15 March 2008

What I Really Think: #2 - Pastors

OK, this is post #2 in this series. So, you know the drill. No hemming or hawing, dammit. Here we go.

I spent a little time with that great concordance in the intarwebs, Bible Gateway, and confirmed my suspicion. In most translations, the only occurrence of the word "pastor" in Scripture is Ephesians 4:11. Let me quote it for you in (brief) context:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it [a] says:
"When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people." [b]

9 (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions [c]? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

In Ephesians 4, "pastor" is one spiritual gift among many, mentioned in a list of such gifts, in the context of verse 7: "to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it." Other lists of spiritual gifts can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, and one popular (and IMHO helpful) course in vocational discernment lists no fewer than 19 spiritual gifts gleaned directly from the pages of the NT.

So I ask you: what scriptural basis is there for the fact that nearly every freaking church on the face of the planet has one or more "pastors", who are in charge of the church and (de facto) everything that goes on in it? Why have folks who are expected (de facto) to have all of these gifts in at least enough measure to have authority over all activity in each sphere? Why (most of all) does nearly every church have one person, the "Senior Pastor" or "Rector" or whatnot, who has ultimate authority in the community? If we are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) and love one another (John 13:34-35), then why does a single someone need to be "in charge"?

Ah, because co-leadership doesn't work. That's what I hear, anyway. It's contrary to my experience and the experience of others, but lots of people who have never tried it know very well that it doesn't work.

I don't think that there's anything inherently wrong with the role of "pastor" as it's become almost universally expressed in the Church. I have no doubt that there are some people who really are so broadly gifted that the role is an ideal one for them, vocationally. I have no doubt that there are some communities, in some cultural contexts, who are ideally led by a person in that role. But I honestly find it flippin' bizarre that this role has become as universal as it is, given some major drawbacks of this arrangement:

  • Having "clergy" - i.e., a class of people who are the designated church leaders and professional Christians - by implication defines the rest of us as not church leaders. This makes it damn hard to do more than pay lip service to the idea of the "priesthood of all believers" - which is a big reason, IMHO, why most churches don't do more than pay lip-service to that 100% scriptural idea. I went back to the Bible Gateway and searched for "priest". This one's harder, so correct me if I'm wrong - but I'm pretty sure that every occurrence of that word prior to Hebrews refers to the Jewish temple priesthood, or possibly to pagan priests. Hebrews talks a lot about priesthood - almost always in relation to Jesus as high priest; the other occasions refer to Melchizedek. Then, finally, there are a handful of references to priesthood in 1 Peter and Revelation, which seem to be the only mentions of Christian priesthood (apart from Christ himself) in Scripture - and all of them refer to the priesthood of all Christians. The Bible seem pretty darn clear on this issue, and my own experience confirms (to my satisfaction, anyway) that all followers of Jesus are gifted by the Spirit, blessed with God-given passions, and called to different forms of ministry and mission. So why do we create two classes of disciples?
  • So the existence of "clergy" can allow those who aren't clergy feel like they're off the hook - like they've got somebody else who will do the work of following Jesus (worshiping God, serving neighbors, preaching the gospel, etc.) for them. But what about the clergy themselves? It's been my experience that an awful lot of "pastors" are run ragged by the demands of the rather artificial and extrabiblical role we've constructed for them to inhabit. Part of it has to do with gifting: few people are actually blessed (or saddled) with all the leadership-oriented gifts to the extent that we expect "pastors" to be gifted. (To me, this is not unexpected - Ephesians 5 and other passages indicate that these gifts are given variously to various people, not all to one.) So pastors have to "fake it" in areas where they're not as gifted, which is inherently draining. Part of it is just workload: if one person has to be in charge of everything in a community of any size, how can that not be exhausting? Most larger churches "deal with this" by hiring various associates and assistants and whatnot. Good luck with that. You've spread the exhaustion among a handful of clergy - and maybe a bunch of lay ministers who really "get it" and choose to actively follow Jesus even though it's obviously optional for lay people. (And a huge percentage of the work all these ministers do, typically, is enabling and maintaining programs for the nominal majority, who can see that it's perfectly OK just to show up occasionally and maybe chip in a bit for the high-quality spiritual services they receive.) I know very few clergy who aren't madly overworked. It seems to me that actually expecting to take advantage of the gifts of all community members would take a lot of load off of these over-stressed clergycritters.
So why aren't there more lay-led churches? Why maintain the two-tier class system of lay and clergy? I know of a bunch of reasons, but all of them seem to have to do with the past (historical happenstance) and the present (current clergy need their professional positions and pensions to support their families and pay off their student loans). But what about the future? Are there good reasons to maintain this system on anything remotely approaching the near-universal scale we have now? It's a serious question; if you think there are good reasons, then give me a serious answer, k?


