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Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Eavesdropping on today’s young church leaders

Recently The Banner asked Rev. Ken Baker and Rev. Meg Jenista to host a roundtable discussion with young pastors, seminarians, and church leaders. Participants included G. Ben Bowater [BB], Nathan [NDM] and Samantha [SDM] DeJong McCarron, Dominic Palacios [DP], and Paul Shim [PS].

When The Banner approached Ken Baker and me about conducting a roundtable conversation with younger pastors in the Christian Reformed Church, I was excited for two reasons. First, I was excited about engaging my peers and colleagues in this conversation. Almost immediately I thought of the 50 to 100 people I wanted to invite—colleagues in places as widespread as Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; and Anchorage, Alaska; even overseas.

The second reason for my excitement was for you, the readers. Whenever I overhear people fretting about the future of our denomination, I wish they could listen in on the hopes and dreams of my peers and colleagues. I am humbled and honored to work alongside them. We don’t always agree—even this article demonstrates that—but we DO love God and God’s church.

As I dream about what God has in store for the CRC, it always begins with prayers for faithfulness in ministry. As pastors we need to keep pace but also realize that God is already present in the world and in our churches. Our call is to steadiness, faithfulness, and the sure and certain knowledge that God is still taking care of the CRC, as God has always taken care of the CRC. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

—Meg Jenista

Q. Before we talk about dreams and hopes for the future, let’s talk about current reality. Every generation of pastors enters ministry in a particular historical, cultural, and ecclesiastical context that helps shape its visions, dreams, and hopes. Where do you see the Holy Spirit moving in the CRC today? What do you see that particularly encourages you at the outset of your ministry careers?

[SDM] As a female seminarian I am encouraged to see that we can disagree on theological issues but still maintain the unity of the church. I think that is a testament to the Spirit moving in our lives. I see this not only with gender issues in the church, but also with worship. There is an embracing of worship styles across the spectrum now, and they are all still carrying the denomination with them.

[DP] Yes, but there is still friction. There’s unity, but kinda like the unity around the Thanksgiving dinner table.

[SDM] In that tension around the Thanksgiving table, you all say grace and you accept one another even if you don’t agree on diddly squat. You have one main point—Jesus as your Savior—and you’re hanging on to it.

[BB] As I preach around, it appears that many churches have turned a corner. . . . More people seem to recognize that there is a value to reaching out to people in the community—people who don’t have the same background, the same values, the same commitment to Christian education, the same ethnic heritage. People are beginning to see that our neighbors are not our enemies, but the people that God has called us to serve.

[DP] I find that there’s a big passion among young people for doing something with their lives in terms of service or mission. Give them something mission-oriented or service-oriented, and they are all over it. I believe it’s coming out of the overflow of their faith.

[NDM] With regard to the missional impulse, I love the fact that the CRC is being more missional. I love that these youths are coming up in the CRC and want to be evangelistic and proactive, and I love the fact that it’s becoming easier for people to go out into their communities and be part of that. But I worry that we may take Jesus out of mission and just end up doing good deeds.

[PS] As a leader with Calvin Seminary’s “Facing Your Future” program, I observed that the kids were there because they had   a passion for the church to continue. . . . [They] want to go beyond a job and do more than make money. They’re serious and earnest about it. I think a lot more missionary fruits are being borne through our children.

[BB] Church folks are realizing that you begin with the relationships, you draw others into community, then you share the good news. Once the relationship is built, the Spirit opens the door for sharing Jesus. So I think our conversation about being more attuned to the community is a very healthy thing. And I’m comfortable that the structure of accountability in the CRC works to keep us confessionally grounded.

[NDM] I get that. For so long the church has worked with the paradigm that “you believe and then you belong.” But we will need to invert that model—“you belong and then you believe.”

[PS] We’re entering into a sense of relevance and impact in this world, which makes us nervous and challenges us. . . . We are becoming more and more part of North American culture so that we can impact it in a real way. We’re not just an immigrant church taking care of ourselves. We’re stepping into the circle with our brothers and sisters. We are the beginning of something, the beginning of a shift, and we cannot be afraid to keep moving forward.

