Season 6 - Episode 646
Baylor’s Program for the Future Church exists to convene professors and church and community leaders to listen, imagine, and pilot solutions for emerging changes facing the Church. Housed within Truett Seminary, the Program offers resources to connect stakeholders virtually and in-person. In this Baylor Connections, Dustin Benac, Program director and co-founder and author of the book Adaptive Church, takes listeners inside the challenges and opportunities for local churches to serve both the current and future Church together.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking The Future Church with Dustin Benac. Dustin Benac serves as Director and co-founder of the program for The Future Church in Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Dr. Benac works at the intersection of practical theology and organizational theory to understand and explore the organizationally collegy that supports communities of faith during times of transition and uncertainty. He's the author of the book, Adaptive Church, released last year. The program for The Future Church was formed to bring together professors and church and community leaders to create time and space for listening and imagining into pilot solutions for the emerging changes facing the church. A fascinating topic, a lot of work that you can do, and Dr. Benac, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today and to share with us about that.
Dustin Benac:Thanks, Derek. Thrilled to be here. Thrilled to be here with the broader Baylor community.
Derek Smith:Well, excited to dive into this, a relatively new program that's growing in just over two years. I appreciate you bringing in the book, Adaptive Church. I'm assuming really talks a lot about some of the ideas that undergird the work that you are doing there. So I'm just curious, your work takes you all over the place. Could you tell us, you don't have to give us the start finishing in, but what are some conversations you've had recently that have just invigorated you, enlightened you meant something to you?
Dustin Benac:Oh wow, so many. So many. I was just in conversation with a local pastor out of Dallas earlier this week and had the privilege to just hear from him about some of the work that's happened in his congregation. This congregation is 125 years old, so talk about historic, and he was sharing with me on the anniversary of their 125th anniversary, how they celebrated the history, the life, the vibrancy of that particular community. It's changed. It's changed immensely, but what he shared with me is as they looked over the archives, he realized they've always been adapting, they've always been starting new things. They've always been contextually rooted in engaging their community in various ways. So this history of vitality, witness, contextual root reflection gave me so much hope. The other thing that comes to my mind is some of my students. I have the privilege to teach incredibly gifted, talented and hopeful students. And was just speaking with one of my current and former students who is in a period of pastoral transition. He has had the privilege to take on this significant and influential church in his particular community. He's talking about the joys, talking about the complexity, talking about some of the weariness and also about some of the fragility. And all of that I think is bound up in this question of the future church. It's incredibly human, it's incredibly social, it's incredibly fragile, but it's also incredibly hopeful. And then amidst all of that, one of the privileges I have is in my work with individuals and communities across the country, I hear a lot about the grief. There's a lot of grief in this moment because there certainly are stories of possibility, growth, renewal, but so many folks are tired, they're weary, they're crisis worn, and they carry these seen and unseen griefs. Sometimes they're personal, sometimes they're congregational, sometimes they're invisible. But in this moment of thinking about and re-imagining the future of the church, I'm increasingly convinced that we've got to make space for our grief because when we make space for our grief, a new community forms and a new sense of possibility emerges.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Dustin Benac and as you talk about this, you've used words like joys, complexity, human, fragility, all things that tie into what we'll be talking about over the next 20 minutes or so.
Derek Smith:I want to ask you, so you came to Baylor in 2020. In 2021, you co-founded the program for The Future Church. Could you tell us a little bit about what that program is and what that program isn't?
