McCormick Theological Seminary has always drawn students who are interested in non-traditional ministry. Rev. Dr. Sid Mohn is a graduate of McCormick’s Doctorate of Ministry in church leadership, which he tailored to his own calling and experience as a non-profit administrator. Sid is now the president and CEO of Heartland Alliance, one of the most well-known and well-regarded anti-poverty organizations in the Midwest. Ordained ministry, in Sid’s mind, encompasses a range of vocations but all utilize the same skills and talents cultivated in theological education. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sid for the CURE blog in early May.
“I was forced to reenvision what ministry could be early on,” said Sid as we sat in his office downtown. “When I was first starting out in my vocation as a minister, 35 years ago, parish ministry as an out, gay man was a major challenge. I suffered a lot of angst of not being able to pursue the vocation that I thought I was called to. I was forced to reexamine what vocation/call meant, and what it meant to be called to ministry but not tied to a parish. This situation of despair became a liberating context for exploration. I discerned that I was primarily called to a faith-based commitment to justice, not to a parish.”
That calling led Sid to non-profit management, for which he enrolled in McCormick’s DMIN program. However, he he still had to define and defend his ministry. He found that the faculty and students were open to the idea that leadership within non-Church organizations could still be informed by theological reflection, but he had to push the curriculum and his classmates to engage in that conversation. “I made sure that my experience and work in a social service environment was included in the larger discussion.” Sid wrote his Doctorate of Ministry thesis on the ministry of management, focusing on three roles (priestly, prophetic, pastoral) that the Early Church defined for its leaders. These roles apply just as well to managers in social service agencies as they do to traditional parish ministry. “Clergy are traditionally called to communities of faith to shepherd and develop members. Non-profit management shepherds and develops communities of practice; these vocations are very similar. Society is moving away from the idea of prophetic individuals to the idea of prophetic institutions as means of social change. We need to equip leaders of all prophetic institutions, both faith-based and secular.”
I asked Sid to describe his calling as a shepherd of a prophetic institution. “I facilitate leadership teams that continuously think about how to build human-rights focused programs, how to measure our programs’ effectives and learn from evaluation, how tot equip teams to be effective, and how to build the interplay between policy and practice. Heartland Alliance works with marginalized communities to develop initiatives and actions that will best benefit members of those communities. “Human Rights theory, feminist theory, and organizational theory ground a lot of our work.” I mentioned that much of the language he was using could also be used to describe liberationist theories and praxes. He nodded, “They are one and the same.” Heartland Alliance works with marginalized communities to develop the initiatives for that specific context, which is very similar to the process of liberation theology. “The mantra of liberation theology is ‘think, act, reflect.’ Often the academics think and the people act; there is no shared reflection. There’s a lot to be gained from this kind of partnership and dialogue between theorists and practitioners. All theology, just like all theories of community development, should be tested and applied. That’s the challenge that made [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer so relevant. The current populist popularity of the Pope reflects this as well—he exemplifies the kind of bottom-up theology that the world is hungry for.”
I asked what Sid sees as this new model of clerical leadership, and Sid pointed to that of the worker-priest from Latin America. “This is a vibrant model within the Roman Catholic Church specifically, and I’ve found it very helpful in defining and defending my own call,” he said. “It’s powerful because it creates a relevancy for the Church among marginalized communities.” 20th-Century Latin America was not the birthing ground of this model, Sid reminded me. “The birth and rapid growth of the Early Church created a need for this kind of ministry. The Church began as a way to advance justice in and for marginalized in society. It began with a pragmatic ministry of care and justice.”
Social justice, community development, and Church growth are all intimately connected, and our 21st century experiences have made those connections clear. “Now is a very fertile time for us to embrace new and innovative models for work and ministry.” McCormick, and other theological educational institutions, have a huge role to play, but it won’t be easy. Often, the academy of religion removes itself from the experiences of people on the ground, on the streets, in the trenches. “If the academe maintains close connections to the church, to the experience of clergy and laity on the ground, then it can play a very prophetic role.” Sid hopes that McCormick and other seminaries will continue to explore and promote “alternative” models of ministry, and affirm the calling of bi-vocational clergy who are primarily engaged in careers of social justice/social service. “McCormick has the potential to become a motherhouse for bi-vocational clergy, providing ongoing training and education, and to help them envision a new church model.”
Rev. Dr. Sid Mohn is the President of Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights. Dr. Mohn is a graduate of Temple University, received his MDiv from the School of Theology at Claremont, California, and his doctorate from McCormick Theological Seminary. He is an ordained reverend of the United Church of Christ and a member of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans. You can follow Sid Mohn on Twitter @SidMohn.