What are Clergy going to do if the Church is Flat?
In January I’m going to be teaching a theology of ministry class for a licensed ministry program here in Michigan. It’s one of the last classes in the program and after completing the class the students will need to write their own theology of ministry. I’ve been doing some reading and doing some thinking about what this conversation might look like. I’m even toying with turning my work into a brief book for the new series of book I’m editing for the Academy of Parish Clergy.
I think it’s important that such a conversation take into consideration the world in which ministry is to be done. The world is changing and the mainline church is changing. Many Mainline congregations are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to call a full-time, seminary-trained, ordained minister. Many congregations are wondering whether the traditional professional model of ministry is worth embracing. Interestingly, the Academy of Parish Clergy, of which I’m a member and for whom I edit a journal, was founded in the late 1960s to enhance the professional standing of clergy. The idea was to create a sort of AMA for clergy. But is such a goal feasible today? Or is something else needed?
As I ponder this question in preparation for that class, I am forced to reckon with the questions being raised in many quarters about the need to rethink the way the church is structured, led, and envisioned. Tony Jones, a long-time leader in the Emergent Church movement, entitled his Princeton Ph.D. dissertation, subsequently published as an e-book with Amazon, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement. Tony has borrowed from theologian Jurgen Moltmann to envision a flat, egalitarian, non-hierarchical church. Tony has long been a critic of denominations, which often exist in hierarchical ways. He’s been a critic of the way in which clergy are credentialled and has questioned whether any of this is necessary.
What Tony envisions is a “relational ecclesiology,” wherein the church is a community charged with nurturing relationships – in reflection of the community of persons within the Trinity (borrowing from Moltmann’s doctrine of a social Trinity. He borrows from Moltmann’s panentheism (the world is in God) to envision a situation wherein the sacred/secular division is broken down – thus the church is not a sacred space, but is part of the broader world. Thus, the church is no longer a sanctuary and clergy no longer mediate the sacred. It’s important to note that at least in Tony’s estimation and as practiced at the church he participates with, there is no one person who is credentialed to consecrate/officiate at the Eucharist. He suggests a congregational polity and warns against involvement with the inherent bureaucracies of denominations.
He points us to the Christological office of “friend” as outlined by Moltmann. By focusing on this office then churches can become egalitarian fellowships. He writes of how this affects clergy/pastors.
These congregations have largely abdicated the tradtional titles take by clergy (Reverend, Pastor, Father), titles which sometimes serve to prop up traditioanl hierarchical structures and the attitudes of domination and submission that so often accompany them. Now, at a time when public distrust of celrgy is on the rise due to the many public scandals of the past several decades, clergypersons may do well to relinquish antiquated and honorific titles in favor of a single designator, like “friend,” that clearly commuicates an equivalency between all members of a faith community.
So, what would ministry look like if we were to embrace this concept of church? Is it feasible? I should note that most of the emergent churches I know of are led by charismatic-type leaders. Whether or not they have credentials (and most I believe have them) they have the kind of personalities that draws people to them. So, where does this authority derive from? These are questions that we need to consider as we look at the way in which people are called to do ministry in this new and oft changing world.
PS. I invite your thoughts and I’ll be posting more as I write this class session out on the blog!