Q. You’ve described some of the features of our current reality, what encourages you, and where you see the Spirit moving in the CRC. So what are your hopes, dreams, and visions for the church as you move into your ministry careers?

[BB] I want the seminary to do more of what they are already doing: to look at how God has uniquely gifted us for the unique ministry that God has in mind for us. Not a cookie-cutter approach . . . but one that says, “Nourish the gifts and experiences God has already given you.” That approach will allow us to go out into churches and figure out what each congregation is called to be in the strategic location where God has placed it. The box that defines what it means to be CRC is a lot bigger than people are willing to admit.

[MJ] As a newcomer to the CRC, the idea of having creeds and confessions is particularly attractive to me. Our creeds and confessions don’t end the conversation; they begin the conversation. I hope we will learn to delight in and play with all the things that are “in bounds” for us.

[DP] When I became a Christian at the age of 18, I fell in love with the Bible. And that’s what my hope is—that we would continue to be people of the text, with our theology and creeds as the servants of that.

[BB] My hope is that the CRC will get more involved in a messy world—feeding the hungry, getting into the schools, helping people to meet tangible needs. It’s my hope that the CRC doesn’t look at the people in our communities as a project or as notches in the Yearbook, but that we will treat them with the dignity and respect that we should show for all God’s imagebearers.

[SDM] I hope we can be more accepting of our sinfulness and more open about it, more aware of our faults and the messiness we all carry with us. We don’t have it all together.

[DP] Clearly we have a decision to make in the face of the phenomenal pace of change in the world—we are either going to be ReformING or we are going to be ReformED. The pace of our changes will have to be hastened considerably.

[BB] We will have to treat our youths as active, equal members with their parents. We’ve segregated them for so many years that we’ve taught them that the church is their parents’ church. So they’ve left to find a place where they could have a sense of ownership. I hope we will change that.

Q. What kind of leadership do you think will be needed to realize the future you envision? What are the competencies that will be more important for you as young pastors moving into the future?

[NDM] The reality is that the Baby Boom generation of pastors is retiring, and there’s going to be a huge void of leadership. Younger people will have to step into leadership roles and take the bull by the horns and ask, “Where is God leading us? What’s going on? Where is the Spirit moving?” As we ask these questions, we want to be in conversation with those who have gone before us. We don’t want to be a bunch of hotheads emerging onto the scene. We want to capitalize on the base we have in our history, confessions, and Scripture.

[SDM] In order to stay relevant, we are going to have to take calculated risks and take them more quickly. We’re going to have to be willing to change some things faster than we have in the past, but always with an eye on the soundness of our doctrine and commitment to Scripture in that process.

[MJ] Agreed. There are a lot of people in our churches who are afraid of what they hear about our culture, about postmodernity, for example. And I want to communicate to our denomination that just because it’s a foreign language to you doesn’t mean it’s a foreign language to us. Every generation that has gone through seminary has been excited about tackling ministry in the context of their generation. And we’re no different. Being launched into ministry at such a time as this is exciting. It’s a new opportunity for myself and for my colleagues, and we’re engaged with it. That gives me hope.

[DP] We’re going to have to do the hard work of going into that world and saying, “Hey, I’m here for you. I don’t understand you, but I want to.” And as the older generations, in turn, listen to the younger generations, we will bear a lot of fruit, bringing up new leaders.

[SDM] What the church will need is not cookie-cutter leaders, all cut of the same mold, but a variety of leaders with a variety of gifts.

[MJ] And there’s another challenge we will face. With all the leadership models that abound in the world around us, we will have to be able to plant a flag in the midst of our churches to say, “But I am a pastor and that means that this is who I am and how I lead. I’m not a CEO. I’m not a corporate manager. I’m called to be something different for you and with you.”

