Map is Not Territory

Navigating Ministry-as-Life in the New Bearings Season

When we began Bearings three years ago—all the way back in the world of September 2014—we had some modest aspirations. In his introductory post, Bob Grove-Markwood contextualized the blog by drawing on his navigational experience as a Marine and a transplanted Mainer. He explained that Bearings aims to help those in ministry—in what often feels like a church unmoored from its traditional anchors—connect with “a collaborative effort to build a theologically grounded community that will grow through energized engagements and creative conversations.” In my post for the launch of Bearings, I explored the work of the lowly ball bearing as a technology meant for “distributing the load, lessening the friction as best we can, tolerating our missteps and learning from them. Bearings,” I suggested, “is every bit about this kind of collective, forgiving, movement in ministry.”

We seem to have done some of that—creating conversation, lifting up new voices, helping each other to find new currents to sail, bearing some of the load together. Through a number of channels, we’ve come to see that the Bearings experiment we launched three years ago has, to mix metaphors, borne fruit. We glimpse its success reflected in an increasing number of blog post views, as well as in expanding patterns of sharing and commenting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites. We hear about the publication at conferences and other gatherings, through anecdotes from laypeople and clergy who have told us that they were moved by Ellen McGrath Smith’s poetic reflections on the joys and pains of a spiritual life, or informed by Adam J. Copeland’s insights on stewardship in rapidly changing times, or challenged by Jamye Wooten’s creative provocations on race, violence, and justice, or enlightened by Kelly J. Baker’s honest, vulnerable exploration of the religious and spiritual ambivalences that stir her soul, or inspired by Mihee Kim-Kort’s weaving of the past and present to craft stories of faith and hope (on new and old media platforms alike) that speak beyond narrow boundaries of experience.

… we like to think that one of the more valuable contributions of Bearings is the space it opens for reflective practice by people in various modes of “ministry-as-life”: activists, educators, parents, pastors, and spiritual guides of all sorts.

We also know that the conversation we’ve facilitated through Bearings has helped communities of learners in churches, seminaries, religious studies classes, and other settings explore new ways of navigating “life-as-ministry.” This has been the case especially when we’ve gathered contributions together thematically. We’ve heard much appreciation for the thought-provoking discussion guides that Pamela Shellberg crafted for the two Bearings blog series that won DeRose-Hinkhouse Memorial Awards.

If we’re being honest, we didn’t quite plan the series that garnered these honors. Rather, they sort of just came together organically, thanks to the zeitgeist of particular moments in the culture and our contributors’ natural tendencies to reflect upon current events. We’re certainly grateful for that serendipity—and we’re awed, even, by the ways in which the stories we publish help to highlight the innate connectedness of our contributors, our readers, and the wider world.

Still, we’re also great fans of intentionality, and we like to think that one of the more valuable contributions of Bearings is the space it opens for reflective practice by people in various modes of “ministry-as-life”: activists, educators, parents, pastors, and spiritual guides of all sorts. Thus, in our efforts to further The BTS Center’s commitment to nurturing innovative, experimental, and imaginative ministries, we’re going to experiment again this year, shifting our publication practices slightly.

This year, instead of taking the form of a week-to-week blog, Bearings will feature monthly spiritual sojourns that gather four thematically-linked, weekly pieces into an online magazine. The distinction is perhaps slight, but we think it’s significant. Defining Bearings as a magazine acknowledges a turn to a more formal structure—one that our contributors already seem to have subconsciously leaned into in their writing.

At the beginning of each month, we will anticipate and map out the territory we hope to traverse with our contributors and readers over the course of the subsequent weeks. Specifically, we will reveal and explain the theme or broad topic to which we’ve invited our contributors to respond. Then, in the following weeks, Bearings will feature four pieces that revolve around or further that theme. Finally, at the end of the month, Pamela Shellberg will produce questions designed to encourage reflection upon the month’s essays and themes. Her reflection guides will be suitable for use in individual contemplation as well as communal discussion.

It’s important to note that we’re not aiming for something fixed or staid in this new format. As we try to “get our bearings” and to “bear each other up” in a religious landscape that is continuing to shift right under our feet, we see the contributions of Bearings writers as critical acts of map-making. Of course, “map is not territory,” as the religion scholar Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us, “but maps are all we have” to mark dynamic, shifting boundaries in a living tradition. Those of us who try to negotiate all of these changes are, Smith suggests, more like novelists than scientists: We seek to make the world by telling the stories of what we see, hear, touch, taste, sense, and feel in our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we share the planet.

We seek to make the world by telling the stories of what we see, hear, touch, taste, sense, and feel in our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we share the planet.

So, in the coming year, we look forward to telling more tales of our journeys together. We’re starting off the fourth season of Bearings with some optimism—of a sort. September’s theme is “Cultivating Hope.”  Next week, you’ll hear from Corinna Guerrero, whose first piece for Bearings broke open the word “ministry” and explored what acts of ministering look like in a contentious, divided world. After that, Bearings will feature the voice of Lawrence Richardson. His piece about what truly welcoming churches do proved one of last year’s most popular blog posts. Finally, at the end of the month, we’ll introduce you to Loren McGrail, a UCC minister who serves as the Communications/Advocacy and Church Relations Office for the YWCA of Palestine. All three contributors will shed light on how they are confronting obstacles and cultivating hope in the midst of these highly-charged times.

If, in the next few weeks, you find yourself needing some encouragement, inspiration, and maybe a bit of commiseration, be sure to check in at Bearings. You just might find exactly the right empowering, heartening words to quench your hope-shaped thirst.

Image credits:

Cover – DariuszSankowski, Untitled. Via Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0.

Inside – Markusspiske, Untitled. Via Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0.

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, America, The Atlantic, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a co-editor of The BTS Center’s Bearings blog. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

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