This is a long comment I wrote in response to Zach Robert’s post at Baptimergent asking whether there is something seriously wrong with our current ecclesiastic structures. I’m not going to summarize it here because, duh I am lazy, but I highly encourage you to read it. Unfortunately, some of the comments have devolved into an argument about who is and is not being legalistic, although Andrew and gracerules had some really good thoughts. Since I haven’t posted in a while (I will get back to health care/end of life at some point), and I don’t have time to write anything else for the next several days, I thought I’d post it here as well. In addition, I would ask, assuming you accept that something is wrong with the current system of professionalized clergy and corporation like churches and denominations, how do we go about fixing it? What parts of the old system would you keep? What parts would you discard? What consequences would it have for those who are currently employed by this system? What consequences would it have for those of us who are laity?
Great post, Zach. I’m really glad I started reading your blog, as the “bapti” in “baptimergent” put me off in the past (I am learning to get over my prejudice against Baptists).
I’ve attended a number of churches, some with great pastors, at least by the outward measures of sermon writing and delivery, ability to provide loving and caring pastoral support/guidance, and managerial/organizational skills; but most with pastors who fall short on or more of those counts. The crackerjack, triple-threat pastors tend to rise to the top of the megachurch heap, and as a result often preside over churches are either impersonal and corporate and/or cults of personality.
Most of the churches I’ve stuck with have been congregations where I felt a strong sense of love and community, despite the (often considerable) shortcomings of the pastor. These churches usually are not the ones with the stellar worship team, great children’s programs, etc., but they are the ones where I see a living example of Paul’s beautiful image of the body of Christ. They’re the places where, as the song goes, everybody knows your name. They’re the churches where, if something is going to happen, more often than not, you and a few other congregants are going to have to make it happen, because there are only three paid staff members and they have enough on their plate as it is. Sure, the VBS may not be as cool and dynamic as the VBS at Brand X church across town, but it’s made with love.
My point is, that it’s the body, not the leaders, that make a church home for me. I think Zach makes a good point about codependency. Why do I need a pastor to pray for me when I am sick? Why not my dear friends and neighbors? Why do I need a pastor to tell me what is right or wrong, or give me guidance? What ever happened to working out our own salvation with fear and trembling? I need it because my pastor tells me I need it. If we all stop needing his services, he stops getting paid. I am not suggesting that there is no value in the work and discipline that goes into studying the Bible or that I have no respect for the wisdom of elders. But often the people whose wisdom I have the most respect for, the people I view as true giants of faith, are not paid clergy.
I grew up in a non-denominational charismatic church, and the anti-intellectualism I observed there left me with a profound respect for the amount of scholarship that is required for ordination in a mainline denomination. I think that theology, biblical history and criticism, etc., are valuable disciplines that are worth pursuing. And I do worry that they would die out if those studying them could not be assured of a career as an endpoint.
At the same time, I realize that for all that biblical knowledge, pastors are often no better than those they purport to shepherd. I have met too many clergy who have been just as venal and self serving as anybody else. I’ve seen friendships, faith, and communities destroyed because of the hypocrisy of clergy.
That said I’m not against pastors per se, but I do think there needs to be a restructuring of our current systems. There often seems to be a vicious circle of starting new programs to bring in new members, who bring in more money, which can be used to hire more staff who can then start more programs. And of course, with all these new members we now need to build a bigger building, which requires more money, which requires more people tithing, etc. And if a church decides to opt out of this crazy cycle of consumption and acquisition of souls, they risk losing members to Brand X across town, which in turn puts the pastor’s livelihood in jeopardy. And thus our modern church culture becomes virtually indistinguishable from the entertainment industry or the fast-food industry. It becomes another way for the masses to consume, rather than create.
So anyway, I appreciate that there are clergy trying to find a way out of this mess. There are days when I want to opt for the whole blow it all up approach, although today is not one of those.