Dustin Benac:Sure. Sure. So the program for The Future Church is a research resource and relational hub that's devoted to understanding and addressing the complex challenges before current and future ministry leaders. And these three words, research, resourcing, relationship are really key because there are many initiatives, and I cheer them on, I'm big fans, that do research or resourcing or relationships, and our particular experiment is trying to combine these into a central space and initiative. We understand research, resourcing and relationships not as these separate movements of theological inquiry, not as separate activities of R1 university, but as this integrative opportunity to combine them into a single space in a single environment. And we think about this as a hub and by hub, we're purposeful in understanding it as something that anchors religious life in a particular community and facilitates these webs of connection across the broader ecology we serve. I know all of this for our listeners has sounded pretty idealistic and abstract. So I want to talk really concretely about what this means and what this looks like. So we organize our work around various pillars. These are like the pillars on a house that create space for individuals and ideas to live. The first pillar is leadership. There's no future for the future church without thoughtful, theologically formed, articulated, ethical leadership, particularly collaborative leadership, which I hope we can talk about more soon. That's the first pillar. The second pillar is youth and emerging adults. There's no future for the church without the next generation. So we try to not just learn from the next generation, but resource the next generation and bring them in as thoughtful colleagues and conversation partners. We want to learn from you. The next pillar is pedagogy. We are a space of not just providing information but formation, and we try to combine both of those. And fourth and finally, lived experience. And lived experience is this pillar that articulates how the realities of our everyday lives, institutions and communities intersects with and is informed by the broader Christian tradition. This reflects realities like crisis, mental health and burnout, belonging, social justice, ecological justice, environmental crisis. These are the complex living realities that surround our lives and surround our churches, and we have to engage them and have to consider them. And then in practice, we organize work around these pillars around three concrete activities, convenings, curriculum and contextual research. We really think we're better together, so we gather people, we gather ideas, we gather a sense of the possibility through these convenings. We're also an educational institution and participate in an educational institution. So we believe in the power of teaching, formation, purposeful curriculum that's expressed in a variety of genres. We're educators through and through. And the final bit is contextual research. We think there is wisdom bubbling up from our local context and we want to listen to that local wisdom and then combine that local wisdom with a broader interdisciplinary conversation about the resources that can be developed to research and resource the next generation of church leaders.
Derek Smith:Your enthusiasm as you described this, it comes through here in the studio and believe for people listening as well.
Dustin Benac:I love it. Love it.
Derek Smith:So tell us the why? How long has an idea like this been formulated in your mind and why is it so important to you?
Dustin Benac:Yeah. There's several different ways to think about the why. We can certainly think about it historically, and I can tell some of that story, but I want to be a little bit more pointed and talk about the why with a little bit of urgency. Why does this matter today and why does this matter at Baylor now? And I think to answer that question, the why for me and the why for us is we're trying to bend imagination towards hope. We're trying to bend imagination towards hope because when many individuals and communities think about and consider their future, there's anxiety, there's uncertainty, there's a sense of displacement. And we're not trying to dismiss or dishonor that in any way. Rather, through our curriculum, through our convenings, through our contextual research, we're trying to say as stewards of the Christian tradition, we serve an ever creative God who is full of an abundant possibility. And the story of God and the story of the people of God isn't done yet, but we might need to be looking at other places. So we're trying to bend imagination towards hope. That's what we're trying to do in every movement, in every environment, in every word, in every project, is we're trying to bend imagination in some way. And that happens through forms of encounter, through connection, through community. And that's one of the things that I think Baylor does as well as anybody else, connection, encounter, community, and a sense of possibility that comes from the Christian tradition.
Derek Smith:So Dr. Benac, two years ago, you co-founded the program for The Future Church. Take us back, tell us a little bit about the founding and then also why here, why now? Why is Baylor and Truett Seminary the right place for this?
Dustin Benac:Right. Fantastic. Thanks Derek. And as you mentioned, it was co-founded, co-founded it with my friend and colleague, Dr. Angela Gorell, brilliant scholar, teacher, master educator in many, many ways. And I'm so grateful to work with her to co-found it. Would not be possible without her. It would also not be possible without Truett. Dean Still has been a champion and supporter for this work from the very beginning. Colleagues at Truett have created space and been meaningful and thoughtful conversation partners in various ways. There's an incredible network of churches that trust Baylor, trust Truett, and really values this type of work and this type of vision. So it would not be possible without those. And then Kim mentioned our students and our graduates. They are the future of the church. The students that we teach, they are the future ministry leaders, non-profit leaders, social workers, scholars, teachers, visionaries, lay leaders, whatever it is, they're going to be doing the work. So they are a key part of it as well. So cannot be done without those folks and then could not be done without the broader Baylor community. Baylor is uniquely situated and able to create and support space for work like this. And I just want to name four things. First, commitment to the church. We do not take that for granted because Baylor's Pro Ecclesia mission is really something that aligns so directly with the work that we're doing. Or I should say rather what we're doing aligns with Baylor's pro Ecclesia mission because we just want to support that. We just want to aliven that, we want to just advance that in whatever way we can. Secondly, the interdisciplinarity. As you mentioned in various ways, the questions and challenges before local church leaders and ministers of various forms require a variety of voices and interdisciplinary perspectives. So Bailor was uniquely able to create a space for this because of the interdisciplinary commitments and expertise that our colleagues have across the university. It's singular, unique and such a joy to work across disciplines at Baylor. Third, resources, and I don't just mean the financial resources. Those are fantastic, we're grateful, but it's more just the resources of ideas, personnel, excellence, quality that seems to animate this space, that allows the work that we do to be done at such a level that we can be hopeful, we can be responsive, we can offer substantive contributions to church leaders, to a broader research community and to a broader public beyond this space. And then fourth and finally, I just want to name the importance of stability. There are many, many educational institutions who may face a more uncertain future, but as an organizational strategist and theorist, I know that it's difficult to imagine the future when the present feels uncertain. And in a particular time when many Christian higher education institutions face considerable headwinds, Baylor provides a sort of harbor to take some chances, to experiment, to work to bend imagination towards hope, and ultimately to allow this type of work to form and grow. Could not be done without Truett, could not be done without Baylor. So grateful for the community and colleagues we have in this space.
