A Year of Lessons Learned at Bearings

With an Eye to the Road Ahead

In our most recent issue, we invited contributors to explore the lessons they’ve learned throughout their lives that speak to the opportunities and challenges of ministry in these times.

Nicole Lamarche, a self-described “spiritual entrepreneur,” shared the joys and heartaches of getting a progressive community of faith off the ground. Her reflection on nearly a decade in the church start-up world of the Silicon Valley drew on the insights of Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup. Ries’s idea of “achieving failure,” which he defines as, “successfully executing a plan that leads nowhere,” prompted Lamarche to reevaluate how much churches really can adapt from the corporate world, perhaps most especially its start-up outposts. Writes Lamarche, “I have learned that churches, congregations, and communities that are inclusive, deep, intentional, spiritual, and diverse are not launched. They are planted.”

As we reflect on what has been a year of planned and unplanned transition for us at Bearings, we’ve been wondering, too, what it means for the magazine to really be rooted in the lives of our readers and their communities. In part, the shift we made from a blog form to a magazine was aimed at that kind of rootedness. Our hope was that exploring defined topics from a number of perspectives would create a deeper appreciation of the realities of ministry and the tools that might help us all to address them more richly.

“I have learned that churches, congregations, and communities that are inclusive, deep, intentional, spiritual, and diverse are not launched. They are planted.” ~Nicole Lamarche

Likewise, monthly reflection and discussion question posed by The BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence, Pamela Shellberg, were meant to invite further exploration of each issue’s theme by individuals and communities. We’re curious to know what both of these transitions have meant to readers, and we’ll be inviting you to complete a short survey on your engagement with the magazine over the summer, as we plan our crop for next season.

Among our most popular issues this past year was one that dealt with what we called “ministries of coping.” Walking through experiences of grief, loss, and trauma, Darleen Pryds, Lawrence Richardson, and Angela Yarber took up different, but similarly moving, approaches to cultivating understanding, peace, resilience, and transformation in challenging times. Pryds, for instance, talks about a pilgrimage to a “thin place” between the world as it was before her brother died, and the one she had to find a way to live into after. Professor Pryds credits her older brother as someone who, “persistently pushed my boundaries of safety, stretching me just a little beyond my comfort zone to new and thrilling places.”

Pryds, like Richardson and Yarber, calls on the embrace of vulnerability to push beyond our comfort zones. We mark that as wise counsel as we end our fourth year of publication—four being the year, according to numerologists, of squaring things up, getting organized, developing stability. In a year that was largely defined by transition—from the shift from blog to magazine format, to the departure of our friend Alyssa Lodewick, to the development of new administrative processes, to the addition of our editorial assistant, Nick Nagy—we often felt anything but organized and all squared up from issue to issue, article to article.

Still, we have felt much greater stability this year. We’ve cultivated a robust and engaging pool of regular contributors and have been able to draw in new voices who add generously to the conversation we’ve been curating these last few years. We’ve continued, for instance, to draw upon literary creativity and insight from poet Ellen McGrath Smith and non-fiction writer Mark Collins. And we added new creative perspectives from musician Ana Hernandez and visual artist Angela Yarber. These pieces have tended to garner lots of reader attention and appreciation, which has inspired us to develop a more regular section of the magazine focused on literary and other artistic takes on ministry as it’s lived in the Church today.

Max Grant, Jordan Shaw, and Diane Bowers, congregationally-based contributors who have been with us since early days, have continued to explore the nuances of congregational ministry in changing times with theological insight, spiritual compassion, and warm wit. This year, these Bearings mainstays were joined by the delightful Jodi Houge of Humble Walk in St. Paul, Minnesota and Santa Clara University professor and peacemaker Diana Gibson.

