The elephant in the room
The May Insights on ministry gives the rest of us some appreciation of challenges facing our spiritual leaders, thanks to Rev Jane Fry and her co-contributors. But is there an elephant in the room for both ministers and laity?
In few other professions is one expected to have such deep personal belief. I recently retired after 50 years as a professional engineer. I applied science, logic, proven techniques and guidelines, to my work, but I did not have to believe in these foundations in the way we expect our ministers to believe in God and the metaphysics of our religion. If research produced a better version of the science or technology, I simply adopted it without angst or misgiving. The profession of ordained minister rests on a deeper personal commitment.
Research into theology and the Bible is vital for a church moving forward. But it can often lead to challenging re-assessments of faith for the researchers. It is exciting but dangerous territory. Some emerge from the journey with a different but strengthened Christian faith, such as a Tom Wright or a Marcus Borg. Others lose their faith, such as a Bart Ehrman or a Gerd Lüdemann. While much modern religious research can be uplifting and intense, it can also be corrosive in terms of personal belief.
So it is a surprise that “the top seven pressures faced by ministers”, listed on p.21 of Insights, do not touch directly on theological questioning. Yes, managing psychological stresses and time are vitally important, but do our ministers never question or reflect on the metaphysics they encountered in college and in their ministry? Or is this relegated to the subconscious? Or is it just an off-limits topic?
Going further, if some at least of our ministers are not asking difficult and dangerous questions about the faith, both in ministry and in the academy – and the “seven pressures” seems to suggest very few are – then the future looks bleak. Why? Well our current theological perspectives seem to have diminishing capacity to attract people to the Uniting Church; some research and questioning seems appropriate.
Unless we become involved in a costly, risky and painful re-think of what the gospel means for 21st century Australia, our current course of decline seems inevitable. To engage in such a re-think we need to give our religious professionals enough space, time, permission and encouragement to lead us. We need to let them concentrate on being pastors and theologians, while challenging them to be radical, and keeping their administrative burdens to the minimum. If we don’t, I fear we in the laity will continue voting with our feet, while our spiritual leaders become swamped in managerialism.
In down-to-earth marketing terms, our product is the gospel and, packaged as we’re now offering it, it isn’t selling very well.
John Court, Denistone, NSW