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Why the Mainline Has Become the Sideline and What to Do

Contemporary Mainline Protestantism remains largely stuck in a model of ministry and clergy development that is outdated and harmful to the future of mainline faith traditions, according to United Methodist Church bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr., Duke Divinity School professor L. Gregory Jones, and Duke Divinity School associate dean Susan Pendleton Jones, in an essay written for Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School.

The disruption comes, the authors write, from a change in culture that the Church has been slow to recognize, and often still does not understand. Traditionally, they point out, "being a pastor was almost a 'family business,'" in which  mentoring into ministry "took place in literal family systems," and was "nourished and strengthened" in seminaries. While that model worked well enough while "congregations were homogenous, candidates for ministry were mostly middle-class Anglo men, and clergy skills were easily transferable" from community to community and church to church, it does not work in the contemporary world.

Today, U.S. neighborhoods and culture are much more diverse, and people from a range of backgrounds are experiencing God's call to ministry. Seminaries, however, have not adequately responded. "In short, we in the mainline have not paid attention to multiple disruptive forces affecting clergy leadership development" needs. Denominations have been as slow to understand the disruptions, continuing "to focus on their standards and rules for becoming clergy. They have discounted the significance of lay leadership development" outside of roles limited to specific congregations or authorized men's and women's groups. As a result, a few large local congregations have taken matters into their own hands, creating "a host of innovative experiments to develop the clergy they need" or to hire innovative, entrepreneurial missions pastors to create experimental ministries in their neighborhoods.

Whether mainline Protestants can shift their mindsets fast enough to survive the disruption of culture and church that is upon them is an open question. However, if they are going to be successful, they need to adopt the strategies of disruptive innovation, in which congregation's create experimental laboratories to find new, better ways to reach populations for Christ. That requires focusing on the mission rather than the method, in order to anticipate changes in society that require changes in method. It also requires seminaries to adjust their curricula to include courses and other programs to empower future clergy with the skills and mindset to lead congregations through turbulent change, including good business skills and an entrepreneurial perspective

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