What I learned this semester!

This semester, I took Ethics, Public Ministry, and Family Systems. It is rather amazing how these three wider principles work together.

I came into ESR rather conflicted about what a healthy ministry model might look like. I remembered visiting a church board meeting, and hearing that if they lost their (current) pastor, they would lose the church — i.e. the church was no longer Jesus’ church, but had become the pastor’s church. Clearly pastor centered worship shows an unhealthy system — and if the church cannot survive the removal of a specific pastor, this dysfunctional system will fall apart when the pastor leaves or dies. Part of me wanted to reject pastors in general, thinking that if there were no pastor, this fatal personality cult could not occur.

In other counter examples, I saw wonderful people who devoted their lives to ministry — and were given responsibility without any support system. Where do our pastors go to church? Do those entrusted with our souls need a worship community any less than those who are not? I have seen pastors who volunteer their services, working for minimum wage at night to meet people’s needs during the day, and I have seen these people condemned for neglecting their ministry instead of honoring that they gave everything they had. A system that asks those who sacrifice everything to give more until they lose their health and their families is an abusive system which needs changed. Even more so when the system scapegoats them for their struggles — a pastor should be allowed to remain human.

In systems theory, what I learned is that the role people fill within the system does not always match an organizational chart. Sometimes, the organizational chart fails to match reality. Just because no one is named a leader does not mean that there is no overwhelmingly powerful, authoritarian figure. Abusive people can use power to abuse people whether or not they are formally given authority.

In public ministry class, I was able to learn with real life examples. I was the only Friend from a programmed background within the class, and only one other student was from a Christian Yearly Meeting. (The other is from Ohio Yearly Meeting) As this diverse group read from Christian pastors and discussed their theories of leadership, I learned good and bad points of non Christian and non pastoral systems from my fellow students.

In this class, I learned what happens when someone seizes power who does not have a position of authority. I learned about the abuse that can happen when power is grabbed, attempts to silence other voices — even outside the context of the meeting. I learned about bullying. It seems that we accept the reality that there will be leaders, and even those of us who would normally lead are very often perfectly willing to follow. Anarchy invites power grabs and those who grab power are unfortunately even more abusive than those who are given power.

What I took away from this experience is that we need to make sure that our official structures have means of correcting abuse when it occurs. While it is tempting to assume that we who are transformed by Christ’s grace will not abuse, it is easy to see that we belong to communities of broken people. Even when our brokenness is healed, we risk falling back upon our sinful and broken habits. We grab power and abuse because we are afraid.

For centuries, Friends have appointed elders to rule over meetings and to either encourage or correct those who gave public ministry. We look back to the wild first decade of Quakerism both wishing to regain some of that passion and with horror of what can happen when this passion is not restrained. Our communities formed structures to protect us from ourselves. A pastor needs oversight, and those weighty Friends who have power but not position also need oversight. We need structures to make sure the powerful do not walk over the weak — we also need structures to make sure that the few or the one are not abused by the many. (In a pastoral meeting, both pastor and congregation have opportunities to become abusers.)

I came into ESR, largely wanting to scrap the pastoral system. I have meditated on how we could have a modern system of worship, true to Quaker Faith and practice which ministered to its surrounding community. The more I think about it — the more I see the value of a pastor! I see the need of an office worker and public representative. While I think that most pastoral care can be done by a volunteer committee, I recognize that the clergy badge is a valuable asset when visiting the sick in the hospital. Even though mature Christians can do all the work of the worship service without a pastor, a pastor can facilitate communication and help the group do the work of the church within the wider community. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that removing the pastor would likely result in renaming the role without maintaining the advantages of the title. I still believe that the system needs some safeguards but I do not see an easy way of replacing it.

When I came here, I affirmed my call to public ministry, but protested that I did not wish to be called pastor. Today, my heart is changed because I learned to value a public leadership role. I confess that many meetings can get along perfectly fine without anyone in such a role but for others it is necessary. If a community judges it necessary to bring in a pastor, I am now willing. Now my heart asks: “As pastor, how do I give power to others? How do I protect them from those who abuse power? How do I walk with those souls God has entrusted to my care? How do I raise them up, so that they are mature and complete?” and finally: “How do I know when my ministry is complete, and it is time to move on?”

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One comment on “What I learned this semester!

  1. Between books and class discussions — I learned a lot more than I thought I did when I was struggling through classes!

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