There is no turning back from the radical changes sweeping over the church and world, so the challenge facing the church, said the Rev. Mindy Douglas Adams, is to “continue to stand on the essential teachings of our church while at the same time training leaders how to serve people of the 21st century.”

In her May 9 Sprunt Lecture at Union Presbyterian Seminary here, Adams ― organizing pastor of Chapel in the Pines in North Carolina in 2006 and installed pastor of the congregation since 2008 ― said, “God is constantly doing a new thing and is doing a new thing now … The sooner we embrace that the sooner we can move forward without fear.”

Adams was the fourth and concluding Sprunt Lecture. The lectures and other activities related to Union Seminary’s bicentennial celebration ran May 7-9. The Sprunts began in 1911 through a gift by James Sprunt of Wilmington, N.C. “to bring speakers of outstanding quality to the seminary to discuss aspects of Christian thought and work.” The theme of this year’s lectures was “Seminary and Church … In This Together.”

To move forward, Adams said, churches must accept that “the Christian story no longer holds the cultural center of gravity” in the U.S. “All is not as it once was ― we’re in new and scary waters in a world that is vastly different religiously, culturally, technologically and socially from even that in which I graduated from this institution” in 1995.

“In my community (near Chapel Hill, N.C.) the religious landscape has changed dramatically,” Adams continued. “We have every religion imaginable and they worship in all kinds of places at all times of the week. This is change for the better, with opportunities for richer, fuller ministries in Christ,” she said, “but the opportunities AND the challenges are greater than ever before.”

Denominatinal loyalty is one casualty of the changing religious and cultural landscape in America, Adams said. “Most of my members no longer are lifelong Presbyterians,” she said. “People no longer move to town and look for their ‘brand.’ They look for a church with energy, joy and passion for Jesus Christ … and mostly they look for relevance. One hour on Sunday morning must help them make sense of the other 167 hours of the week.”

Faced with many choices, Adams said, “lots of folks today choose the option not to do anything. Church is at the bottom of list of choices when it’s no longer relevant to lives they lead.”

So what kinds of leaders must the seminaries and church be preparing for ministry in this new world?

“No matter what,” Adams said, “our leaders need biblical literacy and theological thinking that leads others to the same. They need to be able to give pastoral care to those who need it. And they need to be able to cast a vision of God’s change in the world and to communicate that vision in a variety of ways.”

Adams, a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Committee on Theological Education, cited conclusions from the committee’s recent paper: “Raising up leaders for the people of God.” The character traits needed in “transformation leaders for this brave new world” are, she said:

  • transparency
  • authenticity
  • servanthood
  • vulnerability
  • cultural proficiency

These leadership traits cannot be developed just in seminaries, Adams said. “They have to be developed in partnership with sessions and presbyteries. We all must be about leadership and character formation for spiritual and mission practices.”

Adams praised many of the innovations taking place at Union Seminary. “What we need to prepare leaders for the church that is to come is emergent seminaries for the emergent church,” she said.

“We must be at the forefront, researching new forms of ministry as they are developed,” she continued, “and passing on what we learn to the church so we can partner with the church to develop faithful, visionary and hopeful leaders who can lead the church of Jesus Christ into the decades ahead of us.”

Theological seminaries can change while preserving the best of the traditions from which they come, Adams said. “It’s scary but hopeful because ultimately our hope is in Jesus Christ and his spirit,” she said, “which is alive in the world.”