Overcoming the Beautiful Myth

I’m at Georgetown College in Kentucky, today, meeting with a group of pastors to talk about practices to grow congregations and ministry. I do that kind of thing a lot. What’s different this time is that Georgetown is a Baptist College. So you might wonder why I was invited. Well, because Georgetown in a Baptist College that has, over the years, come to partner with Episcopalians and members of the Disciples of Christ and Methodists and other traditions in the Lexington area. And when one of the Baptist professors at Georgetown asked one of his Episcopal colleagues whom her community would like to hear from, she suggested me. I’m here, that is, because Georgetown College knows the value of partnerships.

This is where we are in the church today. We need not just to value partnerships in general but to cultivate in particular deep and vibrant relationships.

I’ll talk form my vantage point for a moment. The idea of a free-standing seminary – you know, not “owned” by the denomination but more like a liberal arts college – has for many years been a beautiful myth. It has always been something of a myth because seminaries always depended on a larger ecology of congregations and synods and more. So while we took pride in our independence, and liked thinking about ourselves as small liberal arts colleges, it was never really the full or most accurate way of describing ourselves.

Today, things have changed. The idea of a free-standing seminary is no longer a beautiful myth, it’s a dangerous one. We cannot go it alone. We need to be in active partnerships with a variety of other institutions both inside and outside the church. And the thing is, when it comes to a seminary, that shouldn’t be all that hard to do. Everyone who cares about the church has an investment in seminaries flourishing. We need leaders, and seminaries are the primary place that forms leaders for ministry. And so seminaries need to reach out to congregations and offer both to be a resource and trusted partner for them as well as seek their support in terms of prayers and finances and encouraging people with gifts for ministry to study at seminary.

But we also need to partner to see what we can do together for the world, not just for each other. Can we train leaders differently? Can we make a difference in our communities? Can change the world? Why do we need to do this? Because we can accomplish more together than than apart.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. We also need to reach out to Synods and camps and social ministry agencies, asking what we can do together. And we need to look to some of the institutions of our neighborhood as well – arts agencies and preschools and whoever else might benefit from our space or location and who might want to enter into partnerships to strengthen the community we share and which God loves. Because, once again, we can do more together than we could do apart.

Well, that’s what I see for seminaries. But I think the same is true for congregations. The congregations that I see flourishing are those who have recognized that whether they can or can’t go it alone financially, that’s not what they were called to be. The idea of a free-standing congregation is also a dangerous myth because God doesn’t want us to go it alone. We’re the body of Christ, after all, created to be in relationship with each other. And so the congregations I see that are flourishing have figured out that they have lots of partners – other congregations, synods, camps, seminaries, for sure; but also the local elementary school, nursing home, social ministry agencies, local food pantry, and more. The congregations I see that are flourishing have fashioned all kinds of creative and deep partnerships with the ones around them.

So take a moment and look around, daydream, wonder, and think about with whom you might partner. What can your congregation do with someone else, in or out of the church, that you couldn’t do alone? We’re not used to thinking this way, as we’ve bought into the cultural value of the beautiful myth of independence? But after a little practice it soon becomes fun, and then exciting, and then down right productive, as we live into God’s vision of inter-dependence, where varieties of people and communities and institutions partner to care for this world God loves so much.

And when we do that — when we start thinking in terms of partnerships — we don’t just see a Lutheran talking with Baptists (though we might see more of that!), we see a flourishing and vibrant church.