A Missional UM Future: Path 4: Strengthening Clergy and Lay Leadership

Part 14 of 21...

Path 4: Strengthening Clergy and Lay Leadership

Leadership is critical in any enterprise. As Jim Collins and many others have pointed out, it is not enough to have the right techniques-- what is needed is the right people, the people who care passionately about getting done what needs to be led with excellence. To focus efforts on strengthening the leadership capacities of lay and clergy leaders can be a very good thing for the life of our church.

The United Methodist Church already has no shortage of programs and proposals for doing just that. The Texas Annual Conference has developed a Center for Clergy Excellence which is aimed at helping "to set standards for pastoral leadership in local congregations" and holding pastors accountable for ongoing growth in excellence. Other annual conferences are looking closely at what is happening here, and developing processes to ensure similar outcomes in their settings. The Florida Annual Conference has a Center for Clergy Excellence as well. Conversations about how to move ineffective pastors into other careers with both clarity and compassion have led to the development of at least one piece of legislation that will be considered by the upcoming General Conference. Meanwhile, GBOD, GBHEM and other agencies sponsor a wide variety of programs to train and support laity in ministry-- including Lay Speaking Ministries, Certified Lay Ministry, and a variety of other certification/training programs for specialized ministries.

The question we need to raise, to discuss, and perhaps begin to answer if we are working for a missional UM future is... strengthen these leaders to do what?

Let me make some bold and assailable proposals. I hope they are bold enough. And I hope they will be assailed.

But first let me offer something of the background for why I'm making these proposals.

If we're trying to recover or retrieve or create in our own day the kind of "network church" (or connexion, as Wesley would have said) that characterized early Methodism and that reflects a missional understanding of church in our current contexts, one of the first things we need to do is be clear about what different kinds of institutions, and so their leaders, can and cannot do well.

Congregations are and have been (since at least the sixth century) public institutions. They do public things very well. Thus, congregations historically have been at their best in offering vital public worship connected to the depths of our faith, teaching the core doctrines of the faith, and being a hub of connections in the institutional life of communities. As essentially public institutions, they have also been, at their best, models of inclusivity in the community. Though not everyone in a community may have had equal power, through most of Christian history since the creation of the congregational format as the public institution it still is, anyone and everyone could attend its worship, hear its teaching, and benefit to some degree from the connections it could provide to other institutions and people in the larger community.

That very sense of inclusivity, which is a gift of the congregation's public role, also diminishes its capacity to form disciples and send them into ministry as missionaries in Christ's name. Real discipleship formation requires a degree of exclusivity that is incompatible with the inclusivity of congregational life. There are things that need to be said, critiques that need to be offered, but most of all relationships that have to be very deeply trusted for people's lives to be transformed from being public participants to passionate missionaries in Christ's name. That work cannot and does not happen in public settings. Good relationships at the public level may foster or support good missional discipleship formation, but they do not actually develop it. Thus, such work is not the core work of the congregational format, nor can it be-- at least not effectively nor for many. But it
was the work of the Methodist class meetings and societies, and it is the work of organic groups, neo-monastics, and others living out what Alan Hirsch describes as "communitas" today.

Alan Hirsch has put forward an understanding of the kinds of gifts for missional leadership based on Ephesians 4, which he labels with the acronym APEST (or actually, in the piece from The Forgotten Ways to which the link points, APEPT). These are Apostolic (sending people into mission), Prophetic (declaring the word of God to the present context), Evangelistic (declaring the good news of God's kingdom opened to us in Jesus Christ), Shepherding (caring for the needs and relational dynamics of the flock), and Teaching (offering the core truths of the faith and their practical application to current missional and relational contexts).

A key point of Hirsch's work is to note that no one person can or should in fact be thought to possess outstanding skill at all five of these fundamental gifts for the church's ministry at once. Not even Jesus was equally strong in all, he says. At the same time, any Christian community probably does have people who, if brought together as a leadership team, could be said to express all five powerfully and effectively.

So the question is, if we're living missionally in network-church, following our Methodist mDNA, what kinds of institutions need what kinds of gifts to be particularly strong for what kinds of leadership purposes?

Lets start with congregations. Given their public role-- a feature of this format of Christianity that nearly everyone since the sixth century has thoroughly imbibed and is very unlikely to change-- let me suggest that the two primary gifts needed by pastors/elders are Shepherding and Teaching. I include in the shepherding role both the public forms of ritual leadership (pastoral care of the congregation gathered as congregation in worship) and the care of individual souls (pastoral visitation, care groups, and the like). In terms of teaching, I mean the ability to convey the core doctrines of the faith with passion and eloquence so all in the congregation can understand the call of God in their lives and for the life of the congregation as a whole, and at least have some handle on what to do with that call. This teaching role would also have some implications for training others to teach in other ways as well. These would be the chief gifts and role of clergy who are elders.

PROPOSAL 1: Evaluation for Elders
Clergy excellence for elders would mean excellence as shepherds and teachers of the congregation, as well as training some in the congregation for some of their ministries. But no more than these, most typically.

