In America the church is owned by the clergy.
In the process of building religious institutions, we have created a power and ownership structure in which the clergy wield most of the power. They are now trapped into that role by history and by the arrangements locked in place by customs and laws intended to preserve the institutions. In fact, the “arrangements” keep the clergy in institutional power but make it increasingly impossible for individual clergy to carry out their mandate to be bearers of the religious mystery, to have religious rather than institutional authority.
That is what clericalism means. I don’t know of any church that would agree with my opening statement. That is why I have stated it so baldly. I want us to think about what we do, not about what we say we do.
As with any “ism”—sexism, racism, ageism—clericalism is not about what we say we believe. It is not about how we want to believe. It is about what we do. An “ism” is not about particular actions or conscious intentions. It is about a pattern of action, a stance of life that is under the control of larger systems of power that run counter, often, to what the individual genuinely believes he or she intends. This is why good-hearted, well-intentioned people can vote for a measure that will damage the rights of African Americans or Hispanic Americans and then say, “But I’m not a racist.” Similarly, few clergy or laypeople would claim to approve of a system of clericalism that maintains clergy as a privileged caste. “Isms” are about people—both perpetrators and victims of discrimination—getting trapped by the power systems around them.
Clericalism is an all-embracing assumption that shapes how we think about the roles each of us plays in the life of the church. It is about how we expect each other to act—a powerful expectation that we rarely talk about. Clericalism, for us in the churches, is like the water in which a fish swims. To the fish the water is invisible, its existence unacknowledged, but it constitutes the world in which the fish lives; it limits what the fish can do or be.
Among the characteristics of clericalism that indicate the present ownership of the churches . . .
Debate about what is and is not important to the institutional church is often couched in language of historic controversies and issues; the language of academic theology is the approved medium of conversation. Few laypeople have been educated in the language and history of the controversies, and they enter the debate significantly handicapped. Clergy insist that important issues be given “rigorous theological reflection,” often without defining what that means. Laity are asked to play that game if their ideas are to be taken seriously. In my experience working with clergy and executives making important decisions, I cannot remember ever actually having “rigorous theological reflection” brought into the decision-making. The decision seemed to be made with the same view of pragmatism, hope, and values that was used in nonclergy decisions. The term, however, is used to invalidate nonclergy input to the conversation. It reinforces the power of the clergy in making important decisions.
All the major denominations invest heavily in the training and education of clergy. They invest modestly, if at all, in the education of the laity. This disparity is dramatic in the churches’ very large investments in institutions of theological education. I see no institution of lay education in any denomination that represents the kind of spending of the most modest seminary. Seminaries of some denominations have far more endowment than the entire denomination. The long-term investments earmarked for future education of clergy suggest that the policy of focusing resources on the clergy is being set for generations to come. Per capita education costs for clergy have escalated, as have other costs in higher education. Costs per year of pastoral service have multiplied much more rapidly as older students look forward to shorter and shorter periods of professional service.
The relationship between clergy and the laity over the years has built chronic overfunctioning into the role of the clergy and underfunctioning into the role of the laity. The clergy have come to expect the laity to underfunction, and the prophecy is self-fulfilling. The laity has come to expect the clergy to overfunction, and this, too, is self-fulfilling. Neither finds it easy to challenge the depressingly self-replicating pattern of dependence.
During the last twenty-five years Loren Mead has become one of the formative teachers in my life. Two illustrations will suffice. In the 1970s he helped inspire—along with a handful of other leaders—a lively interest in congregational life. Out of their vision and pioneering work came new understandings of the congregation as a basic religious institution in North American culture. I have learned much from their work. Another more recent example of Mead’s spiritual midwifery is his role in the currently developing conversation about faith, money, and giving. Once again, he has been a pioneer.
Therefore, I pay attention whenever Mead clears his throat and says, in effect, “Friends, we have another problem that few of us seem willing to acknowledge, much less do anything about.” That is the message implicit in his reflections on clericalism. In offering these ruminations, he is continuing an ancient American tradition.
