Is Clergy Essential for Church?

This is a question I just want to throw out there for discussion: Is Clergy Essential for Church?

Over the years there has been a lot of talk in emerging church circles about viral growth, about the limitations of institutional forms of organization and the necessity of shifting towards more organic forms of organization. If we are to unleash the exponential growth potential of the Christian movement, that is. Often in these discussions the Chinese house church movement is invoked and concepts from Malcolm Gladwell book’s, The Tipping Point,” are introduced. Concepts like “stickiness” which is, to put it crudely, basically about stripping things down so they are more easily reproducible. Along with this there is usually some rather pointed questioning about leadership, about the way clergy-based leadership structures slow things down. All very well and good I say.

But, almost invariably I find the most prominent voices in these discussions are seminary trained. They dream of more organic forms of leadership, which is commendable, but as it stands they are actually incapable of modeling it. Not through any fault of their own, mind you, but just because they are who they are, they can’t help the fact that they are themselves seminary educated, products of the very institutions they critique.

This all begs the question, with all this talk, have leaders started emerging from beyond the confines of the institution? Is there any evidence that a more organic Christianity might one day be a living reality in the old stomping grounds of Christendom? Well obviously there is some; there are people like me for starters. But the sobering reality is, while I have learned the ropes beyond normal institutional contexts, I don’t think my “theological education” has been any quicker or is any stickier in comparison.

And I find it ironic that, as a non-institutionally educated leader, it can be hard to get a word in edgewise with all the institutionally educated leaders talking about the need for non-institutionally educated leaders, though there are some, like Alan Hirsch, who can look beyond my background or lack thereof.

But it makes me wonder. In China, deinstitutionalized leadership was no option. Hell, many of the house churches there considered themselves lucky if they possessed a complete copy of the Bible, let alone seminary educated leaders. But what if they had had a choice? As we do? It makes me wonder if organic church can thrive in the shadow of institutional church, or whether institutional collapse is a necessary precondition, and that short of that it will struggle for legitimacy. It also makes me wonder to what extent non-clergy leadership should even seek legitimacy.

9 thoughts on “Is Clergy Essential for Church?

  1. I like the idea of non-clergy Church. (I’ve explored possibilities somewhat)… But: would not any leader just end-up being clergy? I mean, in someone’s eyes, eventually.
    Even in the most egalitarian community I joined, the founders became gurus… not because they did anything but somewhere, in our minds, “the laity” (including me) expected it of them. We demanded of them in emergencies the things “regular” communities expect of their clergy.


  2. You raise a big question, and one that is impossible to discuss, never mind “answer” in the confines of a blog comment. A mailing list (reference to an earlier post of yours) might provide a more adequate format for discussion, but to discuss it adequately one needs to examine all sorts of presuppositions one might be making about “church” and “clergy”. What do you meen by those things? And the answers would also depend to a considerable extent on your ecclesiology.
    So let me say how I see it. To me “clergy” are people who are in full-time paid ministry in the church, very often in a situation in which a particular model of ministry is described as “the” ministry, so that other ministries are either undervalued, or are seen as aspects of “the” ministry so that “the” minister is seen as a kind of one-man band, trying to play all the instruments in the orchestra. As Juan Carlos Ortiz, from Argentina, once put it, it leaves the church looking a bit like a football match — 22 thousand people who desperately need exercise watching 22 people who desperately need rest.
    Have you ever read a book by Roland Allen, Missionary methods: St Paul’s or ours?”. I’ve been trying to apply what he says for most of my life, and battling against clericalism uphill all the way.
    And in some traditions “the” minister is the pastor, in others the priest, or in others (like Methodists or Presbyterians) “the minister”, but whichever model is followed, they have one thing in common: the minister rather than multiple ministries.


  3. I am afraid I only have questions here Steve. The more I look into it the more I realize I know nothing. I once thought I knew a lot more, I was once quite anarchist in orientation, but I’ve become more sobered with experience. I don’t believe in leaderless church, I do believe we need leaders, (humble leaders sure, but leaders nevertheless) and trained is preferable to untrained. But so much training misses the mark, and I dispair at how unmissional many of professionals (ie paid clergy) are. But then am I really doing any better? What have I really got to show for it? I am not sure about anything some days.


  4. Well, I’ve been throwing a few questions back, for clarification, as it were. You do have some answers, like that you believe leaders are necessary — but then what kind of leaders? And if they need training, what kind of training? But the training needs to be related to the kind of leaders they are. For more on that, though, check my blog and search for “zemblanity”.


