NOTE: One of my sabbatical projects has been working on a book about spiritual direction in progressive congregations, and I’ve found it helpful to think of the sections as blogs posts. So over the next few weeks I’m going to be sharing some posts on the subject.
When I was in theological school (way back at the beginning of this century), I was, for admittedly selfish reasons, concerned about the future of religion in America. What kind of opportunities will there be for me and my peers once we left the sanctuary of divinity school? Would there be enough congregations looking to call full time clergy? And would the salary and housing allowances be enough to not only support new ministers and their families, but also help us pay back the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans some of us had accumulated?
The fact that these questions even came to mind show how much things had changed since I first discerned my call to the ministry just a few years earlier. Mainline Protestant denominations were in the midst of a sustained period of decline in membership, a decline that showed no sign of abating. And although I was part of a tradition (Unitarian Universalism) that was still showing a slight increase in membership each year, I was aware that the changes were happening in the larger world of religion in America could eventually affect us (they did).
There was one piece of news I heard at the time about this shifting religious landscape that really hit home—my religious home. You see, like most Unitarian Universalists, I came out of a different tradition. I was baptized a Christian in the Lutheran Church of America (the denomination of my father’s family), and when my dad got a job as the choir director of a United Methodist Church (the denomination of my mother’s family), our family made the relatively easy transition from Lutheran to Methodist. This early LCA/UMC combination put me squarely in the moderate to progressive camp of mainline Protestantism in America. So when I heard the news that sometime in the first years of the this new century mainline Protestants would no longer make up the majority of Christians in the United States, I was troubled.
Why? Because my perception of what “church” should be like was naturally based on my experiences growing up. As a minister-in-training, my attitudes toward worship, Sunday school, pastoral care, even potlucks had all been shaped by my mainline Protestant upbringing. And up until that point I assumed that this upbringing was one that I shared with a majority of Americans who identified as Christian. But now, in at the beginning of the 21st century, all if this was changing—for good.
So I entered my ministerial career with more than a bit of anxiety. Yes, things were changing rapidly. We freshly minted ministers needed to stay on top of things, make words like “bi-vocational” and “entrepreneurial” part of our vocabularies, keep an eye on the latest trends and seek out the best practices of congregations that were bucking those treads. That’s more or less what I’ve done—to varying degrees of success. It would have been nice to have some sort of GPS system to help us navigate this new terrain. But the truth was (and still is) that more and more ministers are scrabbling to keep to up with it all.
The new reality is that there is no such thing as “settled” ministry any more. No matter what position a clergy person takes, it’s bound to have a fair amount of uncertainty built into it.
What about the Laity?
Of course, ordained clergy aren’t the only ones being affected by these uncertainties. Most congregations in the United States have a lot of lay leaders. Board members, committee members, religious educators, building and grounds volunteers, social justice activists—congregations exist because so many lay people are willing to invest their time and money. Obviously, the seismic shifts in the America religious landscape have shaken things up for the laity, too.
Anyone who has been a member of a congregation longer than five years or so has probably seen a lot of changes. Worship attendance is down. Regular attenders are attending less regularly. Balancing budgets has become impossible. And there are fewer and fewer denominational staff members to turn to for help. In a word, things are tough—for everyone.
All of us who are involved with congregations in the United States—paid or volunteer, lay or ordained—are experiencing what some have called “the dark night of the church.” Sanctuaries and meeting rooms that used to be full are now routinely well below capacity. Successful pledge drives are a thing of the past. Staff members are seeing their hours reduced or their positions eliminated. Deferred maintenance is a way of life. It’s enough to make anyone question their commitment to their religious community.
Clearly, the heyday of congregations is the United States is over. And for all of us who believe that progressive religious communities affiliated with established faith traditions still have something to offer, this is unsettling. Being unsettled, however, in not necessarily bad. If we are, indeed, going through a “dark night of the church” in the United States, this could actually good news. Why? Because crises of faith like this—be they individual or collective—are actually invitations to something better.
How, then, do we get to that better place? Those who speak of the dark night of the church follow the lead of Saint John of the Cross by saying “that in the dark night one needs a spiritual director, a soul friend.” I believe this is more true today than ever. The good news is that at the same time mainline Protestantism and other moderate to progressive religious traditions have been changing, so has the practice of spiritual direction. While progressive religious traditions have been waning, the number of spiritual directors, as well as the number of people seeking spiritual direction, has been increasing.
Perhaps more importantly, the spiritual direction has in the last 30 years or so transcended the traditions commonly associated with the practice—primarily Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox—to become a truly multifaith, interspiritual movement. Spiritual direction, spiritual guidance, spiritual companionship—no matter what you call it, I believe that this ancient practice can give both clergy and laity the tools we need to make it through the dark night of the church and into a new era of progressive religion in America. My hope is that this series of posts will end up being a comprehensive guide for making that so.