Manuel Padilla doesn't care much for titles, even though he is listed as the deployment officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan. So it is fitting that he doesn't use "the Rev." in front of his name and that photographs rarely (never?) show him wearing a clerical shirt. The outward manifestations of ordained ministry are not what matter to him.
"I have never been a rector, vicar, or priest in charge of a parish," said Padilla, who earned a master of divinity degree from Seabury in 1988 and a doctor of ministry (DMin) degree from Seabury in 2004. He has been a ministry developer in Northern Michigan since 1988. "The titles of the diocesan positions I've held over the years don't mean much to me."
What is meaningful to him is "spreading ministry leadership to the entire congregation," and that is where his DMin in Congregational Development has had a profound impact.
For the past 22 years Padilla has been an integral part of an organizational sea change, helping congregations in Northern Michigan move from clergy-centric ministry to a ministry shared by the entire faith community. This form of ministry, called mutual ministry, de-emphasizes church hierarchy and emphasizes the ministerial gifts of all God's people. It is no longer novel to Episcopalians in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, where it is practiced by the vast majority of its 27 parishes.
Padilla said he regularly calls upon the skills he learned while earning his DMin from Seabury: "Seabury exposed me to the new research in organizational theory and congregational development, and that has helped my effectiveness as a ministry developer."
The organizational changes in the Diocese of Northern Michigan began in the early 1980s as the economy crumbled, businesses closed and people left in droves. Many of the Upper Peninsula's tiny, isolated churches couldn't afford seminary trained priests and were struggling to keep their doors open. Priests, most of whom were hired to serve several parishes simultaneously, were underpaid and overextended, creating a high rate of clergy turnover. Many parishes found themselves perpetually waiting for their next rector; some churches went for weeks without celebrating Eucharist. The situation led the Rt. Rev. Tom Ray, then the bishop of the diocese, to explore mutual ministry as a way to revitalize and empower the congregations of small, rural parishes. Rather than bring in ordained clergy from the outside, the model called forth the ministry of the congregations themselves.
Padilla, who serves as a ministry developer for seven small parishes as well as the diocesan deployment officer, found himself well prepared to help bring about that change.
"As ministry developers we do what we were taught to do in seminary," Padilla said. "We help people understand the Bible. It's mostly formation and ongoing education."
Padilla entered Seabury's congregational development program because of his interest in organizational theory. While serving in the US Air Force he earned a BA in Russian and was a few credits short of a degree in business management. He left the Air Force in 1983 to attend Seabury. He returned to Seabury in 2000 to attend the Seabury Institute Doctor of Ministry program.
"As John Dally said in one of his lectures, some people come to seminary for the degree; others come for the conversation. I went for the conversation," Padilla said. "I was interested in the discussion on congregational development and organizational theory."
As a ministry developer, Padilla leads the Covenant Group Process, a congregation-based formation process authored by the seminary-trained clergy of the diocese, including Padilla. The process is a strategic plan for helping congregations discern the gifts already evident in their communities. It provides a curriculum of studies and team building that leads to the licensing of local preachers, the ordination of local priests and deacons, the commissioning of ministry co-coordinators in a wide range of areas, including stewardship, education, worship planning and oversight, outreach and hospitality. These individuals then become a congregation's Ministry Support Team.
Ministry developers meet regularly with a congregation's Ministry Support Team to offer support, help obtain resources and offer educational opportunities. "People know I'm going to be here to help them get through their misstep," Padilla said.
And while he helps develop the ministry, he doesn't do the ministry.
"One of the things we were taught in seminary is that we are not supposed to tell people what to do; we help them figure it out," Padilla said. "We have to let the congregations make their own mistakes. A congregation member told me once, 'I used to get so aggravated with you because I'd come to you with a problem and you'd say, What are our options? We didn't want to discuss options, we wanted an answer.'"
Congregations often are surprised by their own competency and the many talents in their midst.
"This sense of empowerment they felt when we first started doing this, it was like somebody turned on a light and they could suddenly see," Padilla said. "They are doing so many exciting ministries. The empowerment to take that risk, to engage in new ministries—that came from the congregations. "Where the (Seabury) Institute helped me in this was in developing new approaches to formation. The structure we use is specific to our context. I maintain that the structure we use in Northern Michigan is specific to us, but the concept of being Christ in the world is universal."
Padilla thinks his diocese can benefit greatly from Seabury's new emphasis on online education and the growing number of lifelong learning courses available to those not seeking a degree.
"For us, we don't want to just train the priest and then have the priest come and do the ministry; we want to have the broadest possible number of people to become ministers," Padilla said. "Seabury can help us do that."