What if there were no clergy?

What if there were no clergy?

I read an article recently that shocked me: a plan by a diocese in the Church of England to plant 10,000 lay-led churches – meaning they would have no ordained clergy leadership.

One quote – by the priest in charge of the program – jumped out at me:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

While I generally applaud any plan that aims to grow the church and spread more Good News, it did leave me questioning my own worth as a clergy person.

Is this really the answer to the church’s decline? If we had fewer clergy would we make more Christians? Taking it further, what if we stopped ordaining people altogether? If there were no clergy, what would happen to the church?

This led me down a long road of reckoning, helped along by a lot of the response to the article, including from my friend the Rev. Matthew Buterbaugh. Maybe it’s time to consider that my own vocation is obsolete. But here’s where it led me instead:

1. This is about not being able to afford salaries

This plan for lay-led church planting is not actually a thought-out contemplation of ordained and lay ministry, but a more practical plan about not paying ministers.

If lay people don’t have to pay for all that costly training, then it’s ok to put them in leadership roles where we don’t have to pay them. This is not a good solution for anyone’s ministry.

I’m on the record saying clergy must be paid, but I feel the same way about anyone who is putting in the hard work of planting churches and nurturing Christian community: they deserve to be paid.

2. This is an effect, not a cause

The reason congregations cannot afford clergy salaries is not because clergy are educated, trained, and experienced!

It’s because the institutional church is in steep decline.

I believe the reason for that is about how we organize and administer faith communities. It’s about how institutions that thrived in the mid-20th century are now struggling to reinvent themselves.

This struggle has the effect of traditional, mainline Christian congregations bearing the burden of a wider trend of decline. Replacing clergy with lay ministers – even if we don’t pay them – is not addressing the underlying causes of church decline.

3. Ordination IS training lay people for ministry!

Surely, when we talk about lay-led church planting, we don’t mean we’re just going to say, ‘here’s the keys’ to a bunch of people with no experience, education, or training. This is an insult to every kind of ministry – lay and ordained – as it implies there are no skills or experience needed to lead churches and help others grow in their Christian faith.

So let’s assume that the lay church planters we’re imagining have been selected by the community in some way (church committee, bishop’s office, a board of some kind), and been given the training they need, including a background in the basics of the faith. They’ve also been vetted in some way, to be assured they have the ability to work appropriately in a stressful environment with lots of different kinds of people.

Here’s what I know: setting aside certain people for education, experience, and building skills for worship leadership, pastoral presence, theological inquiry, and interpretation of Scripture is the ordination process.

Clergy aren’t some different kind or class of people – clergy are lay people who have been trained and educated to bear the Scripture, sacraments, and traditions of the faith!

4. All our work has worth

This is not to say that lay ministry is unimportant. Each of us has wisdom, spiritual experience and gifts, regardless of our ordination status. Lay people can and do lead worship, offer pastoral care, teach the faith, etc. Growing in discipleship – and helping others grow – is crucial work of the church that we all share.

Ordaining clergy and relying on their work in no way diminishes lay ministry. In fact, ordained ministry is all about supporting lay people as they grow in their faith, and as they grow in their encouragement of others’ faith.

Since the beginning of the church, baptizing believers and making disciples has been everyone’s ministry, and selecting people for particular roles in the church has been part of this.

One type of ministry is no more valuable than another. At the same time, lay and ordained ministries are not interchangeable.

5. There are better ways to reimagine

What would happen if there were no clergy?

We would lose the living bearers of the Christian tradition, passed on from Jesus’ time to our own. We would lose our connection to the past and future of the church. We might even lose the faith altogether.

The church is in crisis – there is no question. There is also no question we need to continue to equip ministers of all kinds, and we need to reimagine church beyond the institutional model.

There are ways to do this that support congregations and clergy, which value lay and ordained ministry.

Things like truly part-time service, ordained ministers as ‘clergy consultants’ and ‘faith practitioners’, working with and supporting lay ministry in new and sustainable ways.

Not being able to pay clergy is the ‘limiting factor’ in today’s church. Clergy are a key factor in reimagining the future – and the present – of creative, sustainable, and digital ministry.

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