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Can the church survive the professionalization of its leadership?

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The first in a three-part series

Most Christians are reluctant to think of themselves as members of a multibusiness corporation with branches in far-flung parts of the country, or even of the world. The thought is repugnant to them.

They assert loudly that the church is a spiritual entity, not a business enterprise; an organism, not an organization; the body of Christ, not an institution. Its leaders are servants of God, not merely professionals paid to do a job.

If only this were always true.

We live in a time, however, when the church has both a spiritual form and an institutional form, with one or the other always dominant. The renewal movement of the 60s and 70s attempted to replace the institutional church with a new model of the church as a people, a community, a vital body of witnessing disciples. It taught the priesthood and giftedness of every believer. Christians everywhere rejoiced, for this movement was the Spirit triumphantly breaking out of institutional walls. Laypersons were being freed for ministry.

Now, several decades later, what is most visible is the growing number of professionals on church staffs and a laity that has meekly subsided into the pews.

And this trend is growing. The church more often ap-pears as a bustling institution with efficient, effective hired professionals at its helm than as Christ’s glorious body of faithful believers, in which each and every member is a minister. Can the church survive the growing gap between professional and layperson?

Give us a king, said the Israelites

At the time of the prophet Samuel, the Israelites begged God for a professional leader, a king. They wanted to be like the other nations who had a king to unite their military forces and lead them into battle. The Lord warned them that centralization of power in a king would result in tyrannical oppression. God was their king; they needed no other. Becoming a nation would threaten their identity as the people of God. But they didn’t listen.

The contemporary Christian community may not have pestered God for professional leaders as openly and zealously as Israel did, but some parallels exist. The church takeover by professionals came slowly, subtly. As Sunday schools and other activities for all age groups developed, as more and varied types of services and ministries were offered, each required organization, management and strategies for funding and leadership. So, congregations added personnel almost without question, except for the matter of paying the salaries of such staff members. Business enterprises and other secular institutions functioned more successfully with hired personnel. Volunteer ism no longer could handle the church’s needs. Why not join the trend?

Doors, which opened only a crack at first to admit paid professionals, swung wide as the idea of a professional clergy became more comfortable. The Christian community saw in such leaders the solution to wider ministry in an increasingly complex society and to a membership caught in its own pursuits. The church as an institution and as the body of Christ clearly needed full-time and professionally trained leadership.

Business management methods, flow charts, publicity and public relations, workshops and seminars, and the language of business, psychology and sociology infiltrated the church world. The focus on the spiritual strength and beauty of the people of God, each one using his or her God-given gift for ministry, faded like a piece of cloth left to bleach in the sun too long. The tragedy is that not enough people objected.

The issue is not the professionalization of the church leadership, but the development of a hierarchy among professionals where there should be none and the usurpation of the ministry of all believers. The church can survive professionalism, but not clericalism.

Al Dueck, professor of psychology at MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, writes “The experts have taken control, adjudicated needs, nurtured dependence, and sapped resources. Meanwhile lay persons have lost their ability to think and act for themselves” (Perils of Professionalism). The result has been the centralization of power in the hands of a select group of church workers, or clericalism, another type of exclusivism like racism and sexism.

In historian Martin Marty’s words, clericalism creates” a world of self-importance, as if everything that mattered has to do with the clergy”. Sarah Maitland, in The Map of a New Country warns that clericalism “undermines and corrupts the Christian understanding of service, of ministry and of wholeness, interdependence, and community” because it is based on an unacknowledged belief that some vocations are better than others and “ that the best vocation of all is being a clergyman.”

A disenfranchised laity

Clericalism harms laypersons (a term which should never be used in an Anabaptist congregation, for all are called to serve as God’s ministers) by disenfranchising them from kingdom work.

The church’ s view and practice of ordination may be a major factor in causing this gradual disenfranchisement. Marty explains: After the Reformation, although Protestants didn’t see ordination as a sacrament, they kept on ordaining like the Catholics but came up with their own guidelines as to who should be ordained – someone (a man) who had studied theology and Bible and was approved by a church body.

Despite their strong beliefs in the priesthood of all believers, Mennonites fell in line, slowly developing a church hierarchy in which all people are considered created equal, but some are more equal than others. In a hierarchy, preaching is reserved for clergy, “Not to preach left (the laity) confused about their witness and responsibilities,” writes Marty. And it continues to leave them confused. Ask any layperson what tasks are open to him or her in the contemporary Mennonite church. Preaching is not usually one of them. It is for special people. Ordained people.

