The Road Ahead

August 1, 2014

“There was a time when I felt intimidated by the rapid decline of the church, but that time has passed,” L. Gail Irwin (MDiv ‘87) says of her work leading churches through transition. “I now feel privileged to have been called into ministry in this generation.”

As the author of the book Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection, Irwin is an expert on “end-of-church-life” decisions. Working to give dignity to congregations looking boldly into the face of declining attendance, she helps churches consider the ways in which transplanting their legacies might offer a life-saving gift to emerging ministries.

“Every local church is its own culture,” she says. “And learning to read the cultural language of a group is important every time I step into a new setting.”

It was her time at PSR, as well as her experience working with many varied communities, that helped Irwin shape that gift for identifying unique cultures. Along with an independent study on pedagogy with David Steward, Irwin taught an adult class at a Japanese-American church, and spent a year studying urban ministry with Glenda Hope’s San Francisco Network Ministry program. 

“Ironically, the cultural experiences of fieldwork gave me the tools to migrate to the Midwest,” she says of her career path. “[That was] where I learned to do ministry that is vastly different from my suburban upbringing.” 

Irwin believes that the institutional church is also experiencing rapid life-changing shifts in American culture, and that seminaries need to re-tool for these changes happening to care for the living - and the dying - church. 

“We are now dealing less with people who have been hurt by the church, and more with people who have simply been ignored by it,” she says. “How do we re-engage with them at a level they can understand?”

She feels theological education can better prepare future ministers for lean-time, tent-making style ministry, and for developing entrepreneurial models from which a new church might be resurrected.

“I am not bored and there is no opportunity to coast in ministry these days,” Irwin says. “God has chosen us for this time, to be curious and nimble in responding to rapid change.”