Huw Richardson said...

Mike -

I was exploring possibilities like this on my blog (all lumped in one category. Coming from a background of Anglicanism and Russian Orthodoxy, this topic interests me.

What if we view being a presbyter as a liturgical function - one of liturgical leadership. Not everyone has the gift of liturgical leadership: some are shy, some don't want to. But we insist on calling "priesthood" as this liturgical leadership. I don't think we need to - we can all be priests with different duties, different gifts. Neither do our liturgical leaders need to be our community leaders - in fact, I think it functions better when they are not.

Mike Stavlund said...

hey, hey, I'm a believer!

Mike Croghan said...

@huw - I agree with your thoughts about liturgical gifts - to a point. I'm certainly aware that people are differently gifted, especially when it comes to being "up front" in a worship setting - possibly more aware than many, since in my setting (where anybody can try anything at least once), I've seen *lots* of different expressions of gifts and not-so-gifts - and I've expressed them myself! But I think the reality of gifting is much more complicated than the idea that there might be a (relatively small) class of people, presbyters, who are gifted in liturgical leadership, and that that class overlaps exactly with the group of people who are seminary-trained, ordained, and paid by the church.

Some people are shy about getting up front at all, and for good reason - their gifts lie elsewhere. Others are shy, but if you can get them up there, cha-bang! The Spirit is present in a galvanizing way. Some people are great at delivering a prepared teaching (like a sermon); others are great at leading extemporaneous prayer or discussion; others rock at praying ancient liturgy (like the Eucharistic prayer); others are good at story-telling; etc. I myself am OK at delivering a word-for-word prepared sermon or reading, and at leading liturgical prayer, but when it comes to extemporaneous prayer or teaching, I suck dead bunnies through a straw.

I think it's a mistake, in the general case, to say "this small group of people can always lead liturgy, and everybody else can't" - to me, it seems like most people are gifted at certain kinds of liturgical leadership, but not necessarily at others, so I'd rather go through the work of ongoing discernment in community about gifting and vocation on the micro-level for everybody - be it liturgical gifting, leadership gifting, etc.

That said, I don't want to see the ancient orders of deacons, presbyters, and bishops abolished - but I wonder about them becoming more like monastic religious orders, where those who enter them take on additional vows before God, but not additional freedoms denied to those not in the order.

Huw Richardson said...

@Mike C Agreed - most especially with the part about coaxing people up and the "TA DAH!" We can't limit the job to a small group of people - the spirit seems to bring more people in all the time! I like how the ECUSAn BCP lists the orders of ministry as "Lay people, Bishops, Priests and Deacons" Lay people come first because *everyone* is always a member of the Laos, no matter what other job they hold.

I think our issues with orders are because we reversed something along the way. The community in Acts said "We need to so something different" and the Apostles said, "pick people who are qualified to do it." And the ministry got done... The *work* made the *office*.

Then we reversed that: we put people into the office and expect the "sacrament of holy orders" plus seminary to teach them to do the work. Then we went further and imagined that the "sacrament" would make the work get done - and only those with the "sacrament" could do the work at all.

As the pirates say, ARGH!

Imagine a community where we find people who are servants and call them deacons - until they stop doing that work... Or we find people who are liturgical leaders and call them presbyters - until they stop doing the work. Or we find people who are good at keeping divergent communities together in communion and we give them the job of episkope. Until they stop doing the work.

Tim Mathis said...

I like this series, Mike, and I find this post delightfully provocative.

You may already know this, but I always have a couple hang-ups with the argument for fully lay-led churches. One is that I think it protests too much against the idea of having a "head" pastor or decisionmaker. While that model can have it's problems, I'm not yet convinced that the tyranny of the masses is necessarily any less of a threat than the tyranny of an individual. At least when it's an individual leader who's the problem, they can easily be removed, assuming that there's an accountability structure in place (which there generally is). It streamlines decision making, and generally leaders feel accountable to the community anyway, so it's unusual when they function as a dictator (though we all know they come along from time to time).

