Friday, July 1, 2022

Specialized Replacements for Traditional Clergy

via Flickr


It is well-known that with the expansion and development of a civilization, along with the growth of that civilization's human population, work becomes more and more specialized. Consider the role of medical doctor, which has gone from being one career to a multitude of specializations. Click here for a list of 20 specialized areas of medicine. When you click into each you will find a further list of subspecialties. All are needed, and all have value. The same goes for a range of other fields, and here I would like to share how one role, that of clergy, is actually being broken out not just into subspecialties, but also into entirely different fields. These are in no particular order, and this list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. 


"[S]omeone (such as a priest) who officiates at a religious rite." (Merriam-Webster)

Also called 'celebrants,' these are people who focus on helping people craft meaningful ceremonies to mark milestone events in life. These can range from baptisms to weddings to funerals, and all points in between. It used to be that if someone wanted to get married they would need to hit up the local priest or other minister. Where I grew up, in rural Missouri, it was certainly that way. When I served a small congregation in New Mexico I had a couple attend a service one day for the first (and perhaps only) time just so they could ask me if I could officiate their wedding. I gladly agreed, since no one owed me the satisfaction of being members of my church just so they could get married. 

Over the decades in the United States the situation has changed dramatically. Several years ago I heard an Ethical Culture clergy leader comment that there was a time when he could make a decent extra income from officiating weddings, but that this was no longer the case. With the internet, access to legal ordination has become freely available to everyone. The Universal Life Church, in its various manifestations, has led the charge in democratizing ministry. Further, other organizations exist that insist on professional qualifications but do not require a theological degree to become a credentialed officiant. I am a Celebrant with one of these, The Humanist Society.

People can opt to either have a friend get ordained online and officiate, or else hire a professional celebrant like myself. In either case they have more control over the ceremony than they would with a traditional minister. For example, a Roman Catholic priest won't do a beach wedding, because for them a marriage must take place on consecrated ground. While some resorts have caught onto this and arranged to have their own chapels built and consecrated, otherwise someone wanting a Catholic wedding in a non-church location is out of luck. Unless, of course, they hire an independent Catholic priest who will perform it for them. While the priest may not be Roman Catholic, they will still be able to offer a Catholic wedding on unconsecrated ground. 

Other ceremonies can be crafted as well to suit the needs of a couple or family. Instead of a christening, a baby naming or child welcoming can be arranged. Or, perhaps the family wants a christening but has no formal church connection. There's no need to fake it for a priest when they can simply hire a celebrant. New ceremonies can be invented for special occasions, and existing rituals can be modified to suit unique circumstances. Officiants make life a little easier for folks who want a nice ceremony without having to fake it for a clergy person, or else accept whatever script the denomination in question approves. 


Chaplains lead nondenominational religious services and provide spiritual support to those who are unable to attend organized religious services. A chaplain may work in a hospital, prison, or university, or serve as part of the military. Although prison, military, school, and hospital chaplains work in very different environments, they all provide spiritual guidance to individuals who don't have access to formal religious services offered by their faith of choice. (

Every American Gen Xer like myself, or Boomer, will remember Father John Mulcahy from the TV series M*A*S*H (he was a bit different in the novel and its film adaptation). He was a kindly priest serving at a military medical camp, and as a chaplain he wasn't there just for the Catholics. This is, ideally, how the role is expected to be carried out. In hospitals, rehab centers, prisons, the military, and other settings, chaplains are intended to provide spiritual support to everyone. Whether a chaplain is Lutheran or Muslim, when they are with someone in their care the focus is on that person's spirituality and not their own. Proselytizing goes completely against the code of ethics of professional chaplains, as this is not their purpose. It is now not uncommon for people to be endorsed by non-denominational or interfaith organizations, rather than ordained by an ecclesiastical body, to serve as chaplains. Again, this is something The Humanist Society can provide, and which I may pursue in the future. 

When I was in the hospital several years ago, for emergency surgery to remove my gall bladder, one of the ministers of my Unitarian Universalist congregation offered to visit me, but I declined because my stay was to be only a few days. If I didn't have any religious affiliation, a chaplain could have filled that role for me, if requested. 

Life Coaches

A life coach is a type of wellness professional who helps people make progress in their lives in order to attain greater fulfillment. Life coaches aid their clients in improving their relationships, careers, and day-to-day lives. (Verywell Mind)

So far I have known two people who are life coaches. There is training and preparation involved, as well as a code of conduct and well-defined boundaries. Personally, I have no experience working with a life coach, and so can't say much more about them than that. They do, in my opinion, take and expand one of the roles that historically could have fallen more to the clergy. 


An activist is a person who works to bring about political or social changes by campaigning in public or working for an organization. (Collins English Dictionary)

This one might come as a surprise to you, but I assure you I am serious. In the 1960s and before in history, clergy have taken some of the leading roles in activism for a better world. Or at least, what they thought would make for a better world. Over the years the role of 'activist' as both a volunteer and a professional area of work has developed. People commit to certain causes and either use spare time outside of their regular work to push for social change, or else make a cause the focus on their career. Now, there have long been non-clergy people who were activists, but I think that as a distinct role it has become much better defined separate from ministry. 


A psychologist is a professional who practices psychology and studies mental states, perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior. Their work often involves the experimentation, observation, and interpretation of how individuals relate to each other and to their environments. (Wikipedia)

Having been raised Roman Catholic I know what it's like going to confession. I wait in a line, go into a small room with a priest (it's rarely a box with a divided and a little screened window, like in the movies), and list off the offenses I've committed against God. This is pretty much how it went for me the first few times, and then in my teens I read in a Catholic book that I was to consider the priest in the confessional a friend and spiritual counselor who could give me godly advice. So that year, when I was 13 or so, I gave it a try. I kneeled behind a divider in a confessional and told a priest what was on my heart. I was part way through when I heard him snicker. I rushed through the rest, he told me how many times to say the Hail Mary and Our Father, and I got out of there. It was humiliating.

