Calling Across the Bow

The Way Onward for Bearings: Navigating Life-as-Ministry

When I started this piece some weeks ago, the world was a different place. I had taken a jauntier tone than feels possible now. After all, here we are announcing not only the fifth year of publishing Bearings—a milestone for any publication, big or small—but also celebrating the launch of a redesigned site for the magazine, a new publication schedule, and a new structure for content. There’s much to feel good about.

These past four years, as we’ve grown from a humble blog to a magazine proper, we’ve learned much about how to share diverse perspectives on “navigating life-as-ministry” in the 21st century. At the beginning of our journey, we had little structure beyond the blog format and a weekly publication schedule. But, as our contributors spoke to each other, stories were connected, amplified, and challenged. We began to see patterns in our common concerns. Racial and social justice, for instance, was clearly “a thing” for our contributors, and after the 2016 presidential election, acts of faithful resistance generated considerable commentary. At the same time, our varied contributors also mined their experiences with the vulnerabilities of ministry today—in small congregations, rural parishes, among youth programs, in practices of stewardship. And, as an online publication, we’ve always been mindful of the role of technology in ministry and life in general in a dynamic digital culture.

This more or less organic clustering of themes pressed us last year to reshape the blog into a magazine format. Though we retained the weekly publication schedule we’d had from the beginning, we shaped each month with defined themes and ended each issue with a summary piece that included questions for reflection and conversation. Our hope was that this would focus the magazine and give it greater utility in congregations and other formal ministry settings. In addition, we brought in the voices and visions of artists of various sorts—poets, musicians, painters, creative nonfiction writers. We thought this would bring a new dimension to how the magazine could be a resource for people in ministry and their communities.

Much of that seemed to work out well. With every year, more people have been reading Bearings, and our last season continued that trend. Still, we felt the loss of the kind of in-the-moment commentary that had shaped our first three years. And, we had the sense that the weekly publication schedule didn’t always encourage attention to the nuanced interactions we saw within each monthly issue. Likewise, we’d been fretting for some time over how the design of the magazine itself, having retained the scrolling blog structure, undermined the work we’d done to gather together particular sets of contributors into a monthly conversation.

Over the summer then—well, okay, we slipped a bit into the fall—we began to rebuild all of it. New content structure, with thematic features, inspired commentary, and creative insights from a range of artists. New monthly publication schedule that invites readers to explore each issue as a more integrated conversation. New design that highlights connections and counterpoints in each issue.

This first editorial commentary was, I thought as we moved closer to the relaunch, supposed to be about all that goodness and how pleased we are to share it with readers who have been with us since the very start and those who we hope will join in the conversation in this new season.

New content structure, with thematic features, inspired commentary, and creative insights from a range of artists. New monthly publication schedule that invites readers to explore each issue as a more integrated conversation. New design that highlights connections and counterpoints in each issue.

And then everything changed—insight into the obvious that might be the overarching theme of the times, repeated weekly, daily, often by the hour.

Oh, sure, the new launch has moved forward apace (ish), and we are duly proud of the work that’s made it a reality and the possibilities it presents.

But, lordy, how do we leave it at that in times like these? Would this not, I kept saying to myself as I fiddled with notes about the new format and the truly amazing contributors to the magazine in the current season, have the feel of rearranging deck chairs?

Ah, deck chairs. That ship. How do we “get our bearings” if we’re on that ship?

I have to confess, landlubber that I am, I’ve long struggled with the maritime lifeworld to which Bearings gestures metaphorically. But through the weeks of the Kavanaugh confirmation show trial, the wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the crass political maneuvering that has resulted in the seating of a Supreme Court justice credibly accused of multiple acts of sexual misconduct and assault—this at a time when the Catholic Church is once again at risk of imploding under the weight of its own sexual sins—their meanings crashed, wave upon wave, through my mind.

Anchored safely in our digital dry dock through the summer, we’d tended to our little vessel without the burden of navigating what are clearly rough seas for both church and state that threaten dangers known and as yet unfathomable at home and abroad. For our part, that is probably as it should be. In the current climate, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it in his own nautical reflection on the roiling waters of American life in the decade before the Civil War, launching “a vessel as goodly, and strong, and stanch / As ever weathered a wintry sea!” is an essential starting point for negotiating deep seas of cultural conflict and change.

Fixing the leaky roof on an aging, but nonetheless engaged, neighborhood church matters. Finding competent leadership and reasonably secure funding streams for community-based ministry projects matters. Shoring up spaces where ministry leaders, broadly defined, and those affiliated or associated, however loosely, with communities of faith can share perspectives, insights, and inspiration that help us to better understand what ministry means in the churning sea we all swim in today—that matters, too. But these are only starting points. They are not worthy ends in themselves. As the bonds of the nation grew increasingly frayed in the mid-19th century, Longfellow certainly understood that.

Longfellow’s lengthy poem may be remembered by some of us “of a certain age” as a Memorial Day poem. I memorized its famous final stanza as a child, both because that was actually a thing one did even as late as the 1970s in the tiny town I grew up in, Zelienople, Pennsylvania (and, not for nothing, because I share Longfellow’s birthday):

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!

The poem honors and harkens to a notion that looked to be at considerable risk when it was published in 1849—the idea of a nation united through common values of freedom, justice, and tolerance. In constructing an image of a “ship of state” that might represent the complex, conflicted fullness of the nation at the time, Longfellow was at pains to envision a vessel made of both “cedar of Maine and Georgia pine”—resources from the Unionist North and eventual Confederate South.

