Friday, March 26, 2021

Reforming Appalachia: Defining Native and Adopted Sons

    As we consider how to replant Presbyterianism in Appalachia, raising up and recruiting ministers is crucial. Different paths toward ordination and the types of calls that may be available make it helpful to categorize potential ministers into two classes. These do not of themselves estimate or compare their value, as if to say that one would always be better than the other. But rather, it is to acknowledge that different calls may be best suited to different classes or kinds (for reasons described later) and that different classes may require different paths to ordination.

Native Sons

   The first class we will define is that of Native Sons. Transparently, Native Sons have been raised in Appalachia generally, or, even better for our considerations, in West Virginia specifically. Their lives are situated here. They have been enculturated and have innumerable family and community connections. They are possibly here because they love being here, deigning to surrender the sense of place with which they have been blessed. They may joyfully expect to work here, raise their families here, retire here, and die here. On the other hand, their circumstances might have kept them from ever leaving, due to geographic and economic immobility. But hopefully, they are contently resigned to being here and no longer contemplate other options. Regardless, if they desire the office of a presbyter, the domain in which they desire to minister is--whether by circumstance or affection--the territory they have always called home. A subclass of Native Sons might be called “Prodigal Sons,” who once left to “seek their fortunes” but have since heard “her voice, in the morning hours she calls me,” as so many do, and returned “to the place where I belong.”

Adopted Sons    

    The second kind is that of Adopted Sons. Adopted Sons include those who were born and raised elsewhere but who have through providence or call made their way to West Virginia. They come here because they want to be here and intend to stay here as long as providence allows and sense determines. In this category are those who are more likely to have received a traditional seminary education. Prior to coming, they may have identified Appalachia as the place in which they desire to advance the kingdom, similar to how a missionary might identify a country or people to which they will someday go. Given our dearth of presbyterian pulpits, these might be church planters working at the behest of the presbytery. Or, more likely, they got wind of a new or vacant call--a rare opportunity to which they applied and were installed by the presbytery. In the first case, their sense of call informed their circumstance. In the second, their circumstances informed their sense of call. We have proved that Adopted Sons of either sort are welcome among us; they have greatly enriched our ranks for many generations, and we would be even more desparate without them.

Difficulties Inherent to the Kind

    Both classes come with difficulties. Regarding Adopted Sons, the West Virginia frontier does not naturally draw the attention of eager seminary-trained ordinands. Even then, calls are few, and vacancies even more rare. Rural presbyteries have few resources with which to subsidize new calls, and the larger world of Presbyterianism has overlooked rural frontiers for generations. Only now undercurrents of rural outreach are beginning to circulate among the evangelical church’s ecclesiological influencers. If a wave ever does hit, current models of church planting will not be practical outside “metropolitan” areas, which is problematic for our state, which is the only one in Appalachia with no major metropolitan centers. Rural presbyteries will need to guide their efforts by pioneering new ways of rural outreach. Hopefully these essays, if I can ever get them finished, will get us thinking along those lines.

    Adopted Sons are also more likely than Native Sons to move on from us. Some new or young ministers are just happy to get a job--any job. There’s not as much competition for calls here, and a desperate Presbytery might not make it as difficult for a new or young minister to get ordained. Despite convincing themselves and us of their zeal to come here during examination, it is not unreasonable for a new or young minister to quietly reserve the right to move on if something better arises. And the bar for better lowers quickly when what is unique to West Virginia disabuses new ministers of initial excitement, especially if they have no roots here.

Going Forward

   Adopted Sons will receive treatment in these essays. They are crucial for our success going forward. As much as we would like to do things on our own, we have proved we cannot, and it would be arrogant and exclusivistic to think that we could (I preach to myself). We will always need them to plant churches and fill pulpits. They will be more likely than our Native Sons to have had a traditional seminary education, and traditional seminary exists for real and valid reasons. We should therefore be intentional and active about recruiting Adopted Sons. We need them, and several among us are them and have been for many, many years. One idea to improve recruiting is already in the early stages of discussion and development by the Admin Committee--”The Reformed Appalachian Study Program Internship.”

    Native Sons will receive more space than Adopted Sons in these essays, not because Adopted Sons are less valuable or desirable, but because Native Sons are more likely to be suited for the unique work that must be pioneered in certain parts of rural Appalachia. But Native Sons are incredibly difficult to raise up. We’ve got to identify them, adapt the path of ordination for them, and normalize a uniquely rural way of doing ministry--all of which is going to be very hard. Thankfully, the presbytery recently approved a seminary training program to be used within our own boundaries. But this is only one consideration for raising up Native Sons. At least three others must accompany it in the short term, with more in the long term: 1) We must as a presbytery create and administrate a robust “Under Care” program, 2) We must normalize licensure much earlier in the candidacy process, and 3) We must saturate our bounds with active, rich, engaging, and value-laden ministry opportunities for candidates under care. Each of these will be fleshed out in more detail later--God willing and the creek don’t rise.

Real Sons No Matter What

    The distinction between Native and Adopted Sons is only useful for discussion in the context of recruiting and raising up ministers--to identify and distinguish what is unique to raising up Native Sons and what is unique to recruiting Adopted Sons. But no son adopted into a family wants to be known perpetually as the adopted one, as if he weren’t a real son. Likewise, I don’t intend to suggest that our Adopted Sons are not real sons. Other than to marvel at God’s good grace to bring you here, I doubt most of us ever think of you as anything other than a Son of West Virginia. We need you, we are glad you are here, and we hope you stay.

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