Friday, September 29, 2006

Clergy: solution or problem?

Thomas Friedman wrote a great editorial in the Friday September 29 NYT's that keeps echoing in my mind. In it he says that one of the key differences between Islam and Christianity is that Islam has no pope, no clerical hierarchy and Christianity does. So when one rogue pastor spouts off some racist diatribe, his or her denominational supervisors (superintendents, bishops, execustive presbyters, etc.) can step in and say they disavow the speach and they can discipline heterodox and heretical speech. Not so with the Islamic mullahs, over whom there is no hierarchy. They are the ultimate independent clergy, who are as authoritative as the crowds they can command (Joel Osteen anyone??).
The thing that got me thinking was about the role of the professional religious persons in our society. Are we part of solution making or problem stirring? It's interesting that a number of reforming movements in history are anti-clerical (French Revolution for one, Communism for another). Does Greg Boyd's book on "The Myth of a Christian Nation" carry more weight when he focusses on on the necessity of divesting ourselves of "power over people" and instead adopting Jesus' method of "power under people" in servanthood and sacrifice?
In a conversation today with a person who asked me to attend a parachurch dinner, he asked me how I should be listed in the program? I asked him how he was listed. He said by his first and last name. For the first time I asked if he would just list me as "Don Johnson." No "Rev." or "Pastor" or "Sr. Pastor", just me. I really want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.


At 9:32 PM , Blogger Gary Means said...

Don, recently I've been thinking about the role of the pastor, and of the pastor-centered Sunday morning worship event and the pastor-centered church structure. I've been looking into the subject of the exodus from the institutional church, and the growth of the unchurched church movement. I suspect that most pastors would respond that the church has a Christ-centered church service and structure. But our churches are so incredibly dependent on the Pastoral staff. You are the answer man, the decision-maker, the coordinator, the counselor, the strategizer, etc, etc. And of course, everything that is wrong with the church is ultimately blamed on the pastor at some level.

As I listen to pastors who now consider themselves unchurched and find that their walk with God is more vibrant than even before. Many comment that because they can now be more transparent and do not have the baggage of being perceived as "the Pastor", their influence in other people's lives has actually deepened.

The proponents of this movement claim that half of all professing Christians in America are unchurched - their definition being that they have not been inside a church within the past six months except for holidays, weddings, or funerals.

Yet, as much merit as some of their ideas or concerns may hold, I still have gratitude for the influence in my life of men who serve or have served God as pastors. In particular, I remember Carl Taylor of Interbay Covenant in Seattle, (now in Buffalo, Minnesota) who taught and lived what it means to walk as a humble, sincere, imperfect child of God. There are other pastors that I think of whose words have challenged and/or encouraged me over the years. Could this have happened if there had not been a pastor-centered Sunday morning event? I think so, but I am not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The current pastor-centered system is flawed, but any system involving human beings will be defective. Still God can, and will, use it. Sometimes in stunning ways.

For more information on those who consider themselves to be active Christians, but chose to do so outside the organized church structure, check out this website:


The emphasis of my response may not have perfectly matched your questions, but it's what came to mind for me. thanks for asking the questions.

At 9:32 PM , Blogger Gary Means said...

sorry that my comment was so long. Verbosity is my middle name.

At 6:34 AM , Anonymous Kent said...

Titles like clothes are simply items I inhabit. They do not so much form me as I for them. If I am called reverend or pastor it is how I function, it is the attitude and bearing that I convey, not the title. Do I come to be served or to serve. Are titles something other offer or something I clutch? If I wear them lightly they do not become a problem.

At 1:59 PM , Anonymous Isaac Johnson said...

I think like Kenton does. Titles are a way to clearly identify your role situationally. So sometimes I'm just "the computer guy". Other times (earlier in my life) i was "the P.K.". And every now and then, I'm "boss".

I've used the analogy of hats before (because my former boss loved that analogy). He'd say "I'm wearing my customer hat" or "my dev services hat". or whatever mindset he was trying to act in.

I think there are times people really need someone with a "pastor" hat. They need to talk to an intercessor to the Almighty.

Other times you likely wear the "comforter" hat, the "truthful friend", and "spiritual advisor" hat. And we haven't even covered the hats you share with many others (Father, Husband, [Political Affliliation], American, Old Geezer... etc.

So I wouldn't get too caught up in anti-church hype that wants non professional pastors.

i personally wouldnt trust a laypastor because i would question their qualifications, motives and experience. Not to mention, in a flat non-heirachical religous system, there is a lot of room to flux and if no one is in control, what really defines that religeon? What core beliefs are fixed and which are flexed?

At 6:37 PM , Blogger Gary Means said...

Isaac, I share many of your points. However, I was perplexed by the concept of pastor as intercessor to the Almighty. That idea makes me very uncomfortable. What does that idea do to the scriptural references to the priesthood of all believers?

as for the qualifications, motives, and experience of a pastor, I have seen pastors with a great deal of education, the best intentions, and years and years of experience, but with little depth. I have respect certain individuals because of the way they live out their calling, and express their giftedness as pastor, but that is a very different thing from attributing honor to a man or woman simply because they have an MDIV or even a Doctorate in Divinity.