“What we need today in order to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation through the power of the Holy Spirit, are sacred spaces that enable us to practice transcendence and be in darkness together.” ~Paul Blankenship

Like Gibson, activist Jamye Wooten has directed our focus to the challenges of justice and peace the Church is called to address. Wooten takes his Baltimore environs as a site for faithful justice-making, insisting on better care for students in the city’s underfunded and, through much of the winter, unheated city schools. Biblical scholar Corrina Guerrero, also a SCU professor, has likewise pointed us to the streets of her Berkeley, CA community, joining protestors against the outpouring of white supremacist rage last summer in Charlottesville, NC.

Ron Culmer, who’s now in his second year as a Bearings contributor, has added much to conversations about justice and peace. So, too, has our editorial assistant, Nick Nagy, whose poignant exploration of peacemaking in his hometown of Indianapolis added much needed nuance and texture to our understanding of religious practice as it unfolds in parts of the U.S. we on the coasts often dismiss as tragically retrograde.

And, Paul Blankenship, a doctoral student who studies the spirituality of people living on the streets in Seattle, helped us to wrestle with the political complexities at the heart of the darkness, for many Americans, of the 2016 presidential election. Blankenship sees the Church as deeply implicated in engaging these difficult differences in the body politic, not least by cultivating reconciliation. “What we need today,” writes Blankenship, “in order to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation through the power of the Holy Spirit, are sacred spaces that enable us to practice transcendence and be in darkness together.”

“The hard fact is that peacemaking it not about making nice. Peacemaking is rooted in equitable power distribution. It requires putting things in place that will establish long-term peace, justice, and security in hopes of avoiding future conflict.” ~Jamye Wooten

Reflections on racial and economic justice, peacemaking, and politics in general in the magazine this year have been different than in previous years, when contributors often provided in-the-moment commentary on recent, developing events. While our readers seem to have appreciated the more measured thoughtfulness we’ve seen in this season of Bearings, we have seen the absence of more immediate responses around issues like state-endorsed racist violence, immigration injustice, sexual discrimination and violence, and other concerns that arise pretty much daily in these times. So, in the next season of the magazine, we’ll be opening space for both reflection and commentary.

All in all, it’s been a year of great challenge, insight, and learning for us at Bearings, and we hope that’s been the case for readers as well. We’re not quite sure we’ve landed at “success,” whatever that might mean, but we’re pretty sure we haven’t executed “a plan that leads nowhere.” There’s a lot of somewhere out there in 21st century ministry left to explore, examine, celebrate, and critique. And we hope you’ll join us as we continue to turn over the soil of the American religious landscape.

To that end, over the summer we’ll be surveying readers about their experience with Bearings. We’ll also be sharing glimpses of other initiative of The BTS Center, including sneak peeks from The BTS Center’s work with Renewal in the Wilderness, a ministry that “guides wilderness encounters that cultivate and sustain cultures of compassion,” and from projects underway by 2018 Innovation Incubator Awardees. Look for more on all that in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, like many of our readers, we’ll be taking a bit of a break over the summer, publishing only periodically in July and August before starting the 2018-2019 Bearings season just after the Labor Day holiday. As always, we’re grateful for your engagement with what we’ve shared as we’ve gotten our bearings a bit over the past four years, and, we hope, squared ourselves for a future of exploration, adventure, and insight on the ever-changing landscape of 21st century ministry.

Angela Yaber, Baltimore, Coping, Corrina Guerrero, Darleen Pryds, Diana Gibson, Diane Bowers, Ellen McGrath Smith, Indianapolis, Jamye Wooten, Jodi Houge, Jordan Shaw, Lawrence Richardson, Mark Collins, Max Grant, Nick Nagy, Nicole Lamarche, Peacemaking, Ron Culmer

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: Anne Close, “Looking at 2017 in the Rearview Mirror” (December 21, 2017). Via Close HR Connections. CC2.0 license.

Inside photo: Hello I’m Nik, “Difficult Roads” (June 11, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside photo: Alice Donovan Rouse, “Peace” (January 23, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.