That's not how it's supposed to go.

If you really want someone to listen, and as a professional help you find your way through trauma, heartache, or simply the enigma that is your personality, a psychologist can help. There are different schools of thought in psychology, and at the same time all are committed to helping people be healthier, more optimal versions of themselves.  


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. (American Psychiatric Association)

Up until about a decade ago I thought of psychiatrists as necessary only for 'crazy' people with severe disorders, and I was suspicious of the medical treatment of psychiatric problems. For example, I falsely believed that anti-depressants would dull the personality and give a false sense of well-being. How I wish I had known better sooner, because then I wouldn't have lived so long without proper treatment for depression. A few months into treatment it was like the lights came on in my head. I wasn't made happy by the pills. What they gave me was the ability to feel normal and thus be able to create my own happiness. We are willing to treat other biological conditions, but when it comes to the brain people too often draw a line. That needs to stop. Psychiatry offers something that religion has not and cannot. This is science-based, medical treatment of real conditions. 

Social Worker

"A social worker is responsible for improving their patients' lives by helping them cope and manage stress they may be facing. Social workers will meet with patients, listen to their concerns and create a plan to better help their patients manage the problems in their lives." (Gwynedd Mercy University)

"A social worker will get a master’s degree in social work, and their training revolves around how societal factors will affect a person’s behavior. They also learn about the different social services and social resources that are available in the community. Many professionals get their master’s degree in social work while they are working in a different field." (HealthyPlace)

This one gets two quotes, because I know so very little about it. The key difference between social work and psychology seems to be the focus on societal factors along with the ability to connect people to appropriate resources available from private and public sources. In the past it was clergy who often had the most access to family and personal life, and now social workers have taken in farther.


The real takeaway I want to leave here is that each of these roles, and any others you might think of, aren't simply fractions of what clergy people have done or still do. Rather, in each specialty the work is expanded and deepened. There is formal training of various levels and varieties for each as well as competing schools of thought and domain-specific terminology. Each one does something that might have been part of a clergy role, but makes it more than it was. 

This doesn't mean that clergy are obsolete. Religious communities will continue to hire individuals to lead services, conduct ceremonies, deliver homilies, visit the sick, and more. Clergy are, in this context, generalists, and there's nothing wrong with that. I simply think we won't need as many of them, nor should anyone feel they have to become clergy unless they want the generalist role. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

With No Guide We Have Come This Far

The image and quote above are from the 2014 Cosmos series, narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The first anatomically modern humans evolved about 300,000 years ago, long before our species developed writing or any of the other accoutrements of civilization. For 18,000+ generations, human beings faced plagues and famines without any guidance regarding basic hygiene, effective resource management, or really anything else. It was a slow slog of figuring things out, interspersed with setbacks from natural and human-made disasters. Advancement was so slow that over the course of hundreds of years people tended to live much as their ancestors did. All that began to change over the past 200 years.

When I was a child my great aunts talked about seeing the first automobiles when they were girls. Over the course of their lives, TVs and air travel would become commonplace. Then computers. And medical science advanced to the point where maladies that would have killed their grandparents were easily resolved with proper treatment. Hearing them talk about all the change they had seen in their lives, I felt as though every big thing had already happened. Seeing myself in the 'modern' era, I only imagined that the existing technologies would get better, not that they would be transformed.

One afternoon, my first semester of college in 1994, a classmate came to my dorm room and told me that the library computers 'have the internet now.' I replied, 'the internet...I've heard of that.' How life changed after that! Over the course of my life I've seen Walkman, camera, video camera, TV, and more merged together into the smartphones that most of us carry now. The internet has removed the need to ever wonder about most any piece of trivia, and I imagine that many a barroom debate has been put down rapidly with a quick internet search. 

When a child is born we immediately set about socializing it. We establish day/night cycles for the child and interact with it, helping its development along as a distinct person. By age 1 it's probably cooing out its first words, and within just a few years, the child is running around, asking a million questions, and ready to head to school. We pass along to our children what we know, or at least what we think we know. 

Whenever it was that our distant ancestors first looked to the stars and wondered, or contemplated that death will eventually come for each one of us, cognition was sparked to life in us. Unlike a child born to us now, there was no one there to greet the first of our kind, when they were distinct enough to be identifiable as such. Over the course of millennia, humans have struggled to survive but also to learn and gain mastery over ourselves and the world around us. This has led to wars and environmental disaster, to be sure, but also to soaring heights of art, philosophy, mathematics, and scientific discovery. 

Certainly, it would have been easier had someone been around to help us. The truth is, though, that all we have is each other. Thus we need to do our best to cooperate for the betterment of us all. That is what Humanism is about. It's setting aside unproven myths and instead seeking that which can be demonstrated as correct to any reasoning person. The well-being and flourishing of our species, practiced in a sustainable fashion, is our aim. We seek the good of the individual, and of the whole of of humanity. While there was no one there to greet our kind in the beginning, we can be there for new generations, giving them the best of what we have learned, offering them the chance of doing even better. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Ceremonies as a Service

via Facebook
In preparation to offer my services to the public as a Humanist celebrant I have been looking into ways to get the word out, and this has given me the opportunity to see what other officiants are doing out there. While Universal Life Church ministers are fairly common, I have also noticed listings for 'Contemporary Catholic' priests. Digging into it further, I have started to become familiar with a religious world I knew little about before. Not long ago I blogged about an independent Catholic parish in Kearny, New Jersey. Since then I've been reading The Other Catholics by Julie Byrne, and learning about the 'Independent Sacramental Movement' has got me thinking. 

