who should lead the church?

downslastsuppersmall

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If you examine the picture closely, you can see that this portrayal of DaVinci’s Last Supper (photographed by Raoef Mamedov) is made up of people with Down’s Syndrome. This picture brought to mind a conversation from a DMin class on church leadership from over a year ago. It was called “Beyond Hierarchy” and focused on what church leadership could look like in this age of rapidly shifting ideas. One of the Profs had received 100 letters from pastors saying things like, “Something changed about 4 years ago . . .  We can’t do things the same anymore . . . We’re done with the show and placing ourselves on the corner and expecting people to come.”

They recognized that we have a hierarchical Christianity within an egalitarian culture. People don’t want to come to church and listen passively anymore. The expressed goal of the class was to explore how to release everyone to be active participants in the Grand Narrative of God. Sounded good. Aha! An action plan! A good old “how-to”.

During the class we were part of a class-wide conference call with an author of one of the many new how-to-do-church books that have been published in the last few years. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve read a ton of them, many are really good and insightful about church in this culture.) But then one class member asked him, who should lead the church? Without a second’s hesitation he replied, “the least of these.”

Silence.

No-one knew what to say to that. We all felt a bit exposed. Surely he was not serious. We wanted new ideas, but in reality most of us are still pretty comfortable with the “sharpest” and most entertaining and informative as leaders. And we like to be counted amongst that special group. And we still too often want someone up front that makes us feel like good Christians and look like we are doing important work. We become very comfortable with the congregational passivity that that leadership structure produces and the resulting insulation from most of the hurt and need of the world (or, quite possibly, down the street.)  But the least of these? How does leadership flow through them?

I remember my sweet cousin with Down’s who died in her thirties of a heart condition that is common to the syndrome. She was without guile and ready to love anyone. She would give huge bear hugs and unabashedly assume that you were her best friend upon first meeting. Simple things that would not warrant a second look from most of us made her uncommonly happy. And most of us have heard the stories from the Special Olympics where a whole group of runners will stop and run back to help a fallen friend – and often choose to cross the finish line together. They are each their brother’s keeper. When you think about it, when it comes to Christ-like love perhaps they set the bar too high for the rest of us.

We know that if we made any of them executive pastor, it might kill the institution which needs CEO’s and administrators and winners to make it work and stay afloat. But what do we value? From the least of these we might just learn humility, a sincere lack of self-importance, unconditional love, and sacrificial giving simply because someone had a need. Maybe we’d develop eyes to see God beyond where we have convinced ourselves He works and stays. Maybe we’d really move beyond hierarchy because we’d be in utter awe and wonder of each and every new best friend we meet. Maybe we’d finally see the Reality of God in the rhythms of a footrace gone backwards.

Jurgen Moltmann says that a church without the disabled is a disabled church. I think that’s because without them we really buy into the idea that the best and brightest know something more about doing “ministry” than everyone else. In my ongoing search for real church, that is, our true identity as the Body of the living Christ, our Living Orthodoxy, it seems that the “least of these” truly do know something about the Kingdom of God that the rest of us desperately need to learn. And perhaps, we who have lowered our sites to a comfortable ticket-to-heaven gospel are truly the “disabled” ones.

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Showing 24 comments
  • Skip
    Reply

    Oh Ellen,
    if only. I have had several people in my family with Downs and they were all lovers of others. Yvonne, my little niece was the sweetest person I have ever known. She got cancer at sixteen, and died a year later.

    I went to see her close to the time of her death. We talked for a while, and she looks at me and says, “Don’t cry uncle Skip, don’t worry. Last night when I was in bed, Jesus came in my room and sat with me. He said, “Don’t worry honey, you’re going to be alright.” Her consoling me, the big time pastor.

    Your paragraph that begins with ~ “We know that if we made any of them executive pastor……,is the crux of the matter. Until we die to the self-possession of beauty, brains, and brawn, and follow Jesus on the downward spiral to the cross, or as you put it so well “the footrace gone backwards” we’ll never re-present Jesus as a people.

  • pastormack
    Reply

    Touching, but perhaps a tad too sentimental. I too value the lives of ‘the least of these’; I envy the work of Jean Vanier and L’Arche, and love Nouwen’s work that reflects on his experience there. But frankly, the suggestion that the mentally handicapped lead the church is a bit silly. Touching, well-meaning, but silly. Jesus enourages visiting the least of these, loving the least of these, and ministering to them. They will likely inherit the kingdom ahead of the rest of us. But while many of the early church leader were “ordinary” (in their professions, at least), it is striking that Jesus never makes a leper or cripple or blind man or demoniac an apostle.

