This is part of a series in which I’m reposting old blog posts to explore my current thinking on the ‘big stuff’. They were first posted in 2011/12. I’m aiming to write a reflection after each topic commenting on any evolutions since this point in history.
If you were to ask me what has changed the most in my thinking over the last decade, I would imagine the issue of church leadership would come up. Having been brought up in a system which relied heavily on a hierarchical leadership approach at both the local and global levels, and having recently finished working within for the Church of England, you probably aren’t surprised!
For many years, my single goal was to become a minister within The Salvation Army. It consumed me. It seemed to be what I was made for, what everything was pointing towards. But somewhere along the line, cracks began to appear as I wrestled with what I was learning, the shape that I felt I was being forced into. I remember particularly during my training period feeling totally confused about who I was, or perhaps more so who the Army was expecting me to be. I still believed in the importance of ordained ministry. I still believed that I had the necessary gifts to fulfil the role…but I had lots of questions about the way in which that role was to be exercised in the local context.
I had been trained to be the local leader of a church. I had been trained to be the preacher, the pastor, the evangelist, the caretaker, the Health and Safety Officer, the Accountant and the children’s and youth work leader. I had been trained in a system that made the church utterly dependent on the guy with pips on his shoulder – me. Somehow, it all seemed to be about me. If I was charismatic (in the dictionary defintion sense) enough, then the church would flourish, if not…if I couldn’t preach, lead great services…well then, it would be my fault if the church didn’t grow. I’d be held accountable – both by the church congregation but also by the regional and quite possibly national leadership too. You see, the way to thrive was to climb the ladder up the hierarchy, that’s what made a good officer.
This was my understanding, of course – it may be far from the truth. At the time at which we decided to move on from the Army, it was how my world was shaped…and I didn’t want any more of it. But not only what the Army saw as leadership, perhaps even more profoundly what the church had turned leadership into over the last few hundred years – the priestly model that Jesus seems to do so much to overturn in the gospels.
After working for the Anglicans, I guess I can only say that I feel even more strongly that ordained ministry is not the right shape for church. The time isn’t right yet to explain more about this, but I can say that where I saw church leaders who were passionate about equipping and releasing their congregations, that’s where I saw authentic, community focused growth. That kind of leadership – well, yes, that kind works…but for how long?
So where am I now? Well, I still feel strongly that the priestly model of ordination, particularly the ‘magic’ powers that sacramental tradition churches believe their ministers carry, is not the model of church leadership that we see in the New Testament. It seems more a relic of the assimilation of the church into the Roman religious scene at the time of Constantine than anything that has any real relation to how the earliest church seems to see church playing out. That somehow the ‘apostolic succession’ has anything to do with it makes everything a bit murky…particularly when we consider the many messy moments of church history that it relies on.
Having posted earlier in this series about church, I guess it doesn’t surprise you that I see leadership in a very different way. I see a community of people coming together to share life together, where different people with all sorts of different skills, gifts and talents share them in the life of that community. I see that being arranged around the breaking of bread together, with the ‘magic’ coming from the act of remembrance that takes place, not from any particular words or blessings. I do recognise that it is in our human nature to need people who are willing to speak up, who might be skilled in a particular facet of what has traditionally been seen as ‘ministerial’ duties.
I believe that all are called to be leaders in the church, in the sense of leading by example. I believe that all of us are called to be prophets, evangelists, teachers and pastors. I believe that although some will have particular strengths in one of those areas, it is the duty of every Jesus follower to live these things out.
I believe that what is even more important is that which happens outside of our Jesus focused communities. In other words how we behave in our workplaces, how we contribute to our local communities, ow we model the kingdom that Jesus calls us to be part of.
I believe that rather than having just one person, or even just a select few people who are trained in the art of exploring and communicating about the bible, all Jesus followers need to be deeply rooted in it, in the sense of understanding it as being the way in which we connect with the God story and how we might understand God to be at work today, as well as in the past. That means that all voices are listened to, not just a few. It means that no-one is the expert, all are simply students of the Father.
That means that everyone has to step up to the plate. There are no passengers (how many more cheesy metaphors can I employ?!). All are involved in the incredibly task we have been given to share the good news and be part of God’s re-creation plan.
This will be messy. It’ll be incredibly stressful. It’ll also be incredibly creative, incredibly empowering and have an incredible impact.
A community the embraces this, well, the potential is massive. But it has to be DNA…otherwise, like so many Jesus movements that have floundered, we become more interested in maintaining the status quo than being the missional people of God.
That, I think, is what we’re called to be and do. That’s the adventure. That’s the challenge.
One which I hope I’m taking up…