While I know that communally led churches can function effectively, my second issue is that I think there might be a false dichotomy being set up between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood of the few. Stated simply, when we're clear about roles (and that's important), those two concepts don't have to conflict. I'm working in a church presently that is almost entirely lay-led, despite employing priests on staff. A priest officiates at the Eucharist (a whole different issue to argue about!), provides some of our pastoral care, and preaches periodically, though laity are in the pulpit as frequently as the ordained. Most everything else, including visioning and decision making, is worked out through the laity. I'm not talking about COTA here either, it's a traditional Episcopal parish. We're all priests, but there's no reason that the community can't recognize/suggest that some have a specific calling to a specific role, support that, and pay them to do it. Isn't it valid for a community to recognize that individuals only have so much energy, and some may serve the community more effectively if they are able to devote the full of their time to their ministry, rather than being drained somewhere else in order to earn their salary and pension? I agree that churches need to be honest with themselves about what role the minister should play, and smart in defining how much authority the minister should have, but I don't think they should rule out paying somebody to do specific work on principle.

You bring up a good point about overworked professional ministers (God knows I'm one), but my position is that that points towards improper cultural expectations and inappropriately defined personal boundaries, rather than a flaw inherent in the system.

So, here's my provocation for you: how much of this dismissal of the Church's need for 'authority' figures is culturally conditioned by your own experience and American individualism, and how much is really about what the Bible says? Are you doing exegesis on this one, or proof-texting?

Mike Croghan said...

@huw - Veeery interesting idea! This is similar to the method that's been used to call people to the Leadership Team at Common Table - "Who's already doing it?" It's when these orders get bound up with professional careers that this kind of "the work makes the office" idea gets really difficult - if "presbyter" is the career I've gone to school for and the job I get paid for that supports my family, it's a whole lot harder to look at it as an office held by anyone who's gifted for it and willing and able to perform it - and potentially *not* held by me if I just stop doing it. Then what would I do? I don't mean to trivialize this predicament in the least - it's a very real, very serious thing.

Mike Croghan said...

@tim - one thing I'm always at pains to clarify is that when I say things like, "why do we need pastors?" I really am saying, "why do we seem to think that *every* church needs pastors", not "pastors ought to be abolished". I generally seem to find myself arguing for things that have barely been tried, and what I'm saying is, "more people should try them", not "everybody should do it this way - abolish the conventional way!" So, there's that, for starters. If you have qualms about a lay-led church, then stick with the "single ultimate decision-maker" model. I have qualms about that model, and am grateful that other alternatives exist.

So similarly, in your second paragraph, there's nothing wrong with the model you describe, and I'm glad to hear of a traditional Episcopal parish that is so lay-led. I don't think there's anything wrong with paying people for ministry work either; we currently have one paid staff member (we used to have two), though we pay him peanuts.

It's hard to suggest alternatives that are so at odds with the way things are done almost everywhere, without it sounding like a condemnation of those majority practices, but really, truly, I think the "head pastor" model is perfectly fine in a lot of contexts - I just don't think it deserves its current near-universal status in the Church.

As for your final question about exegesis vs. eisegesis - well, yah. Of course I'm bringing my own preconceptions to my approach to Scripture. We all do this every time we open a Bible. IMHO, exegesis vs. eisegesis is a modern-age false dichotomy - there's no other way for me to read the Bible than through my eyes. Ditto for everybody else.

That said, are you trying to claim that the role of pastor or priest as currently commonly constructed *is* in the Bible? 'Cause I gotta tell ya, I don't think you can find it there without doing a *lot* more proof-texting than I was doing.

Tim Mathis said...

Hi Mike,

I understand the point about pursuing different directions and new models for doing church, and don't have a problem with it. Part of my deal is that I feel like I've become so immersed in the emergent conversation that all of this stuff is beginning to feel like just another new stream of church ideology, so I've had a recent tendency to push back a little bit, and defend traditional models. Part of that is b/c I had good experiences with traditional models in New Zealand, though my experiences in the US have been more equivocal. BTW, You're correct to point out that anything new tends to sound like a critique or dismissal of the old, perhaps necessarily, and often because it is. Am I, the hip progressive, becoming a defender of the old again? God forbid.

On exegesis vs. eisegesis, I admit that I'm winding you up a bit, but with a (liberal reactionary ex-evangelical Anglican) point. In your original post it just struck me that you were using scripture as a source to argue for a leadership structure that looks a whole lot like American populist democracy to me (not that there's anything wrong with that...) Granted, it's obvious that what you're arguing against is the perspective that suggests that scripture mandates a heirarchical leadership style (akin to the Monarchical model), so it makes sense to approach this from the perspective of actual scriptural suggestions about leadership. However, my questions are 1. Is "the perspective that suggests that scripture mandates a heirarchical leadership style" really that prevalent any more, or is it a straw man? and 2. How much should the discussion on church governance be focused on what scripture mandates, and how much should it be a pragmatic address to our cultural situation? It seems that your argument carries more weight if you attack it from the perspective of culture rather than scripture. Again, that's the liberal reactionary ex-Evangelical Anglican in me speaking, because I just don't think scriptural arguments about authority structure are getting us anywhere. Scripture is just so often used to shore up positions that are clearly culturally determined (in liberal, evangelical and emerging circles) that I just don't like arguing from that starting point any more on this particular issue (or several others...). That tells you as much about my own biases as it does about any shortcomings in your argument (and I admit that I'm quick to pull out the Scripture card on issues like poverty and war), but still it's a question to bear in mind.

