Tuesday, November 01, 2011

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!


revnancy said...

I haven't read Tony's book, but your description of his proposals calls to mind Letty Russell's book, "Church in the Round".

Looking forward to hearing more about your class prep.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks for the note on Letty Russell's book. I know that feminist theologians have worked on the principles of egalitarian churches, but not sure how much has changed -- even with more and more women serving as pastors.

And I look forward to your thoughts on my planning!

revnancy said...

I haven't read Russell's book in years, but I remember she used King Arthur's Round Table as an image, a questioning of ordination, as well as a bit on leadership focused on creating relationships.

The suggestion of the title of "Friend" reminds me that when I was reading old church meeting notes for our congregation's centennial celebration, the minutes did not differentiate between the elders and the minister. If you didn't know the minister's name, you couldn't tell who was who.

As a female ordained clergy person, I'm of mixed feelings about ordination. Over the years, it has been an opportunity to deconstruct the idea of minister, when people meet me. Without the "stamp" of ordination, I wonder if those conversations would still occur.

Recently I've been reading about the Occupy Movements and their experiments with consensus and democratic process. There may be some parallels to changes in church governance and hierarchy for us to consider--especially if the Occupy Movements do reflect the millennial generation's world view.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks for the reflections. I too am of mixed emotions on this question. I believe that ministry is something we all share, but is unacknowledged power/authority better? Not sure.

I think for women especially this is an important question because at least until recently ordained ministry has been assumed to be a male thing!

Maybe the Occupy movement will show us something we need to learn.