By Bill Mous - Priest, Director of Social Justice Ministries, St. James, Dundas
Published: January 2008
Related Topics: Current Issues
During a break in one of our classes, a fellow student returned to the classroom with a large manila envelope. She excitedly announced that she had in her possession an Intention to Graduate form! This resulted in a rush to the divinity office by the four other graduating students in the class. After what might have looked to the curious onlookers like an Olympic speed walking competition down the hallway, we were disappointed to discover that our forms had been put in the mail the day before.
The truth of the matter is that none of us were particularly overjoyed by the prospect of filling out a large form detailing our academic history while at Trinity, but we were all excited by what it signaled: that our time at Trinity was growing short.
Having reached the end of the chapter in several academic enterprises, this feeling of excitement about moving on the next step is a pretty normal thing; the final term in high school focused more on university scholarship applications and acceptance letters than it did on the work and activities of the school and while my thesis kept me somewhat rooted in the final semester of my undergraduate degree more than I was in high school, my heart was more interested in things like applications for ordination and interviews with divinity schools.
Yet as I near the end of my Master of Divinity degree, I am mindful of the fact that within this looming large scale transition there have been a number of somewhat smaller transitions at the beginning and end of each of the three or four field education placements one is required to undertake. In my experience these smaller transitions were much more difficult than the ones which come from the changing of one's academic milieu. The reason is that many of these placements last only three months. After being inserted into a community, one is normally just at the point of finding a place and role within that community, when the time comes to return to school to reflect on that experience. At times it seems cruel, but I think the theory is that this system of field placements allows for the greatest amount of experience.
With all these beginnings and endings in mind, I've been pondering the implications of an ecological theory, the Intermediate Disturbance hypothesis, to help me understand times of transition – in life and in ministry. The hypothesis calls into question the often assumed notion that stability leads to optimal conditions for the greatest amount of biodiversity to be present in any given area. Instead it suggests that both stability and high levels of disturbance reduce diversity. This is because areas that are stable aren't able to foster many opportunities for new species to arrive because the species that are present in the area are well entrenched. On the flip side, areas with too much disturbance have very little diversity because species aren't able to find their niche before a new disturbance comes to change their environment. Thus the hypothesis predicts that the most number of species will be found in areas with intermediate levels of disturbance. When we extend this idea to our own personal, professional or parish growth, there may well be some significant implications for the way we undertake ministry!
On one end of the scale, that of too much disturbance or change, we might categorize three month field placements or parishes with a revolving door of leaders. With constant turnover between situations, one is significant challenged to be able to understand their environments well enough to develop a great number of substantial ideas or initiative from one's experience. One of the reasons why we have interim ministry--and why it almost always last more than six months--is to enable parishes to pause and reflect upon their ministry and their future in a manner that enables discernment.
On the other end of the scale, that of long periods of stability, we might categorize parishes that haven't undergone a considerable challenge to its ministry in the last three or five years, or perhaps those whose leadership has remained more or less constant and without significant new vision for several years. As a result, the parish or its leadership might become too comfortable, to the point where worship, programs and ways of doing things become 'tradition' or 'the way we do it here', so much so that new comers are excluded and new ideas are discouraged resulting either in frustration or oppression.
The middle way--the via media if you will--is the realm of intermediate disturbance. It's a place where a happy medium between stability and change is found; where traditions and leadership is allowed to continue to be, but not without regular opportunity to be challenged by new ideas and new leaders. To find this place is probably not an easy thing to do--for it requires a great amount of work, humility and discernment. All of these are considerable challenges for the majority of us who, for of any number of reasons, are more likely to be content to stay in the comfortable place of stability.
I think the time is nearing for me to move from Trinity to the next chapter--to take what I have learned, and despite all the comforts Trinity may offer, to look forward to the next challenge, that of professional ministry.
My Intention to Graduate form arrived in the mail the other day. With it begins a gradual process that won't fully reach its conclusion until such a time when I step upon a stage to receive a rolled up piece of blank foolscap, symbolizing my efforts, learning and growth in the past three years. It's a happy time, a reflective time, a discernment time; yet I know that in order to continuing growing, it's also time for the comfortable academic place in which I live to be disturbed.