It’s become almost a byword of North American life that nothing is forever. If you get tired of your job, quit. If you get tired of your surroundings, move. If you get tired of your spouse, divorce.
Furthermore, major change is not necessarily in the control of the individuals who are affected. Employers feel less obligated to those who work for them. If your dismissal will improve the profit picture, out you go. Municipalities feel less obligated to their citizens. If we can get away with providing second-rate services, schools, public safety, recreation and public health care, why strive for the best? And it may be your spouse who chooses divorce.
The situation is no better in the churches. Congregations of every type have noted the swiftness with which members move in and out of congregational and denominational attachment. The days in which most people spent their entire lives in a single congregation, or at least entire lives as Catholics or Methodists or Lutherans or Baptists, are behind us. These days it is far more common for a new member attracted by the preaching or the music or the style of worship or tradition of pastoral care to arrive in a congregation asking not “What can I do for this community?” but “What can this community do for me?” They may solemnly vow themselves to the congregation as they formally take up membership, but the moment these new members perceive that the congregation has failed to meet their needs, they’re on the road again, looking for a new church home.
In such a world it’s hardly surprising that many candidates for the ministry arrive at theological schools full of enthusiasm but only dimly aware of the virtue of fidelity and promise-keeping and how to practice it. Personal sacrifice is little known. Accepting yourself as you are is regarded almost always appropriate.
Even the permanence of ordination itself, understood by many Christian traditions as a lifelong consecration, has slid under the pressure of the times toward becoming a calling one may put aside if it becomes uncomfortable or inconvenient.
The challenge to theological schools, the challenge to their governing boards as they develop broad policy, is to figure out how they might position themselves to offer a counterforce to this drift toward fickleness—if they should.
In this issue of In Trust, Melinda R. Heppe’s cover story “Virtue Beyond the Classroom” focuses most directly on the question of how to promote fidelity in a fickle world but other pieces touch on the topic tangentially, particularly Phyllis A. Tickle’s “Shopping for Theology” with its accompanying reactions; C. Ellis Nelson’s “Viewpoint” on easing the transition from student to pastor; and John H. Leith’s “Perspective” on reviving the old understanding of ordained ministry as a calling.
Each of these articles sharpens the issues involved and clarifies the questions that might be asked. But neither in these pieces or elsewhere in our current issue will you find much in the way of answers.
The editors have no answers, and in our trolling for material to flesh out this issue of In Trust we surfaced no experts who claimed they did either. For all of us who perceive the short shrift our era gives to the value of fidelity and who hope they can contribute to the correction of this disturbing phenomenon, I can offer only this:
Let’s stay in touch and share with each other details of the strategies we have tried and information about how well they worked.