The movement's name is an expansion of an earlier term: the Independent Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican Movement. This earlier term was used extensively during many years when many of these groups cooperated, although they were not in formal communion with one another. The majority of these groups' holy orders and sequences of apostolic succession are derived through mutually-common sources, especially Arnold Harris Mathew, Aftimios Ofiesh, Carlos Duarte Costa, and Joseph René Vilatte. It remains difficult to define the ISM as an entity and to distinguish it from the closely-related Independent Catholic movement; the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, seemingly to refer to the same reality. (Wikipedia)

Independent Catholicism is an independent sacramental movement of clergy and laity who self-identify as Catholic (most often as Old Catholic or as Independent Catholic) and form "micro-churches claiming apostolic succession and valid sacraments", in spite of not being affiliated to the historic Catholic churches such as the Roman Catholic and Utrechter Old Catholic churches. The term "Independent Catholic" derives from the fact that "these denominations affirm both their belonging to the Catholic tradition as well as their independence from Rome." (Wikipedia)

The underlying theory that supports independent Catholic groups, such that are not in communion with the pope, is that they have valid apostolic succession. In historic orthodox catholic Christianity it has been believed that bishops stand in a line of succession that goes back to the original apostles and Jesus himself. In the early church it was evidently meant as a sort of guarantee that the bishop was orthodox, holding to the true faith of the apostles. In Roman Catholic interpretation, which is adopted by independent Catholics, the sacraments leave an indelible mark on the soul, meaning that once someone has received holy orders they are forever a priest, even if they 'leave' the priesthood, and the same is true of bishops. For the Roman Catholic Church this means that bishops who have left can still ordain priests and consecrate bishops, but such deeds are 'illicit.' Independent Catholic Churches depend on this interpretation.

If you start looking into the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) you'll quickly find what seems to be an obsession with apostolic succession. I was raised Roman Catholic and no one ever really discussed what lineage the parish priest or diocesan bishop was in. It was sufficient for lay people to know that they were validly set apart for ministry by the church. For independent Catholics and others of the ISM this luxury does not exist. They have to be able to defend their right to practice ministry in ways that can be considered 'Catholic.' I imagine there has to be quite a bit of fanboy/girl geekery about apostolic succession among them as well, given just how much they discuss it. 

Exponents of the ISM range from conservative to liberal, orthodox to New Age. It's evidently not uncommon for more conservative individuals obtaining holy orders and consecration to the bishopric from people they would not usually associate with on the more liberal end. Someone attending a parish led by an independent Catholic priest might find a mass identical to that of the Roman Catholic Church down the road, a bit different, or heavily modified. The liturgies vary as do the theologies.

Endemic to this movement is a great instability and frequent lack of accountability. 'Jurisdictions,' as what anyone else might identify as a 'denomination,' come and go regularly. Countless dead websites for disbanded independent groups exist across the internet, even as new sites heralding a freshly-organized jurisdiction springs to life. While it has been said that the Universal Life Church abolished the laity with its free-for-everyone ordination, that isn't too far off for the ISM as well. Functioning parishes are less common than active priests and bishops, but that doesn't mean that the parish-less clergy are unoccupied. They serve as institutional chaplains, say Mass for people in prison or drug rehab, and officiate baptisms and weddings for Roman Catholics and others.

That last item is important. Roman Catholics who are divorced, for example, are generally not seen as divorced by the church, regardless of civil status. For a divorce to be considered valid it would need to be investigated and some grave fault would have to be found in how it started, which is very difficult to accomplish. That being the case, divorced Catholics cannot remarry and have it recognized by the church, and they are not to take communion thereafter as they are considered to be adulterers. Generally speaking, none of this is a problem for an independent Catholic priest. Additionally, there are a lot of rules laid down by the Roman Catholic Church on how and where weddings are to be officiated, so if someone wants a Catholic beach wedding this will only be possible with an independent priest.Then, of course, there are lgbtq+ folks who would like to get married or have their children christened, and for them an independent Catholic priest is a good option. 

Aside from instability there is a lack of accountability. With virtually anyone with apostolic succession able to hang out their shingle and start a ministry, there isn't a lot of oversight. That's ironic, considering that bishops were meant to be overseers. Then again, the Roman Catholic Church has a vast hierarchy that protected pedophile priests for centuries, so the age and size of an organization is no guarantee of security. 

What I do see in the ISM, and through my review of the world of officiants and ceremonies, is what I think will be the future of religious ceremonial practice. We can call it 'Ceremonies as a Service.' In times past people would be members of a local church, or at least know one in the neighborhood to hit up for weddings and funerals. Even with fewer and fewer people maintaining membership in an organized religion that doesn't mean that they prefer civil ceremonies. People dream of their wedding day, and what they picture doesn't usually peak with a trip to the courthouse. They want a ceremony that celebrates their love and reflects their identities. And so, they find an officiant who can help them have that dream ceremony, even if outside the boundaries of formal religious organizations. 

Churches will continue to decline, but I don't see clergy as ceremonialists and providers of spiritual care going away. This goes for independent Catholics as much as anyone.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Tennessee's Unconstitutional Meddling in Religious Practices

In 2019 the state of Tennessee enacted a law outlawing weddings officiated by anyone ordained via the internet. This is, thus far, the clearest restriction against marriages by ministers ordained in this fashion in any state. Other states have some challenging requirements, and there are municipalities like New York City that require extra documentation, including a letter of good standing from the ordaining body, but these are navigable. An outright ban is something else, and to me it is obviously in violation of the 1st Amendment to the United States constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is not the place of the government to determine what constitutes a 'valid' religion. While the state certainly has a valid interest in maintaining accurate vital records, the role of the officiant is minimal. Generally it's a matter of the officiant having the couple declare their commitment before at least two witnesses who in turn sign the license. The license itself was issued by the county clerk, and aside from officiating the minister is then usually responsible for filing the document with the county clerk. That's it. There's no specialized training required to make a marriage valid outside of meeting the basic requirements. 

Thus, it makes no sense that a state government would intervene in the matter of how a minister was ordained, unless the intention is to intervene in defining what types of religious practice are 'acceptable,' and setting standards for religious societies as to who should be endorsed and by what means. 

The published decision in Universal Life Church Monastery v. Nabors (originating case No. 2:19-cv-00049) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a series of arguments made by various Tennessee state and county officials who had hoped to remove themselves as defendants in the ongoing litigation.

What this means is that the case will continue to work its way through the court system. It's been three years since the unconstitutional law was passed, and it could be some time until resolution is found, but at least there is some progress. 

As I am endorsed by the Humanist Society, through a deliberative process that required meeting certain qualifications, this Tennessee law really wouldn't affect me. Then again, since I don't foresee officiating a wedding in Tennessee any time soon, it doesn't matter anyway. At the same time, I am deeply concerned about this law and hope to see it overturned, as it really is, in my opinion, a violation of freedom of religion. This had to have been passed solely to please conventionally religious people (aka evangelicals) in the state.

For more on the Universal Life Church, I recommend the following video.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Reductio ad Baptistum

via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
It came as quite a surprise recently to see that nearly five years ago Philip Jenkins referenced me in a blog post. Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, has written extensively about Christianity worldwide. In an article for The Christian Century in May 2017 he explained that while most major denominations are seeing phenomenal growth in the Global South, such isn't true of the Baptist faith. In response to his article I commented: “it’s possible that Baptist missions have resulted in many ‘non-denominational’ evangelical churches that are doctrinally Baptist but don’t have the name.” Evidently he saw some value in that observation, as in his post that quotes me he went on to consider that perhaps when research is done, not so much weight should be put on denominational names.

What I see going on, in the United States and worldwide, is a tendency towards congregationalism and adult conversion, which are both hallmarks of Baptist practice. It's unheard of for someone in the US or Brazil (two places where I have sufficient experience to speak) to start a nondenominational, evangelical church where infants are christened and/or the congregation is not essentially autonomous. Obviously, to be 'nondenominational' suggests rather strongly that there will be congregational independence. What's interesting to me, however, is how other Christian traditions that were historically governed differently or had other baptismal practices are tending toward a Baptist style.

On the congregationalism front the examples are abundant. Member churches of the new Global Methodist Church will be independent, owning their own property and having the ability to disaffiliate from the denomination if they so choose. Such is not the case with the United Methodist Church, from which this new denomination is emerging, where 'connectionalism' as expressed practically through parish property being held in trust for the denomination is an essential trait of church polity. So far as I know, all of the other expressions of Methodism in the United States have also preserved congregational autonomy.

Another intriguing example is that of the American National Catholic Church. While the organization is very much in style and practice like what could have come from Vatican II, with an accessible liturgy and wide welcome to all, including divorced and lgbtq people, it has a mixed form of government. Each parish governs itself and has the authority to disaffiliate, but at the same time there is an episcopacy. The bishops provide spiritual guidance and are able to ordain deacons, priests and, collectively, other bishops. 

As for baptism, I've found it difficult to supplement my anecdotal experiences with concrete examples. I've already pointed out how rare it is for new groups to practice infant baptism, which is easily observable. I can simply say that I've heard from breakaway Methodist and other groups that while infant baptism is still available, it's very common for people to opt for an infant dedication instead, saving baptism for later.  

Will all the churches eventually become Baptist, even if not in name? I doubt it. Other practices and polities are too strong to be fully replaced. However, I don't expect many new churches to be founded that aren't congregationalist, or that practice infant baptism. The believer's church model fits very well with our life and times in a free society focused on individual choice.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

A ULC Minister Christens a Child

As I mentioned in another post, I've been investigating the officiant market in New Jersey, as I'm looking to start offering my services as a Humanist Celebrant. This isn't about making money, but rather having an outlet for my inclination to ministry. Among the many officiants available in New Jersey are quite a few who were ordained by the Universal Life Church. That's not surprising, since the various churches operating under that brand (the original, the ULC Seminary, the ULC Monastery, and others) provide ordination for free online. If you want or need paperwork, there's a fee involved but it isn't outrageous. With a very low bar to entry it only makes sense that so many officiants would be depending on them for endorsement. What surprised me, though, was a ULC minister offering baptism.
There must be a whole back story there, but I've decided not to go poking around for it. Most celebrants focus on weddings, although funerals are in the mix as well. I've heard of baby naming or child welcoming ceremonies as well. While in theory a baptism is entirely possible, I've just never actually heard of a ULC minister performing one. My guess here is that a family wanted to have a christening for their child (or children?) without involving a church. Someone who isn't affiliated with a parish might find it difficult to obtain such a sacrament without either having to feign participation for a while beforehand, going through some preparation with a clergy person, or both. 

