This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.
The United Church of Canada values its tradition of having an educated clergy. Training for ordered ministry in the United Church of Canada most often involves the person leaving their home congregation to receive a post-graduate education (or its equivalent). It is expected that, after ordination or commissioning, he or she will serve a congregation other than his or her home congregation. There have been and currently are other models of ministerial leadership for the church but this is the one that our denomination has chosen. It is also a model that is under pressure because it is very expensive. Student loans are difficult to repay when the salaries paid to ordered ministry personnel are low. Seminaries and training centres are underfunded and struggle to find alternate sources of income. There are indications that this model may also not be the best way to train people for ministry, either ministry in local congregations for the ekklesia or ministry in the world for the diaspora.
The Report of the Working Group on Leadership Formation for Ministry, with its proposal for “A Competency-Approach to Ministerial Education and Formation”, acknowledged that the present model of training for ministerial leadership “causes undue hardship to people and excludes potential leaders.” It proposes that competency for ministry leadership can happen in many different ways: “e.g. individual courses taken at any number of schools; intensive supervised training like Clinical Pastoral Education; supervised ministry as a Candidate or Student Supply; mentored projects and/or community involvements; certificate or diploma programs; mentored reading and individual study; teaching from elders; time-intensive workshops; cohort learning, etc.”
It recognizes that people are already being trained for leadership in congregations outside the traditional academic pathways: “Studies taken at centres of transformational adult learning, like the United Church’s education and retreat centres, may also be recognized as effective means of achieving some competencies. Innovative programming offered by the EDGE Network and regionally-based initiatives, like B.C. Conference’s LeaderShift, will be similarly recognized and promoted.”
Significantly, it suggests that “such recognition should, in turn, till the ground for the planting and growth of further grassroots, context-responsive, leadership development initiatives.”
When the leadership for a congregation is ‘parachuted in’ from elsewhere and when they come as ‘professionals’, or experts, who have received training and skills that others don’t share, there is a danger that the natural leaders of the congregation are disempowered. The underlying message is that ministry is about having specialized knowledge and skills acquired through taking courses.
In the New Testament, the criteria for leaders in congregational life is described mostly in terms of their character. In particular, the focus is on character that is shaped by the cross of Christ. Such ‘character’ includes humility, the courage to tell the truth, the willingness to lose one’s life in order to find it, the willingness to be forgiven, to forgive and to live by the grace of God. Admittedly, acquiring such qualifications is not easy but it can be done by all the baptized.
This is not to say that leaders don’t also need to be well-educated in such topics as theology, the scriptures, Christian history, pastoral care and ethics. It is to say that the ways in which people acquire the knowledge they need for ministry and mission in shifting. Even more determinative is the question of what leadership is for. What is needed now is leadership for congregations that are more mission outposts than fortresses of stability and respectability.
The structures and leadership development models that were suited for Christendom do not serve the church well in its new missionary situation. Some congregations are experimenting with new structures. What post-Christendom churches will look like is still taking shape. What is becoming clear, however, is that there will be no single model of ‘church’: local responses to particular contexts will lead to great diversity in models of church and, consequently, greater diversity in the kinds of leadership that is needed. Some congregations are already engaging in innovative experiments to develop the kind of structures and leadership they need.