Which Holy Crap Must Go?

A friend sent me an incredible article by Walter Russell Mead called "The Holy Crap Must Go". Well, this article struck quite a chord with me. So, I wound up writing a whole lot...

Initially, when reading his rant about being property-laden and bureaucracy bound, I was cheering along with him. I think acquisition of property and power is the besetting sin of Christendom, and it is at the root of so much of what is wrong with the "Christendom Model" of doing things (where we tend to treat persons as property, while giving our property the status of persons... But I digress).

So, the first several paragraphs were singing my song. And I do not want the rest of my critique to overshadow my MASSIVE agreement with him on the property and bureaucracy issues.

In the second half of the article, he began a critique of clerical training and the clerical profession.

I think clergy as "profession" is a rather unhelpful category inherited from the corporate world which needs to be dismissed almost entirely. "Profession" is a frame, or container, to hold a set of ethical norms and specialized practices which are unique to ordained life. Unfortunately, "profession" is also necessarily caught up with the idea of success, forward progress, and increasing status which is measured in economically quantifiable terms (i.e. money received, butts in seats, etc.).

If we use the concept of "profession" to measure the ministry of Peter, or Paul, or Jesus for that matter, then what we find is that they were dismal failures. Not only did they fail to keep up "professional" decorum (read Matthew 23 or Galatians, for example), but their ministries ended as numerical and financial failures, including their own deaths.

Yet, quite obviously they were successful in non-economic, and non-immediate terms. People do not gather on a weekly basis to remember any of the Caesars, Alexander the Great, or even Henry Ford. But they do for Jesus and his followers.

Also: Implicit, incipient in the concept of "profession" is an inherent slant TOWARD economic, quantifiable measures to judge the "success" or "failure" of ministry. If being clergy is a profession, then the most successful practitioners of that profession necessarily have larger buildings, bigger budgets, and more attendance. It is true of the Mainline infrastructures formed in the 20th century, and it is true of the Megachurch infrastructures formed now. All of them will collapse under their own professional weight.

So, I think a hidden key to this entire discussion resides at the heart of clerical identity itself. In fact, the best category to place "clergy" is not in the box labelled "profession", but in the box labelled "vocation" or "calling" or "mission" or "vision" or just plain old "identity".

To be ordained as a deacon/minister, or as presbyter/priest, or (God help you!) as bishop/overseer is not to enter into a "profession" with a series of "benchmarks" you must pass as you advance up the "corporate ladder" to "success". To be ordained to any of the clerical orders is to receive a new identity and a new life-mission as a member of Christ's one holy catholic apostolic Church.

If we think of the Church as a Family (which it is), becoming clergy is to become a spiritual parent who has responsibility and response-ability to nourish, protect, and raise into maturity other members of the Family. If we think of the Church as a Body (which it is), becoming clergy is to become part of the "skeletal system" which provides support, structure, and boundaries so that the other organs of the Body can function and move and reach out to the world around them.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. If we think in terms of clerical "identity", "vision" and "vocation" (instead of "profession"), then we begin to measure clerical "success" in qualitative, spiritual terms rather than quantitative, economic terms. A faithful, consistent ministry will be valued more than a ministry that built a 3000 seat worship center. Mother Teresa will be valued more than Joel Olsteen.

Like it or not, the clergy provide for the structure and continuance of the Church as a recognizable entity. And, the manner in which clergy provide that structure and continuance is largely a matter of how clergy are FORMED in their identity.

If you form clergy to have a quasi-theological ideal of clergy as "profession", then they will structure and continue the Church by building large buildings, and forming complex bureaucratic systems, as evidence of their "success". But, if you form clergy to have a deeply theological sense of clergy as "vocation/vision/identity", then they will continue the Church by mission, by preaching, by catechesis, by raising up missionally minded lay leaders who take Jesus with them into their families, workplaces, marketplaces, and civic responsibilities.

And all of this ties into what I think is the BIGGEST FLAW in the article: His demeaning of clerical education. It is almost as if he has taken a page out of Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" to say "If you can read, you can lead".

The truth is, we need better clergy formation, not worse. We need better clergy formation because, at the least, clergy come out thinking being clergy is a "profession" rather than a "vocation". While this may be one small issue, it reflects a deep bias in the way in which most seminaries- even good ones- train clergy. It like saying that, when you reduce Christian ministry and mission down far enough, you find "it's all about the economy, stupid".

And that is the besetting sin of American culture: To reduce, flatten, all of reality into strictly economic terms. Income versus expenses. The ledger. Cost / benefit analysis. The bottom line. We read all of history this way, either with a Capitalist or a Marxist spin to it (depending on which news channel you decide to watch!).

