BUILDERS OF COMMUNITY: Rethinking Ecclesiastical Ministry. By José Ignacio González Faus. Translated by María Isabel Reyna; Revised by Liam Kelly. Miami: Convivium Press, 2012.
What is the nature and purpose of ministry? Is ministry a sacred vocation? Is it to be organized along hierarchal lines or more horizontal ones? Is the minister or priest the vehicle by which God not only communicates with the faithful, but places indelible spiritual marks upon them? No matter the denomination or tradition, these are important questions.
Being that I am a pastor in a tradition known for its anti-clericalism, the idea that clergy are somehow sacrosanct and a necessary mediator isn’t part of my sensibilities. On the other hand, I do believe that there is a place for structured leadership in the church. Ephesians 4 offers a clue to the way this works with its declaration that God has provided the church with apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip the saints so that they can grow into maturity. Although the author of Builders of Community is Roman Catholic, a tradition known for its hierarchical ecclesiology, he has offered a vision of ministry that breaks stereotypes and offers us a vision of ministry that can cross all lines.
José Ignacio González Faus is a professor of Christianity and Justice in Barcelona and served previously in El Salvador. González Faus acknowledges that the Catholic Church is facing a crisis with its priesthood. The numbers of priests are shrinking dramatically, but the answer isn’t merely to be found in abandoning celibacy. Instead, he suggests that the key is a new understanding of ministry, one that is rooted in the biblical text and the writings of the early church leaders. While recognizing the need for structure and order, he’s clear that the development of an unbending hierarchy has undermined the church’s ministry. Most importantly, he believes that the church has lost its sense of mission. Like many other institutions it has drawn inward and simply addresses internal needs, while forgetting its greater mission in the world.
The author’s central concern is with the “mode of the church’s presence in the world.” There is, he insists, no going back to Christendom or to live out of clericalism, so we must reenvision ministry. Being Catholic he has to address the role of the priest and priesthood in general. Thus, early in the book, he grounds his position in the New Testament assumption that Jesus is the final priest, the one who brings to fulfillment the priestly role, taking on a new vision rooted in the priesthood of Melchizedek (Hebrews).
If Jesus is the priest who mediates our relationship with God, and where strictly speaking there is no continuing priesthood, what is the role of the ministry? For González Faus, persons called to ministry are charged with building a community that is able to embrace its call to mission in the world. As for how this should be accomplished, he is clear that the New Testament doesn’t offer us one mandatory model for structuring the church. Instead, it “provides various examples of how different churches were structured, in answer to the needs and demands of different historical moments” (p. 43). The important point here is that we needn’t get caught up in arguments about mandatory forms but rather seek to find forms that match the needs of the moment. There are, of course, some guidelines and models for us to follow, but there is also much room for innovation.
González Faus goes into great detail on the different ways that first century churches, as seen in scripture, organized themselves, always with the vision of being a Jesus-centered alternative community in mind. Additionally, he insists that while a diversity of function is present, there is also a concern for unity. As for some of our contemporary concerns, such as the role of the minister in worship – the New Testament is silent. In fact, there is a warning here about so identifying clergy and sacrament that the clergy become essential to the life of the church.
González Faus begins his discussion with the question of priesthood, noting that with Jesus the idea of priesthood is fulfilled. From the New Testament, in chapter 2, he discusses the role of ministry as builder of community. Then, he moves on in chapter 3 to the question of the clericalization of ministry. He’s not against structure, but he raises the problems inherent in institutionalizing ministry. In this chapter he moves historically through the ways in which the diversity of the New Testament ecclesiology became increasingly institutionalized, and the clergy/laity divide both emerges and widens. As time passes, the value of structure is complicated by its negative effects, such as careerism, concern for status, and focus on external holiness (as seen by the adoption of celibacy. That is, what had once been seen as useful for service becomes a “cultic foundation.” By the sixth century, the clerical evolution had produced the ecclesiastical functionary. Mission, which had once been foundational, is laid aside as internal administrative functions take hold. Regarding ministry and mission, the author writes perceptively:
[T]he men more officially entrusted to “go out into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” are precisely those who proclaim the Gospel less because a thousand other tasks and administrative worries prevent them (p. 134).
Indeed, because of these duties those called to preach see their circle of relationships become increasingly smaller and narrower, with their audience made up primarily of the “faithful.”
In a final chapter González Faus offers a few words concerning the present. Writing from within the Catholic Church, which has become increasingly centralized and clericalized, he offers a call to change. He reminds us that the forms that ministry takes can change, that the church’s responsibility is missional (it is interesting to note that he finds guidance in the documents of the 1979 Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla), and suggests that the mission of the church is of greater importance than the church (institution). Thus, the church should be focused on service to the world rather than sacred power. Structurally, the church should not be vertical but collegial in orientation – and not just between Pope and Bishops, but at all levels.
González Faus writes in the hope that the church can return to its calling to mission (he doesn’t use the word missional, but for those of us who use this term, the meaning is clear). Thus, he writes that the service is inherent in the nature and purpose of the church. If it doesn’t serve it’s nothing. The church can turn from an inward focus to one that is focused on mission, but such a turn will not be easy, both because of the “harshness of reality and the sin of humanity.” It’s clearly difficult, but in faith not impossible.
This is a most intriguing and perhaps even daring book, for it’s written from within a community of faith that prizes hierarchy, and yet challenges that commitment by calling for a different understanding of ministry. Those of us who may not have as much invested in hierarchy (at least not as explicit an investment – I’m amazed at how easy it is to get caught up in status and role) will find much that resonates and much more that challenges our assumptions about mission and ministry. So, if you’re interested in mission and missional forms of ministry (and many of us are), this is a book to read and engage. It will extend and expand your sense of what ministry can and should be about.