Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

In the Beginning

By Chris Veillon

In the beginning, there was the Word and the Word was made flesh. In the beginning. This is where the project of re-imagining takes off: at the beginning. As I write this post in the early days of October, only and already five weeks into the academic year, I am here to lay out our beginnings: how we are coming to be formed as a program of student facilitators; how we are getting to know the members of our working groups and the cultures of the congregations to which we’ve been assigned; what exactly are we doing? I’d like to pose three questions we’ve been wrestling with, here in the beginning, that maybe you’re wrestling with too, at whatever stage of imagination you’re in:

  1. Who are we to…?

The process of participating in Yale’s Reimagining Church program involves a written application and an interview with the program’s faculty coordinators. To be eligible to apply, we had to complete a year of supervised ministry in a parish and to be in our third year of the Masters in Divinity program. This is to say…we’ve had some [very little] experience in this field. No doubt you, reader, have had a great deal more. And yet that question may have occurred to you, too: Who am I to “Reimagine Church”?? All of Christendom is “reimagining church” these days, it seems; every minister who longs to reach more people, every lay leader who longs for more resources for their parish, every ‘spiritual but not religious’ seeker who longs to find meaning. On its surface, we might answer that we are who have been selected, hired, or charged with the task by review committees, our bosses, or our bishops. The truth is, God calls us all into the creative work of imagining and manifesting the Body of Christ in the world. God has already called you into it. And God will partner with you for it. First and foremost, know that you are not alone in it, that you are just the right person for it, and that, in the meantime, this plucky group of students and a few dozen Christians of various ages, denominations, and backgrounds will be doing it, too!

  1. How am I to…?

I learned long ago that anytime I meet someone at Yale Divinity School, I have met someone very impressive. Students here have had exceptional careers in the academy, in industry, in nonprofits and aid work. They have moving personal histories and have overcome incredible challenges, and almost without exception I find them to be good people as well as great students. But they do not like to fail. This I can say about Yale Divinity Students—we do not like to fail. In fact, we do not particularly care for being even “second best.” That makes our little group of facilitators a curious bunch at YDS, because there are no grades. Reader, there are no grades. Imagination-work may or may not be measured against how the accounting books change, or how the attendance rolls change, or how many children show up at Sunday School in six months. It may or may not even be measured against how much your congregation appreciates it or how enthusiastically your colleagues notice it. It is a different work altogether. There are no professors gatekeeping the right answer and there are no teaching fellows evaluating your work. And yet: Imagination-work is a public work. You may feel that all eyes are on you, waiting for results, condemning your false-starts, questioning your capacity, maybe even praising you prematurely. Keep going. The truth is, no one—truly, no one—has the “right” answer, because there is no “right” answer at all. Find friends to care for your spirit. Find dreamers to do the work with you. Keep God’s face ever before you, so to speak. There is no failing grade in imagination-work. Play in the play box. Build with blocks God has given you. 

  1. Why should I even…?

I want to end with this question, which really is the first question, but which likely will (and should) come up again and again. When the student facilitators applied to participate in this program, we had to come up with persuasive answers to give the coordinators. Maybe we were even convinced of those answers! But we did so at the beginning of springtime in the northeast, when our school year was wrapping up and we were awash in the possibilities of the far-off year and in the fresh sunshine that graced us morning and evening. The reality is that imagination-work can feel daunting, thankless, and big. A lot of it feels like sending emails, coordinating schedules, bookmarking “things that would be good to read when I have time later” until you have too many windows open and you have to close them all for sanity’s sake. New projects come up with urgency. Phone calls have to be returned, sermons have to be written, groceries have to be bought and cooked into meals. Why should I even do this? Will it make a difference? We are answering that question as we go. I hope that you will journey along with us as we do, asking yourself along the way: What is God’s deep desire for my community? What do I need from God in order to be fueled for this work? 

Our team of facilitators and working groups are truly blessed—by your curiosity, critique, investment in this work and above all by your prayers for the flourishing of the Holy Spirit in places you may never know. Our prayers are with you, too. 

Image | Nik on Unsplash