Pentecost Sunday: Fifty days after Easter (it happened this past Sunday); known as the day the church was born; marks the day the Holy Spirit descended to earth; when people, despite their differences, came together to form the community that we now call church. It is the day when God breathed life into the church, just as God did when God breathed life into Adam.
Next week is General Assembly, the bi-annual gathering of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Like many other meetings of this kind, these national gatherings often become public displays of division and discord rather than being a time of affirmation and unity. Talk of schism and leaving the church come on the heels of the birthday we just celebrated.
This public display of division is devastating to morale and public image. While these proceedings mean a great deal to those who are heavily invested in the denomination, for many outside the conversation, the debate is of little interest and the fate of the denomination of little consequence. The division, and the obsession over "wedge issues" marginalizes our faith communities to a point where the news becomes stories about how badly we behave, instead of who we have been, who we are, and what we want to become.
So where do we find unity and leadership that will seize the energies that come with the dawn of a new day? I have found it in the most unlikely of places. Inspired and led by current students and recent graduates and the recruitment and admissions offices at seminaries and divinity schools, they have become unusual allies. These individuals at different campuses have banded together to launch the New Faces of Ministry Tour. Throughout the summer, students and recent alums are traveling in pairs visiting camps, youth corps, congregations, and colleges to share their experiences of integrating faith and service, as well as their visions and hopes for the church.
This is not a big-ticket item funded through some large grant; instead, it is all grass roots. Inspired by two seminarians, Alison Burchett and Betsy Lyles. Each participating school has paid a vendor fee of $2,500 and one month's salary for a student to travel. But instead of sitting at a booth at a career service fair, these folks are on the road, walking the talk.
Through my years of working with the church and theological education, some of the most powerful and prophetic voices have come from the leadership in the admissions office. Shonda Jones, an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, once headed the admissions office at Candler School of Theology and now does the same at Wake Forest Divinity School. She offers one of the most powerful and graceful ministries in the country in leading the charge of making theological education relevant again. She will explain to you that her job is not to recruit individuals to go to a particular seminary or to seminary at all. Instead, her commitment is to be present with people as they discern what they want to do with their lives. When you do that, she explains, the admissions numbers take care of themselves.
When asked why she would want to sponsor a joint student effort led by students from what would traditionally be seen as competitor institutions, she said:
It's not about competition, it's about collaboration. I'm interested in tapping into the creative energy of young people who want to change the world. This tour is a good example of working together with colleagues so that the option of theological education is on the radar of these gifted individuals. The church needs religious leaders who care about the environment, are concerned about feeding the hungry, and interested in public policy.
Carrie Carroll, the VP for Enrollment at Luther Seminary, echoed her sentiment,
We need to stir the imagination in young adults regarding the meaning of theological education. Our broken and confused world needs theologically trained leaders that will tend to others, give hope to the hurting and show grace and understanding for our differences. This tour gives us an opportunity to present Church in a new way that speaks to the passions and the experiences of these amazing young adults.
The New Faces of Ministry Tour is not your usual recruitment trip. They are not just handing out a lot of seminary swag with all the breath mints, Frisbees, disposable earphones, pens and cup holders. Instead, we are presenting a core of energetic, outside-the-box seminarians who may be uncertain about their futures but not about their faith convictions. These are students who are committed to carving out roles for themselves based on the faith convictions they find most compelling.
Last year, Betsy Lyles, Sammie Evans, and Katy Lee jumped in a beat-up mini van and drove west from Trenton, having been commissioned by a small, inner-city church in Trenton led by Rev. Karen Hernandez. After visiting more than a hundred sites last year, Ms. Lyles is organizing this year's tour. When asked why she was involved she responded:
I am doing this because seminaries and divinity schools have a special responsibility to young adults who may not know what questions they have about theological education, or who may know their questions and have no one to ask, or who may not have ever considered theological education.
I am doing it because there are many young adults serving communities because of their faith, but haven't necessarily found faith communities.
I am doing it because showing up as a representative of theological education and of the church without an agenda is a beautiful expression of unity, and unfortunately, contrary to the divisive and competitive nature of the church that my generation has come to know.
One seminary or church can't go it alone when it comes to rebuilding the church.
Seminary students on the tour will share their stories of deep engagement in the world and how it brought them to seminary; they will describe how they connect their commitment to engage in the world while attending school; and they will lift up their hope for finding full time work after they graduate that integrates their service passion and their vision for ministry.
Because of them and the schools that support their voice and vision, today is a day of hope, possibility, creativity, humility, purpose, and yes, unity.
And so this Pentecost we have life being breathed into the church ... again.