Monday, March 03, 2008

Take Thou Authority

"Take thou authority as a deacon in the Church...Take authority as an elder in the Church to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments..."

With those words, I was ordained a deacon and elder, respectively, in June 1990 and June 1993. I was licensed as a local pastor in 1987. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. (The pic is fellow blogger Andrew Thompson's ordination, not mine)

I've been privileged to serve in several leadership capacities since then, and been blessed to represent our denomination at both jurisdictional and general conferences. In the process, I think I have witnessed the demise of leadership into a state of crisis. Vision and direction are lacking. As I read a paper Richard Heitzenrater wrote, it confirmed my sinking feeling about leadership:

Within the church, in an age when shared governance, mutual ministry, lay rights, and making people feel good have taken center stage, the concept of strong leadership brings to some minds the image of oppressive, hierarchical structures with glass ceilings and procedures that implement repressive policies, The very word "authority" is tainted in some minds by the most pejorative meanings of its derivative "authoritarian." Leadership positions can be lonely positions-it is much easier to be just one of the guys or gals. Clergy are increasingly prone to abdicate leadership responsibilities in an ecclesiastical culture that emphasizes the role of the laity and highlights the concept of "general ministry."...

Wesley was usually able to relate to people where they were-if not on their level or from their perspective, at least aware of where they stood, Nonetheless, he was never hesitant to speak strongly, howbeit in love, against any position that he felt was wrong or inadequate. The current situation would present him with a real challenge, however.
These days, no one wants to hurt anyone's feelings; everyone wants to be liked and accepted; many feel immediately victimized by any words of criticism. And the assumption is that the strong exercise of authority in positions of leadership is likely to jeopardize the comfort level in some lives, a situation that must be avoided at all costs. John and Charles Wesley would have had difficulty with such an approach to leadership.
- Richard P. Heitzenrater, "Take Thou Authority": Ministerial Leadership in the Wesleyan Heritage, from Pulpit and Pew Research on Pastoral Leadership, Duke University. This paper was prepared for the United Methodist Council of Bishops' Task Force on Theological Education and Leadership Formation.

That certainly is harsh. It's also true, I believe.

We have to be very careful and realize who gives us our power for leadership. A bishop may ordain us, but the source of that authority is God. And in all of the questions ordinands are asked, they boil down to this: are we (1) spiritual, (2) talented, and (3) effective? And do we look at those who are being ordained, and are ordained, in these terms? Or do we select leadership based on people who won't hurt other's feelings and won't let authority "go to their heads?" I think as a rule, we Americans have dumbed down leadership... and the church has been no exception. We get exactly what we expect... and, I fear, deserve.

It is amazing to me how much energy we have put into some things, while nearly abandoning others. Do I think sexual and professional ethics for clergy are important? Absolutely. Clergy do not need to be predators nor abusers.

Do I think that Safe Sanctuary policies for children's ministries are important? Absolutely. Our children need to be safe and have the assurance of safety. A lot of time, work, and money has been expended to develop and implement these types of programs.

But somewhere, we missed the mark. Badly. If we were aiming at the bull's eye, we didn't even hit the outer ring when we shot.

Inadvertently, I think we became the sex police instead. We dumbed down expectations of leadership... and may have created the very problems that we are now trying to solve. All in the name of "shared governance" and "everyone having a place at the table." We act as if God told us to bring the Kingdom in by mob rule. Just a biblical observation: when Pilate asked the crowd about who to let go and who to crucify, they yelled, "Free Barabbas!" When he asked them about Jesus of Nazareth, they yelled, "Crucify!"

Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't have ethical and moral standards. And a lot of money, time, and effort went into developing these policies. But when we become the sex police yet say little or nothing when it comes to pastoral ineffectiveness and leadership voids, I'd say we are missing the mark... and worse, we are causing the very problems we are seeking solutions for by not insisting on leadership standards. When we dumb down expectations of leaders, we get the leaders we ask for and deserve.

We certainly don't rank sins. But to continually deal with the sexual misconduct of some of our clergy while IGNORING clear leadership voids and ineffectiveness among ALL clergy seems to be akin to spending our time writing speeding tickets while ignoring murders, rapes, and burglaries. Before you are too critical about that analogy, consider that churches are dying and closing and congregations continue to pay higher salaries and clergy benefits and are getting incompetent and ineffective leadership in return.

