A few months ago, something pinched one of my right fingers. Hard. It was my seminary class ring, and it was cracked. It took a lot of soap and tugging to get it off my finger. The jeweler called it a "cracked ring shank," and it is not uncommon among arthritis sufferers like myself whose joints and extremities often swell and contract several times a day.
Getting the ring replaced or fixed is not a big deal; it has a lifetime warranty. And it ought to: it cost a pretty penny when I got it (around $450 in 1990), and it was my birthday/graduation/Christmas present one year from my wife. I stared at it for a long time after I got it off my finger, and realized that I have been rather prideful about my education and ordination. That beautiful ring with my seminary's crest told the world that I had a theological education from a fairly prestigious school. Maybe I was wearing it for the wrong reasons.
I've been a district superintendent long enough to realize that the divide between clergy and laity is way too wide - and worse, the divides among clergy are just as wide. United Methodists have 26 types of "conference relationships" - distinctions that mean something to the Board of Pensions, Board of Ordained Ministry, and insurance companies - but mean very little to people in the pews (or, for that matter, those outside the pews). A friend of mine has continually noted that our "tiered" clergy system is nothing short of classist and perpetuates an evil just as bad as racism. Anyone appointed to the work of what elders and deacons traditionally does by the power of the Holy Spirit should be ordained and be given God-given (not institution-given) authority to do their work, regardless of their education. All the implications of itineration, insurance, conference relationship, etc. are matters for the institution to figure out. I'm not slamming the institution - heck, I AM a big part of it - but let's put it in its place.
(Just a historical note: Methodists used to ordain local pastors as "local elders" who did not itinerate and whose ministerial function, just like local pastors, was limited to the parish they were appointed to. And then we quit ordaining folks who weren't full connection. And then we started consecrating communion elements over the phone. And then we licensed local pastors to have local sacramental authority. And yes... we are stupid, inconsistent, and guilty of clericalism on this issue).
Those of us clergy who are "full connection" members aren't better than others because of our status; quite the contrary, we are supposed to be mentoring, leading, and guiding those pastors who for various reasons are not "full connection." To those who have been given much, much is required!
We also have to realize that, practically and ecclesially, local pastors and supply pastors are the elder-in-practice for their local church and parish. Our benefit of seminary education is a tool, but not an end-all. It is certainly no indicator of effectiveness or qualification - if it were, the UMC would be bursting at the seams instead of in decline.
Leadership has to be shared. Leadership has to be encultured. Laity are called no less than clergy toward ministry in the Church, and indeed may do it even better than clergy. A very wise pastor once told me that being the pastor and spiritual leader of a church meant that sometimes, a lot of education and leadership is needed at a church and one has to be proactive in guiding a church toward vitality. At other times, a church might have very gifted leaders and spiritual depth among its laity, and you have to be secure and big enough to get out of their way. Both require maturity, humility, and spiritual discernment to know the difference. We clergy, too often, sometimes think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think.
Our district recently had our first "Generative Leadership Academy." Around 160 laity and clergy met to begin to talk about and dig into what it means to be a leader and how to "reproduce" leadership and discipleship in our churches and communities. We have begun the work to see that God is asking lay and clergy to partner together in leadership. That's the direction we need to be headed.
Our theology of ordination can be rather fuzzy, and our understanding of clerical function can be fuzzier still. But our theology of baptism is extremely clear: every baptized Christian is a minister, an ambassador of Jesus Christ, doing priestly work in His name. Being baptized is being set apart from the world to be disciples, and make disciples, of Jesus Christ. For this season, especially for us ordained clergy, that may need to be our emphasis instead of our ordination and educational credentials. They are tools for ministry, but not the end all. "Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16)
More to come where baptism, church membership, and making disciples are concerned. Today, I confess clergy pride - and God forgive me for such.