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Tomorrow's Clergy Will Find a Complex Mix of Spiritual Seekers

June 25, 1996|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

While attention is riveted on the controversy over construction of a new Roman Catholic cathedral to serve Los Angeles into the next millennium, another issue with implications at least as profound has yet to be addressed: What sort of priest does the future require?

For that matter, how will tomorrow's Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis differ from those of today?

You don't have to be a prophet, leaders at seminaries say, to know that societal, cultural and scientific changes sweeping the nation will continue to influence not only the gender and ethnic makeup of seminary student bodies, but also the kinds of challenges the students will face once they are ordained.

"In the old days, the pastor was seen primarily as a person who preached and prayed for the sick and the elderly and performed certain sacramental functions," said Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Not any more.

To put it bluntly, the market has changed. And if organized religion is to maintain or expand its market share, tomorrow's clergy will have to be equipped with the usual skills essential to sacred calling--and then some.

Nowhere is the challenge likely to be more daunting than in Southern California, a region rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. It is also a place where hedonism and holiness intersect and spiritual seekers are as apt to fashion their own private gateway to heaven as to walk through the door of a neighborhood church or synagogue.

"Americans are increasingly convinced that it's perfectly possible to be religious entirely on your own," Barbara G. Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, lamented in an interview. "You don't need a community of people. You just need the right books and artifacts and time by yourself and maybe some classes."

More than ever, she said, the clergy of the future will have to demonstrate the importance of becoming involved in a religious community. The task is complicated, she said, because many of the people who shop for a church or synagogue do not share a common background.

"We've become a nation of switchers. We don't stay in the religious community we grew up in. That means we don't have a kind of common religious culture and tradition," Wheeler said.

The Very Rev. Mary Jane Nestler, dean of the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont, said seminaries must do a far better job of training clergy to address that need.

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Southern California's cultural and ethnic diversity will require other clergy skills as well--not just the ability to speak a second "ministerially useful language," a skill required by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for the last five years.

Better skills in cross-cultural counseling are needed, Nestler said. "You may have to deal with problems with a Chinese family in your office very differently" from those in an African American family or a white family, she said.

Changes within ethnic groups also will require new insights and pastoral sensitivity.

"Various subgroups in the congregations in the past were ignored or maybe weren't there--singles; divorced or separated, blended families; women who are professionals," Fuller's Mouw said.

"Those pose special challenges. A lot of new attention is paid to questions like power relationships in general and gender relationships in particular. . . . All those complications mean training for ministry is a whole new thing."

And there are whole new things on the science and technology front that are challenging clergy as never before.

Their spiritual forebears were never asked for advice about the ethical and moral implications of the life-and-death choices posed by genetic testing. What is a couple to do if they find that their fertilized egg, if carried to full term, would produce a child afflicted with multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis? Is the egg or zygote to be treated as defective biological material to be disposed of, or as sacred human life?

To deal with these kinds of issues, biomedical ethics courses have been added to the curriculum at some seminaries, such as the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont.

How does a priest, minister or rabbi advise family members confronted with an elderly loved one who is dying a slow, painful death?

Roman Catholics and Protestants have said it is morally permissible to withhold heroic medical efforts that would artificially prolong life. But now two federal appeals courts have taken the issue a giant step further by approving physician-assisted suicide. It may be legal, but is it moral to hasten a loved one's death by asking a doctor to administer fatal doses of pain-killing drugs?

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