What’s In a Name: Vocational Outreach (formerly Admissions & Recruitment)
February 8, 2023
by Rev. Neal D. Presa, PhD
As I write this brief article, a neighbor (who is a real estate agent) dropped off at our front door a letter reminding us that if we are interested in selling our home, she’s available to be the selling agent. She tends to do this every three months and on special holidays, like when she annually plants U.S. flags on everyone’s lawn with a note attached from her about her availability and ability to sell your home. We have no plans nor interest in selling our home anytime soon. This is similar to a knock on the door we had on Sunday morning. We had the Ring™ doorbell so we turned on the camera and using the microphone I asked them who they were and what they wanted on this Lord’s Day. I sort of had an inkling of who they were as my doorbell camera showed they were two young men and well-dressed. They were either from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (f/k/a Mormons) or Jehovah Witnesses. One of them replied to me, “We’re here to tell you about Jesus.” I answered, “That’s okay. We know Jesus. I’m a pastor. We’re good. Have a good day. And by the way, follow Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man.” I had to add that extra theological affirmation knowing that both ecclesial traditions question the full divinity of Jesus Christ. It was my pastoral way of a sarcastic, theological jab for the brunch interruption.
These examples – and there are plenty that you and I can share and chat over a cup of coffee – show how we don’t like to feel like targets, to be in the crosshairs of solicitations – whether in-person or the pesky telemarketer who tries their best to sound friendly even as they call at the oddest, most inconvenient hours of the day. For full disclosure, my first paid job was as a telemarketer in the San Francisco Bay Area selling subscriptions for the now defunct Oakland Tribune newspaper. Too many places look at people as customers, as potential clients; some salesperson who needs to meet the quarterly or annual goal can, in desperation, rush the person-to-person connection.
We who are in the business of theological education, the Church, the Gospel, and the kingdom of heaven can’t commodify people as clients, customers, and numbers. To do so, cheapens relationships, engagement with people that are providential and intended by the Holy Spirit. It makes us think that any high or any low in enrollment is because of our strategizing or lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong…we certainly need to plan, review, strategize, prepare. I have a Graduate Certificate in Project Management so I care deeply about strategic tactics, doing things decently and in good order. But I also know that, at the end of the day, if we have been faithful in listening to people’s stories, if we have been faithful in sharing about New Brunswick Theological Seminary and how we exist to support and equip people to live out their calling as they discern what God is doing in and through and among them, then we are faithful to what we have been called to do and to be.
Before joining the administrative faculty of NBTS on a full-time basis, I served as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor of two congregations in New Jersey and California for two decades. I know too well the pressure that churches have in growing the membership, that somehow bigger is better, and that older/aging congregations want more young people, and mono-ethnic churches (read: White) want their congregations to be more diverse. Yet, I told those congregations and I tell fellow pastors: if you are faithful in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and living out the values of the kingdom of God and offering an authentic witness of the Gospel that cares for the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. . .if you have been faithful to the call of the Gospel as best as you are able, by God’s grace, then whether your membership rolls increase by 10% or decrease by 10% is irrelevant. The right question is: “how can I/we be more faithful in living out the Gospel in our context/communities?”
That is why when I was called to the position of Vice President of Student Affairs, I made a case to change the Admissions and Recruitment office to Vocational Outreach. The military recruits; real estate agents recruits clients; Disneyland charges admissions fees. We in theological education are about vocation. . .the call of God upon people’s lives. What we do as New Brunswick Theological Seminary is come alongside people who are discerning, who are discovering, “What is God doing in my life and the world around us and how can I join God’s mission in this way?” That is a more compelling endeavor and a more interesting question and the related questions that go with that journey than the hackneyed question, “So how many students will we have the degree programs next year?”
Yes, of course, we care about how many full-time students we’ll have next year and in the years to come. We have bills to pay, we have faculty and staff to support, the Seminary’s campus in New Jersey has to be maintained, we have computer servers that need to be serviced; all of that takes money. But I also know the wisdom from one of my first memory verses when I first became cognizant of faith as a high school student: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33, King James Version, made gender inclusive). Yes, I’m mindful and heartful about the numbers, about how many attend our virtual InfoSessions and how many submit their applications. But the numerics and metrics don’t keep me up at night and they don’t worry me. What I do pray about is that the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts and minds of God’s people everywhere to be asking the question, “Here I am, Lord, where shall I go?” And for us at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, who care deeply about vocational outreach, we say, “Consider us as part of your journey. We are here to accompany you as we think critically, act justly, and lead faithfully.”
The Rev. Neal D. Presa, PhD is the Vice President of Student Affairs and Vocational Outreach and Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship