I’ve said quite a few times that I think that the job description we have for a pastor in most churches is ungodly. It’s also inhuman. The pastor can’t do all of that, so many times they fail. Those who succeed do so through extraordinary talents, gifts, and dependence on the grace of God. But it’s very difficult to change.
That’s because we have a traditional set of responsibilities for a pastor, and usually an additional set for a particular parish or congregation based on the things previous pastors, fondly remembered in their absence, are said to have done. A pastor who fails to accomplish all of these things will likely be accused of not doing his or her job. Many of these traditions are not conscious ones. People simply assume that this is done. Let me give some examples.
A pastor I invited to speak at a conference had to back out. The reason? He had an out of town wedding he had not expected, and he had made a covenant with his church to be in the pulpit 50 out of the 52 weeks of the year. I do not, of course, want to suggest that the pastor should violate his covenant, but I have to ask why a pastor needs to be the one to preach that often. Of course, it is traditional that we hear only the pastor, or one of the ordained members of the pastoral staff, but why is this?
On the other hand, recently I have visited the United Church of Christ congregation (a new church plant of theirs) here in Pensacola three times. I have yet to hear the pastor preach. It’s not that he was missing. He was on the front row. But he hears other members of the congregation. I like that. I do hope to hear him preach some day, but he doesn’t feel bound by the tradition that the only time someone else can preach is when the pastor is absent, rarely, of course, and with good excuse!
Another Methodist church I know of had more than 30 lay speakers, many of them certified lay speakers. You would hear one or two of them preach in a year. If you had lay speakers speak too often, people would think the pastor was lazy. In lay speaker training I was told to expect to speak only rarely, which made me wonder why there was a certification program if the certified speakers were not to speak. I was told this prepared one for more involvement in church leadership. What leadership, nobody said.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, describes a church gathering. Here everyone comes with something, many of them wanting to speak. The problem is not getting activity, but rather controlling an excess of activity. I think that we fail in following 1 Corinthians 12-14 because we don’t have the same problems as the Corinthian church, but we think we do. We should be so blessed as to have the problems of the church in Corinth. Certainly one needs to solve those problems, but they’re easier to solve than apathy and inaction. Our tradition, the unconscious one, puts a big divide between the pew and the platform/pulpit and puts the activity “up” and inactivity” down. We expect information to flow from the pulpit/platform and are silly enough to think it will be absorbed by those in the pews.
What would happen if we spread things around? What if we heard from one another during the gathering of the saints on Sunday morning? I’d miss being able to hear my pastor on Sunday. I’m blessed to be in a church with multiple services with good speakers all around. Nonetheless, I don’t think they should be the only ones who speak when the saints gather. They need to equip the saints, all the saints, to study, think, and share.
Another tradition we have is that trained people think and speak about theology, while everybody else shuts up and listens. This probably feeds into the desire to always have the pastor speak. He’s the one who knows theology, after all. And I believe it’s important for the church to have people who have done serious study of theology and biblical studies to bring information into the discussion. But more importantly, the role of these people should be to guide and train the congregation into how to study and learn more for themselves. We have a hierarchy of knowledge as well as a hierarchy of power.
And it’s not just (or even mostly) people seeking power in the church that make this happen. It’s not that pastors are power hungry. I know many, many pastors who are not. But when they try to get people to become more involved, those people either don’t want to, or they agree to and then don’t put forth the effort. This is again because our unconscious tradition says that people with theological degrees are the ones who should think and talk about theology. It’s a dangerous tradition, and is one of the reasons so many church members can be swayed so easily on so many subjects.
I was stopped by a church member in the halls of one church who asked me how it was that people who wrote the notes for study Bibles got their ideas. She explained that she kept looking at the notes, and she figured they must be right, because, after all, those who wrote the notes were experts, but she just couldn’t figure out how. Could I explain? She even had an example ready.
She showed me her example, and quite bluntly, I thought the note completely emasculated one of the parables of Jesus, making it into a feel-good Twinkie rather than a solid serving of Brussels Sprouts. So I asked her, “Are you sure the note is right?” She was astonished! Now this was an educated, professional woman, but she simply hadn’t considered that she could disagree with the experts. I was able to point out that if she had another study Bible, written from a different perspective, the notes might say something different. Then what would she do?
I think we need to get rid of these “lessers” and “greaters” in our thinking. This is often referred to as hierarchy, and sometimes if we criticize that, we can be viewed as against order. But the problem isn’t leadership. There are those called to lead, though in Christian communities it should be servant-leadership. But in a “nation of priests” there is some sense in which everyone is called to lead, and everyone is called to follow.
I’m not talking here about church organizational charts. Some of the best servant-leadership I’ve observed was carried out by a United Methodist bishop. The chart may have said authority, and he was in no way afraid to lead, but his actions put Jesus in charge. I know of independent churches who try to erase the lines of hierarchical authority where nonetheless there is a very clear authority structure. It’s just that nobody admits it. I think that’s a sign of how hard it is for us to take responsibility for our calling and look to Jesus. It’s not so much the formal structure. It’s the attitude of those within.
It’s these unconscious traditions that need to be brought to light, examined, and discarded if necessary. Tradition can be a good thing. It’s the collection of assumptions about what must happen that gets in the way of doing the right thing.