Worries about clericalism are nothing new. Consider, for instance, the situation of Protestants in this country some two centuries ago. As Nathan Hatch observes in his splendid book, The Democratization of American Christianity, “The fundamental religious quarrel of the late eighteenth century was not between Calvinist and Arminian [Methodist], orthodox and Unitarian, evangelical and freethinker, but between radically different conceptions of the Christian ministry.” The anticlericalists were concerned lest ministers act as though they were the church. Meanwhile, their opponents were no less zealous in protecting the clergy’s authority and status. These disputes produced not only countless manifestoes and tracts but also denominational splits and even new denominations. A thread of persistent anxiety about clergy-lay tensions—often hidden, sometimes very visible—runs throughout two hundred years of church history. Our ancestors, in short, were no strangers to warfare over clericalism.
Are we headed into a new chapter in that long-running story? Is clericalism the powerful juggernaut that Mead describes in his analysis? I don’t know the answer to either question. But one way of continuing this conversation is to find out more about the shape of clericalism in contemporary Christian churches in North America. Let me suggest a possible next step in that direction.
We could consult the rich array of congregational studies that have been conducted in the last two decades. What do these inquiries tell us about the nature of clericalism? Do they confirm Mead’s statement that “the clergy wield most of the power”? “I want us to think about what we do, not about what we say we do,” he writes. Very well, let’s look at the studies and see if they can tell us anything about “what we do.” I don’t know the outcome of such an inquiry. Maybe it would strengthen Mead’s point. Perhaps it would complicate his analysis. In either case, let’s find out.
Here are a couple of lead questions that might figure in this kind of review of available evidence. First, what about the congregational politicians who sometimes loom large on the horizons of some churches? The late James Hopewell of Candler School of Theology (and another pivotal figure in the small group that did so much to launch congregational studies in the late 1970s) referred to a lay leader in one Baptist church as the “Godfather.” The final capitulation of this imperious ruler was, in Hopewell’s words, “an epic scene that reminded observers of King John signing the Magna Carta.” While there may not be many congregational politicians as colorful and domineering as the “Godfather,” the presence of these people reminds us of the multiple ways lay folk sometimes exercise power in congregations.
A second question concerns the possible variety of power arrangements in churches that otherwise appear to be quite similar. The ethos of a congregation, so I have learned from Loren Mead, James Hopewell, and others, can make a considerable difference. Are there significant variations in the ways clergy “wield” power in different churches? Do local congregational traditions help explain those differences? Is there a noticeable spectrum of different blendings of clergy and lay power?
In brief, these are some of the possible questions that might be explored in the immediate future. Whatever we learn in this next step will then enrich any conversation about clericalism that develops in the twenty-first century.
Robert Wood Lynn, an independent researcher and consultant, is a member of In Trust’s advisory council.
Preaching from the Bench
by Wilma Ann Bailey
Until the middle of this century, most pastors in the Mennonite Church (M.C.) were of the “farmer-preacher” type. Congregations did not have one pastor but a “bench” of elders who provided leadership. The elders were employed full time in “secular” occupations and served the church without pay. The elders were chosen from the male members of the congregation by lot, and they served as elders for the rest of their lives. The individuals who were to preach on a Sunday morning were chosen that morning immediately before the service. Sermons were not to be prepared. It was believed that the Holy Spirit would provide guidance as to what was to be said. “Learned” sermons, meaning those that were prepared ahead of time, were frowned upon. Because the elder-pastors received no formal education, were chosen from congregational members, and practiced the same occupations as everyone else, there was in general no dichotomy in theological understandings between the elder-pastors and the congregational members.
In the 1960s, this pattern began to change as Mennonites left the rural areas for suburban and town locations. Mennonites entered institutions of higher education in large numbers and assimilated into contemporary American culture.