Most of the people I know of who are leading the charge, so to speak, toward the unchurched movement are pastors, and they are not so much against something as they are for something they see as being better. They personally find more freedom in their relationship with God and others outside of the strictures of the heirachical, religious system. And my impression is that the 50% of Christians who no longer attend church in America are necessarily anti-pastor or pro-laypastor as much as they are anti-church-as-corporation, or as-self-righteous, political institution, or as superficial social-club for people who just want a weekly religious "fix".

That being said, I personally feel more at home in a body of believers who chose to affiliate with one another in a formal, legal manner, and who gather weeking for a pastor-centered worhsip event. If I could do that in my community I would. Unfortunately, for the most part, my choices consist of fundamentalist congregations. I currently attend a Baptist church that no longer uses the word "Baptist" in their name for marketing reasons. But our family is veru frustrated by the lack of any sense of direction regarding where we should be involved.

I think that's the reason why I continue to meet weekly with a group of refugees from a church split where we experience authentic relationships, where emotional and spiritual healing is taking place, and where there is meaningful fellowship which extends beyond one day of the week. We are not affiliated with any church, although we all attend churches. What ties us together is our common love for Christ, and our desire to be there for one another. One member of the group is a pastor. He and I co-lead the group. The intent is not to replace the institutional church, but to be the church for one another.

Sorry that I have gone on so long. This is a hot-button issue for me.

At 9:03 PM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Gary and Isaac; I enjoy your sidebar conversations more than the original blog I wrote. you both got me to thinking about the necessary hat/role that needs fulfilling (look for a policeman's car or a doctor's white coat, or the logo'd shirt of a salesperson) and investing the coat/hat with innate power. There is a function or realtionship that needs validating in order for the clothing to have any meaning (that movie with Leonardo DeCaprio about different identities). Anyyas, thanks!

At 4:21 AM , Blogger Theodora said...


Very interesting post and discussion. I'm one of Gary's friends and found your site because of his link.

This is also an issue of deep interest for me, though I hardly feel qualified to address that here. For a little background, however, as an Episcopalian, it has been the clergy whom I have most trusted---because they ARE clergy, and therefore (presumably) EDUCATED and trained in their profession (which is SO much more than just a "role." And, like Isaac Johnson said, I tend to agree:

"i personally wouldnt trust a laypastor because i would question their qualifications, motives and experience. Not to mention, in a flat non-heirachical religous system, there is a lot of room to flux and if no one is in control, what really defines that religeon? What core beliefs are fixed and which are flexed?"

That said, as you probably know, the Episcopal church is in so much turmoil of late that that inherent trust of "those in charge" has been rather shaken for me. However, there's nothing (or not much!) at the moment to replace this role of the clergy for me. Those in "fellowship" may be sincere--or even caring people--but they're all living busy lives and there's no implied responsibility to "minister" to one another---especially when in crisis. Hence...back to a basic NEED for those who HAVE taken on that responsibility, as hard as that must be to do. Will be thinking more about this one! Thanks for the link, Gary!


P.S. FWIW...our local congregation is presently offering an overview of world religions. Based on that VERY limited information about Islam a couple of weeks ago, I'd caution against accepting what seems to be a description of ONE part of Islam...the Shiites? versus the Sunnis, who vest the "authority" of the mullah in the group. I don't know how that works, but I'd think that somehow the GROUP could take back its imprimatur of authenticity if the mullah was going off separately---i.e. to disavow what was said??? I think what you mentioned from the article was actually an "imam"--different source of authority.

At 7:39 AM , Blogger Bruce said...

In the churches I've been involved with, it's the pastor that sets the whole atmosphere and attitude of the church, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not. It's that "power over people" thing you mentioned. The pastor influences staff hiring (a music guy may have some great ideas but if he "can't work with the pastor then he isn't a good fit here"). The pastor has influence over structure, vision (or lack thereof), power groups (the big givers??), worship, and how the money is spent. We (the members of the church) give the pastor a lot of this control, and we just don't want to know what is going on unless there is a problem.

Interesting discussion. Enjoy your blog (found you through Gary...blame him.)


BTW - the key difference between Islam and Christianity is grace.

At 8:00 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Dear Theodora and Bruce; You make an important insight that a group does need someone trustworthy to lead it. If there are no trained leaders, leadership emerges from within, and not always well trained and qualified, but more by default. When the officially trained leaders don't deliver the goods, where does a congregation turn? I think the parachurch organizations have responded to the void with things like Promise Keepers, Community Bible Studies, BSF, the Fellowship because the church and pastors have been too busy minding the store and keeping the bureacracy afloat.

At 2:05 AM , Blogger David McQueen said...

I think we place way to much emphasis on pastor's authority today. Frank Viola has written a sound exposition of this problem here.



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