Are clergy indispensable?

There is a general, if unspoken, sense that clergy in the Church of England (and often in other denominations too) are indispensable in the local church. And yet this actually sits at odds with the ministry of Jesus and of the early apostolic leadership. This surprising contrast is captured well by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell’s introduction to the latest Grove Leadership booklet, Refusing to be Indispensable:

One of the really remarkable things about the gospels is Jesus’ astonishing unavailability. It is not what we expect. He is always disappearing. Sometimes to pray. Sometimes, it seems, just to get away. I can only draw one conclusion: he was not an Anglican vicar! Because so many Anglican clergy—and I am sure it is the same for other denominations as well—have this idea that they should at all times and in all places be equally available to everyone. Well, not only is this impossible—as soon as I am with one person I am, by definition, unavailable to everyone else—it is also a recipe for personal and pastoral disaster, leading to burnout, hubris, exhaustion and tyranny.

The book’s author, Andy Griffiths, begins his exploration with a sobering introduction:

My daughter had an imaginary dad. Many children have imaginary friends. But during the period of my curacy (the first four years of her life) I was home so little that my daughter created an imaginary daddy—his name was Bubble Daddy—who would come and play with her. And it was my fault. I thought I was indispensable to my church. Or I hoped I was indispensable. Or, more likely, I feared not being indispensable. It was not good for me, it was not good for my family, and it was not good for the church I was serving.

So the day I preached my first sermon as incumbent of Galleywood in Essex, in July 2005, I made God two secret vows. One of them was: No one but Jesus will be the sun in this solar system. I think I meant two things: first, I would not make myself central to the life of St Michael’s, and secondly, I was aware that my curacy church had taken too central a place in my life, and I refused to make St Michael’s Church central to my discipleship or that of its other members. This did not mean I was unwilling to work hard, or that I was refusing to lead—but I was determined not to think I was indispensable.

Twelve years on, I have just left Galleywood, but this book is born out of my faltering attempts to refuse to be central to church life there. So I o er ve metaphors for incumbents to muse over, pray with and, if necessary, use in argument—images that helped me to be a di erent kind of incumbent. I make no claim to a coherent theory of leadership, but I link each metaphor with the New Testament or a church leader, and with a little of my own story. After I lay out the ve metaphors, my nal chapter suggests four next steps for any- one who is starting to nd the argument convincing—steps that have to do with our use of language, our lifestyle, our decision-making and our prayers.

I am no impartial witness, so you are not hearing the voice of those who got so frustrated with me that they left the church (there have been quite a number), nor of those who were driven to distraction by my lack of organization and failure to confront when it was needed. Nor are you hearing from my family, who would tell you that although I made some progress towards being a dispensable incumbent, there is a long, long way to go.

Andy then introduces his series of metaphors, linked to different examples in the New Testament description of the life of the early church. The first gives a good flavour of what is to come:

Metaphor 1: The Incumbent Vanishes

Pete Rollins (born 1973) is a philosopher, radical theologian and speaker. He only knows one magic trick. It has three parts:

First—the Pledge. A coin is shown to the audience and placed in Pete’s right hand.

Then—the Turn. It appears to disappear (actually it goes into his left hand, but the audience does not know that).

And finally—the Prestige. The coin is found, not where the audience was looking, but in the middle of the auditorium under an upturned beer glass near Row J. Applause.

And that, says Rollins, is just like God. What?

God, for Rollins, is constantly drawing our attention to God’s presence—in Scripture, in bread and wine, in the promised land, in the temple and, most of all, in the incarnate Jesus, especially the risen Jesus after his resurrection. And God is not fooling us in doing so—God really is present in these ways. But then comes the Turn, in which we discover that God is present by being absent. Like the disciples at Emmaus, just when we encounter the risen Jesus in the telling of the story and the breaking of bread, he vanishes—our experience of him was real, but we cannot hold on to it. Jesus did not have to disappear in this way—he could have stayed for supper at Emmaus, and he could have stayed in bodily form instead of ascending. But he knew it would not be good for the disciples to have their eyes focused on his physical presence—they needed to grow up. Their action, in the presence of his absence, by the power of the Spirit, would be ‘more advantageous’ than Jesus’ physical presence. There is a sense of loss that characterizes the Christian life when it is not propped up by objective mediators of the absolute, and it has a distinctive courage to it.

So much for the Pledge and the Turn. What is the Prestige? If, like Mary Magdalene at the tomb, we are forbidden to hang on to Jesus, where is the presence of God to be found for more than a fleeting moment? 1 John gives the answer: ‘No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God abides in us’ (1 John 4.12). By the power of the Spirit, the absent risen Christ is present in human love wherever such human love resembles his own love when he was here in body. We were looking at the stage, but the coin (the presence of God) was among us the whole time, and when we stopped looking at the bright lights we found it in the midst of us, on Row J. Rollins calls this ‘The return of the sacred’—and also points out that although human love is seen in many ways, the return of the sacred seems to be most found among the poor and the outsider.

It is no surprise that the last chapter of Rollins’ book is called ‘The Vanishing Priest.’ If the incumbent is in some sense a representative of the risen Jesus in a church, it is important to remember that disappearing is what the risen Jesus kept characteristically doing. Religious professionals face the temptation to take centre stage, and tell people that God is securely present—in our being, or our actions, or our words, or our leadership, and that if people are looking for God, church buildings are the main place they will find him. On the contrary, the glimpses of God that are genuinely offered in word and sacrament and musical worship need to be followed by a Turn in which God’s people know God’s presence in ordinary human love, especially among those seen as the least; God is more present during the befriending of a neighbour on Pyms Road as in the singing of 10,000 Reasons at St Michael’s Church. This sort of disappearing pastor ‘makes their own ongoing presence ultimately superfluous…Just like with Jesus and his two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the show ends with the disappearance of the one who helped perform the trick.’

