Yesterday, I spent some quality time with my local college town. I meandered through our downtown district, noticing what was happening in and around our shops and restaurants. Then, I wandered through our local campus. Most students have left for the summer, so it feels emptier. At the same time, with a less busy atmosphere, more can be noticed and appreciated in specific ways.
I did not intentionally eavesdrop, but while walking, I naturally overheard some conversations. One person articulated to a colleague her grand strategy to achieve the ideal schedule. She went through all the safeguards she will eventually put into place so that she is no longer juggling everything to an absurd degree (her words) and will finally have time with her family.
That is an expression of the challenges my neighbors often face in this university town with its demanding culture and the internal pressures of the impostor’s syndrome.
But as I walked along, I encountered other kinds of struggles as well. At one point, I sat with a friend of mine. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her, but she was back in a space she frequents from time to time. She and her husband come here to panhandle on both sides of the street. They struggle to have shelter, but today, they have a different concern. Her husband’s mother has died, and they need to get to Toledo to be with the rest of the family. I listened and said a prayer with her.
In the midst of all these moments, I pondered the gifts and needs that people carry here. Then suddenly, I had a thought which filled me with a sense of recognition and rootedness.
“I want to be a chaplain for this town,” I thought.
The idea resonates with recognition because it taps into my sense of calling.
The idea resonates with rootedness because I love this place.
In many ways, that’s already who I get to be functionally. It’s a great gift to live like a chaplain in the midst of two towns — Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Though I’m not making a living this way, I hardly feel more alive than these moments when I get to be in the neighborhoods, visiting with people, learning from them, and speaking spiritual meaning alongside them.
This thought stayed with me when a friend sent a text a few hours later. She’s a seminary student taking a class to explore the practice of ministry in a post-congregational context. She mentioned that this class will be important, as she and her fellow students will need to engage ministry and community development differently than pastors who have come before them.
That’s good language for the transition we’re in, I found myself thinking later. We are moving into a post-congregational culture, and in some ways, we are already there.
I don’t think this the end of Christianity, and
I don’t think this is the end of spiritual community.
They aren’t ending,
but they are definitely changing.
Local congregations are not suddenly irrelevant without any meaning or mission to offer their neighborhoods. But at the same time, neighbors aren’t connecting with congregations in the same ways they did decades ago. There are disconnections and cultural changes taking place both within and beyond local churches, and they are creating the shifts we are watching. At the same time, some congregations have practiced exclusion and poor ethics, and that has sent some leaving quite deliberately, perhaps without a new home to practice their spiritual life.
In a similar way, congregational pastors are not suddenly irrelevant without any meaning or mission to offer their neighborhoods either. Many of them want to be present with people beyond the walls of their own congregations. In fact, they long to have time for it. But as their congregations are declining, there are simply more pastoral and administrative needs on the inside. How can congregational pastors have the time to connect broadly with people beyond their own church contexts? It is definitely a challenge.
For all of these reasons, I wonder. . .
What if we could call people to serve as chaplains for particular towns and neighborhoods, organizing spiritual life and community connections in uncharted ways?
What if we actually did that?
What would be needed, and what obstacles would have to be cleared, in order to create such roles?
What if some of our seminarians could serve in this way upon graduation?
I’m a realist, knowing it would take a lot of financial support and creativity to form these kinds of roles, but the shifts we are seeing in spiritual demographics are already necessitating them.
So what are your ideas?
How could this actually be done?