Priest-in-Charge, Pastoral Woes and Authority in the Church

I found intriguing Elizabeth Kaeton’s piece on priests-in-charge.  It was interesting because it’s one of those rare posts (in this case from a liberal) which transcends the left-right divide that defines just about everything these days.

For my Evangelical readers, if you’re interested in the whole business of “priest-in-charge” you’ll need to read her post.  It is, more or less, an interim pastor, and that in an episcopally structured church (which is the one thing that we have in common.)  This means that the appointment is made by the bishop above, not called by the congregation (as is the case in Baptist or AoG churches.)

Several years back there was published a report on Church of God ministers that I usually christen the “Bowers Report” after the Pentecostal Theological Seminary professor who headed up its compilation.  One of the takeaways for me was that our pastors neither trusted the administrative bishops above them nor their laity below.  The result was pastoral stress, which was in part reflected in the high level of obesity amongst our ministers (the report used statistics, although anyone who has attended an Anglo Church of God campmeeting or General Assembly knows this to be so.)  The swelling waistlines are in part a product of a church culture which gives gluttony a pass while prohibiting alcohol and tobacco, but it’s also a sign of stress.  And there are indications (as Rev. Kaeton indicates) that pastoral stress isn’t restricted to the Church of God, or even to conservative churches.

How did we get in this mess?  I’ll try to avoid rambling, but let me lay out my ideas.

It used to be that churches could be described as polities.  People had a sense of ownership in their church, and that ownership was reflected in the power that the vestry/deacon board/church council had.  Sometimes they became tools of the ruling clique in the church and made some really silly decisions.  The most egregious one of these I saw growing up in the Episcopal church was the unceremonious booting of the ladies’ rummage sale from the church grounds, which lead the guild to start one of the most elite resale shops in the country.

In a country club church like the Episcopal church of the 1960’s and before, the membership could regard their rector as yet another of the hired help, there to do their bidding.  Many rectors, especially those who were in the ministry as a matter of pedigree, were more than happy to oblige.  Sometimes I think that explains some of my dislike for all of the hue and cry about the “authority” of our ministers, but that’s another post.

Now churches that go nowhere because of their controlling laity aren’t any more admirable than those that go nowhere because of their controlling clergy.  The result is the same, and is opposite when there is momentum from both sides to make progress.  The Southern Baptists didn’t become the largest Protestant denomination in the US because their deacon boards sat on their hands.  Congregational denominations are perfectly capable of significant forward movement, as the Assemblies of God are demonstrating these days, and they can’t move without the consent and participation of their laity.

The whole idea of the church as polity was significantly challenged in the wake of the 1960’s from a number of fronts.

On the left, activist clergy saw (and still see) themselves as the vanguard of change.  Those in the congregation who don’t see it their way will be considered to end up on the “ash heap of history,” to use Leon Trotsky’s phrase.  That’s demoralising for a congregation, especially in the time when the country was going through a collective nervous breakdown, and was reflected in the precipitous drop that the Episcopalians and other Main Line churches experienced in the 1970’s.  We’ve seen this again in the conflict over LGBT bishops and clergy in the past decade.

On the right, we had the likes of Bill Gothard challenging the whole concept of church as polity by saying that authoritarianism is “the Bible way.”  This flew in the face of two centuries of American church experience.  Conservative churches did so well forty years ago that the weaknesses of this idea were masked, but they’ve come home to roost of late.

We also have parachurch ministries and independent churches to erode the church as polity concept.  Both of these are built around the personality of one individual or his (usually but not always) family.  Both of these have encouraged another uninspiring trend in churches: the trend towards the church as a consumerist provider of services rather than a gathering of God’s people, a trend that needed little encouraging in our society.

Finally we have churches (such as the Roman Catholic and the Church of God) which were authoritarian early in their history onward.

The result is that, today, too many of our ministers (and the diocesans above them) are obsessed with their authority, and build their ministries around its maintenance.  Our lay people are reduced to three choices: submit, start a war, or flee.  Worst of all, our getting away from church as polity hasn’t reduced politics in the church.

It’s little wonder that our ministers, trapped in a no-win paradigm with their congregations, are stressed out.  Everyone involved is stressed out.  And it’s little wonder that house churches, with no payments (the need for funding drives way too much ministry, and is a big part of the problem) and informal structure, are gaining popularity.

P.S. I noted that Rev. Kaeton supports same sex civil marriage.  I would be interested to know why she thinks we need civil marriage in the first place.

HT to David Virtue.

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