As a Humanist celebrant I certainly won't be doing any christening or baptizing, but the aforementioned baby naming or child welcoming options exist. If you're interested in that or need someone to officiate your wedding in New Jersey, contact me

Friday, May 27, 2022

The Growth Potential of the American National Catholic Church Among Hispanics

via Facebook
As I have been becoming more familiar with the officiant market where I live, in preparation to 'hang out my shingle' as a Humanist celebrant, the term 'Contemporary Catholicism' has come up a few times in search results. Looking into it I have found that this is used in reference to priests who are not in communion with the pope, but rather part of independent Catholic bodies. Such priests are able to offer their services to a wider range of people, including the divorced and lgbtq couples, and with more flexibility as to style. As usual, one thing led to another, and I found myself discovering an independent Catholic denomination that was organized in New Jersey just 13 years ago. The American National Catholic Church (ANCC) is certainly 'contemporary,' and I think it stands a chance of making progress among Hispanic Americans. 

Almost two years ago I blogged a few times about how some Protestant denominations have taken on Latino Catholic characteristics in order to serve that community. I went into research for those posts with a fair amount of skepticism, as at first blush it looked to me like some deceptive practices were at work. For instance, Our Lady of Guadalupe, revered in Mexico as that nation's patron saint, features prominently in such Protestant parishes. In writing about the 'Evangelical Catholicism' of Lutheran Hispanic outreach, the approach of the Episcopal Church, and the life of a Lutheran & Presbyterian congregation that embraces Latin American Catholic traditions, I started to see it differently. While it's true that mainline denominations desperately need to succeed in Latino communities in order to survive, what I found wasn't simple bait-and-switch tactics. 

An ANCC parish certainly could pass as Roman Catholic, from what I have seen online, if it weren't for the occasional rainbow flags and women priests. The priests can also marry, but that might not be as visible to a visitor on a Sunday morning. The liturgy follows the 2nd edition of the Roman Missal, rather than the 3rd currently in use by Roman Catholic parishes in the United States. The more recent edition has not been well-received by all, as it appears clunky and even arcane in places.

For example, while I was growing up the priest would say to the congregation "the Lord be with you," to which the congregation would respond "and also with you." That's a nice, natural flow that became so ingrained that people my age who grew up Catholic find it hard not to respond to "the Force be with you" with "and also with you." However, this wasn't a close translation of the Latin text, which read "Dominus vobiscum" and "Et cum spiritu tuo." As a result of a commitment from the Vatican (at least at that time, under Pope Benedict) to a more rigid translation practice, people attending mass now respond to the priest with "and also with your spirit." If you attend an ANCC parish, though, you'll get the 2nd edition version. 
via Facebook

An even more egregious (in my opinion) of divergence from the spirit of Vatican II, with its emphasis on getting closer to the people, is how the Nicene Creed has been 'updated' in English. When I was a kid it included the phrase "one in being with the Father." As I grew up that was perfectly clear for me to understand the notion of the trinity, and specifically how there are said to be three persons that are part of one being. Now, at a Roman Catholic mass, you will hear instead "consubstantial with the Father." This is wordsmithing and trying to score theological points at its worst, at the expense of comprehensibility. 

Okay, so what about Hispanics and the ANCC? I'm getting there!

This century has seen an enormous amount of scandal in Roman Catholicism, with revelations about vast numbers of people having been sexually assaulted as children by priests. For the most part these were covered up and the priests moved around, kept in service and able to rape more children. The church has sold off properties in order to fund settlements, closing parishes in the process. For many it has been too much. Some have left organized religion entirely, while others find their way to Protestant churches or Unitarian Universalism. For those with a devout Catholic faith, the next best option has been Episcopal or Lutheran churches, if they want something resembling the mass as they've known it. 

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, between 2007 and 2014, Catholicism nationwide saw a “greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S.” The report further states that 13 percent of all U.S. adults “are former Catholics,” a higher rate than any other religion. But the same report found that only 2 percent of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism—that is, people who now identify as Catholic after being raised in another religion (or with no religion). — New Jersey Monthly

To me, the pedophile priests and coverups going back many decades, along with the Roman Catholic Church's stance against women's autonomy in reproductive health, and in opposition to the lgbtq community, all easily explain the draw to American National Catholicism. For Hispanics the appeal can be a little different. The Roman Catholic Church accepts divorced people at communion, so long as they aren't remarried or in a relationship with someone other than their ex. Except in the rare case of an annulment, divorced Catholics are expected to live a life of unpartnered celibacy. The ANCC, on the other hand, makes no such distinction, welcoming all to the Eucharist. While this non-judgmentalism can be attractive for a Catholic of any ethnicity, it is a more likely point of interest for Hispanics than either lgbtq or abortion issues. 

A 76-year-old Mexican Lutheran worshipper narrated: In the Catholic Church, I couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper, and I was left with a trauma, because my mother-in-law [pause] she is divorced too. She was divorced, and when we went to church in Mexico, she couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper. And I asked: Why? She couldn’t because she was divorced. So, she died in sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So, when I got here, I was left with that idea that I couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper, but I went [to a Catholic Church], and I did receive it, and I felt with sin, because I said: apart from being divorced, I was receiving the Lord’s Supper without having the right to do so. So, that’s a double sin. [She pauses.] So when I came here [to the Lutheran Nazareth Church], the table of the Lord’s Supper was an Open Table, and I really liked that. That: “Come—no matter which denomination, the table of God is set, come!” They don’t put anything like: You are divorced. You can’t receive Lord’s Supper!” So, now I don’t feel guilty. I feel comfortable when I go and receive the Lord’s Supper, and I feel free. — 
How Our Lady of Guadalupe Became Lutheran

There are other issues, of course. 

