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Ministry: A Platform to Lead

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Being the school president at my high school was a big deal. It was a role I sought partly to validate who I thought I was but also to give me a chance to be the person I wanted to become.

When I won that election, a student who did not vote for me told me he was OK with me winning but warned me not to blow it by becoming a minister like my father. This was his way of saying that such a prestigious role merited a more admirable future profession.

I didn't like the guy back then, and I'm not sure I can even remember his last name. But his words stuck to me. Being a minister was a waste of time, a position not worthy of the elite world that I was so hell-bent on entering. It took me more than 30 years to recover from his arrogance and that bit of schoolboy bullying.

The crazy part was that my dad was anything but boring or irrelevant. As I look back, I never gave him the respect he deserved for having marched with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., or for standing with Mayor Gipson during the Newark Riots or for helping to rebuild that city with the church as a telling presence in the community.

Today, with a generation of young people clamoring to change the world, that stereotype of ministry -- boring, irrelevant and limited by the perception that it is stuck in an old model -- often dominates. While my dad may have led powerfully from the pulpit, in this day and age, it is not the only platform from which a minister can lead.

Some of the most dynamic, courageous and creative (even fun!) leaders in our community, people who are heading up the charge to address violence, sex trafficking, abuse, runaway youth, homelessness, hopelessness and hunger are clergy in roles that others might not recognize as clerical.

Take Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who started Magdalene House to help woman get out of the sex industry and off the streets where they can become sober and whole. To sustain this effort, Stephens launched a cosmetics company called Thistle Farm, where these women work and where the profits pay for the ministry.

Or how about Bill Golderer, the former golf pro and political consultant who transformed an abandoned church across from the Arts School in Philadelphia and created a portal of engagement for students, chefs, barbers, artists and entrepreneurs to engage and be in community with runaway teens, the working poor and the mentally worn. Worship on Sunday night is filled with the people who walk the halls during the week, followed by a community meal where all who attend break bread together.

Or Leroy Barber, a Baptist minister who leads Mission Year, an organization that recruits and places young adult volunteers from around the country in vulnerable yet valuable neighborhoods in Philly, Chicago, Oakland and other cities across the country. As an author, he has challenged and affirmed a generation in its commitment by lifting up the motto: "Love God, love neighbor, nothing else matters."

Powerful, prophetic leadership can still be found from the pulpit.

When Rev. Garrett Andrew arrived in the rural community of Albany, Ga., he found himself in the fourth poorest community in America and the only town where MLK said he wouldn't return. There, Andrew has helped restore a church that had considered closing its doors to a hub of outreach and welcome for the entire town.

In Trenton, N.J., Rev. Karen Hernandez leads a multi-cultural congregation that has transformed an unoccupied parsonage into a house of hospitality for five VISTA and AmeriCorps members. Together, they live in an intentional faith community in relationship with Westminster Church, the Chambersburg neighborhood and the city of Trenton. Working with local non-profits and community master-gardeners, they've transformed the backyard into an accessible community garden which provides a community space and produce for local food pantries.

The shape and the look and the feel of ministry are about to radically change. Sure, there will continue to be church buildings that need ministers. But ministry is changing as rapidly for the church as journalism in the news world. As new opportunities and challenges arrive, there will be new expressions and constructs of ministry that evolve.

And why shouldn't there be? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

"Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs. Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into ... its faded wardrobe? The sun shines today also. ... There are new lands, new people, and new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship."

Ministry is changing at a radically rapid pace. What has not and will not change is the powerful role that clergy are called to play -- to be present in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. The difference is that ministry will become less reliant on church buildings and budgets and more integrated into the world. Ten years from now the majority of clergy will be multi-vocational, rather than traditional full-time preachers who are getting paid and supported by a local congregation.

If we expect the church and its clergy to be relevant by offering up what was done before, we will have the train wreck that so many pundits are predicting. But if we see ministry as a place to stand, we will, in the words of Archimedes, move the world.

Individuals looking to change the world, who care deeply about people and want to be present in their moments of joy and need, should consider ministry in its many forms. You need not be certain how it will look at the beginning. Instead, be faithful to the mystery of faith and be convicted in the cause to transform the world. Trust that through the intersection of our own hands and God's blessing, instruction and promise, we can.