Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Machine-Made Men* of Christendom: A contemplation on separating professional Christians from pastoral positions

Keep turning those wrenches, and maybe we'll let you
come back again tomorrow to turn them again.
The Catastrophic Career Track
In the final year of my undergraduate education, the Rev. Richard C. Taylor, Jr. spoke during chapel services of the difficulty in recruiting anyone to serve smaller congregations as solo pastors. It was the first time, as a young Christian, that I had been confronted with “the traditional career track” of becoming a staff pastor, then working through the “ranks” of being an assistant, then associate, and then perhaps a senior pastor in some moderately sized congregation, before hoping to “hit it big” as leader of one of the larger staffs, with the consequent blessings of being allowed to serve on the committees and boards of district and denominational leadership.

It was shortly thereafter that I began to explain to anyone who would listen that I had no desire to eventually become the “associate pastor for left handed senior citizens whose names begin with ‘A’ through ‘M.’” Most of what I saw amongst those enmeshed in the sociopolitical structures of the ecclesiastical workplace made me wonder if some of the office workers even remembered that they once aspired to be pastors. Anyone familiar with my own “career track” knows that I have successfully turned off onto several of the isolated spurs that rarely, if ever, allow for a return to the centers of influence, populated as they are by the personnel of multi-staff religious corporations (or their local franchises) for which most seminarians are trained. To some who imagined me destined for an ascending career of ministerial success (Thanks for believing in me, Mom.), the path I have followed culminates only at a sign that reads “career-catastrophe.” Let me explain, then, why I rejoice at being privileged to be who, what, and where I am today.

And don't worry, if you get caught up in the gears...
well, just keep turning those wrenches.
Consider the Collateral Damage to Congregations, Collegians, and (eventually) Clergy
In over three decades of ministry I have become acquainted with the effects of this career-track system on seminarians and Bible college students and the congregations they serve, during and after their education. I have watched as dozens of potential interns gravitate into each of the larger congregations in the areas around our schools. I have seen those students compete to serve as one of half dozen or more helpers with one of the youth pastors (if the student possesses sufficient charisma and/or physical attractiveness) or worship leaders (if they have vocal or guitar skills) or Sunday School Superintendent (if they can’t find a position in the youth or worship ministries).

Don't believe those stories about how some have been
swallowed up by the machine. That happens so rarely...
This pattern is of great benefit to the religious professionals staffing those few “magnet” churches. In fact, it is essential to their operation since most program-driven religious organizations find fewer and fewer willing volunteers available, even as their attendance grows. This paradox results because more and more of the staff’s time is required for the logistics of event planning, program promotion, and executive intercommunication (i.e., making sure staff in all the other programs know what you’re doing, where, when, and requiring whose participation and/or permission). The process also leaves less and less time for identifying the potential passions, gifts, and experiences of attendees, only rarely connecting some of them with one another such that they might “grow up in all things into Him who is the Head, even Christ.” Thus, rather than equipping (better translated “aligning” or “structuring”) the members of a local church into a cohesive organism, we settle for organizing opportunities for them to more frequently attend, invite others, and thus increase the statistics that ensure our continued progress up the corporate ladder.

Don't forget that it's the machine that keeps us fed!
Upon graduation, however, even the best-received among those interns and unpaid assistants face a simple but daunting equation. Most churches are not multi-staff. Those that are (even those who turn over their pastors at the national average of two years or less) require far fewer new staff members than the number of new candidates graduating. (And they may simply choose to add more interns.) Therefore, further contributing to the lowered average tenure of North American pastors, students who are acclimated to serving as part of a team in a division of a department under one of several pastors…if they do find a ministry position at all after graduation…are now grateful to be allowed to serve as the “much too young and inexperienced” solo (if not bi-vocational, or church-planting, or unpaid assistant) pastor. This position is often in a “much too small and insufficiently-ambitious” congregation that is unlikely to immediately spring into rapid-growth mode—further devastating the aspirations of a first-time pastor destined to be disappointed (“is this the best church the denomination thinks I deserve?”) and disappointing (“is this the best pastor the denomination thinks we deserve?”), not to mention entirely unprepared for the kinds of pastoral ministry required by the life-on-life nature of equipping/aligning/structuring the saints, not the staff, for the work of ministry.