Derek Smith:You talk about bending imagination towards hope and people feeling anxiety. If you watch the news and pay attention to coverage of religious practice, you'll see stories about people's church habits have changed since COVID or more adults identify without checking a certain religious faith box. Maybe those are a couple of them, but what are some of the challenges that as you talk to people, as you research that churches and church leaders are facing?
Dustin Benac:Yeah, we're certainly not naive or ignorant about those. We're keenly aware of them. And because of that, we're trying to attend to these various challenges in meaningful and substantive ways. I think there are six, and if I can talk briefly about these, I'd love to. The first one is belonging. I think belonging is the question of a generation. We're amid the polarization, amid the isolation, amid the fragmentation of individual and communal life. So many individuals, and particularly church leaders, are asking the question of belonging, where do I belong? To whom do I belong? What does it look like to belong throughout generations? And this is something Christians have thought about for a long time, and we're trying to draw resources in order to answer that. Secondly, for our leaders, many of them are isolated and lonely, and we need to consider how to equip and move a generation of leaders beyond leading alone. That's the second primary challenge, leading alone. And it is literally, literally killing many of our leaders, devastating our community in so many ways. And you know the stories, you know the stories. Third, mental health and burnout. Many people talk about and think about the mental health as a silent tsunami. It is oftentimes this silent crisis that eats away at our lives, our communities, our families, in so many seen and unseen ways. So what we're trying to do by surfacing and engaging this is simply to make the unseen seen and begin to think about how do we resource and elevate a broader conversation about the fragility, the precarity, the uncertainty that comes with mental health, and also how churches can be catalytic centers in order to provide support, care, referrals amid the precarity mental health brings. A little bit more abstractly beyond the individuals. I want to talk about three... What we might call collective or institutional challenges. One, buildings, buildings and facilities are an immense and mounting question and challenges for so many local congregations. I've heard this estimated as something like a $3.3 billion question. It's massive because over the course of the next 10 to 15 years, many individuals estimate there will be an unprecedented transition of resources from one community to another. And they're talking about the buying and selling of church buildings. So this is a critical question that's before many pastors, before ministry teams, many ministerial professionals, and those were educating seminaries need to be thinking about this because this will be a big part of their ministerial future. Fifth, we have a question about discerning God's call for the next generation. For so many people and ministry leaders, the primary place you start discerning that God might have some call on my life. It doesn't even need to be to congregational ministry, but God is up to something in the world. And I might have that ability to be a part of that. For many of us that comes through participating in local congregation, but when individuals are increasingly less engaged in local congregations, how do we equip and support the next generation to develop a sense that God might be up to something in my life and in the world and I can participate in it? That is an incredible challenge that we have to think about. And then sixth and finally, there is a mounting question and challenge about the new organizational forms that will support organized religious life in North America for the next generation. Very, very briefly, I'll just note how the generation that supported and inhabited cathedrals was very different than the generation that supported and inhabited churches on every corner. So too, the generation that supports and works, participates in mega churches is very different than what has come before. And many individuals and researchers suggest that we are now in this moment where new organizational forms, new ways of organizing religious and social life are emerging. And we have an incredible opportunity and role to support them, articulate them, participate in them, because the forms we inhabit today, the forms we build in this generation will be the forms that might very well carry many generations to come.
Derek Smith:These challenges you described there are multifaceted-
Derek Smith:They're multidisciplinary. So as you think about working together to address these, who all is involved? Obviously you, obviously some church leaders, but these are multidisciplinary things.
Derek Smith:Whether it's faculty, colleagues, researchers, leaders elsewhere, who all is involved? What disciplines are involved in coming together and convening on these topics?
