Monday, July 29, 2013

New Clergy

Last week I was on study leave at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. I have been to Chautauqua once before, courtesy of the International Order of the King's Daughters and Sons, and recommend it highly - Chautauqua, which was founded in 1874 as a retreat for Methodist Sunday School teachers and once spawned traveling Chautauqua shows, is a summer community for the arts, spirituality and learning. I was a Fellow in the New Clergy Program for clergy in the Abrahamic religions who have been in ministry for seven years or less. The program is intended to enrich and renew clergy, and to sustain us in our roles, as we are told that 60% of new clergy leave the ministry within five years.

Chautauqua is a beautiful place, with gingerbread cottages and gorgeous gardens on grounds that host 10,000 people during the nine-week summer season (but only 100 or so year-round residents). Fellows and their spouses were provided with passes to all of the week's programming, which included symphony concerts, dance, worship services, lectures by Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone), Charles Murray (notorious to me as the author of The Bell Curve), Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States, Margaret Atwood, and the president of PBS television, among others. We had our own time to meet with Chautauqua Institution president Tom Becker, religion department head Joan Brown Campbell (who once worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), religion author Karen Armstrong, the Muslim, Jewish and Christian young people who coordinate the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, Rabbis Rami Shapiro and Sam Stahl, and the preacher at the worship services that week, Barbara Lundblad of Union Theological Seminary. As a clergy group we discussed adapting to change in the church, the emergent church, and our reactions to the fact that Chautauqua is largely white and affluent (although the institution is trying to make its patron base more diverse). We served Communion to 5,000 people at the Sunday morning worship service, which is certainly a record for me in my small-church ministry.

I benefited from all of this, from being challenged to think hard about change in churches and my own ministry, and from sharing with such a supportive, warm and engaging group of colleagues. I was glad that there were clergy from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as I will be engaging in conversations about a possible UCC agreement with our United Church of Canada, as well as folks from the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church. Not all were in congregational ministry, either, which brought a lot of varied experience to the table. While my wife and I were the only Canadians, we could not have felt more welcomed by our American neighbours.

So I'm grateful to the Religion Department of the Chautauqua Institution, the program's faculty (Jan and Joy Linn and Nannette Banks), and wonderful colleagues and their spouses from across the United States. Sustained and enriched indeed!