Ministry Reflection

“Flourishing for All People”: Early-Career Ministers Reflect on What They Value in Congregations

Spencer Taylor, upcoming Emmanuel Christian Seminary graduate, has spent his time in seminary ministering to the youth at Central Holston Christian Church. In his work, Spencer often returns to the wisdom of Andrew Root. Root writes, “ministry is about connection, one to another, about sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting persons with no pretense or secret motives. It is about shared life, confessing Christ not outside the relationship but within it.” Talking to Spencer, it is apparent he embodies this vision of ministry in his own life, especially through his use of trauma-informed practices to minister to students. Another person who embodies this approach to ministry is upcoming graduate Rachael Parks, who ministers to international students at ETSU Campus House. I recently had the opportunity to interview Spencer and Rachael about what they value in congregations in which they might want to serve. Our conversations ranged from themes of community to ministerial wellbeing. Here are some of the highlights from these rich conversations.

What qualities have been present in churches where you have felt at home or where you would be excited to serve?

Both Rachael and Spencer grounded their answers in community, expressing their desires for a congregation that engages deeply and authentically with God, one another, and those outside its walls. “Congregations that are more focused on how the community engages with one another and less focused on whether or not you believe the right thing are appealing to me,” stated Spencer. Similarly, Rachael reflected on the need for a diverse community where people live, worship, and work together across differences. “The world, at least the United States, is so polarized,” she observed. “We all have this deep desire and craving for community where we can show up in all our humanity, without exception…[the church’s] witness right now is to be a space where we embody community where people are different from one another.”

Spencer shared that one sign of a relationally-focused community is an active ministry to its elderly population. Both Spencer and Rachael lamented the church’s tendency to focus on youth out of an “anxiety about the future of the church.” Spencer stated that a church caring for its older population—prioritizing accessibility, providing pastoral care to aging congregants, considering their needs in decisions—is a sign that church values “transformation and flourishing for all people,” not just boosting numbers. Rachael also shared frustration that churches often “make choices based on whether or not something is going to attract people, and it’s almost always about quantity and not quality.”

For Rachael, focusing on quality over quantity involves taking risks. “I’m looking for a church that is willing to try things and fail,” she shared, one that is “willing to really sit and listen to the Spirit and see where she is moving. We are so busy all the time…but one of the keys to a sustainable ministry is that it’s not of human flesh but of the Spirit.” She wondered what it would look like for congregations to make more space to listen for “where the Spirit is moving.” This is also tied to open communication and involving multiple voices in decision-making. Rachael expressed hesitancies about serving in a church that lacks or limits transparency in major decisions involving the congregation.

More practically, Spencer and Rachael would be excited to work in churches that care for ministerial wellbeing in multiple areas, including expectations, communication, pay, and benefits. Rachael stated, “no church should be putting ministers on pedestals or expecting the minister to do the majority of the work…that attitude just leads to burnout…A minister’s job is to lead, but ministers are still people. There needs to be space for them to be people.” Elders should routinely check in with ministers on how they are doing, and the congregation should be open to ministers “being honest about their struggles without condemnation.” An important key for preventing burnout is a “spirit of collaboration between the minister and the congregation: this is our ministry.”

For Spencer, prioritizing ministerial wellbeing can be as simple as “concrete job descriptions” and “clear communication about expectations.” This is particularly true for those in part-time roles. Part-time ministers, Spencer shared, often “work 50 hours a week and get paid for 25…So, there is always the tension of ‘I am a member of the church but I’m also an employee of the church.” Spencer would look for some key elements in a potential church: that they are “willing to hire a pastor as an employee and not an independent contractor,” that they provide a fair wage with insurance and benefits, and that the church understands and respects that “a pastor’s time is limited, so they need good boundaries.”

Another concern for Rachael and Spencer is reasonable expectations regarding a pastor’s family. “A minister’s spouse is not the minister. Neither are their kids. Or their parents,” stated Rachael. Often, though, churches operate out of unspoken expectations for a minister’s family instead of genuine care. “There is an expectation that if the spouse is a woman, she will do children’s ministry,” Spencer shared. “So, a litmus test for us would be how tightly a church demands or conforms to traditional gender roles or expects ministers to.”

What motivates you or the young adults you work with to actively participate in a church or ministry?

“I think a lot of people are concerned with how we get young people into our church,” observed Rachael, “but I don’t think that is the right question. I think the right question is, ‘what kind of community are we inviting them into?’ And everybody…wants a space where they feel like they can use their voice and share their opinion and it’d be valued. They want a seat at the table.” Rachael and Spencer shared that churches often think young adults are looking for “contemporary music” or “drums.” In reality, many are searching for an “authentic community that is true to its own culture” where their voice matters. They are searching for a “space of rest and life” where they can meet God, follow Jesus, and listen for the Spirit together.

Rachael and Spencer shared that churches often think young adults are looking for “contemporary music” or “drums.” In reality, many are searching for an “authentic community that is true to its own culture” where their voice matters. They are searching for a “space of rest and life” where they can meet God, follow Jesus, and listen for the Spirit together.

This kind of community is built on curiosity and trust. Young people are curious about scripture and theology, but their curiosity is often met with suspicion. Spencer and Rachael observed that elders often don’t trust young adults to have informed and faithful theologies or interpretations of the Bible simply because they come to different conclusions. “It’s okay for me to have an opinion on something that I have education about, even if it’s different than yours,” shared Spencer. Often, Rachael echoed, young people feel like the church has said to them, “we want you for your energy, but we don’t want your ideas…young people want to be heard, even if you disagree with them.”

What experiences or lessons are you currently holding onto related to God’s work in the world through the church?

Both Rachael and Spencer expressed frustrations about the US church’s focus on politics. Spencer longs for the church to be “a community that is arranged around relationships and not around political or social issues.” He imagines a church that is brought together by “common terms of engagement and decision-making instead of what you have to be and do to be part of our church.” In our interview he shared the story of a church that lives according to the mantra, “always an icon,” or, “remember that all people are made in the image of God.” Spencer wondered, “What would happen if we lived like we believed that? If we treated each other like we were all made in the image of God?” For Spencer, this vision is more compelling than a particular statement of beliefs or approach to worship.

When asked about her hopes for the church, Rachael shared hopes for “the full inclusion of women in leadership at all levels.” An essential part of God’s calling on Rachael’s life has been preaching, and she dreams of a church in which all women can live more fully into their callings. She hopes for a church that takes justice issues like racism seriously. She also acknowledges the limitations of the church. “As wonderful and as beautiful as community in the church can be, human beings are flawed,” confessed Rachael. “And so, God can work inside and outside the church, and God is bigger than the church…the church is not the end game.” The continuing work of the Spirit takes place through “all creation.” Before coming to seminary, her definition of church was “pretty one-dimensional.” It was a place to come and worship and hear a sermon. Now, “every single time I go to church and we celebrate the eucharist together and we gather in worship—that hour and a half on Sunday is the smallest taste of what our life should be like…the constant reminder that this is what we are working toward; this is the vision, just the smallest crumb of God’s vision for the world.”

Author’s note: I want to express my deep gratitude for the time and care Spencer and Rachael gave to these interviews. I have learned from their wisdom, expressed here and lived in their lives, scholarship, and ministries during their time at Emmanuel.

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