Dustin Benac:Yeah, first I say we have awesome team. This is the work of a collective. I'm sitting here, but if we could gather our team in the room, you'd have even better conversation. We have a fantastic, fantastic team. Beyond that, there's a whole host of folks who are gathered around this, including students, faculty researchers, pastors, non-profit leaders, lay leaders, mental health professionals, digital storytellers, and all of these are essential for our work and even how we envision our work. Across the broader university, one of the gifts of Baylor is that we have incredible colleagues across the university who are interested and engaged in this work. We have folks from theology, ethics, social work, the Honors College, the Institute of Studies of Religion, the Department of Religion, experts in ecology, education, disability, entrepreneurship. We have colleagues from the school of social work who are experts in social change. We have colleagues partnering with us from spiritual life, entrepreneurship, leadership. The list could go on and on and on. And that's been one of the real joys about this work and life at Baylor is the range of people and partners who have gathered around this and says, "This creates something that intersects with my work and I just want to come alongside it in some way."
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Dustin Benac, Director and co-founder of the program for The Future Church in Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. So Dr. Benac, you talked about there, there's certainly challenges that are faced, but you've got a great team coming together. You're encouraged by the pastors and other leaders that you meet. What are some of the gifts that you see out there from people that they're using to serve in their communities and that maybe can be utilized as we think about some of these challenges or just efforts to serve in new ways? What are some of the gifts that are inspiring to you?
Dustin Benac:Yeah, I appreciate that, Derek, because even as we are mindful of the many challenges in crisis, our work always begins with celebration and particularly celebration of the gifts. And this is a profound and fundamental theological commitment that organizes our work because we're convinced that our work proceeds only in response to the gift of God. This is the sense of possibility that grounds and governs our work. And there's so many gifts. There's so many challenges, we know them, but there are so many gifts. There's the gift of connection and community, the gift of creativity, the gift of generational faithfulness, the gift of our ancestors, those who have come before us in the faith, in these congregations, in the institutions we love and serve, the gift of God's presence, the gift of new questions, the gift of a new generation of leaders who are standing up and say, "I want to participate in this. I think God is doing something new, and I might have the ability to participate in it." I think there's the gift of friendship. One of the things that I've seen in my work, in my research, particularly in adaptive church, is how friendship is oftentimes one of the primary spaces where new ideas, new creative expressions, new forms, a new sense of possibility, a new imagination emerges. So the gift of friendship, and again, these are all things that Baylor is just a prime container for and has been doing for a very, very long time.
Derek Smith:So great gifts, great people, and certainly some great challenges.
Derek Smith:But as you get at the intersection of all of those, what are some of the ways that you are working to... I don't know if it's resources, programming, certainly it's connection, as you said earlier, that you are trying to provide, trying to speak into this by meeting needs, by providing resources, by equipping people to address these in their own communities, in their own congregations?
Dustin Benac:Yeah, thanks Derek. So you mentioned that this was co-founded in July 2021. So there's been several phases of the program's work. The first was a phase of listening. The second was a phase of piloting initiatives and programs, and we're now in the third phase of transitioning to sustainability. And this phase we have actually developed this novel methodology that combines celebration, what we call collaboratory and contextual research. And through these three sites of gathering, we're trying to do several things. We're trying to develop resources, we're trying to engage people with relationships, and we're trying to do research. We have found that in the work that we do, we try to make it contextually rooted. So we're always listening to our local context and out of that local context, that context surfaces new questions, services resources and services research for us. And then we gather people around those questions and purposely curate environments and convenings. We connect local pastors to other pastors, non-profit leaders to others, and give them a learning community in order to do their work. Alongside that, we begin to pilot research and resources. So what is coming out of this for many of the people we partner with and work with is first a new learning community because as we're trying to support and resource the next generation of students, pastors, we want to build the type of social environment that gives them a sense of possibility and bends imagination towards hope. And then secondly, we're trying to develop Kentucky rooted research and resources. For example, we gathered a number of leaders around the question of belonging, and out of that emerged a reading guide for leaders and communities who want to explore the question of belonging right where they are. So we've developed that, we've tested that. It's freely available. So that's one of the type of things we're developing. We're also developing edited volume that I'm co-editing with colleagues at other institutions around this question of belonging. And this is precisely that type of resource that we want to get into people's hands in order to bend imagination in some way. We're also developing various toolkits because we're mindful that so many leaders and teams need new tools, particularly to think about collaborative leadership. So that's one of the things we're developing over the next phase of our work. And then we're also developing broader academic research that supports the broader research community and tries to gather a broader interdisciplinary research team around these questions around the world.