Olga Odgers Ortiz sees international migration as a factor leading to religious change based on four main characteristics: 1) migrants’ conversion due to the exposure to a context of greater religious diversity, 2) migrants distancing themselves from traditional mechanisms of social control, 3) the vulnerability associated with the migratory condition, and 4) the process of redefining identity referents in the integration process into the destination society (2007:168-9). These are important reasons explaining why international migration leads to religious change— 

All of this adds up to being pretty positive for a group like the American National Catholic Church. They have a familiar style without the controlling aspects or exclusion. At the same time, I'm not the only person who has observed that progressive denominations that are more open-minded and affirming, with fewer rules, tend not to do as well long-term as conservative, rule-laden bodies. It remains to be seen whether the spiritual refugees received into Lutheran, Episcopalian, and independent Catholic organizations will successfully pass their faith down to the next generations. 

Friday, March 18, 2022

Beyond Fate: How Rural Schools Can Move Forward

Part three of a series

Brad Mitchell states in the second piece of this series: “The real tragedy for America’s rural schools is the damage … a deficit-based narrative does to inhibiting and concealing effective action to help all rural students (and their communities) rise.” He encourages us to tell the stories of success in rural education, so that we can learn from those stories and challenge negative stereotypes about rural schools.  

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for moving rural education forward. Due to geographic and economic differences across the country, there isn’t a cookie-cutter type of rural school system.  But there are common challenges to rural communities and schools such as geographic isolation, access to postsecondary education, and having a critical mass of students necessary to fund classes beyond the core courses, such as advanced-placement (AP) and career-and-technical-education (CTE) courses. 

These challenges can be mitigated in macro-support efforts and policy efforts such as these: 

  • Expanding broadband access to rural communities for education and workforce efforts. Creating “grow-your-own” programs to recruit and retain teachers.
  • Acknowledging and acting on the disparity of access and wraparound support that exists for low socioeconomic-status students, especially students of color. 
  • Creating opportunities for access to online and virtual courses. 
  • And creating postsecondary pathways that are part of talent pipelines to living wage careers within commuting distance or telecommuting opportunities.  

Those are some of the most common needs talked about in rural education circles, but do solutions manifest in communities?  Are there lessons about scale and transferability?  The answer is yes.  There is significant progress being made in the rural birth-to-career continuum due to innovation, resilience, and a fierce sense of independence.  What it takes to move rural education forward is collaborative leadership that partners with the community and local industries to connect schools to local resources and prepare students for the broader world.  

In Colorado for example, the Homegrown Talent Initiative is a statewide collaboration to support rural communities by enabling K-12 students to gain access to learning experiences “aligned to the needs and aspirations of their local economies.”  

Another example is found in Troy, Alabama, where Lockheed Martin has partnered with the local high school to create a virtual-reality training program through TRANSFR VR.  Using this technology, high school seniors can get training that leads to a career path into Lockheed Martin after graduation.  It’s innovation like this that displays the willingness of rural education leaders to think outside the box and innovate not just for their students to survive but thrive in a global ecosystem that is in constant flux.  

Access to broadband has been a major hurdle to overcome in many rural communities, and the disparities in home access for students were amplified in resounding fashion during the pandemic, when students were learning at home.  However, there are aggressive efforts taking place in rural communities to improve connectivity such as the Final Mile Project in Arizona, which has undertaken the challenge of connecting all students across the state.  

Education resource providers have also made shifts to provide learning opportunities to specifically support rural students without connectivity.  Companies like Thinking Media have developed tools like the Learning Blade Backpack app that enables students to access learning modules focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related skills and career paths at home, and their work is automatically uploaded and stored the next time they connect at school or a hotspot.

I highlight these examples of innovation and ability to work within a flexible system to defend against some of the common stereotypes that portray rural education systems and students as unequipped, academically regressive, and saddled with an inability to succeed in the constant growth and shifting of the new global economy.  

Moving forward doesn’t always mean moving in a different direction.  The principles that consistently support rural schools are accelerating progress, amplifying innovation, and acknowledging some situations are more dire than others, such as the circumstances in Holmes County, Mississippi, discussed by Dr. Devon Brenner in the first piece of this series. You can’t think about community development without education because it’s the hub of rural communities.  We can’t talk about what was, but what we are today and what we will be tomorrow. 

Jared Bigham is senior advisor on workforce and rural initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, board chair for the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and a member of the National Rural Education Advocacy Committee.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Beyond Fate: The Rise of Rural Schools

Part two of a series

Using the experience of one person to make assumptions about a group of people or an institution can promote misconceptions, intolerance, cynicism, and despair. Unfortunately, that’s what happened with a New York Times article about a student in a struggling rural school district in Mississippi. While powerful and poignant, the article evoked (or provoked) a narrative of despair. 

The graphic below characterizes four basic elements of this narrative. 

  • First, people living in rural places are left behind due to social, economic, or political changes. 
  • Second, this increases their chances to be poor, isolated, uneducated, and disconnected. 
  • Third, toxic and divisive politics emerge around perceived differences in rural and urban values and interests. 
  • Fourth, low-quality rural schools are blamed for producing poorly educated people who have lower rates of attending and completing college compared to urban and suburban counterparts.

This narrative advances a mindset that people who live in rural places deserve what they get or that there is little hope for a better life. This mindset encourages policymakers, advocates, and investors to abandon rural schools and communities. For example, many of the reader comments at the end of the Times article call for “rescuing” the bright, ambitious, and economically challenged student by helping his family relocate to a better school in Mississippi or elsewhere. Federal and state legislators have promoted “leave-rural policies” (e.g., let dying rural towns die, consolidate rural schools, close rural hospitals). Enough is enough. It is critical that we change the dominant rural narrative from despair to desire. It is in the best interest of all of us regardless of where we live.

Jesse Stuart, a rural Kentucky educator who began his teaching career at the age of 17 in 1923, wrote in his autobiography The Thread that Runs So True, that rural students, families, and communities needed to see how a “proper education” was worth its weight in “coal.” This meant shifting the narrative about the purpose, quality, and salience of education in rural communities. He was right. From 1910 through the 1940s rural communities across the country made massive local investments in the expansion of comprehensive high schools. This led to significant results in math and language literacy, educational attainment, and workforce quality. Just 9% of people under 18 had high school diplomas in 1910 but more than 50% did by 1940 (a five-fold increase in human capital in one generation). High school expansion happened most rapidly and broadly in rural, sparsely settled communities - places characterized by a keen desire for a better future. 

While high school expansion had serious social-justice blind spots, it arguably has been the most successful rural education innovation of the last hundred years. Expanding rural high school talent helped America win a world war, dominate the post-war economy, and put a man on the moon. It required a community effort grounded in classic rural values -- fairness, ingenuity, resilience, and interdependence.  It is a tale of shared desire, respect, and benefit. 

An iteration of Jesse Stuart’s rural narrative is emerging across rural America today. We are on the cusp of shifting economic and demographic trends involving race, class, ethnicity, gender, employment, wealth creation, and, yes, political persuasion. The graphic below outlines four basic elements of this narrative. 

  • First, a new era of pioneering leadership is emerging involving a diverse array of rural people with a deep desire to revitalize their schools and communities around both old and new values. 
  • Second, respect for place is being rekindled from organic farming to new economies designed around landscape, artistic, and cultural amenities. 
  • Third, new political coalitions and approaches are generating economic, community, and school development in more just, sustainable, practical, and mutually beneficial ways. 
  • Fourth, the decoupling of work and place and the reconnecting of school and community bonds increase opportunities for young people and families to stay or migrate to rural America. 

The stories we tell shape our lives. It is time to live and tell more tales of the rise of rural schools in a highly turbulent post-Covid world.

Brad Mitchell works with rural education and employment cooperatives across the country. He is a former college professor, policy analyst, and community organizer.  

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Beervana Podcast — Show 156: On the Farm with Wheatland Spring

Episode Description 

"Throughout most of the past ten thousand years, brewing was a farmhouse chore, one of the many ways people preserved their harvest throughout the year. In more recent times it has become a commercial and industrial activity. Yet in a verdant pocket of Loudoun County, Virginia about an hour NW of Washington DC, the husband and wife team of Bonnie and John Branding are conducting an ambitious experiment. They’ve revived farmhouse brewing, growing their own barley, using wild yeast from the land, and brewing it up in a barn. On today’s show, we’re going to hear their story and learn how they’re making this work in a 21st-century world."

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Beyond Fate: Funding Structure and Public Policy Mean Rural Schools Don’t Get Fair Share

Editor’s Note: Rural education leaders reacted strongly to an 2021 article in the New York Times Magazine portraying the struggles of a Mississippi teenager trying to get a good education from a historically troubled rural school district. Although the article’s goals may have been narrower, its structure and title -- “The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools,” written by an editor, not the reporter -- made summary judgment on all rural educators and students. 

Today we start a three-part series written by members of the National Rural Education Association that attempts to provide a broader view of the nation’s rural schools. The first two writers examine how rural schools’ challenges are not the result of fate or rural people’s personal failings; rather, they stem from public policies that create inequities and hurdles. The third article looks at rural school systems where innovation and leadership have created promising solutions.


Part one of a series.

A New York Times Magazine article, “The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools,” tells a story about the educational system in Holmes County, Mississippi, suggesting that the community has failed to provide adequate school facilities, that administrators and teachers have failed to provide sound educational programs, and that the schools have failed to serve their students. The article shines a spotlight on a single student in a single rural school district. There is benefit in turning on a spotlight. It’s important to use the national media to tell stories about Mississippi and the rural schools that serve one-fifth of students across the United States. However, a spotlight illuminates only part of the whole scene. Overhead lighting can reveal a bigger picture--in this case, revealing the impact of state and federal policies that fail to meet the needs of rural schools and the students they serve--including Holmes County, Mississippi.

School funding policies are one of the biggest barriers to rural school success. The bulk of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. Rural populations, economies, and the presence of public lands (such as national forests) often yield lower property values, which in turn leads to funding inequities for rural schools. In Mississippi, as in most states, millage rates are capped. Even if the local community wanted to, districts cannot raise the property tax rate beyond a certain level to increase school funding, placing rural districts at an even greater disadvantage.  Inequitable funding can lead to lower teacher salaries and teacher shortages, limited school offerings, and under-resourced classrooms.

In Holmes County, the limited tax base means that school buildings are out of date and in need of repair. In 2019, the district sought voter approval for a bond issue that would have funded a new high school and freed up money currently going to facility maintenance to allow for a raise in teacher salaries.  Nearly half the county turned out to vote, and the majority, 58%, voted to approve the bond issue--but a state law in Mississippi requires at least 60% approval of a bond issue. Other states, including Washington and Oklahoma, have similar requirements. Rules like these make it difficult for a local community to raise funds to provide adequate school facilities for their children--even when the majority of voters approve.

Holmes County Schools were consolidated in 2018, but consolidation has not yet made things better for the students and families that live there. School consolidation--another set of policies imposed on rural schools--almost never makes things better for rural students, teachers, or communities. Under the guise of saving money or increasing efficiency, the overall number of school districts in the United States has decreased over the last century. Bigger, supposedly, is better.  Rural schools, with smaller enrollments and lower funding, have been particularly targeted for consolidation--often leading to school closures. School consolidation and school closure generally do not result in anticipated cost savings. Local economies rely on schools--the local gas station that sells fried chicken might get most of their business from teachers and parents stopping by on their way to and from school, and schools (and their sports teams and other programs) are important social and cultural glue.  These costs might be worth the price if students in consolidated schools receive better or more educational opportunities, but they don’t.  