Ray Stedman (Body Life) deplores that a special body of super-Christians has emerged who are looked to for practically everything and are now termed “the ministry”. Today “ministry” is something only the clergy can take on, can have and can leave. Only ordained ministers leave the “ministry”, never laypersons, for they haven’t a ministry to leave.

Without the privilege of speaking to the entire body of believers, another abuse occurs: The voice of the prophet is silenced. Prophets usually come from the weak and powerless, from those closest to the common life; without a platform to speak from, even occasionally, their message is hushed. The church loses their contribution; often para-church organizations gain.

When the laity is spiritually disenfranchised, they take the next step, which is self-disenfranchisement. “Let the professional staff do the work. They ca n do it better-and anyway. I haven’t got time.” They put their energies into their vocation, play, family and personal enrichment.

The laypersons’ primary church involvement becomes watching the professionals perform, a dangerous spectator activity if not accompanied by action. John R . Mott writes that “It is perilous for lay people to hear more sermons, at-tend more Bible classes and open forums and read more material unless accompanying it all there be afforded day by day an adequate outlet for their newfound truth. “ Unless Christians live up to new light, they become sluggish in the faith and let the “ salaried Christians do God’s real work”.

The professional church worker also suffers

One staff person in a large church agency said, “There are so many of us here in one heap, at times we almost convince ourselves we don’t need the constituency out there to help us do our work. We’ve got all the answers here. All they need to do is listen.”

When professionalism is dominant, the leaders develop their own identity separate from the laity. This separate identity is strengthened in the Mennonite constituency by having workshops and seminars exclusively for pastors, for example, not for the entire body of Christ. Their secular power increases as they become more involved in ad-ministration rather than remaining with preaching, praying and breaking bread, writes Howard A . Snyder in Liberating the Church.

A professional staff likes to see the building well used, and that is good stewardship, but, says Findley Edge, the church today is based on “come” structures at which professionals do their thing. If you don’t come, the church has no place, ministry or mission for you. Stedman argues that “ working in the church” originally meant to exercise a gift or perform a ministry among Christians wherever they were, but gradually came to mean doing some religious act within a building.

Members become customers, or clients, of the professional staff in the building. They have great freedom to say, “If you don’t do as I want you to, I’ll go elsewhere. “ And they do. Members leaving by the back door of the church is one of today’ s phenomena. A loyal captive membership no longer exists. Church members are constantly shopping for a place where “their needs will be met” by someone’s preaching or other type of ministry.

Another danger of clericalism is that the development of a congregational theology becomes the task of only academicians and professional clergy. “It’s hard to give up my pulpit,” said one Mennonite Brethren pastor.” I do so only with reluctance.” Some pastors are threatened by an assertive and competent laity, unwilling to admit that churches are strong where theology is vigourously pursued at every level, even if it leads to tension.

Can the church become over-professionalized?

After the Israelites received a king and became a nation among other nations, God used their nationalism to help them to understand its strengths and weaknesses, so that they could attack its demonic power, writes Old Testament scholar Bernard Anderson. Likewise, only if the church to-day understands the true nature of institutions and how the professionalization of its leaders can regress to clericalism, will it also be able to confront the demonic powers that can reside in such structures.

One serious failing of the church renewal movement was the inability to see that God can use institutions and professionals as instruments of salvation and grace, even as he used kingship and kings. Many churches in the 1960s wanted to do away with all institutional trappings and emerge as a pure spiritual body. That never worked.

Can ministry be returned to the laity?

Renewal has come to the church in the past, both pre- and post-Reformation, when ministry was returned to the entire body of Christ. According to Snyder, that will take a broader understanding of the priesthood of all believers than that all individuals have direct access to God.

“The church is not a collection of isolated priests, each going separately to God, but a community of priests. We have this ministry together, to be priests to each other, “ he writes. Every believer, whether that person is sick, retard-ed, handicapped, oppressed Or dispossessed, has a ministry. Male and female, rich and poor, black or white, ordained or unordained – all are ministers together for the internal life of the church and their external life in the world.

But the idea of releasing people for ministry is uncomfortable to some leaders. “We like the idea of having control, “ said one Mennonite Brethren pastor. “To release the laity might give them too much freedom.” Ordination is one fence to keep laity from moving into forbidden territory.

Renewal also comes when the church is freed of the pressure to make self-preservation its foremost goal. Renewal will grace a congregation that is ready to die that others may live. Snyder suggests several tests for such readiness: a willingness to listen to fringe people-the less important people, the less rewarded, the less powerful. Maybe even the willingness to mortgage the church building for money for the poor. Sacrifice is a pathway to renewal.

And who is able to hear such words about being life through death?

–Katie Funk Wiebe is an author, speaker and college professor from Hillsboro, Kan.

A Meetinghouse article.


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