Clergy & Laity

In Bishop, Will Willimon says,

Because I’m a Wesleyan I believe that all church leadership, bishops or otherwise, is best rationalized on utility rather than by puffed-up theological warrant. Like Luther, I prefer a pragmatic rather than an ontological definition of pastors; claim too much theological chrism for the ordained cleros and next thing you know you have damaged the baptismally bestowed ministry of the laos.

In my assessment, the dichotomy between clergy and laity has been highly destructive of our church health. The more we elevate the status of the clergy, the more we emphasize their differences from the laity, the unhealthier we get.

Early American Methodism needed lay leaders in a way twentieth century Methodism did not. In those days, pastors covered a circuit, traveling from church to church. Day to day ministry, if it was to be done, was done by the laity. At the same time we were growing our clergy leadership base to the point where the norm became each pastor having a congregation, we were also cutting back our understanding of ministry to “what pastors do.” Ministry by proxy, “I’ll tithe [well, ok, maybe not a tithe, but I’ll give some of what I have left after I pay all my bills and get everything I want], and that will be my role; since I pay the bills, you can do the ministry, pastor!” became common.

Ever since reading Wesley’s Journal in my college days, I’ve been attracted to his pragmatism, his willingness to change, adapt and innovate to do whatever needed to be done to make disciples of Jesus. Collins & Porras in Good to Great identified two connected practices that characterized the great organizations they studied. First, these organizations were ruthlessly clear about their mission, their purpose. They knew why they existed. Second, these organizations were completely flexible about everything else in order to fulfill their mission. That sounds like a description that would fit early Methodist pragmatism.

In the past generation, we’ve been uncertain whether to pursue an ontological or a functional understanding of the nature of clergy. When we want to move closer to Rome, for either ecumenical or theological reasons, we lean toward the ontological. When we focus on our mission of making disciples, I believe we’ll lean more toward the functional.

Is there room for the ontological? I think there is, but I’d rather see our focus on ontological difference pushed away from the cleros and toward the laos as a whole. We are fundamentally changed when we come to faith in Christ, when we become willing participants in his story, and receive the gift of the Spirit. In this, there is no difference at all between clergy and laity.

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