    No, our leaders should be women and men of compassion and good will, but who are also well-trained, truly called, and quite capable. I went to seminary with a woman who was in a wheelchair, but she was also extremely motivated and very intelligent. I fully believe that the disabled should be incorporated into the life of the church, but it is possible to be so disabled (or old, or sick) that one is not capable of leading a congregation.

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      You may have missed the point. It is that there are some things towards which a “well trained, truly called and quite capable” leader cannot teach a congregation. And we both know that having those things are no guarantee of a heart that truly reflects Christ. There are things that are needed that only those who do not have the self-reliance on their own giftedness and the privilege of education can bring. Yet their voices are less respected, even considered “silly.” I think our view of what it means to “lead” a congregation is also the problem. Those who are most qualified as you say, have helped to create a church in the US that has the same number of moral and sexual failings as the “world”, that still holds most of the world’s wealth (up in the 90% range) while millions live in extreme poverty, and cannot stay in a dialogue about what it means to love our enemies. We need other voices in leadership desperately. We need the church herself to remember who she is.
      And of course, since Jesus only chose Jewish men as disciples, all from the same region, most of us in church leadership are disqualified anyway by your argument. 🙂

  • kathyescobar
    Reply

    well said, my friend. may it come to pass..

  • Eugene Scott
    Reply

    Thanks, Ellen. I find it interesting that pastormack affirms that Jesus’ kingdom works differently and has a different set of values from how we usually do things by saying, “Jesus enourages [sic] visiting the least of these, loving the least of these, and ministering to them. They will likely inherit the kingdom ahead of the rest of us.”

    Yet he says church leadership must be built on ideas that don’t really reflect, and sometimes contradict, the foundational ones the kingdom is built on such as: the first shall be last, servant leadership, not by human wisdom but God’s wisdom, our wisdom is foolishness to God, etc.

    He also seems to forget that Peter, Matthew, and the rest were in some sense the least of these. They were not “well-trained” and “quite capable.” They were simply called and then embodied by God’s Spirit. On-the-job training came much later and they failed often.

    I believe in training and education. I have some. But too often those of us with training and education and credentials lean more on those to lead the church than on the things of the kingdom and Christ himself. I have done it too often myself and ended up in a disappointed heap wondering what happened.

    And to have the least of these lead is silly. But so is the kingdom. It is foolishness to this world. But it is so often how God works.

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      Wow, thanks for that reminder Eugene. The Kingdom does indeed seem foolish compared to what seems logical and worthy in this world!

  • James
    Reply

    Ellen,
    I think you are spot on here and in your comment response to pastormack. We have a very unhealthy addiction to a concept of “leadership” that I believe is built on a corrupted nature of rule. That our churches need “leadership” that resembles the corporate CEO seems like a symptom to a much deeper and systemic problem than most paid clergy can see because they are way too close the paradigm that literally provides for their families.

    But what do I know? When I taught on this at my last church and answered your question, “who should lead the church” with the idea that God does not call us to be “leaders” but faithful followers and stewards (I have this hunch that Jesus is fully capable of leading his Church) it was made clear to me that my services were no longer wanted or needed.

    Peace,
    JM

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      “Jesus is fully capable of leading His church.” 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • pastormack
    Reply

    “Those who are most qualified…helped to create a church in the US that has the same number of moral and sexual failings as the “world”, that still holds most of the world’s wealth (up in the 90% range) while millions live in extreme poverty, and cannot stay in a dialogue about what it means to love our enemies.”

    Ellen, are you suggesting that the US church (which is of course not unified) has 90% of the world’s wealth? That makes little sense. I think your critique of the US church and the US is getting intermingled here.

    And I disagree that the US has not stayed in a dialogue about what it means to love our enemies. Christians of goodwill simply interpret what this means in different ways – Menno Simons and MLK Jr. are not the only voices on what this means in a national context, in particular.

    “Yet he says church leadership must be built on ideas that don’t really reflect, and sometimes contradict, the foundational ones the kingdom is built on such as: the first shall be last, servant leadership…etc. ”

    Eugene, when did I indicate my vision of church leadership contradicts the kingdom? I said, “our leaders should be women and men of compassion and good will, but who are also well-trained, truly called, and quite capable” in addition of course to being kind, loving, people with a ‘heart for’ Christ (whatever that means). I believe that in using the language of “calling” I am keeping with the New Testament vision of Christian leadership. Of course it is servant leadership – it is kenotic leadership, as Christ’s was. But being a servant leader is not the same has being a handicapped or mentally challenged leader.

