Fusing justice and holiness
Ministry in the 21st century
What is pastoral ministry like these days, and how is it being shaped in new ways? The Century talked to pastors about the challenges and surprises of their early years in ministry. This interview is the ninth in a series. Dennis Sanders is associate pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis. His primary focus is on empowering the congregation for outward mission; he also teaches classes in Christian formation and preaches once a month. A bivocational minister, Sanders works as communications specialist for the Twin Cities Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 2008, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder. Sanders blogs at The Clockwork Pastor, part of the CCblogs network.
What excites you most about ministry these days? What’s been the hardest thing?
It’s hard to face the reality that what used to work doesn’t work anymore. First Church shares the classic mainline story: it was a large congregation in the 1950s and ’60s, and it lost members from the ’70s onward. Now it is a far smaller congregation trying to figure out how to do ministry in this day and age.
Over the last year, several members of our congregation worked to get our archives digitized. Looking at all the old church bulletins from the 1950s, you realize that there were hundreds of people taking part in Sunday school—hundreds. When you have only a handful of folks in Sunday school these days, it can be really easy to think you’re a failure.
I have to keep reminding myself that the past is the past, and we have to learn how to be church now. So that’s also the most exciting thing: we’re off the map now. We are trying new things and seeing what God is going to do with them.
In 2008, the congregation sold its building to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which graciously allowed us to stay as tenants for a few years while we decided what to do next. In 2010, we started talking with a Lutheran congregation and a United Church of Christ congregation that were making plans to share space at the newly remodeled Lutheran church. We felt that God was leading us to join this partnership. So as of January 2012, we are part of the SpringHouse Ministry Center in South Minneapolis: three congregations sharing one building.
How is this arrangement going so far?
For the most part, it’s going well. The challenge has been dealing with our different polities. Disciples tend to be pretty lay-driven. The pastor has a voice, but it’s just that: a voice. The other two churches tend to have more power vested in the pastor. This means that we spend some time scratching our heads. But as time passes, we are becoming more understanding of our differences.
What’s something important you’ve learned about ministry?
That it’s more of an art than a precise skill. In seminary, you learn all the skills: how to interpret scripture, how to plan and conduct worship, how to preach and so on. In the context of ministry, you realize that it is much, much more of an art: knowing when to be pastoral and when to be more prophetic and all of that. This isn’t something you can learn at seminary. It’s about trial and error in a ministry context—and the prompting of the Spirit.
What’s an example of a mistake you’ve learned from?
I had a problem with a staff person a while back. I should have been willing to ask this person some difficult questions to try to figure out why things weren’t working out. But I didn’t do that, and the problem festered and led to some turbulence in our relationship, though in the long run we were able to work things out. So I’ve learned about how to communicate better with coworkers.
How have pastors and others with more experience been helpful? Or unhelpful?
First Church’s interim senior pastor has been a wonderful mentor. He’s treated me with respect, and I’ve learned a lot from him. That’s not something you always get in senior-associate pastor relationships.
Other colleagues have been largely helpful as well. Here in Minnesota, you can’t help but know a few Lutheran pastors. Many of them have been great friends to me, and I’ve learned from them.
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