The Rev. Marianne Rhebergen has seen many churches that have little or no sense of what they are called to be, and a host of discouraged and even dysfunctional pastors serving them.
"So many are living out of old models — models that worked in the middle of the 20th century," she said. "Today, there is a desperate need for our congregations to ‘seek the welfare of the city in which they have been planted,’ to move outside their doors into God's world."
That's one of the reasons why Rhebergen, then interim executive presbyter for Lehigh Presbytery, became a member of the Core Cluster of the Re-Forming Ministry program in 2004.
The initiative focused on issues about which she is passionate — such as the renewal of congregations and the reforming of ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Re-Forming Ministry, an initiative of the General Assembly Mission Council's Office of Theology & Worship funded through the Lilly Endowment, has brought together pastors, governing body leaders and professors in the theological disciplines in clusters over multi-year periods to explore new ways of thinking and living the Christian faith together.
"I believed then, and still do, that these three groups — pastors, governing body leaders and professors — need to be in conversation," said Rhebergen, a PC(USA) pastor since 1979. "As a church, there is an urgent need to train and shape pastoral leaders for a new, missional era in American Christianity. It will not happen unless there is serious, sustained conversation between these three groups of leaders."
Rhebergen said the program experience has made her more familiar with important theological "voices" throughout the history of the church, from the early church fathers to contemporary missional theologians.
"I have read and discussed more theology through this program," she said, "and it has led me to be more intentional about reading Scripture devotionally."
"Also I have certainly been more intentional in raising questions about missional vocation with colleagues and in my own life, whether while serving as an executive presbyter or as a pastor," Rhebergen said
All of this has sharpened the focus of her teaching and leadership in the church, she said.
On a broader scale, Rhebergen said Re-Forming Ministry has brought to the forefront key questions congregations and pastors need to ask, such as "What is God calling you to be and do, at this time and in this place?" and "What is God up to in the world around you, and in the life of your congregation and presbytery?"
"We need to be asking these questions in all aspects of our life as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
"Re-Forming Ministry has impacted the way I think about what local congregations are called to be and do, and therefore what the formation of pastoral leaders needs to look like," she said.
Rhebergen's experience underscores the program’s significant contributions toward Growing Christ's Church Deep and Wide in the area of discipleship, said the Rev. Barry Ensign-George, associate for Theology for the GAMC and program director for Re-Forming Ministry,
"Marianne combines theological expertise with deep love for the church," Ensign-George said. "Not only did her perspective on congregations and presbyteries help to shape the work of her Re-Forming Ministry group, the life of the group also contributed to Marianne’s insight into who the church is both across time and today.
"Pastors, governing body leaders, teachers of the faith, elders and deacons, church members — we all need such communities of theological friendship with whom we can engage faith and world with real traction," he said.
This story was originally published in the June issue of One in the Spirit.