Yet as the country moved toward civil war, Longfellow did not initially see that dually sourced construction as strong enough to hold. The original ending to the poem was much darker than what is now generally regarded by scholars as the more manipulatively sentimental conclusion that, a century later during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt sent to Winston Churchill, who framed it and hung it on his wall. The glorious wood of Maine and Georgia ended up, Longfellow wrote in the original,

Wrecked upon some treacherous rock,
Or rotting in some noisome dock,
Such the end must be at length
Of all this loveliness and strength.

And with that destruction came the death of the shipbuilders, death of the founders’ ideals, the nation itself:

He whose dexterous hand could frame
All this beauty, all this grace,
In a grave without a name
Lies forgotten of his race!

It was only in last minute reflection before the poem went to the press, in a burst of hortatory hopefulness, that Longfellow penciled in the lines that became a staple of American, jingoistic self-confidence.

I’m not here to lament the loss of dead, 19th century, white dude poetry as an expression of a normative national conscience. Longfellow isn’t exactly Kendrick Lamar, to whom we’d be better off turning to for any real insight into the fragile moral and spiritual state of the union today.

Nobody reads Longfellow anymore. Nobody reads poetry much. Certainly nobody memorizes a nearly four-hundred-line poem to recite it to earnest listeners, as a journalist friend of Abraham Lincoln did early in the Civil War, stirring the president to tears.

I’m not here to lament the loss of dead, 19th century, white dude poetry as an expression of a normative national conscience. Longfellow isn’t exactly Kendrick Lamar, to whom we’d be better off turning to for any real insight into the fragile moral and spiritual state of the union today. America, God bless you if it’s good to you.

Bearings itself, however, to the extent that we’ve invited poets and other creative sorts into the conversation over the past year and will continue to do so in our new incarnation, makes a case for the significance of aesthetic visions and voices in shaping common narratives of compassion, freedom, integrity, justice, love, resistance, reconciliation, solidarity, and other virtues that seem sorely wanting at the present moment.

The cultivation of such narratives, whether through poetic, pastoral, political, or prophetic lexicons, is at the core of what we have set as the purpose of Bearings in our tagline, “navigating life-as-ministry.” We take our understanding of “ministry” from its classical Latin root, ministrāre: “to serve.” We see the narratives shared in the magazine as resources for seeing, contending with, and reimagining the kinds of service for which the world around us cries out in this moment. What does 21st ministry look like in this world? Where does it unfold? How can we approach the changing contours of that reality? Each month Bearings contributors will call across the bow from wherever they find themselves to passing boats and ships as well as to wayfarers on dry land.

This first issue, “Into the Wild,” makes clear that it won’t always be smooth sailing. In one of two Features this month, “Navigating the Crux of 21st Century Ministry Wilderness,” Aram Mitchell, executive director of Renewal in the Wilderness, and Pam Shellberg, the BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence, consider wilderness not as “a place for us to escape our troubles,” but rather as “a venue of formation where we may engage with the process, practices, and perspectives that have the potential to shape our way of being in a troubled world.”

A second feature, “Making the Spiritual Path by Walking It,” by budding philosopher Connor Holttum, takes up exactly that formative challenge. After graduating from college last spring, Connor spent 66 days hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail, engaging the “process, practices, and perspectives” of the earth itself, his periodic companions on the trail, variously perfect strangers, and the whispers of his own body—jacked up ankle, injured knee, aching muscles and all—by way of preparing “to live and serve compassionately” in whatever world opens up to him next.

And speaking of pain, there’s Mark Collins, who launches our regular Creative Insights section with a video on his, um, adventures making furniture from repurposed basketball court boards. His “Plato, Basketball, and Your Life Work” explores vision, revision, and purpose as, well, often something of a poke in the eye. Literally. “Varnish,” Collins tells us, as he considers how we build lives that reflect the light of our experience unto others, “is nothing but a giddy lie.” You’ll want safety goggles for this foray from the wilderness into something that might be “civilization.” Or not.

As we travel onward together, this is the shape Bearings will take each month—a couple of themed features that explore aspects of 21st century ministry practice, creative insights meant to illuminate and inspire, and Commentary that engages issues in ministry that arise from the world as it is today. These offerings will be gathered into one publication release in the middle of each month, giving readers time to consider them together and to reflect on how they speak to their own experiences. We hope you will share some of these with the Bearings community in the comment box below or on our FacebookTwitter (@TheBTSCenter), and Instagram (@BearingsMagazine) pages.

Ministry, to be sure, is changing as rapidly and unpredictably as the world we serve. Navigating this dynamic reality will take many of the skills of the veteran seafarer that most of us lack. But what we do have—what has helped travelers to get their bearings on sea and on land for generations—are stories of how we are making our way onward, how we envision new life wherever we land. Getting our bearings by finding our voices and sharing our stories is what this magazine is about. Now that we’re out of dry dock, we hope you’ll find traveling with us a worthwhile adventure.

Aram Mitchell, Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford, Connor Holttum, Elizabeth Drescher, Kendrick Lamar, Longfellow, Mark Collins, Pam Shellberg, Supreme Court, Wilderness Spirituality

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) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.


Cover photo: Spenser Watson, “Levette Lake” (August 8, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.

Body photo 1: Rawpixel, “Info” (March 6, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.

Body photo 2: Spenser Whitans, “Kneeling” (January 22, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0.