a failed experiment

Today is my 6th anniversary with the people of Peace Covenant Church!

And I am looking forward to celebrating more anniversaries here, too. That’s a rarity right now, a testament to the grace and grit of my congregation. In the last year, 46% of pastors under 45 have seriously considered leaving ministry. I know at least a dozen who actually *have* left, and twice that many who are still seriously considering it. There are a million reasons for this exodus, and Melissa Florer-Bixler captures several in her article for Sojourners this week.

I spent about four years writing and directing a grant-funded program aimed at supporting part-time pastors. In the Church of the Brethren, more than 2/3 of all pastors work in part-time roles but every institutional practice, procedure and assumption has been based on the myth of a full-time, professional, seminary-educated pastor in every congregation since the 1950s. You hear that decades bandied about all the time as the heyday of the American church, but I can actually point you to documents – seminary theses and journal articles from the tradition – that argue for paying pastors as professional, cultural workers in order to “keep the church relevant.” In the ’50s, Brethren were making decisions explicitly based on how we could keep up with other, larger, more powerful Christian denominations. “Everybody else has got professional, educated clergy! We need it, too!”

The outlines of that argument are basically cribbed from the Bible, but not in a good way. When the Israelites burned through as many judges as they could, leader after leader trying to drag them back onto God’s path for their community, they got entirely exasperated and DEMANDED that God give them KINGS. “Every other important people group has got one, God,” they whined. “GIVE US A KING, TOO!” “We want to be LEGIT, a real, serious, earthly NATION.” (Seriously. Read 1 Samuel 8 – it’s all right there.)

That’s essentially what happened in the Brethren movement around mid-20th century: “we want to be a LEGIT denomination, like something that the National Council of Churches will take seriously. We’ll need infrastructure and commissions and legal standing, God, and while you’re at it, GIVE US SOME PASTORS, TOO!” For Brethren, at least, full-time, salaried, professional clergy was, at best, an interesting experiment that lasted 2 generations. Of course pastors are leaving. The experiment failed.

Churches don’t NEED pastors, particularly full-time, professional clergy – and we’ve got the historical chops to prove that. Especially in our low-church tradition of communal ecclesiology, there is no sacramental or hierarchical need to plop a professionally educated person into every small group of committed people who long to follow Jesus’ instructions together. For Brethren, at least, that is a manufactured desire, borne of a 20th century demand to be like everyone else.

Congregations DO need spiritual leaders, though, wise people versed in the complicated dynamics of people and power, committed people who promise to show up and keep showing up, prayerful people who can point to God at work in our midst, hospitable people reminding us that our call is to be living testimonies to the mercy and justice of Jesus. It’s just that we don’t need all those gifts to co-exist in one measly human being with a title.

Nancy Heishman, Director of the CoB Office of Ministry, says that if we were serious about noticing and naming the spiritual gifts of one another in our congregations and communities, we would discover that we already have all the leadership we need. I agree with her. Church is changing. The ways that God’s people live together in the world already looks different than it did 70 years ago. Institutions are crumbling and, like Melissa Florer-Bixler says, it was never our job to keep that from happening. God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and the Church will not disappear just because our human structures are forced to change.

Yes, all the pastors are quitting. And I, for one, think that’s great. Young people aren’t settling for this decades-old manufactured desire or the unhealthy labor practices of the church. Churches aren’t going to get away with outsourcing their discipleship much longer. We’ll have to put some real time and energy into understanding what, exactly, Jesus is calling us to do and to be, right here and right now. Which is, as I understand it, the whole, entire point of discipleship in the first place.

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