The Occasions for This Reflection
What brings these observations to mind? Several things, actually.

Never forget. All it takes to be a leader
is to have a crowd behind you.
I recently read the introduction to Stephen E. Fowl’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture in which he bemoans the lack of interaction between seminary professors specializing in theology and those specializing in Biblical studies. He ascribes the division to the growing “professionalism” and further specialization that rewards deeper and more esoteric explorations within one’s field, rather than the mutuality among faculty members who might recognize the need for one another’s participation in providing a more holistic approach to determining “What would Jesus have me do?” (Note that I’m inserting my own preferred phrase for that pursuit.) If you’ve read this far, you can imagine what notes I wrote in the margins about professionalism and specialization among the staff members in corporately focused religious organizations.

If you work hard enough, long enough, then you'll
eventually have a place of your own!
Then came a discussion with a seminary professor over the relative lack of interest and attention given to spiritual warfare in the life of the church. “They don’t seem to see it,” was his observation. I offered that there seemed to be several conjoined factors that caused this. Let me expand on those for a moment here. First, spiritual warfare occurs only where there is a threat to the enemy of our souls that the church might make something resembling a spiritual advance into his territory. In most religious organizations, this seems unlikely to occur. Second, spiritual warfare occurs in the lives of individuals and families, not in the consumer-oriented habits of attendees and homogenous people-groups. Therefore, where it does occasionally occur, it would be invisible to most of the program directors, event planners, and content providers staffing those religious organizations that claim the majority of Christians on an average Sunday. Third, though, is the most difficult to admit. Even in those congregations where a servant of Christ and others has been forced to actually pastor the individuals and families of that community, that servant is likely to be so grossly underprepared by previous experiences and immensely overwhelmed by the ministerial expectations, that they can barely accomplish what A.B. Simpson derided as “the regular work of the ministry.”

E.M. Bounds
He has a better idea.
Finally, I am prompted to these reflections by a decision to revisit E.M. Bounds. My daughter and I are slowly reading through each of his books in The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds, and reflecting on each chapter in our blogs. (Hers can be found here.) The first book, Power through Prayer, published originally in 1913, begins with the then-appropriate assumption that he could safely address ministerial staff as “Men of Prayer Needed.” I’m sure I’ll have opportunity in this process to reflect my own proactive egalitarianism (that means I think God calls both men and women to serve Him in offices, roles, positions, giftedness, and whatever other categories into which some would segregate them). And I already see the paradox in what Bounds stirs up in me, and my complete support of my daughter in her position amidst a multi-staff religious organization as Director of K.I.D.S. Ministries on the U-20 Leadership Team. This should be interesting.

Where Bounds Abounds
The reason that Bounds has helped to stir up my concerns about life-on-life pastoral ministry is that even in a small, rural, independent, non-denominational community church with exactly one full-time paid pastor (me), I am tempted to be professional. I oversee four ministry coordinators directly, and consult and/or advise at least a dozen others in various positions of ministry leadership. I serve on other teams in our community, and through several seminary and other educational communities, too. There are times when I wish my schedule were consumed by office work, meetings with similarly-indoctrinated and educated staff members, and having my meetings and appointments confirmed by a competent administrative assistant. But those times are thankfully rare, and they vanish quickly as soon as there is a need for hands-on, life-on-life pastoral ministry. Bounds briefly admonishes those of us at risk of becoming caught up in the religious machine (even that one that existed in 1913!). But he is most adamant about how the work we do, even in the preaching of the gospel, is secondary to the effects of our life on the lives of those around us. Whatever other functions we may be forced to fulfill, whatever size team we serve on, and whatever small segment of Christ’s body falls into our category of responsibility, what Christ calls us to be is nothing more or less than human persons “whom the Holy Ghost can use—[people] of prayer.”

More to come! But now, I get to read what Bounds stirred my daughter up into writing.

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