Finally, it is also important to look at the state and federal policies that culminate in state takeover of schools that are labeled as “failing.”  Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the federal government requires that states use testing to identify schools that are low performing--and to provide support for schools that fail to show growth on standardized test scores. Because of student performance on state tests in Holmes County, the Mississippi Department of Education replaced school leadership with a conservator--an outside administrator brought in for a short period of time to try turn things around. Later the state stopped placing conservators in positions of leadership and instead created the Achievement School District, one state-run district for all “failing” schools. School turnaround models such as these have not yet shown to consistently improve student outcomes or bring about lasting change. Accountability requirements are bolstered by good motives--to ensure that all students have opportunities to learn. But how accountability policies are implemented matters. Rural schools get better when we provide schools with sufficient resources and then work to build local capacity. Rather than state takeovers, we need policies that help local leaders and communities to improve practices.

The way we choose to illuminate our rural schools, the stories we tell about them, can hurt or help. When the stories focus only on tragedy and failure, we can draw the conclusion that there is very little to be done and that failure is inevitable. When we cast a broader light on the root causes and policies that serve as barriers to success, we may begin to see a path forward. Ultimately, policies are choices--and together we can make different and better choices that leverage strengths and dismantle barriers. The millions of students attending rural schools deserve nothing less.

Devon Brenner is a professor of education in Mississippi where she works on issues of rural education policy and practice. Brenner is one of the co-editors of The Rural Educator, journal of the National Rural Education Association.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Rural By Choice

When I was growing up in rural Knox County, Missouri (population 3,744 as of the 2020 census) I never really doubted that I'd move away when I grew up. It seemed a forgone conclusion, and that's exactly how it turned out. After college I lived in Brazil, New Mexico, and New Jersey, but never moved back to where I grew up. It seemed and still seems impossible. After all, what would I do there? The only options are agriculture, operating a small business, or service work. Besides, I intended to go into ministry (oh right, that's another option, though it's as poorly remunerated as anything), and eventually came to believe that mission work in Brazil was my calling. My kids grew up in urban New Jersey, and there's every likelihood that when I have grandchildren, they too will grow up here. Then again, my kids could move away, but certainly not to rural northeast Missouri.

For years I was pretty negative about the place where I grew up. With that few people the gossip can be vicious and damaging. Opportunities are few. The old buildings erected over 100 years ago are now literally falling in ruins, giving an air of decay that as a teenager seemed to hang over me. High school there made me lose almost all hope in humanity. Most of all, I saw no future there.

The passing of the years have seasoned my perspective. While I am still keenly aware of the negatives, I can finally see some of the positives. I recognize that friendships I formed then still exist now. When I go back to visit there are people who know who I am. The same can't be said of where my kids grew up, with the dense population of that New Jersey township turning over so frequently. Social media does manage to mitigate that somewhat. I also remember the kindly neighbor woman who helped me with and some other children my age with our 4-H fair craft projects, the other neighbor who helped one of my brothers with an electrical project for the fair, and the sweet woman who taught my VBS class how to find chapter and verse in the Bible. There were the volunteers who coached my little league team, the teachers who didn't give up on me, and the various people who cheered me on as I found my way out of the county.

I am not the only one to have such a change in perspective on rural origins. There have been many books, articles, and videos that I've encountered in recent months where people have explored their rural upbringing, or else went from an urban to a rural background. A short documentary series that recently caught my attention has been 'Rural By Choice,' featuring radio host Cory Hepola as he goes back to the Minnesota county he called home in his youth. With around 60,000 inhabitants it's not really as rural as where I grew up, but I guess he considers it small. In any event, this is a quick series to watch, and pretty enjoyable. He seems amusingly out of place for someone claiming a rural background, and he's quite kind in the narrative he shares. The first video in the series is below, or you can click here for the full playlist

As for me, I do have a strong interest in agroforestry, and certainly a small brewery could potentially do well in the right rural community. Still, with two young adult children, one in college, and with my preparation for ministry, it seems unlikely that I could make such a change any time soon. Even were I to do so, the farthest I can envision going is eastern Pennsylvania. After all, as I said above, maybe someday there will be grandkids.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Learning the Many Styles of Beer

Studying brewing has opened up the world of beer to me in new ways, and I've begun to discover that there's a lot more to it than I ever imagined. There's a history that goes back to the earliest human civilizations, and a bewildering array of styles far beyond the light pilsners I grew up having around in rural Missouri. In order to get up to speed on these styles I've done a lot of reading, and the best resource in print I've found is The Beer Bible (Second Edition), but Jeff Alworth. This guide is the sort of book that you don't read cover-to-cover (although I suppose you could), but rather can open up pretty much anywhere and read. 

Another option, if you have the patience to sit and watch a video that goes over an hour, Master Cicerone Pat Fahey has produced an excellent intro to every beer style. You can check that out below. And, happy drinking!

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

My First Home Brew

This year I'm taking a course in Brewing Science and Operations through Saint Louis University, and my first term has focused on actually learning to brew. This was a completely new experience for me, as I have no prior brewing experience. Still, it comes down to a mix of planning, sanitation, and following a recipe, which is a set of skills I'd already developed pretty well. My very first home brew is a blonde ale. See below some photos and a couple of photos from my journey.

Brew Day

The Beer Kit and Supplies

Steeping the Grain

Chilling the Wort After Boiling

Pitching the Yeast

All Set to Ferment

The Look of the Wort

Transfer to Carboy

Bottling Day

Fresh, Clean, Sanitized Bottles

The carboy spent one week in the closet, then one in the fridge.


All Bottled Up

Now I'm just waiting a few days while the beer bottle conditions. In the meantime, I've already started work on my next batch, which will be a dry Irish stout.