[BB] We will get into areas of ministry where there will be countless expectations. One generation expecting something of us. A younger generation expecting something totally different. Then throw into the mix the expectations of the unchurched who come in. . . . As pastors we will need to adapt to the expectations of people around us, but we will be challenged to clarify the priorities. Whose expectations will carry the most weight? Leader-pastors will need to resolve, “If I’m faithful to what God wants me to do, it will work out.”

[NDM] We will also need to become calculated risk-takers . . . committed to our historical, doctrinal, biblical roots. We need to be pastor-leaders who lean forward. All too often we lean backward, on our heels, digging in. We need to have faith in our roots, the ability to lean forward and say, “Where are we going?”

[PS] What makes me hopeful is the people around this table, being in a room like this and realizing that we all bring different gifts to ministry and that we all work together. . . . We do need to become lighter, faster, more mobile. We are unable to survive in the state that we are in right now.

Concluding Observations

The shifts and changes that have occurred in the church since I was ordained in 1978 have been remarkable. When I graduated from seminary, I set out to preach, teach, and do pastoral care. I was armed with an RSV Bible, a blue Psalter Hymnal, and 12 banana boxes full of 40-percent-off theology books and commentaries.

Over the years the Bible versions have changed and the blue Psalter Hymnal turned to gray. The volumes in my banana boxes now fit on a single CD. We’ve weathered worship wars and women-in-office wars. And increasingly churches have expected pastors to be more than pastors. They want them to be charismatic, visionary leaders who will take the congregation to new levels of success.

On that score I must echo the last comment by Paul. What makes me hopeful about the future of the CRC is the people who sat around the table with Meg and me on a wintry February morning to talk about church and ministry.

They understand the challenges ahead. They read the culture well, both within and outside the church. They are aware that ministry involves leading. But what I’m most encouraged by is their understanding of themselves as pastors.

The church will be well and well served as long as there are men and women in ministry who are lovers, keepers, tellers, and interpreters of The Story for God’s people. When pastors do that, God’s people thrive and God’s kingdom comes. Just read the book of Acts.

—Ken Baker

Rev. Meg Jenista is minister of community life and witness for Third CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich. She graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in May 2008. While a seminary student, she interned at Yellowstone National Park with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks and served as intern pastor at Emmanuel CRC in Calgary, Alberta.

Rev. Dominic Palacios currently serves as associate pastor of youth and congregational life for Holland Heights CRC, Holland, Mich. He was ordained this past October after earning his master’s of divinity at Calvin Seminary. During his time in seminary, Dominic interned with the campus ministry at Grand Valley State University. He has been married to his wife, Kristin, for just over a year.

Paul Shim is currently serving at Grand Rapids Hahn-In CRC in Wyoming, Mich., as a youth pastor. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. He attended Calvin College and is currently attending Calvin Seminary (4th year) and hopes to finish next year. He is not married . . . but likes cookies, long walks on the beach, and organization.

G. Ben Bowater is a church planter for Classis Kalamazoo and Christian Reformed Home Missions at RedArrow Ministries in Paw Paw, Mich. He previously served two years with World Missions and more than two years as youth director for West Leonard CRC, Grand Rapids, Mich. Before going into full-time ministry, he was a public school teacher in and around Chicago.

Nathan and Samantha DeJong McCarron are looking forward to being declared candidates for the office of Minister of the Word by Synod 2009. Nate has served as an intern in Chicago. Sam has served with World Missions through the Summer Missions Program. They will be interning as co-pastors for Chelwood CRC in Albuquerque, N.M., through March 2010. After that they will seek a call to ordained ministry in the CRC.

Rev. Ken Baker was ordained as a minister in the CRC in 1978. He has served churches in Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia, and is now in his 17th year of ministry at Third CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich. He has two sons in M. Div. programs in different seminaries and is encouraged and challenged by their dreams and hopes for the church.

  1. Do you fret over the future of our denomination? What do you fret about?
  2. Where do you see the Holy Spirit moving in the CRC today?
  3. What is our biggest challenge as a church?
  4. Meg Jenista says that God is still taking care of the CRC. What gives you the assurance that this is true?
  5. What key insight will you take away from the article and this discussion?

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