person’s ability to teach.

    The ord exams have a massive amount of weight to them. While you do go through trials with Presbytery and so forth, it seems to be a disconnected process where you jump hoops and at each stage no one really can see how well you went through the previous hoop!

    From the examiner’s side, and related to the exams themselves, what do the ratings actually mean? Is it tied to a rubric that measure outcomes for the exams that everyone grades with? Are the scores then assessed to test for inter-rater reliability and so forth to see if the exam is doing what it needs to?

  3. Although I was a lifelong Presbyterian with a family tree of Presbyterian ancestors tracking back to Scotland via Northern Ireland, I was also suspected of nefarious business by going to a non-Presbyterian seminary (Andover-Newton). My final exam before ordination was nuts.

    It speaks to me about our Circle the Wagons mentality. If we weren’t so worried about surviving as a denomination, we could open up and welcome “the stranger” a bit better and recognize how much the diversity would contribute to a thriving church.

  4. Yes! And John (the HOS) pointed out something recently that’s gotten me thinking…. Our Presbyteries have a very unfortunate habit of working out its “issues” on candidates.

    I wish there was some way to shield the candidates from our ingrown nastiness, encourage them, let them thrive….

  5. I know of one candidate whose answers, results and exam were discussed around the lunch table by a group of Presbyterian pastors and the grader. Guess there isn’t a way to ever stop this kind of thing; but it should never happen.

  6. In my denomination you are suspect if you go to the “wrong” seminary (in the wrong part of the country, get that), because we have different pieties. so if a midwesterner goes to one of the eastern sems, people are all suspicious and they have a hard time.


    you ask such good questions. I wonder if we’ll be ready to accept some new people and fresh ideas, as well.

  7. Us late comers to the denomination or prodigal kids are entering the denomination with hope to be a part of its reconstruction.
    I am thankful for the opportunity to serve and be a part of this group. I see there is hope for alternative vision and pray that the ordination process be come encouraging and open to this alternative styles as well.

    I feel called…no I am called to serve here in this denomination. I want to serve and be a leader. I do not care if I am ordained. In the same respect I am not ready to take second class status because I am not ordained.

    I know God did not bring me this far too die in the desert. There are hungry folks that need me as much as I need them. We shall meet and we shall gather. We shall worship. We shall walk together.

  8. You guys have a hard job! I am much less involved in Church Politics, as a plain old church member. I saw the psych eval Neal had to fill out to get into seminary!! They’d never let me in! I am familiar with some of the blocking techniques used by people in the Presbyterian system. I’ve seen it in my small church, down to just who can get on session, etc. You have to have someone on the inside pulling for you. I’ve been active in my church for 5 years and never been approached to do anything “official”. And I pretty much run the mission projects, but not as a session member. But, I’m not in the power group at my church, I doubt it will happen. I don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve learned I can’t change people’s minds if they are set. So I just go where I’m wanted, which is ending up being Downtown Dallas. I’m a cynical Gen Xer- and I just wander off instead of fight. But, I do like Presbyterians and the careful considerations, and the order & democracy, etc. No one church is perfect.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  9. Oh good. I hope you get a chance to read it while you’re still on morphine. I bet it’ll be better that way!

    And… if you ever did decide to go to seminary… they’d let you in. And there would be a lot of people pulling for you too!

    I get frustrated by the hoops, especially as I watch other people struggle through them, but the good news is that there are hoops.

    I mean, for me… I was 24 when I went to seminary… and there was a whole lot of comfort knowing that if I got through the hoops, then I would be a pastor. In many churches, where everything really is based on who’s in and who’s out, I wouldn’t have had a chance…

    I do hope you feel well soon. That sounds awful…

  10. I remember conceptualizing the whole Inquiry and Candidacy thing as Trial By Process. If I couldn’t endure the frustrations of the ordination requirements, then how could I possibly handle the frustrations of day to day life with a community of Jesus seeking but imperfect human beings? If you can make it through THAT and still have your God’s call burning like a fire in your belly, then it simply must be real.

  11. I am a young seminarian and Presbyterian. So far the inquiry process hasn’t been bad for me, but all I’ve had to do is stand before my session and the cpm. My frustration (and maybe other young folks share this) is that there are no avenues (other than youth ministry) where a young person can have any real influence. We’re not asked, included, or even thought of by the (boomer) powers that be. And in the meantime, I watch while all my friends slowly stop going to church… I want a voice!!

  12. Good for you! It is a growing frustration, but for me, it’s been much more refreshing to see the frustration than apathy!

    Keep going through the process… There will be times that your voice is ignored, and undervalued. But things are changing. Some pockets of the church are beginning to realize how important young leadership is.

    And, if you can’t find a voice in the larger church, then there are avenues growing alongside the church who will listen.

    Just keep talking. You are the key that will let your friends back into the church. And some of us are listening…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s