  5. Matt you say “But so much training misses the mark, and I dispair at how unmissional many of the professionals are”…
    Oh yes as one who struggled against ordination for years ( and lost)…I agree, much of my training has been irrelevant as far as real mission is concerned.
    I think Steve’s questions about what kind of leaders are extreemly important…
    we need leaders who are equippers and facilitators not heavy handed experts.
    Steve says “And in some traditions “the” minister is the pastor, in others the priest, or in others (like Methodists or Presbyterians) “the minister”, but whichever model is followed, they have one thing in common: the minister rather than multiple ministries. ”
    I guess the challenge has to come then as to how the minister relates to the church, where do they see their role- for me the whole call is to do with equipping the layity- and scarily I don’t think I could have done as much by remaining a lay-worker… arrrgh!!!


  6. Steve, yes I agree there are perils even in outcomes based learning when outcomes are specified too narrowly. I wonder if I was to submit to formal theological education how the system could ever properly teach and assess someone like myself. So much of what it focuses on is of little interest to me, and so much of what I care about is beyond its field of attention. A perfect example is what is offer in Morling College in Sydney in terms of studying other religions. Phil Johnson teaches an introductory course there, but only an introductory course. Nothing more is on offer – the college obviously sees no need – and heaven help someone like me who specializes in western esotericism rather than one of the, more well known, world religions. So why should I bother when I can get far deeper teaching from Phil in the field, one on one? I could say much the same for mission; cross cultural communication is an elective. In a society as pluralistic as ours that’s laughable. Ministers are coming out of colleges with far less understanding of pluralism and relativism and post-modernity that I who have never attended (except for the counseling course I recently took up). And as Alan has pointed out repeatedly, there is still an overly heavy emphasis on producing pastors and teachers over apostles, prophets and evangelists. How can pastoral types truly stretch apostolic types in such a formalized environment? Yet to go independent is to invite spurning by the system. You won’t see me being invited to conferences to speak on mission amongst post-moderns anytime soon, despite the fact I have more runs on the board than most ministers and am welcome amongst world experts, simply because I have no legitimacy in terms of the system. That this is true even in terms of emerging church conferences says to me that the hope of a post-Christendom church is a long way away yet.


  7. Matt,
    You raise a lot of important points, and I’ve got to go, to a meeting of teachers at our Catechetical School, where we’ll be discussin g what to teach – what zemblanity!
    So just a quick comment or two. One is a proposal from the same friend who spoke about the “curriculum-centred curriculum”. He suggested that people entering full-time Christian ministry should be given vouchers at the outset for three years training at a theological education institution of their choice, redeemable at any time over the next 20 years.
    And when I was Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican diocese of Zululand I plugged in-service training in preference to pre-service training, for both church-supperted and self-supporting ministers, for the same reason. If you learn something before you need to apply it, you forget it. The only pre-service training that is needed if learning how to learn; what to do when you don’t know what to do. And that can be done in a week, because if you haven’t applied it within a week of learning it, you never will.


  8. Matt,
    What you’re talking about, of course, is what CovenantClusters is all about: freeing the church from the bondage of “paid clergy/consumer members” and equipping/discipling the saints for the work of ministry (APEST-style).
    It requires tremendous intentionality and restraint and submission and humility and patience and cooperation with the Holy Spirit–but I know that this is what the Lord has been preparing me for over the past 35 years…and even found a way to “ordain” me so that I could get over the fact that people think it is important, not God, and that I could move away from that whole hierarchy model.
    This by no means signals anarchy or laxity. On the contrary, it calls for significant sacrifice and discipline and accountability–extreme liminality! And one of the challenges facing some of the leaders in the Chinese church–now that the Western church is engaging with them–is that they are wanting to move away from their liminal state of dependence upon the Holy Spirit and engage us to help make ministry easier…but it is not about more dollars and materials–and that is not the right path.
    I have way too much to say about this…but it is time for sleep here! We’ll connect more about this…especially after I return from the Missional Order Gathering next month!


  9. Things breed themselves. Institution can not help but breed institution. If by clergy we mean those leaders who are paid to do ministry, we must realize something: Many of these people are truly gifted and called by God to leadership. They teach, lead and so on and so forth. Then the institution comes on. You know what I mean : Maintaining the status quo, providing a groundskeeping type role (not literal groundskeeping of course). The reason they are paid is to maintain the institution. They have submitted themselves to the call of the spirit but then are closed up in a traditional institution. So the question is not about leaders, but about what the institution does to those leaders. We build these buildings, these institutions but in the end they hurt us and limit our ability to serve God. The institution should serve us and we should serve God, not we serve the institution and god serves us. We raise money to build new gyms when the poor are dying. We take gifted and called leaders and limit their god-given role by making them clergy. That is what it comes down to.


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