What are the clergy for, anyway?


The title of this posting is not meant to be a rhetorical question. I have some ideas about the services that clergy provide. But my ideas may not be complete or accurate. I really do wonder--what value is added by the existence of the clergy within faith communities?

For those who are not familiar with Quakers, this might seem like a silly question. But "unprogrammed" Quakers have no paid clergy. I have a Quaker background, and one result of that has been that I carry with me a slight bit of residual discomfort when I attend traditional church services, particularly with the traditional Protestant model of the "preacher". In many Protestant churches, the sermon is more or less the centerpiece of the service. Sometimes, as I listen to a sermon, I look around at the congregation, everyone sitting passively in the pews, all facing in the same direction forward, listening to the words of wisdom delivered from on high, being strictly on the receiving end--and I wonder if this is what Christianity is supposed to be about.

This probably explains part of my disorientation as I attend church services. One might ask, given that I feel this way, why I just don't just settle into a Quaker meeting somewhere; and I don't entirely know the answer to that, except that I some time ago felt increasingly alienated from Quaker culture, and at some level I think I wanted more from a worship experience than just the traditional Quaker silent meeting. It's not that I don't see the value of the clergy; on the contrary, I see quite a bit of value in the roles that they play. The real problem, and I freely acknowledge this, is that I don't know what I want or what I am looking for. I am apparently ceaselessly spiritually restless, and nothing really satisfies. But that's another story.

That being said, what I do like about Quaker meetings for worship is the spontaneity, the improvisation, and the openly democratic nature of the service which can take an unknown direction, as each participant, equally granted the role of ministry, can listen to God and reveal what he or she has heard. It is an invitation to group mysticism. In a regular Protestant church service, on the other hand, there is a division of labor with respect to theological expression--there is the "preacher" who preaches, and the rest of the congregation, who listens. Outside of the sermon, "participation" in the service as a whole is scripted by whoever designed the program for that day, and everyone just follows along with the script; that means means singing along with songs, or reciting words, that have already been written out in advance. I have a hard time not thinking of a worship service as a form of scripted entertainment, albeit one that everyone gets to play a part in.

In a Quaker meeting, on the other hand, everyone is not just a performer, but a potential script writer as well, in ways that may end up surprising and delightful. Of course, that improvisation has its price, and the down side is that not everything that is said in a Quaker meeting is a pearl of wisdom. And if you are expecting entertainment value from a Quaker meeting, you are likely instead to be bored by all the silence.

The reality is, as I said, that I am not stuck in the Quaker mindset; I do see value in paid clergy. Pastors/ministers/priests have training and knowledge that gives them useful insights that can be shared with the community of faith. They offer a unique set of skills--from counseling to biblical exegesis to leadership to teaching. In some kinds of churches, they offer a sacramental role as well. And there are probably some other things that I can't think of.

The teaching function is what comes into play during the sermon. And yet, I think to myself, I don't always want just one teacher. Any one teacher offers just one perspective. Every teacher is inevitably biased in his or her own way, or has his or her limitations and unique set of experiences. So I think I would instead prefer to have many teachers, which would only be possible in the given church paradigm by flitting about among several congregations, taking in a little from this pastor here and a little from that priest there as I visit various churches. Of course, the price in that case is never really settling into a church home. But then, I am not sure that I would ever find a church home anyway.

For a while, I had this idea of identifying a circle of progressive churches that I would rotate through on Sunday mornings, as well as visiting a particular progressive church that holds services on Sunday evenings. This would allow me to taste some variety and experience the teaching value of multiple pastors, hopefully getting complementary experiences that will fill in some of the holes in my spiritual life. I imagined myself being a bit of a church slut. But my general disappointment with the progressive church experience in general has made this plan seem unfeasible. I found it hard to find Protestant worship services that worked for me.

Apropos of the role that preachers play, Kelly Fryer, a Lutheran pastor and blogger, recently referred to the following comment by Nathan Aaseng, a Lutheran pastor who, probably, has a much more orthodox theological perspective than my own:

So here I walk into seminary where preaching is considered not only a good thing, but the crown jewel of a pastor’s existence. I hear that preaching is a great responsibility and a privilege. It is the unique task to which a pastor is called and the primary way in which we are to witness to the message of the Gospel.

This posed a huge dilemma for me. My time in the pulpit is my best chance to communicate the message of the Gospel. Yet I know that preaching is a terrible form of communication. How can I stand up there and use a form of communication that I know to be disrespectful, amateurish, and ineffective?

The way out of this dilemma came to me in a quotation from a book in Dr. Martinson’s Pastoral Care class at Luther Seminary. It has stuck with me, even though I cannot remember which book it came from or even quote it exactly. The gist of it was: “The preacher is the person whom the congregation sends to the Scriptures on its behalf to see if God has a word to speak to them this week.”

Kelly Fryer, who also comes from a more orthodox perspective than my own, writes in response to this:
Instead of teaching pastors to preach, for example, we ought to be teaching pastors to TEACH people how to preach. That includes "sending them to the Scriptures" to listen for a word from God, as you say. It also includes encouraging them to be on the look out for God in their everyday lives...expecting them to NAME the God they meet out there...and giving them opportunities to TELL THE STORY of what happened when they get back together again with their brothers and sisters.
I see value in group mysticism, such as is offered by a Quaker service. I also see value in the teaching role that is afforded by the existence of trained clergy. I see value in silence; I see value in singing. I see value in structure; I see value in improvisation.

What indeed are the clergy really for?


Heather W. Reichgott said...

I think that collaboration and improvisation make for better sermons. I also know from experience that that takes a lot more work. At least if you want the sermon to be a deeper engagement with God, scripture and life than we normally get when we read or reflect on our own. Preachers (and teachers for that matter) sometimes have a desire to do something collaboratively, but they don't give the rest of the people enough of a heads-up to help them prepare--so the sermon (or class discussion) stays at a relatively superficial level.

But perhaps that expectation--that the sermon will be an exploration/proclamation of the word that's deeper than what one gets just by reading alone--is a peculiarly Protestant expectation.

Someday I'd love to be able to do collaborative sermons with a whole congregation who had all read and prayed and reflected on the Scripture ahead of time and were ready to be seriously engaged in proclaiming the word together.

I do think that some preachers have a gift of creating sermons that are fantastic works of art. Just as I love to read Pablo Neruda's poems without anyone else's lines interjected into the middle of it, I love to hear sermons like that all by themselves.

David Stoker said...

While I don't like everything in Mormon organization or Sunday services (I would love to see it more "improvisational" as our scriptures describe as the ideal) but I have always loved the participatory nature of Mormon congregations. At the local level there are no "clergy", everyone is equally a member of the community and the roles and responsibilities rotate around. I think this volunteer-based participatory program is one reason they have such a loyal constituency. I personally feel just as much "ownership" for the church as the president of the church, to strengthen the members of the church and to spread the good news of the gospel.

Mystical Seeker said...

Someday I'd love to be able to do collaborative sermons with a whole congregation who had all read and prayed and reflected on the Scripture ahead of time and were ready to be seriously engaged in proclaiming the word together.

That would be an interesting project!

Rowan The Dog said...

I think we are seeing the apex and beginning of the end of the clerical industrial complex. There really is no function for them. The church would do well to let go of it's "sacramental" clergy and start training parish administrators and teachers. They have to be independent agents, not beholden to a bishop or they continue not to have any credibility. Parish clergy don't have credibility because they are all beholden to a bishop... dedicated to their career not the gospel. I don't blame them...just saying that's the system.