Phone calls and callings
For many Wake Divinity students the summer is an ideal time to delve into internships that provide significant and meaningful opportunities for their vocational discernment and formation as future religious leaders. From working in hospice and palliative care, ministries supporting the imprisoned, homeless and burdened, assisting with art and restoration efforts of a living museum, to being immersed into the fullness of congregational life in a diverse array of churches, Wake Divinity students are dispersing across the country. This summer, the Unfolding blog will feature weekly posts from several students who are participating in an internship. Each story will speak to their expectations and experiences.
The task of my summer internship was quite simple. On behalf of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC), I was to interview 100 Baptist church leaders from across the state. Hearing directly from its partner congregations is an important part of the re-visioning process of this twenty-year-old organization. We formulated a list of church leaders (laity and ministerial) representing a variety of church sizes, locations and demographics. Then I was handed a spreadsheet and a key to an empty office.
It was not glamorous work, but I soon understood its importance. The interviews were intentionally designed to be conversational in hopes of engaging in honest, authentic dialogue about each faith community. I quickly realized that the essence of a church’s ministry is found more fully in its stories than in the core values posted on their website!
It is impossible to quantify what I learned from these sacred conversations. On the surface I learned that there are many “friendly and welcoming” congregations. And if you need a wheel chair ramp, there are plenty of Baptist congregations who can help. But in the midst of conversations about a multitude of tangible ministry endeavors, an overarching theme began to crystalize. A foundational question: What exactly does it mean to be Church? A strikingly simple question, yet its complexity is too profound for a single individual to explore. It must be considered in community.
Echoes of this fundamental question were evident in conversations about stewardship techniques that no longer resonate and facilities that no longer serve their original purposes. Hints of this question were discernible in conversations about programing changes and new membership policies. It is abundantly clear that Baptist life in North Carolina no longer follows a uniform blueprint. There is no playbook or curriculum for the 21st-century congregation. No matter how we choose to frame it, our churches are in the midst of an inevitable transformation.
While some lament the loss of stability, many churches are beginning to rediscover and embrace God’s ever-changing call. I found that thriving 21st-century congregations have allowed creativity to undermine procedures, collaboration to obscure boundaries and distinctiveness to outshine conformity. Churches who simultaneously embrace their heritage and celebrate their tradition without venerating seem poised for substantial Kingdom work.
And yet, as a seminarian, there is a natural sense of apprehension about how my particular calling fits into this puzzle. The reality of this unpredictable congregational landscape is such that just as local churches are in constant flux, so too are the job descriptions for those who are called to serve them. I have begun to realize that while the call to vocation is undeniably sacred, so too is the call to community. In the midst of this increasingly unstable paradigm of ministry, community may prove to be more important than vocation. Ministers who value creativity, collaboration and distinctiveness seem to be in position to make an impact wherever they are called.
While no one can fully understand the implications of the titanic shifts happening around us, I am convinced now, more than ever, that there are indeed exciting days ahead for the Church. I am proud to be a part of two Christian communities, CBFNC and Wake Forest School of Divinity, who do not dictate to, but partner with and empower local congregations and students to fulfill their unique calling within the context of sacred community.
Before coming to Wake Forest, Seth’s call to vocational ministry led him to serve communities of faith in Alabama, Virginia and Kentucky. He currently lives in Winston Salem with his wife Genelle and their two small children, Caleb and Madilyn.