The Mennonite Church now has two accredited seminaries in the United States, and they have been credited with recovering the Anabaptist roots of the Mennonite Church. Pastors educated at the Mennonite seminaries tend to be more Anabaptist in their theology, more concerned about issues of social justice and peace and more ecumenical. But a minority of Mennonite pastors have had exposure to seminary level education. The latest statistics that I have available indicate that 12.9 percent of pastors ordained between 1987-91 had earned an M.Div. degree. A seminary degree is not a prerequisite for ordination in the Mennonite Church, and most Mennonite congregations are too small to support a full-time pastor who holds one. Further, having a seminary degree made a person “suspect” in the eyes of some congregations. The seminary-educated pastors often came from outside of the congregation, causing some members to be cautious in their acceptance.
Because many of our pastors, on the one hand, have not been exposed to a systematic study of Mennonite theology, church history, and biblical exegesis and hermeneutics and, on the other, have been exposed to mainline evangelicalism through the media and local evangelical activity, many feel more comfortable with evangelicalism than with Anabaptism. Seminary-educated Anabaptist pastors are confronting evangelical congregations that are less interested in Anabaptist distinctives in theology and praxis, such as the peace witness, and more interested in personal salvation and evangelism. Nevertheless, individual congregations hire their own pastors. There is no outside ecclesial structure that either appoints or directs the hiring of a pastor.
Clergy/laity language is not used in the Mennonite Church. Of all the chairs and presidents of major denominational boards, only one is a pastor. The polity of the Mennonite church works against clericalism.
The Mennonite Church does invest in its seminaries but neither one has a large endowment and neither is a power center of the church. The seminary programs are open to anyone who meets the entrance requirements, whether he or she is preparing for pastoral leadership or not. The church invests quite a bit in the laity, lay leadership, and congregational education through Sunday schools (which have “cradle-to-grave” classes each week), summer Bible schools, retreat and camp centers, conferences, the publishing house and Bible study groups. If all the opportunities for the education of lay people were put together, I would guess that much more is invested here than in the specialized education of clergy, although much of this “lay” education is not as rigorous as it could be.
I would have to say that clericalism is not an issue in the Mennonite Church today. Perhaps the opposite is true. Clergy need more support from the denomination and continuing education as they and our congregations strive to be faithful to the Anabaptist witness in a postmodern world.
Wilma Ann Bailey is associate professor of biblical studies at Messiah College and a member of In Trust’s advisory council.
by Elizabeth Patterson
Loren Mead is a student of the organizational church and has devoted his career to efforts at bettering its functioning. I want to take his charge seriously, but I have had some trouble understanding what the real problem is. The problem he identifies seems to be centered on the assumption of a complicit if not always intentional separation and privileging of the trained clergy as over and against an underfunded, therefore undereducated, laity who are excluded from church leadership by pastors who use “theological reflection” as a tool of isolation. I would question these assumptions, while supporting Mead’s concern over an underinvolved laity. First, regarding funding: there are some theological schools with very large, occasionally even massive, endowment funds. They are not the majority nor even a significant minority. The average theological seminary is dependent year to year upon a combination of annual funding sources; denominational funding is one of those sources but often not the largest. And as denominations find their own resources shrinking, the contributions to theological education are often cut and occasionally eliminated completely.
Lack of money drains resources and pushes schools towards decisions regarding enrollment, delivery systems, and new programs that may weaken their core educational mission.
Lack of financial resources also creates the situation of the commuter student who is trying to fund his or her education through full-time work and fits seminary in around the edges. My preference for a trained clergy would be more, not less—a situation wherein the whole person is shaped and mentored over a significant period of time with enough financial support to pay full attention both to the content and the character development required for a mature ministry. And this requires denominational support, including sufficient funding.
