Thursday, June 7, 2012

on church leadership

Yesterday I had someone share a story with me about pastoral leadership in this context.  A church questioned the fitness of its pastor to preach due to a conflict.  In the pastor's place, the church suggested that guest preachers or lay members with something to say might fill the pulpit.  The church's reasoning, as it was relayed to me, went something like this:

The people have problems of their own.  They are looking for help for those problems.  They think that if the preacher has those problems too, he will be unable to impart the word to them.

I don't know what all influences--societal, cultural, religious, or a mix of all these and more--form the people's beliefs, but I do know that the verb "to impart" or its noun form, "impartation", seems to be something of a tenet of Pentecostal/Charismatic doctrine.  At least impartation gets tossed around as though its meaning is self-evident to all Christians; what Pentecostals mean by it has not, perhaps until now, been evident to me.

Perhaps most of all, the story interests me for what it reveals about the meaning of the preaching event in this particular context, namely, that the sermon, being the means through which God's Word is imparted to the people, has a healing function.  People anticipate the sermon as the time when something will, in effect, be done for them.  It is the time when the preacher, the acknowledged authority in their midst, puts his "spirit" on the people.  Surely, the story goes along with how a pastor defined his role to me some years back--"I am a transferer of spirits".

It follows from this understanding of the preacher and the proclamation that the spiritual health of the one who shares God's Word is of primary importance in the eyes of the people.  If the preacher has a right spirit or the life to confirm the words he/she speaks, then the spirit the preacher transmits can improve the weakened "signals" of the members of his flock.

There are perhaps some antecedents to this logic in the history of Christianity.  In the early fourth century in North Africa, a rift developed in the church between those who were represented by a man named Donatus and those loyal to Rome.  The followers of Donatus, or the Donatists, did not want Rome to ordain pastors over them whose integrity in their eyes was suspect.  The so-called Donatist Controversy set several precedents which have haunted subsequent Christian history, not the least of which was one part of the church turning to the state to forcefully discipline another part of the church, with the Donatists bearing the brunt.  For this discussion, however, the relevant point is the Donatists' perspective on pastoral leadership over against that of their most outspoken opponent in later years, Augustine of Hippo.  On behalf of Rome, Augustine undercut the Donatists' emphasis on the moral leadership of the pastor with his own emphasis on the primacy of the office of the pastor as vested with authority from Rome.  As the official teaching position of the church, the primacy of office over person went a long way to undercutting the centrality of morality generally as a hallmark of Christian identity.

In the sense that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists also insisted upon the upright character of pastors and all Christians in general, they were descendants of the Donatists.  And in the sense that the people in our story carry the concern for the personal integrity of the pastor, they too follow in this tradition.

Upon inspection, however, the issue is not so one-sided; the people do not perhaps revere the "person" of the pastor so much that they ignore the "office" of the pastor.  Otherwise, why would they trust guest preachers, many of whose character they cannot possibly know, or another lay person of perhaps similarly-compromised integrity to speak the word on Sunday mornings?  That they would accept the word from such persons indicates another important element in the effectiveness of faith--the faith of the receiver.  Because the people do not know of a particular preacher's personal life, on the basis of their faith they can be healed by the preacher's words apart from the overall witness of the preacher's life.  All of this is to say that for this reason and more, and however incumbent the righteous life is on leaders, it is good that the pastorate is also more than the person.  Office also matters.  Priestly functions, in this case, preaching, must be filled.

Let each part--the evangel (message of good news, gospel), the evangelist (messenger of the good news), and the evangelized (those who welcome the message and the messenger)--be afforded, each in relation to the other, its rightful place in the church.


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