Friday, August 01, 2008

pastors, ordination, being "bought" and validation of ministry

I do believe that congregations are commanded in scripture to set aside their leaders and I see the wisdom in commending that ordination to other congregations as a reason to consider a man worthy of recommendation. Of course, I wish my tradition took some aspects of ordination more seriously, as we are famous for laying hands on teenagers and people who don’t understand the Gospel at all.

But there’s one aspect of ordination I really do appreciate on a very personal level. When a congregation ordains you, they are setting you aside to serve them, yes. But they are also saying, “He belongs to us. We bought him, and until he proves himself unworthy of our confidence, he’s ours. Even when he leaves, he can still come back and know we signed his papers.”

My uncle was a pastor for almost fifty years, and he built one of the largest churches in our community in his day. But I remember that he always talked about his first church- the church that ordained him- as special. He didn’t brag about the big church when he needed to remember who he was; he recalled the country people who “bought” him as a young pastor, and took on the task of being his first church.

But what we cannot do, at least in my view, is claim to be dispensing Jesus ourselves, or to be directing God’s promises as if Jesus were a substance. We can’t point at the front of the church and tell people to come to a place, or do a ritual or express worship in a certain way and speak as if the presence of Jesus appears as a result.

I will explain why I link these two quotes in a bit, even though their relationship seems self-evident and self-explanatory.

This intrigues me because depending on how the nature of church government the congregation doesn't ordain anyone at all. In an elder-ruled church the elders alone decide who is ordained and what constitutes being called. It is common in charismatic and Pentecostal churches to refer to seminaries as "cemetaries". The old saw is that the church isn't "alive", whatever that may mean. Not that there aren't dead and dying churches but sometimes I believe "alive" means nothing more than "I like this" in a church.

As a pure platform for pondering, when Paul wrote to Timothy not to lay hands on people too quickly and thus participate in their sin could Paul have been writing that no one should be too quickly ordained for ministry? It might be included in that admonition. Spenser's observation that his denomination has laid hands on teenagers and people who don't understand the Gospel. Perhaps we have too many pastors in the world, men and women who have been installed as shepherds who do not really have a heart for shepherding so much as for preaching and teaching? The three are not necessarily the same. A person may be a gifted church plant and a terrible shepherd. This doesn't mean that the person isn't called or gifted by God to plant churches and preach the Gospel, but it may mean the person shouldn't have a shepherding role or be an overseer/presbyter in the sense of having substantial administrative power (or responsibility).

It's that ordination is recognized by others and not just the self that interests me. When Paul first met Christ it validated him as an apostle but he recognized that if the other apostles found fault with the gospel he preached it would be a problem. Paul's ministry was not purely self-validating, it was validated by apostolic agreement as to his calling and the recognition of the body of Christ that the man who formerly killed and persecuted Christians was preaching about the way.

I hear about the folks who think seminaries are cemetaries but overall I'm not sure I buy it. As Dostoevsky put it in his great novel, young men are willing to die for causes they believe in but that's the easiest sacrifice for them to make. Ask them to spend five or six years of their burning hot youth in tedious study and isolation and that for a task that may be thankless and you'll see how quickly their ardor cools! One of the advantages of a long and tedious ordination or pastoral installment process is that it helps weed out people who are unfit or don't want the job. So how long should that process be? Probably long!

A pastor once said the problem with denominations and seminaries is they tend to call the trained and that churches need to train the called. That is something I agree with, though I note that even within this perspective the argument is that the called should be trained. But how do you actually recognize that someone is called? If it were that simple to determine who is really "called" to ministry then wouldn't we not be at the point where people joke that seminaries are cemetaries? And don't we still have the paradox that people whose calling is self-identified and self-validated end up in ministry?

At the point that pastors have to be fired or defrocked the denomination plays a crucial role. They have to decide that someone is unfit for ministry and they have jumped through enough hoops to reflect the doctrines and practices of the church. In non-denominational settings this is a more mercurial, dicey prospect. In a congregationally led church, obviously, the congregation can decide to fire a pastor. In an elder led church the congregation is essentially there to pay the leadership to make whatever decisions the leaders think fitting without respect to the will of the members. It could be construed, in cases where things may not be ideal, as a somewhat parasitic relationship in as much as that pastors can ask for money to make decisions the congregation may not understand or be made privy to.

