When I think about the role of an ordained minister in 2016 my initial instinct is not “a teaching elder”. There was a time in the mainline Protestant church when the dominant role of the minister was teacher. Clergy wore a Geneva gown to signify their educated status, they spoke from an elevated pulpit, and their sermons were lessons, teaching, and instruction. Even the manner and form of the sermon was more lecture than anything else, three points and poem, “breaking open the text”, explaining the original Greek or Hebrew, talking about her/his last trip to the Holy Lands to reference the topography of ancient Jerusalem, describing the Dead Sea to make sense of miracle stories. Ministers were there to explain the Jesus story like you would explain human anatomy.
We mainline Protestants like to mock evangelical Pastors who talk too much about themselves in sermons, get too personal, make God so familiar God sounds like your virtuous neighbour. Further, we mock the Roman Catholic Priests who see themselves as mediators between God and us, “Who died and made them God?” we ask. Yet I think if we are being honest with ourselves one of the reasons for our churches emptying out is the lack of enthusiasm our worship life engenders. If we wanted a “lesson” we can find that online and frankly TED talks are much more interesting than a sermon with three points and a poem. We can make fun of clergy who talk about themselves in sermons but African American preachers have been doing that for generations, never to boast, but always to demonstrate the need for confession, humility and new life in Christ, the preacher being example A.
And it’s not even as though our clergy are professors, the Master’s degree we receive is a professional degree, not nearly as challenging as an academic Master’s degree. Ask any clergyperson with a PhD and a Doctor of Ministry and s/he will tell you the difference. We’ve not experts, the standards by which we entered seminary were never academic. Our course load more like the Bachelor of Arts with Honours than a graduate degree. Again, if people wanted to know more about gods the Hebrew peoples rejected they would be better served on a university campus than a church on a Sunday morning.
I like academic work, I’ve read and written on doctrinal theology. In seminary I was offered a large scholarship to pursue this type of work but turned it down because I prefer preaching every Sunday about the joys of living out the Gospels than the discipline of sitting in the office and drilling down on important academic work.
As the church becomes more and more a minority experience ordained ministers will increasingly be looked to for inspiration, witness and practice than being the “teaching elder”. I am a fairly good public speaker and I try my best to walk the talk of my Gospel faith but I lag behind on the discipline of practice. My colleagues who talk openly and seriously about their prayer life, encourage their parishioners to develop a spiritual discipline for their day, are far more effective in their ministry than me. I have a lot to learn from them. But again the practice of Christian discipleship is more than reading a book or absorbing knowledge. It is finding hope, bearing fruit and being connected every day to the Source of our being.
Ministers today cannot afford the conceit of pretending to be professors. The pulpit is a safe place, an orderly place, and a distant place, far removed from those sitting in front of you. The more we are vulnerable, open and aware we are of the challenges and joys of the Christian Way the more we make the church alive, whether that is 12 people or 1200 people.