Devil's Advocate (Tim)

Mike Croghan said...

@Tim, good points on all counts. Thanks for engaging in this discussion, brother - you're making me think and re-think. Much appreciated!

For the record, I do think the perspective that scripture mandates a hierarchical leadership style is still pretty prevalent, across the spectrum from liberal mainline to conservative evangelical, although I'm not sure it's a position that a lot of folks have come to a conviction about after careful study; it's more something that's assumed - part of the church culture, I might say. Mainline folks throw around terms like bishop, presbyter, and deacon as if the current constructions of those roles are just obviously what is indicated by the handful of Biblical uses of the terms, and evangelicals seem to have all kinds of theories about "headship" and the like. But I hear what you're saying, about arguing from scripture and arguing from culture.

Anyway, thanks!


Anonymous said...

mike, i love the thoughts you are stirring up on your blog. good stuff to toss around for sure. i of course completely agree with you that this dumb idea of "one pastor who is 'the one'" has become so engrained into our culture of church. i agree with you that our expression of church leadership these days doesn't seem to really line up with what's in the bible. the funny part to me is that an unbiblical system is totally honored and treasured in bible-loving churches. so many suburban evangelical churches are wanting to be more of the "acts 2" church but are still structured as a totally professional model. i think the reason why it is so prevalent is that it is predictable--we can pay someone enough to get the job done and meet our needs and demands and live up to what everyone's expectations of 'church' are (someone who preaches, leads, gets the job done). plus, real sharing is way harder to pull off. it is messy & unpredictable. while i agree with the reality that we all have different gifts we have elevated certain gifts as way too important and minimized other extremely valuable ones because they aren't loud. i know many people who are called "pastor" and actually never pastor people. i think they should just be called CEO's, directors, or communicators, and reserve the word "pastor" for those who are actually shepherding and caring for people. i am not against the idea of some people who lean more into their pastoral or leadership or communicating gift more than others. i get that we are all different. the problem is when we put all of that into one person and expect them to be able to pull off ALL of that and more. it really is a dumb system. how about a community-lead community where everyone brings their giftedness to the table and we give up excellence for opportunity to let all people have a voice, contribute, and be part. in my role, that is really what i bring to the table. i am a shepherd and leader at heart. i can't really get it out of me. so it's what i contribute to my community but there are lots of others contributing the same thing or different things, too, and it doesn't separate me from everyone else. keep stirring the pot!

Mike Croghan said...

Thanks, Kathy! From what I've been able to glean from your blog, you and your community rock - thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation!

dave said...

St Mike and tribesters

Another homerun in the hottest series online.

This is just what I needed as I am now off to "church" as the "senior pastor"...or am I? Pray for us as we continue to make huge transitions along these lines among our family (www.3dff.com). I love that I have no idea re a lot of aspects re what will happen in the gathering today..partly because i am not really in charge, a lot of it will depend on what others say a nd do...and partly because we are meeting in Denny's conference room!

I love it when someone new comes up to me at the end of the gathering
and says "I'm still not sure..are you the pastor?"?

maybe I truly AM one of the pastors if i get questions like that

dave said...


i will plan to actually read your post in teh gathering today...

but part of the point is I have an agenda to, and plan to...but I might not; someone else might have teh right word for today..

Dang, I'll sneak it in somehow(:

Tom Hudson said...

Mike, just met you last night at the Emergent Village conversation, and am catching up on your blog. As I introduced myself last night, I am a priest in a Mutual Ministry parish. It's very much like what you described - my role is strictly liturgical or sacramental. Other people have other gifts and ministries, and they exercise them freely by virtue of their baptism. I won't dare suggest that we have this all figured out, or that it works all the time, but it's a good model for us and other parishes are looking closely at what we are doing in Western Maryland. Thank you for your post, and I'll keep reading.


Mike Croghan said...

Thanks, Tom! It was a pleasure to meet you, and I was excited to hear about Mutual Ministry. I'd heard the term, and one or two rumblings about the practice, but not so I really "got it". I'm surprised I've not heard more about it in "Anglimergent" circles - it really sounds like a promising way forward for "emerging" Episcopal/Anglican churches - not to mention Lutheran ones, etc.