Sharing the Load in 21st-Century Ministry

When we were brainstorming names for the new blog for The BTS Center blog, we agreed quickly that something related to the real, geographical landscapes and cultural nuances of ministry in the 21st century was important. The BTS Center is a Maine native, and its immediate network is in Northern New England. Though the Center’s mission extends to wider regional and national networks, we wanted a name that harkened to the located identity and history of The Center, with the beauty and wildness of forests, mountains, and the Atlantic Ocean long complicating any simple notion of unchanging, permanent “settlement.”

We also had the idea that navigating these landscapes was at the heart of the challenges and opportunities engaged every day by lay and ordained ministry leaders and their communities. From there, it didn’t take us long to get to the idea of “bearings” as a rich and meaningful name for the blog. Bob Grove-Markwood unpacked some of that meaning in his introductory post and highlighted some of the questions these meanings suggest for 21st-century ministry. But he left at least one important meaning off the list.

As we were settling into the new blog name, Bob reminded me of another use of the word “bearings,” this one not navigational, but mechanical: ball bearings. I couldn’t quite remember what ball bearings do, so I moseyed over to Wikipedia, where I learned a couple remarkable things.

First off, the collective wisdom of Wikipedia told me, “The purpose of a ball bearing is to reduce friction and support radial and axial loads.” I honestly didn’t trouble my click finger to learn what “radial and axial loads” might be, but I got the general idea: ball bearings help to share the weight, they facilitate movement by reducing resistance or conflict.

image004Second, there’s no such thing as a single “ball bearing.” The balls in the ball bearings are always plural; they only work in community. What’s more, this collective action allows that a ball bearing “can tolerate some misalignment.” There’s room for error, for mistakes, for experiments even as things move onward together.

So it is with 21st-century ministries: we bear them together, distributing the load, lessening the friction as best we can, tolerating our missteps and learning from them. Bearings is every bit about this kind of collective, forgiving, movement in ministry.

Indeed, once I felt confident that a little imperfection was all part of the story, my mind went to another kind of “bearing,” albeit on the other side of the continent and with a slightly different spelling. I thought, that is, of the Bering Land Bridge, the narrow strip of land that 10,000 years ago allowed people and animals to cross from East Asia to North America, where they created whole new civilizations and species.

I’m not sure The BTS Center is exactly about creating “whole new civilizations and species,” but we are on are remarkable journey together, and we expect we’ll cross a number of bridges between tradition and innovation, between anxiety and hope, as we engage, shape, and take our bearings through new 21st-century ministries.

To get the conversation started, we’ve gathered a group of thinkers and writers from across local, regional, and national Christian landscapes who will explore various outposts of Christian practice that tend to be missed amidst mainstream (and Christian) media fixations on denominational decline and various ecclesiological and doctrinal controversies. Yes, the growing number of people who are not formally or informally affiliated with an institutional religion is a thing. We’ll certainly be paying attention to what that means for Christian ministry. So, too, changes in how churches welcome and include women, racial and ethic minorities, LGBT people, and other marginalized groups merits consideration.

But these are not the only stories worthy of the attention of thoughtful people—practitioners and non-practitioners alike—who want to understand how what remains the largest religious group in the United States is changing and the impacts of these changes on ministries in local congregations.

Next week, for instance, The BTS Center Scholar-in-Residence Pamela Shellberg brings important biblical insight to the challenge of 21st-century ministry. Later in the month, Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson will offer a sneak peek of his forthcoming book, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

In October, Rebecca Schlatter Liberty will talk about the experience of shared ministry at Redeemer Lutheran Church at Bangor, ME. And, having had a bit of time to get her own bearings as the new Associate Director of The BTS Center, Alyssa Lodewick will share some of her vision for the Center as a resource for 21st-century ministry. Later in the month, UCC pastor Maxwell Grant, of Second Congregational Church, Greenwich, CT, will offer a wider regional view of the changing Christian landscape. I’ll come back toward the end of most months to reflect on the journey so far.

And that’s just the beginning of what we expect will be a lively, engaging, inspiring, and often challenging conversation in the weeks and months ahead.

We’re listening for your voice, too. We welcome your comments on individual posts and encourage you to share the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and other outposts of the digital landscape. As Bob noted, we invite you to submit fuller posts to us as well. If you have an idea for a post, email us at bearings@thebtscenter.org.

Photo Credit
Photo: “ABEC-3 Bearings From My Inline Skates,” by Joe Loong, 2006. Cropped. Licensed under CC2.0.
Photo: “Stone Structure and Caribou Antler,” by Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, 2012. Licensed under CC2.0.

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an 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. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

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