Of course provided the decisions are brilliant this isn't a problem. I have of late come to appreciate that an advantage denominations have is that there is a multidirectional level of accountability. A church leadership team that goes astray will lose parishioners or members. Members who stray may be barred from community. In a healthy church this accountability will be omnidirectional. In an unhealthy church leadership is beholden to the congregation to the point that the Gospel gets compromised or the Gospel gets compromised by leadership who push for goals or agendas that are not central to the Gospel.

In an indepedent, non-denominational church this can be problematic for the simple reason that if all the elders at said church hold each other accountable they may still be blind to their own flaws as a leadership team or, even if they have no flaws as a leadership team (and here I insert a respectful "as if") the congregation's flaws become issues. A godly king in Israel would still be noted as permitting the idolatry of the people. One or two kings started off great but went astray after losing key guides, becoming marks for the praise and acclaim of local nobles and getting buttered up to permit local idolatries to bloom again.

Which is to say that a church like this that has no external accountability will become unhealthy, supposing itself to be on the right path when it may not entirely be on the right path. A church without internal accountability will go off the rails but internal accountability is not enough, external accountability is needed. This can come in various ways but perhaps the best macro-level example of this is the denominational system, however it may work out. Rather than think in terms of how "dead" denominations are, think about how many centuries have elapsed for those churches to get to this "dead" state. That's a long time. Consider the life and death of a single non-denominational independently led church? If such a church dies in a city and no one is there to note it's passing did it happen? Yeah, but it is unmoored from the very history it may have been founded to preserve. Note, I'm not really arguing that all churches have to be denominationally linked, I'm just noting that for my church background it was easy to rip on denominations for reasons that now seem a bit loopy.

The least credible argument against denominations for me now is the idea that they install people who aren't called. Years ago iMonk posted an article by a pastor who wrote that if you don't wake up in the morning and think to yourself, "Woe is me if I don't preach the Gospel" then you shouldn't be a pastor. I'd say I agree with that and even that may not indicate what KIND of pastor you ought to be.

I'm thinking lately about one of these nondenominational pastor-run churches. If all the pastors are self-nominated and they as a group ordain each other isn't there some risk that they may mess something up as a group? Is there sufficient internal and external accountability in such a setting? I hope so, I really do, but I have doubts because some of the craziest stuff that's happened in American religion happened in these sorts of settings where the nobles, as it were, bowed low to the king of a spiritual empire and that led the king to go off the rails. Perhaps the first rule of spiritual submission to Christ is never believe your own hype. The first person to do that ... well, we Christians know who he is. It's a risk in even the best of settings, which calls for plenty of prayer.

If a pastor gets fired from one of these churches where everyone is self-nominated and is installed by people who are self-nominated are there sufficient external checks? Do there need to be any? If that pastor gets fired by a community who have the same sort of self-validated calling the fired pastor has then what becomes the basis for removal? Definite sin? I hope so. Disagreements about the nature of bureaucratic procedure? Not quite so sure about that one. For me the conundrum is that this group of leaders consists of self-appointed leaders who appoint each other. There's a feedback loop of affirmation and agreement. It may have a risk to it is what I'm saying.

Each system has its problems but the more time goes by the less I am persuaded that the alternative to denominations does a better job of keeping out people who decide they are pastors because it would be a cool thing to do. The reason for the "cool thing to do" might be for the acclaim, for being called "pastor" or for not having to work that much during the week and speak for forty minutes or something like that. The reason might even seem to be a great reason. Jesus said let no one call you "Father" or "rabbi" but there's a principle at work that goes beyond that. You can want the acclaim and respect whether or not you have the title. You don't have to actually BE a pastor to have that problem. If you think that just because you're you that you deserve respect and esteem you may have the same spiritual problem without having the formal title that, in worldly terms, would at least warrant the formal signs of respect.

Well, I'm running out of steam. PErhaps I'll ponder this via blog entry later, perhaps not.


Quinault said...

Great article on the call no man father issue.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yep, and it resembles some Catholic responses on the issue, too. Thanks for the link. I may be Protestant but I do think lately that even Protestants must have had a less literal and more nuanced approach to the text.