PROPOSAL 2: Evaluation for Deacons
Elders are not the only clergy with a calling to congregational ministry. Deacons have a role to play here as well. Various deacons can have various gifts and roles historically. Some have been evangelists. Others have been prophets. A few have been apostles. All have been servants who call the congregation to service by their example, both in liturgy and in their work in the world. With respect to their evaluation as part of a congregation, the specific public roles of deacons relating to their particular gifts and their effectiveness for the public vocation of the congregation are what should be given most attention.

The vast majority of United Methodist congregations do not have deacons, of course. And our own history as a denomination with making the role of deacon only a stepping stone, as it were, toward FULL ordination as an elder (as if a deacon were not fully ordained as a deacon with specific ministries to offer) has often meant that we have discounted the historic role they can have in our public life. But even if we do not have ordained deacons, we still need leadership for all of the possible ministries of
diakonia in the missional network-church.

So far, I have only described clergy leadership and only for the congregational format. Certainly there are plenty of non-clergy who provide good leadership there, and have always done so. But in missional Methodist network-church, the congregation is not the be-all and end-all. It is not the only measure of effectiveness, nor the only venue for vital and valid Christian ministry. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient for making or deploying disciples on mission with God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Pre-Preposal for Evaluating Lay Leadership
Pretty much all of our current programming and systems for evaluating the effectiveness of lay leadership assume that the congregation is
the venue for determining the quality of lay leadership. It is ONE venue. I would propose (and ask that you may assail this) that the congregation may be about the least important venue for evaluating lay leadership.

Methodism as a movement was not about congregations. (Yes, I've said that a lot. I'm finding I need to keep repeating that for it to sink in, even for me!). And it was not primarily driven by parish clergy leadership. Both of the Wesleys were clergy-- but they were in what we would call extension ministries, NOT parish priests! Most of the actual hands on leaders of Methodism-- class leaders, society leaders, exhorters, local preachers-- the vast majority of these were not clergy. Some, yes. Most, not by a long shot.

And what were the missional gifts needed and used in these lay-led and lay-driven Methodist structures which formed and sent disciples into mission? Apostleship, Evangelism, and Prophecy-- with some measure of teaching and shepherding as well, but not in a public realm. Remember, the Methodist systems were not public. Class meetings were private. So were society meetings. So were the love feasts and the covenant ceremonies. Field preaching was public. But most of what actually formed disciples was neither in the congregational structures of 18th century England (because it couldn't be) nor was it public. It was in these lay-led, lay-driven, para-congregational and exclusive structures that met in secret.

Some congregational clergy may be good at providing some measure of leadership in these venues. Many will not. The same is true in reverse. Some leaders of such accountable missional formational structures could also be good as congregational leaders-- but many will not.

John Wesley is case in point. He was a terrible parish priest. He would always have been a terrible parish priest. If he were being evaluated for pastoral excellence in his own day, he would have been an unmitigated failure, and some way may have been found to escort him to another career path. He lacked the tact and the patience that the public shepherding role of the congregational format of the Church of England required. It was a good thing he found himself serving in an extension ministry-- as professor at Oxford, and ultimately as co-father (with his brother, Charles) of the Arminian branch of Methodism-- rather than as parish priest.

But he was a brilliant teacher, organizer, and apostle-- for those who wanted that kind of leadership, for those who were ready for more than the congregational format could ever provide, for those who were about to launch on an experiment of missional network church that both intentionally included and yet was not circumscribed by the limitations of the congregational format.

And so were the vast numbers of non-clergy leaders who were so critical to making Methodism the effective disciple forming and deploying system it was.

So the question about how to improve the excellence of lay leadership begins with the question of where we expect laity to lead. If we continue to expect laity to lead and so be evaluated primarily in terms of their leadership in the congregational format, we already have systems in place to help with that. And we also are developing ways to helping to improve the clergy/lay partnerships in local congregations. (No links yet-- but you'll see some in the coming months and years).

PROPOSAL 3: A Missional Network-Church Based Evaluation of Lay Leadership
But if we embrace the Methodist missional network church, lay leadership especially needs to be formed, offered and evaluated in terms of what is happening in para-congregational systems that many clergy formed and suited for typical congregational leadership may never lead effectively. Perhaps the gifts needed most of all are apostleship (for organizers of these systems and deployers of them), evangelism (for field preachers), teaching (with a focus on missiology, soteriology and direct practical application for class leaders), and prophecy (for class and society leaders, and organizers of witness to larger culture).

PROPOSAL 4: A General Principle
This is by no means to say that laity are unsuited for leadership in a variety of ways in congregations, or that all clergy should just stick to congregations and be done with it. It is rather to say that each kind of institution-- congregational or paracongregational, public or more private-- needs its own specific kind of leadership for it to function optimally itself and for the sake of an effective missional network church.

Therefore, leadership evaluation needs to be based on the kinds of institutions in which leadership is asked to serve.

That may not be so bold as a principle. But it would be, I put it, a bold departure from current expectations and systems of evaluation.

Yes, strengthen lay and clergy leadership-- but do so for reasons and in ways that lead us to a more missional future.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards