Beta Testers, by Susan Snook

It’s not really news to say that things have changed since the halcyon days of the 1960s, when eager young men flocked to seminaries, graduated to comfy curacies, went on to prestigious associate positions, and ended up ensconced as cardinal rectors.

The Diocese of Connecticut recently suspended its ordination process while it reconsidered ordination for a new time.  Now, it has released new guidelines for a “provisional” process.  Candidates will be “participant observers” or “beta testers.”  They should be “uniquely able to thrive in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty, and … uniquely open to the creative possibilities of doing discernment and formation in new and uncharted ways.”

Here is how Connecticut sums up the contemporary church scene:

The church in general and the Episcopal Church in particular are facing great challenges as they seek to adapt to the realities of the 21st Century. Church attendance is no longer culturally mandatory. Competition on Sunday mornings is fierce. Denominational loyalty is increasingly a thing of the past. Christianity exists alongside a plethora of other faith traditions. Biblical literacy can no longer be presumed.

These and other realities have had a profound impact on the nature and shape of the priesthood. The old mid-20th Century bargain – that if one graduates from seminary and successfully navigates the ordination process, a lifetime of full-time parish ministry is virtually assured – no longer holds. Neither does a system in which newly-minted priests have the option of apprenticing under seasoned ones. Clergy positions are shrinking, in number and in scope, as financially-strapped parishes seek to stretch their resources. These trends are exacerbated in a diocese such as ours where every town has its own parish and many have more than one. At the same time, our parishes are becoming increasingly diverse, culturally as well as demographically. And we are discovering anew that “the church” does not exist for itself, but rather to do God’s work in the world.

 

As I read the diocese’s summary of conditions in the 21st century church, I am struck by a couple of things.  First, Connecticut’s assessment of our situation is true, there is no doubt.  I don’t think it would be helpful at all NOT to take a good hard look at where the church finds itself these days, and it certainly isn’t helpful to go on preparing 1962-style priests for the world of 2012.

But second, what I like about Connecticut’s assessment is not its harsh look at reality, but that it finds at least a few reasons for new hope – increased diversity and more outward focus on God’s work in the world.  These are good things.  Times are harder for the church now than in 1962, it is true.  But I think that’s good for the church.  Who wants to be a leader in a church where attendance is “culturally mandatory”?  Where people attend because they’ve always been Episcopalians, and you know, the Episcopal Church is where all the best people go?  Where the work of Christian education is already done for us by school and society?

I think today’s church is a much more exciting place to be a leader.  Most of the newcomers finding their way to my church these days are people who have been away from any church for a long, long time.  They have questions, they have doubts, they have hurts.  Yet they are spiritually hungry and they want to know where God is in their lives.  I love watching lives transformed by the power of the gospel, especially in our rich Episcopal tradition.

The whole premise of Acts 8 is that the church is not yet ready for hospice – we are not preparing for a long and graceful goodbye.  We are instead in a time when old ways are dying, but that the Holy Spirit is looking to scatter us out into uncharted territory, like the Spirit whisked Philip out into Samaria, the road to Gaza, and Azotus in Acts 8.  In going to new places and new people, the church will find new ways to proclaim the good news of Christ.