Derek Smith:What are some examples of research you're looking to do and data you're trying to gather to contribute?
Dustin Benac:So there are three different topics we're engaging in this phase of our research. So the first cycle of our research was engaged around belonging, and that was purposeful because belonging, as I mentioned, we think is a question of a generation, and we want to engage in collaborative contextual related research around the question of belonging. The second phase of our research was engaging in this question of collaborative research... Excuse me, collaborative leadership, because we think that is a critical question before current and future church leaders. So we're doing a number of convenings and research around that question right now. And then we are just beginning another phase of research around mental health and burnout, and we are hosting a number of conversations and focus groups around mental health in local churches, and we're beginning to pray a prayer for a broader phase of research around that theme.
Derek Smith:That's great. So ties into a lot of what we've been talking about.
Derek Smith:As you might expect. Well, Dr. Benac, as we head into the final few moments of the program, I want ask you a couple of other ways that people can learn more about what you're doing or get involved? One of them is the book that you were kind enough to bring today, Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World. Did you have a specific audience in mind or is it anyone who's interested in these questions?
Dustin Benac:Yeah, I would say Adaptive Church is for anybody that first cares about the local church and is trying to explore how local churches and church leaders can respond to shifting organizational environments. So if you find yourself in a place where you're stuck and don't know how to take the next step, Adaptive Church combines contextually rooted research with stories and the lived experience of individuals and communities who are navigating the next step with a degree of faithfulness, care and creativity. It's written for pastors, it's written for lay leaders, it's certainly written for researchers, but more than anything, it's written for somebody who's trying to find the next way and maybe a better way. There's a sense of hope that animates the work. I talk about how hope pulses through the book like blood through the arteries, and a hope that readers will find a sense of hope there. I will say it doesn't give prescriptive solutions. If you're looking for prescriptive solutions and how to, it's not going to give that to you, but it is going to give you a pathway to take the next step towards a sense of possible.
Derek Smith:And that's from a Baylor University Press came out last year, Adaptive Church, and you mentioned it doesn't give prescriptive solutions. So as we close, I want to ask you two questions. One, we will close with ways people can get involved? The other would be, when you think about your goals for this, would you mind restating those again, that elevator pitch, if you were in line with someone and had just a moment to tell them, "This is what I really hope to accomplish through this?"
Dustin Benac:Sure, sure. So I would say join us. This is the work of the church and it's the work of a collective. It's not the work of a single individual or a single team or even a single university. The Future Church is an invitation for all of us to ask new questions in order to imagine a more hopeful future. To that end, if you'd like to partner with us, there's various ways you can do that. We're hosting a number of convenings over the course of the next 12 months, and we're thrilled about those. There'll be gatherings and conversations around mental health in San Antonio and Houston. We're preparing for a leadership conference next September around this question of leading for the long haul. And Baylor's President, President Linda Livingstone will be one of our keynotes. And we also have a newsletter that supports our broader intellectual community called Field Notes for the Future Church. We'd be delighted for folks to sign up for that. And then finally, one of the things that we're mindful of is this is the work of a collective. We have some really generous foundation funders who had helped us launch and initiate this thing. But our vision and hope for this is that would be sustained by a broader community who cares about the local church. So we're looking for sustaining partners who can come alongside us, who have a similar vision for contextually rooted hope for The Future Church that can partner with us in various ways in order to support current church leaders and the next generation of church leaders.
Derek Smith:That's great. I know if you Google a program for The Future Church, Baylor, Baylor University, you're going to find it right there.
Dustin Benac:Right there.
Derek Smith:Is that the best way for people to get that first look at what you do or to find more if they've enjoyed this conversation?
Dustin Benac:Yeah, we are certainly on the website. Certainly take a look at Adaptive Church, and also reach out to our team. We love nothing more than learning from local ministry leaders in various forms because your work matters. We believe in you, we care for you, want to support you. So feel free to reach out to us as well.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Benac, I really appreciate you taking the time to share with us, to dive in and the work you're doing. We'll look forward to visiting again in the years ahead as you continue to grow and add more ways in which you serve churches across the nation. Thanks so much for taking the time today.
Dustin Benac:Thrilled to be here. Thanks Derek.
Derek Smith:Dr. Dustin Benac, Director and co-founder of the program for The Future Church in Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder, you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.