Divergent Boundaries and Ministry in the Rift Valley

Blog Series:  “Lost in Translation”

Using Paul’s engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17 as a backdrop, we are reflecting on the many gaps, disconnections, and misalignments we see across the landscape of ministry, along with some hopeful and constructive suggestions for how to respond faithfully.

Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Often these are the sites of “divergent boundaries,” the space created by tectonic plates that move away from each other. With all the talk of massive “shifts” in ministry and culture in recent years, we would do well to name what “tectonic plates” have been moving away from each other, and what the divergent boundary might look like.

Here’s one set of “plates” shifting away from each other that deserves far more attention: Pastors and everyone else.

Especially with respect to ministry contexts and traditions that have little or no experience on the social and economic margins, I’m concerned that pastors are becoming more and more prone to insular shoptalk and accompanying priorities that are shifting us further away from the daily realities of the general population. Not in every circumstance, of course. Most of us are on a daily basis intimately involved in the lives of our communities in beautiful, powerful, life-giving ways. But when we huddle together to forecast the future, strategize, and reflect on the ups and downs of ministry – oftentimes under the banner of “support” – we shift into an echo chamber that is walled off and unintelligible to the outside world. This widening chasm is on display at conferences I attend, webinars I watch, denominational and seminary emails I receive, and in many of the conversations with fellow clergy throughout the week. It’s evident in our ministry jargon, the way we talk about institutional “change,” leadership, denominational politics, the implicit assumption that our challenges are impossible for others to understand, the way we describe our congregations, and what we assume are the most pressing issues in our culture (which are often not aligned with the concerns of most Americans.) It’s especially pronounced in our predominantly white mainline contexts (which are increasingly segregated by class and education, in addition to race), but touches every church demographic.

I don’t mean to suggest that we clergy are primarily responsible for this divergence. The ecosystem of ministry is multifaceted and complex.  At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s one way to narrate how we got here:

  1. As church traditions across the board over the past 60 years have lost their standing as a normative part of culture and society (and in the case of the mainline, white, middle and upper class churches, a seat at the civic table and political power)
  2. …. We’ve understandably experienced increased anxiety about institutional sustainability.
  3. And to cope, we – as systems and as individuals – have turned inward, toward ourselves and one another, trying to make sense of it, normalizing the frustration, pain, and grief.
  4. … With the unintended result of narrating ministry in ways that are insular and, as my friend Ben Johnston Krase has repeated over the years, focusing on ministry “stuff” no one else cares about.

It is, in other words, pastors’ ‘social construction of reality’[1] by which our perceptions of reality are driven by our social systems and peer groups. We naturally prefer these constructions, because, as Walter Lippman famously concluded, “in that world, people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members.”[2] The problem is, we sometimes feel “at home” in a ministry cul-de-sac that is no longer anywhere on the map of the outside world.

AND YET, divergent boundaries – these spaces between the two tectonic plates moving away from one another – are also a place of new ground, fertile rift valleys ready for new ecologies.  And so my fundamental question is, how can we pastors dismantle the echo chambers, get off this departing tectonic plate, and more consciously, intentionally, forcefully pursue these fertile spaces? What will it require? What sort of radical recalibration of how, when, where we invest our time and energy? What changes to our common discourse about ministry? What’s the risk and the cost? (and indeed, what’s the risk of not doing so?) What will it look like when we insist that our theological reflection, language, concerns, and ministry habits be more firmly situated in – and proceed from – spaces that are less church-centric (we might ask, as our friend Tim Soerens once put it, “where is the church on a Tuesday afternoon?”)? What implications does this have for how we convene clergy? For how and where we host meetings with leadership teams from our congregations? And perhaps most fundamentally, what sort of reframing and recommitment to our call as ministers of the gospel might it require? What shape will the Spirit’s inspiration take?

Exploring these sorts of questions together helps move us toward the fertile rift valley, a meaning-making space that our culture is currently longing for, a space with avenues for everyone – not least young people – to explore faith and spirituality. A culture awash in loneliness and despair is craving this possibility. Let’s offer it.

When Paul enters Athens in Acts 17, he “looks carefully” to what’s happening in the city, the marketplace, and of course to the spiritual and religious spaces. He identifies the new, fertile ground created by the divergent boundaries, a place of joining in hope with others who have seemed so far off. Jesus takes up this sort of phenomenon in a profound manner, the Incarnation, God with us, God plunged into the places of deep tension and possibility. This divergent boundary is “the place of Jesus’ ministry, the place between empire and religious establishment, the fertile plain and grassy hillside where the kingdom takes root,” as my ever insightful friend Sherrad Hayes has put it.

Less shoptalk, please. Less insularity. More exploring the full breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love, beyond our frequently siloed ministry vocations and institutional life. More reminding each other that we are unconditionally loved and called. More ministry in the rift valley.

[1] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, Anchor, 1966.

[2] Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, Harcourt, 1922.

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