    I think you are all confusing American egalitarianism with the Kingdom. Especially in American Protestantism, there has been a revolt against having high academic, moral, and other standards for clergy and lay leaders. Anyone who “loves God” and feels “called” is thus qualified to proclaim the gospel. The results have been disasterous. Of course Ivy-League seminaries do not necesarily produce top-notch Christ-like pastors. But it is equally true that the Church has rarely been moved forward by untrained folk with good hearts and a King James Bible. Think of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Ignatius, etc. The current Pope is also an outstanding theologian.

    And lest we forget, the prime NT example of a well-trained pastor/missionary/theologian: Paul. Paul was a genius. He was not a genius merely because he meant well and had a vision on the road to Damascus. He had also trained as a pharisee, at the feet of Gamaliel, and when he became a Christian he put his training in Torah to the service of Christ. Romans and Galatians in particular are astounding examples of Paul’s subtle exegesis. So, my friends, don’t knock the training: the kingdom has not spread by warm-fuzzies and luck. The Spirit works through training, too. Pastors are not CEO’s – though too many think they are – but neither are we amateurs who happen to have a Bible in our hands and like to stand up in front of people and try to proclaim the gospel. Offices like elder, deacon, priest, and bishop are – lest we forget – in the Bible. And such people are called and formed, and frankly not everyone is capable of such a demanding task (many days I feel I am not; and I am positive I am not worthy of it).

    Thank you for keeping the debate civil, though. I’d like to see where this goes.

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      Well since Christians are still in the majority in the US it is safe to say that we do hold most of the world’s wealth. In the face of the extreme poverty that millions live in, having access to transportation and emergency services and clean water still make all of us wealthier than most but of course the majority of us have much more than that and much more than we need. This is an issue that we do need to deal with. The status quo must be challenged. See Eugene’s Cho’s blog (http://eugenecho.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/89-million-more-people/) if you’re interested. He and his wife have sold items and scrimped and saved to donate an entire year’s salary to help fight extreme poverty. They sounds like Kingdom hearts to me. And I have heard little discussion about loving enemies that isn’t merely quoting others. We seem to bring little discussion of that difficult command into ordinary lives. Mostly, discussion seems to justify not loving them, or releases us from personal responsibility.
      I do not deny that I am grateful for good scholarship and biblical training and the opportunities that all of us in this conversation have had to obtain and use it! Those things are a gift to us too. But I disagree that this is a confusion of American egalitarianism and the Kingdom. If anything, in the Kingdom the first (the highly educated and gifted) will be last…but not unnecessary, LOL. I think we miss it if we feel that those of us with these type of qualifications should be the only ones with a voice to be counted, or to be given more weight. The Kingdom is more egalitarian than America could ever hope to be.
      I agree, people feeling called and doing what they please outside of a larger community (where they can challenge and be challenged) have created disasters. But leaning into what makes a healthy community that can bring these people into healthy dialogue concerning their actions and beliefs can help with that. Plenty of those “just anyones” have been seminary grads too. And perhaps we don’t hear how the church has been moved by the “untrained” because they do not achieve celebrity status. The thousands of Chinese Christians who remained faithful and thus became millions under years of closed communist rule when they barely had a Bible to share much less any training shows that it is more than our know-how that builds the church. The Western missionaries who were kicked out feared that the fledgling Chinese Church would die because they were not there to lead it! As if governments can keep out God.
      We can argue about the realities of poverty and other issues but I think the real difficulty is to admit that the Church is in need of serious healing and we all have let her down, we all have much to learn and we all need to practice metanoia – being willing to change the way we think. It cannot be healed with the same way of thinking that created it. We have a very hierarchical view of things whereas Jesus was to “bring the mountains low and fill the valleys”. We’ve just not seen it done any other way and our prophetic imaginations are full of cobwebs. Personally, I think we all need to re-orient towards Jesus.
      But let me say that all this does not mean I don’t appreciate those who have done the hard work of study and who offer their considerable shepherding skills to the Church. I thank God for pastors like you, too. 🙂

  • pam w
    Reply

    Beautiful. I love the deeper questionss that evokes and the discomfort in me that leads to more important questions. You rock!!