However, the root concern here is not so much an issue of clericalism but of professionalization. A society which increasingly pays others for the services it cannot or will not perform for itself is highly susceptible both to handing off responsibilities that ultimately should be the individual’s and to accusations of incompetence, irrelevance, or elitism when the person or system taking up that responsibility—however mistakenly—cannot create the desired end.
Indeed, one can identify similar current problems with all our value-transmitting systems. No human being, no system, can ultimately carry the weight of all expectations for wholeness, happiness, success, or meaning-making for others. My observation is that many clergy are staggering under the weight of expectations placed on them in the settings where this kind of dichotomizing is strongest. Mead is correct in his concerns at this point, but the diagnosis of clericalism masks the complexity of the problem.
Finally, I would question the apparent assumption that theological reflection is an irrelevant or an elitist exercise. People are hungry for meaning, and all of life has theological significance. There is nothing—no decision, no interaction, no challenge—that cannot teach us about God and open up the nature of God to us all. It may be that the starting point should be the stuff of a layperson’s daily life rather than the running of the church. It may be that a common vocabulary is needed. But the challenge of the church is forever more, not less, theological connection—for the renewal of the mind—and no clergyperson should be apologetic for attempting to lead her or his church in such a direction.
Elizabeth Patterson is director of accreditation and educational evaluation at the Association of Theological Schools and a former In Trust advisory council member.
Using What You’ve Got
by Price Gwynn
I disagree with Loren Mead. The condition he postulates can be found in our churches, but so can every conceivable leadership style and authority matrix. My disagreement is one of degree. He finds clericalism endemic. I think it’s rare.
His first characteristic of clergy superiority is language, and he offers evidence that the “the language of academic theology is the approved medium of conversation” and only the trained minister is fluent.
That is not my experience. At the conclusion of a speech a minister asked if I “believed in the verbal inspiration of the autograph.” I had no clue to the meaning of the phrase, so I asked the audience for a show of hands by those who understood the question. Fewer than twenty went up. Then I asked the minister if he could restate his question in such a way that the rest of us could understand it. The audience broke into applause.
This was clearly a clergy/laity test, one that I failed; in Mead’s words, a situation in which language was used to “invalidate nonclergy input,” but that didn’t happen. I didn’t feel excluded, or disenfranchised, or invalidated; in fact, we went on to have a lively discourse.
More important, this kind of test is not the rule but the exception. In hundreds of church appearances I can remember only three or four such confrontations. We Americans have learned not to be intimidated by guild jargon, else how do we associate with our doctors, tax advisers, and lawyers? I spent forty-five rewarding years in a business career without ever taking a course in accounting where the basic language is taught. I don’t claim ignorance as an advantage, for gosh sakes, but neither does it preclude policy participation.
Mead is worried that the escalating cost of a seminary education contributes to the creation of a clergy elite. His concern is authentic but his judgment misplaced. There are horror stories about individual student debt loads at graduation time, but students are paying a decreasingly lower percentage of what it costs to educate them. In the seminary where I serve as trustee, tuition and student fees represented 50 percent of the budget forty years ago. Today that number is 13 percent and dropping. We’re also adding more merit scholarships that provide a free ride, unrelated to need. Other graduate schools are already more expensive, and the proliferation of walk-in, day-school type seminaries makes affordability a nonissue. Such institutions may have problems building community, but it’s one of the cheapest master’s degree programs on the block.
I find Mead’s overfunctioner/underfunctioner scenario amusing. It has dark, menacing overtones, like the welfare cycle or the Malthusian spiral, or to borrow his word picture, a “depressingly self-replicating pattern of dependence.” That reminds me of the old joke where the preacher writes in the margin of his sermon notes, “Pound the pulpit here—this is the weakest point.”
While visiting a large urban congregation that had excellent programs for persons who were HIV positive, I asked the minister about its origin. “One night,” he said, “I told the missions committee that we had more persons suffering from AIDS living within ten blocks of our sanctuary than any other church in the state. ‘What do you propose to do about that?’ I asked. ‘Nothing,’ was the reply. ‘I just thought that you people ought to know, that’s all.’”