Everyone is NOT supposed to get a say. Leadership, especially strong leadership, requires that we speak the truth in love, even if it is critical, hurts people's feelings, or makes someone -as Heitzenrater says - "feel victimized by any words of criticism."

Am I being mean? Have I turned into "the man"? Am I marginalizing those who don't have power? And are some of my seminary professors going to be disappointed in me now?

Off and on for the last 24 years, I have officiated baseball and basketball, from youth league to the college level. I love being close to the game, love being around young people, and love the challenge. One of the things I absolutely hate doing in basketball is assessing a technical foul to a player or coach. I like being part of the game, but I prefer it to be in an accompanying role. The best parts of the game are when a kid threads a needle on a pass, or a player blocks a shot, someone nails a 3-pointer at a clutch moment, or a coach sits a team down to execute a beautiful play for a score. People don't come to a game to watch a player or coach get "T'd up." (OK... I'm sure someone does, in a I-watch-NASCAR-because-I-like-to-see-car-crashes sort of way)

Technical fouls immediately set folks off. It gets the crowd hostile. It creates an adversarial environment between the official and coach or official and player. Communications become strained. But at the same time, an official isn't on the floor to make people happy. He or she is paid to officiate and adjudicate the game. You use a balance of knowledge of the rules, discretion on the use of power, experience of management of the game, and common sense to make good decisions and proper actions. While coaches want a floor that is slanted toward them, the official's job is to keep the floor on an even keel - and that means doing what is right, regardless of criticism or who it will offend or whose feelings will be hurt.

I can only imagine what would happen if officials were advised to be liked and accepted by everyone, and not jeopardize the comfort levels of those around them. Would that be an effective approach to officiating?

I don't think it's an effective approach to leadership either. Even in the Church. Perhaps, even especially in the Church. Isn't the Kingdom and the salvation of our brothers and sisters at stake?

As Heitzenrater reminded us, both of the Wesley brothers firmly believed that preachers should have minds and abilities capable of understanding the faithful witness of Christ and have the ability to clearly communicate biblical truths to the people. Charles Wesley, it was noted, did not hesitate to expel preachers for incompetence. Here were his words about a Michael Fenwick, whom John said was "a tolerable preacher.":
I went to the room, that I might hear with my own ears one, of whom many strange things had been told me. But such a Preacher have I never heard, and hope I never shall again. It was beyond description. I cannot say he preached false doctrine, or true, or any doctrine at all, but pure, unmixed nonsense. Not one sentence did he utter that could do the least good to any one soul. Now and then a text of Scripture, or a verse quotation, was dragged in by head and shoulders. I could scarce refrain from stopping him. He set my blood a galloping, and threw me into such a sweat, that I expected the fever to follow. Some begged me to step into the desk, and speak a few words to tile poor dissatisfied hearers. I did so, taking no notice of Michael Fenwick.

I talked closely with him, utterly averse to working, and told him plainly he should either labour wish his hands, or preach no more. He hardly complied, though he confessed it was his ruin, his having been taken off his business. I answered I would repair the supposed injury, by setting him up again in his shop
. - Charles Wesley, Journal, August 5th, 1751

You think someone's feelings got hurt?

I don't think there is any contradiction between strong leadership and a strong theology of grace. Above all, the Wesleys called all of us, clergy and lay alike, to be imitators of Christ. What that means is this: when we meet the woman at the well, we are honest in what we say, even challenging. At the same time, we are full of grace and have the love of God in our hearts that allows for transformation. That is the true and Godly use of power. It may initially offend, but it transforms offense into redemption and salvation.

Boards of Ministry... General and Jurisdictional delegates - remember this when you approve candidates for ministry, and when you elect bishops. Don't listen to caucuses and factions. Don't see which quotas have been fulfilled or not. Insist on these questions being asked and answered: Who is competent? Who will be effective? Who is knowledgeable? Who is willing to serve? Who has vision? Who will give us direction... even if we don't initially like what they may say?

Who will lead us in the power and presence of God?



Anonymous said...

What a bracing post. Thank you for writing boldly.

R Heitzenrater said...

Right on.