We need clergy to be educated so that they can effectively think, preach, teach, and pray outside of the box of American consumerism, with its devastating reduction of all facets of life to strictly economic terms. We need a clergy that can think theologically, rather than merely economically. We need a clergy that can think historically, rather than just in terms of marketing psychology. We need a clergy that can see all of life in terms of God's Mission, rather than in terms of the market.

And while he may be right that "An increasingly well-educated and independent minded society doesn’t need as much guidance from professionals as it used to. Curious parishioners can get many of their religious and theological questions answered on line..." This does NOT mean that they are getting good information. Nor does it mean that they are analyzing that information from the right vantage point. Dump all the theological information you want on someone thoroughly enmeshed in a consumeristic worldview. All you will get out of them is an economic-marketplace analysis of that data. For real worldview transformation, mentoring and pastoral care is required so that a person can "see" another way of living embodied in another person.

I think that one of the comments on his post was very telling: "The core spiritual ideas of the Society of Friends would work very well in the kind of local, people centered approach." And they are right. Quakers/Society of Friends are the original form of contentless, make-your-own-way, super-individualistic, semi-buddhist-quasi-christian, church-that-is-not-a-church. His approach leads to a lowest-common-denominator kind of Church where Christianity is a contentless spirituality that is anything to any body. There is no one authorized to speak on Christ's behalf, and no historical or theological reflection really guided by anyone. Rather, "church" becomes a cafeteria spirituality developed from articles on Wikipedia which re-capituates every heresy and schism over the last 2000 years.

For real transformation of people and communities, what is required is a cadre of well-trained "organic intellectuals" who are able to envision life outside of the world system we are in, and lead people in that vision to personal and communal transformation. These "organic intellectuals" need to speak both the language of the people, but also the language of the vision. They need to be implanted into the communities they serve, to incarnate the vision to those around them. These organic intellectuals need to have a personally felt sense of mission and vocation, which gives them clarity of mission, even in the midst of hardships and apparent failure.

This language of "organic intellectuals" was developed by Antonio Gramschi, a Communist theorist, at the beginning of the 20th century. But I think it describes well the vocation of clergy, and what clergy training is needed to empower them for their mission.

So, we need better clergy education and formation.

This starts by selecting people for clergy formation who HAVE ALREADY demonstrated significant gifts for ministry by actually DOING ministry in a sustained fashion. We need to stop selecting people who have little or no Christian formation, and even less ministry experience, and then thinking that seminary will somehow "fix" the problem and give them an authentic spirituality by the time they graduate.

To reduce student debt and increase pastoral practicality, I think we should probably make use of a hybrid parish-and-seminary system of education. For more "cognitive" classes on Scripture, History, and Systematics we rely on seminary professors in a classroom setting. For more "practical" classes on Liturgy, Pastoral Care, and Administration we rely on practicing clergy in the local diocese who have been identified as particularly effective in those areas. Perhaps a local parish (the Cathedral?) might be designated as a "clinical parish" where ordinands run the ministries under the mentoring of a very experienced priest or two. Maybe it could even be a quasi-cloistered environment for the ordinands.

And did I mention that if a denomination calls a person into the ordination process, they are morally bound to pay for the costs associated with education? We would consider it immoral for a wealthy person to demand that a their workers pay them for the honor of working for them full time. Yet, we send ordinands to work full time for 3 or more years in seminary, and pay for it all themselves, or go into crippling seminary debt, and then expect them to take jobs that can't pay for their families and their debt. And we wonder why people don't want to become clergy.

And I haven't even critiqued the 5-10 year hazing ritual that we call "the ordination process". The "hoops" are supposed to be there to weed out bad apples from ordination. But, there are plenty of bad apples who make it through the process, and plenty of good apples who see how messed up the Church is and bid adieu to ordination. And, if we only called people into ordination who ALREADY demonstrated significant gifts for ministry by actually DOING ministry in a sustained fashion, then most of the bad apples would be gone by the sheer nature of what it takes to actually DO ministry rather than just talk about it.

So, in contrast to the article, I say that clergy need better education and formation. Not longer. Not more costly. But better. Education that better enables them to grasp the vision of clerical identity and clerical vocation.

If we heal this wound- the wound of trying to make the Church into a "professional" world, run by "professional" clergy, which is successful by "professional" socio-economic measures- then the Church can be reformed and the holy crap can be thrown out. It will be thrown out because clergy will start to see ministry in terms of vocation and vision, and will form communities of Christ-followers who live into such a vision, and they will naturally jettison all of the "holy crap" so they can continue with Jesus' mission to heal the world.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.