That night a member of the committee heard a call to ministry. It took a year and a half for the idea to come to flower, but I was looking at the result. Did the minister play a role in the creation of the that new local outreach? Absolutely. He recognized the need, judged it to be valid, and sowed the seed. Is this clericalism? Is it some form of Machiavellian manipulation of an unsuspecting laywoman by a word and sacrament type? Not in my book; rather it’s an illustration of ministerial leadership at its best.
As we finished the HIV support group tour, I said, “Who works with these people?”
“All hand-picked volunteers,” my host said.
“And how do they feel about this church?” I wanted to know.
He gave me a wide grin. “You couldn’t pry ’em out of here with a crowbar,” he said.
Wasn’t that a marvelous thing to say? It’s not the kind of remark you make about underfunctioners. Wouldn’t you love to have that said about you and your church? I sure would.
Price Gwynn is a member of the board at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education and of In Trust’s advisory council.
Cutting through Jargon
by Barbara E. Taylor
As the “layest” of lay people, I never realized that the phenomenon Loren Mead describes has a name. And yet, in my role as a trustee and consultant to the boards of many theological schools and church-related colleges, I have seen clericalism in action. Lay trustees frequently hesitate or turn off entirely during discussions of theology. Most of these board members are high achievers in their personal and professional lives, and it is easier and less ego threatening to defer to presumed theological experts. Too many clerics, intentionally or not, exploit this imbalance by speaking in coded “clericalese” rather than in more accessible language.
Having noted this, however, there is a corollary behavior apparent in these same boardrooms, in which the clerics “underfunction” while certain lay people engage in what we might term “layism.” I see this phenomenon most acutely in discussion and disposition of any business-related issue affecting the institution. Budgeting, endowment management, oversight of facilities, and even strategic planning can find clerics eclipsed by corporate executives who know the language of finance and strategy, even if they often misapply lessons from the corporate world to the seminary context. Put on the defensive by criticisms of academic practices, culture, and values that often are hard to justify in purely economic terms, clerics can be rendered as silent in these discussions as lay people are in exchanges about theology.
Implicitly, this division of authority and exchange of condescension provide each side with undisputed territory and ego protection. To wit, “If you are going to exclude me by talking about hermeneutics and never explaining what it/they is/are, I will retaliate by speaking in code about what Jack Welch is doing at General Electric and how it should affect the way the seminary is managed.” But if a board is to make sound, collective decisions, it cannot split the baby into theological and financial/strategic halves. It cannot pursue parallel agendas in which neither side is enlightened and constrained by the inescapable realities and limits of the other.
Too often, what we have is a standoff that undermines a board’s ability to serve the seminary effectively. What if, instead, lay trustees felt comfortable asking hard questions about the theological underpinnings of the curriculum and clerics felt comfortable challenging the assertion that GE has anything to teach an educational institution? We might see via that discussion some of the education of lay (and clerical) people that Loren Mead so correctly argues is missing. And by cutting through the jargon and being honest about our ignorance, we would be liberated to ask the “naive” questions that so often lead to decisions that are more considered, creative, and effective.
The genius of the broad-based governing board is the potential of a group of individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives to become greater than the sum of its members. Enabling this genius to emerge requires that board leaders, especially the chair and the seminary president, support the ability of the board as a board to make effective decisions. This entails striving for clarity and inclusiveness in board discussions, educating trustees about the full range of board responsibilities, assigning nonexperts to various board committees, and otherwise engaging all trustees in all aspects of board-level discussion and decision making.
On their face, these observations apply to only a small part of the world Loren Mead describes. However, it is an influential part that might serve as a model for church boards and, over time, for relationships between clerics and lay people more generally.
Barbara E. Taylor is managing director of Academic Search Consultation Service and a former member of In Trust’s board.