  • pastormack
    Reply

    I would just like to add that Joel Osteen does NOT have any kind of education. And it shows. Ugh. Most of the pastors with formal training never are celebrities, they are also rarely millionaires…but the ones that are, make the rest look bad.

    Perhaps the issue is what we mean by “lead.” If by lead you mean example, showing the way, etc. then I am on board. If you mean their witness should be incorporated into the life of the church (as seen at L’Arche) and taken seriously as Christian testimony, I’m with you. I merely mean that folks with extremely severe handicaps cannot cope with the rigors of daily administration of church life, visitation, counseling, etc. I have no doubts that they will be ahead of us in the Kingdom, however. Though I hope and pray that the Kingdom will be greater, more just, more joyful, than even the most good-natured of our imaginations.

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      I’m with you on Joel Osteen, LOL. 😉 I think the point has been made that we in this age are still assuming that the church must be an organized, administrative construct led by the professionals. I believe that model has changed our self-understanding in ways that have diminished us and our effectiveness for the Kingdom. But that seems to be the question of the day – more than how do we *do* church, it’s how are we *church* in this age?
      Thanks for your engagement in the conversation!

  • Eugene Scott
    Reply

    Ellen: Thanks for stirring a good conversation. Now if we can let God turn it into more than conversation.

    My reason for engaging in the conversation is not because I think we should replace all church leadership with mentally disabled people (I don’t think that was your point), nor that gifted, intelligent, trained, experienced leadership is bad (again not your point).

    Rather I see that the church is (and has been for sometime) in crisis. Right now she is often not salt and light any longer. She is not counter-cultural. The church is morally challenged, as you mentioned, and losing ground. It has been a long time since God added to our numbers daily those who are being saved. I think most of us know the dismal statistics of church closings and numerical loss, not to mention our lack of impact on the spiritual climate of our culture.

    I believe this crisis can be a good thing, if it drives us to look carefully at our individual and corporate hearts, minds, systems, and beliefs and repent.

    Repentance means, in part, admitting the crisis it is not necessarily Joel Osteen’s (and his type) fault. Though he, as well as I, have a role. The system does not simply need better trained, more moral, more intelligent leaders, though these would be good additions.

    It is in large part a systemic problem. Too often we have built the church on a foundation of sand (trusting in modernism, logic, business principles, bottom-line, leaders as CEO’s, etc.). These things are not evil and often are a blessing. They just cannot be our foundation because they flow first from our own thinking and efforts. The foundation of our lives as church is something more than this, but seems to us something less. For me, how that looks and operates is still shaping. This conversation has helped.

    And Mack, thanks for your sharpening of my thinking in this conversation. And forgive me for putting words in your mouth.

    The question Ellen’s essay made me ask is this: Can I, a gifted, intelligent, trained, experienced, called leader (please, this is not bragging but categorizing, many are more gifted, intelligent, etc.) lean not on my own understanding? Too often my answer is no. God, help me understand what that mysterious idea of the last shall be first means and please forgive and transform me. Help me to see and hear how you speak and lead through the least of these to bring salvation, mercy, justice, and righteousness to our aching world.

  • James
    Reply

    Pastormack, I was going to find your blog and comment there but there is no link so I will just as here. You say, “I merely mean that folks with extremely severe handicaps cannot cope with the rigors of daily administration of church life, visitation, counseling, etc.”

    I would suspect that we might disagree on the importance of the rigors of daily administration but what I am really wondering is what role(s) should severe handicaps, the undereducated, the poor, undertrained, undercapable play in living out our faith as a communal way of life? I believe that we have overvalued a corrupted form of “leadership” that leads to seeing these people only as receivers of our ministry (we visit them, and minister to them, etc) but we have completely lost our ability to be ministered to by them.

    I sense that this is part of what Ellen is getting at in her post. All of the people in the community of faith have gifts to share with the community and when we structure things in such a way that only the professional, qualified are allowed to offer their contributions then the whole community loses, regardless of how educated or qualified those professionals are. My concern is not just that we have lost the contributions and gifts of the severely handicapped. We have lost the contributions and gifts of the large majority of the congregation.

    Peace!

    JM

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      “My concern is not just that we have lost the contributions and gifts of the severely handicapped. We have lost the contributions and gifts of the large majority of the congregation.”
      That’s exactly it, James. 🙂

  • David Shepherd
    Reply

    Sorry I’m getting in on the discussion a bit late…

    I read your post, Ellen (I always enjoy reading you) and scanned through the comments. Not living in the US and not reading the books on church growth, I may be missing a common thread. So, my comments may be about asparagus while you are really talking about peaches for all I know. Please forgive if I’m not on the planet!!!

    It seems to me the core issue is less about leadership and more about spiritual authority. This has been a theme of challenge for us in going into missions. Our “home church” did not feel we were called. Our friends (who have known us longer) said emphatically that they saw God’s call in us clearly. Whom do we submit to? Whose ‘leadership’ do we follow?

    I did the American thing and started my own not-for-profit, created a board and declared them to have authority over me. Mind you, they are not a rubber stamping board, but I did create it and nurture it. It leaves me feeling rouge-ish in the church and at the same time confirmed in call and direction. Our home church has since split, dropped our support and has become a relational mess. We’ve had to find another church home but feel like waifs without place or belonging.

    Scriptures don’t help much here, in my opinion. The Centurion is commended for his faith and understanding of the way authority functions. The original church models show a hierarchy in decision making and commissioning. Yet, we are to be least and mutually submit.

    In our soul care of pastors and missionaries I’m always a bit dismayed by the lack of authority connection among leaders. Many who sit with us are truly disconnected for a myriad of reasons – some are in broken structures. Others have chosen to be autonomous and thus end up in crisis. And still others are only connect superficially thinking they have deep roots until the crisis emerges and they discover the tap root is missing.

    Many I speak to say these examples expose poor leadership. And while that may be true, I think it exposes something far more dark and uncomfortable for us to truly and honestly examine.

    Can a severely handicap individual lead? I’m not the one to ask. But I do wonder whether they can provide the necessary spiritual authority under which we all must function and submit. I even wonder the same about myself as our staff continues to grow and my board actually takes me seriously as a man who wishes to listen to the movement of the Spirit.

    I really don’t like asparagus and I don’t even care for peaches. So, make of this what you will! 🙂 Thanks for the context to think aloud. It’s fun.

  • David Shepherd
    Reply

    BTW, in stabbing closer to the topic, I do think we have lost the contribution and gifts of many in the congregation. But once again, is this a function of faulty leadership or poorly understood spiritual authority whose role is more about drawing the whole community into the fullness of God?

  • James Maybe
    Reply

    Just so folks know that image comes from this blog post:

    One chromosome too many.

    Cheers,

    JM

  • James Maybe
    Reply

    It’s quite a strong image.

    Versions of the photos are shown on the sites you mention, but the one shown here is from my site. That’s how I found out about this post; my server show a list of everyone linking content from my site. Just check the source code or hover over the image to see.

    At any rate I don’t mind the inline image link at all, just wanted to let people know where it came from. 🙂

    Cheers,

    JM

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      The credit goes to the photographer, Raoef Mamedov. But it had been posted on the net 2 years before your blog post. You are not the original source. Just sayin’ 🙂

  • pastormack
    Reply

    “…what role(s) should severe handicaps, the undereducated, the poor, undertrained, undercapable play in living out our faith as a communal way of life? I believe that we have overvalued a corrupted form of “leadership” that leads to seeing these people only as receivers of our ministry (we visit them, and minister to them, etc) but we have completely lost our ability to be ministered to by them.”

    James, I actually see little that we disagree on here. I mentioned L’Arche; Nouwen writes frequently on how working with the handicapped is a gift to him as well has his own ministry. In my own work with widows, the suffering, the disabled, etc. – limited as it is – I would agree. Jesus is right: no shock here. But the example that began this discussion was Down’s Syndrome in particular; unless I’ve missed something greatly, a person with Down’s Syndrome can’t serve as a pastor and probably not in a serious lay leadership roll. Is this person still a gift? Of course. A part of the Body of Christ? Yes. Probably the first in the Kingdom? Yes.

    I think the poor, less educated and ignorant (however defined) are an entirely different question. Many great pastors and leaders are poor, crippled, lesser (formally) educated. At the end of the day, though, we are all called to follow Christ, with the Spirit’s help, as best we can.

    A larger direction I would take your comment is that we have lost the ministry of the laity almost completely. I am not THE minister. I am a pastor, my job is, as Saint Paul says, “equipping the Saints” for ministry. We’re all in this together. I think healthy pastors in healthy congregations will find that the people are a gift to him or her also, and those folks will minister to their pastor. I’ve been surprised by this myself. But the larger tragedy of American Christianity is that most of our people – handicapped or not – are consumers of religion, rather than Disciples of the risen Lord.

    Oh, and I do not know why this is not coming up, but my own page is:

    http://www.pastormack.wordpress.com

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