In the words of Paula Gooder:

The great divine absence is a vital ingredient in our call to mission…If Jesus were still on earth in his risen existence, we would probably leave him to it. We might stand at the edge making admiring noises but it would be hard to join in…A [good] sermon illustration for Ascension Day would be for the preacher to walk out and leave the congregation alone.

Andy Griffiths goes on to explore leaders as apostolic team members, as team builders, as doorkeepers, and as a planet, with other planets orbiting the sun which is the indispensable presence of God. He ends with a challenge to practical action:

Refusing to make yourself central to church life is not easy. Liminality is probably not what you were trained for, and if you tell your chapter or min- isters’ fraternal that you are trying to help your church become a ministering community instead of a community centred on a minister, you may get some odd looks. (They might even call you eccentric, which is ironic in the present context.) You will need to stand up against your own inner voices (because sometimes it is quite nice to be indispensable), as well as against voices in the local church who want the gathered church to be central to their Christian lives and need you to be needed, or at least to chair one more committee, visit one more housebound person or preach one more sermon.

This is a fascinating and engaging reflection on a vital issue in ministry—for all those in leadership, whether lay or ordained.

You can order the booklet Refusing to be Indispensable from the Grove website for £3.95 post-free in the UK, or as an electronic PDF delivered by email.

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19 thoughts on “Are clergy indispensable?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Thought this had some relevance: “As has been said, the secret of effectual service is not overwork, but overflow. And that overflow comes best and most naturally, and certainly most fruitfully, from the rest of faith, to which the law of the Sabbath bears witness.” James Philip, Edinburgh. Wise words.

  2. Michael Green’s ‘Freed To Serve’ (originally ‘Called To Serve’) reconfigured people’s thinking and is still an excellent simple game-changer.

  3. I love the thought of being eccentric.
    I’m glad to say that one or two key members of my team, when discussing the matter of expectations on me frequently reassure me that I have shown a significant ability to disappoint!

  4. Andy makes a good point though with clergy costing the average Parish £60K plus per annum it is not so easy to do with a good conscience not least when those picking up the tab are themselves being thrashed in their own vocations.

  5. Dear Ian,

    Pretty good post. I do have to say that the answer to the question in your title is NO and Yes. I think too many times there is a tendency to go with “either/or,” when it should be “both/and,” or “Yes/No.” We could argue or debate this “until the cows come home,” but what follows is summary.

    First, “No.”
    If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers, then we do not need a priest, pastor, etc., to go before God through Christ,
    “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:4-5).

    priesthood—Christians are both the spiritual temple and the priests of the temple. There are two Greek words for “temple”; hieron (the sacred place), the whole building, including the courts wherein the sacrifice was killed; and naos (the dwelling, namely, of God), the inner shrine wherein God peculiarly manifested Himself, and where, in the holiest place, the blood of the slain sacrifice was presented before Him. All believers alike, and not merely ministers, are now the dwelling of God (and are called the “naos,” Greek, not the hieron) and priests unto God (Rev 1:6). The minister is not, like the Jewish priest (Greek, “hiercus”), admitted nearer to God than the people, but merely for order’s sake leads the spiritual services of the people. Priest is the abbreviation of presbyter in the Church of England Prayer Book, not corresponding to the Aaronic priest (hiereus, who offered literal sacrifices). Christ is the only literal hiereus-priest in the New Testament through whom alone we may always draw near to God. Compare 1 Pe 2:9, “a royal priesthood,” that is, a body of priest-kings, such as was Melchisedec. The Spirit never, in New Testament, gives the name hiereus, or sacerdotal priest, to ministers of the Gospel. (1)

    a holy priesthood Peter explains the transfer of priesthood language from Israel to the Church in a later verse (see v. 9 and note). Here Peter reminds his audience of the priesthood’s ultimate purpose: to offer God praise and thanksgiving. (2)

    “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (I Timothy 2:5-6).

    The priesthood is in need of no other mediator between God and Mankind. Jesus Christ fulfills that role.

    Second, “Yes.”
    This is more rooted in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 with the qualifications of a “bishop.” There is also the fact that as long as the Apostles were alive, then any disputes would be decided by them instead of the pastor/bishop/elder. Once the Apostles had passed on, then the authority was passed on to the local pastor/bishop/elder. There is no Scriptural support in the NT for a hierarchal priesthood.
    The pastor/bishop/elder is the one who is to shepherd the flock (I Peter 5). This means the Shepherd is praying, teaching, feeding, caring, etc for each lamb and sheep even it means his death to do so. Yet the local congregation is answerable only to its own shepherd and not another. Should there not be a shepherd to care for the flock, then the deacons take over until a shepherd is chosen by the congregation.

    (1) Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 504). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

    (2) Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Pe 2:5). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

    • I’m enjoying the conversation. I’m afraid the book is not so much about whether incumbents (Vicars, Rectors, Priests in Charge, Senior Pastors) should exist, but rather about what role they should fulfil. I argue that they shouldn’t be at the centre of the gathered church, but should rather be apostolic team members, team builders, doorkeepers, training and encouraging all the members to do the work of mission and ministry but spending as much time with those outside the church community as they do with those inside it. I try to suggest some strategies (of language, lifestyle, decision-making and prayer) that will help us move from the centre.

  6. Andy was always a wise colleague when I served as a Methodist minister in Chelmsford, and with the particular issues of presence and absence I face with having pastoral charge of more than one church, I think you have just sold a copy. Thank you, Ian – and thank you, Andy, if you are reading.

  7. Thank you David; you were a supportive and mission-minded colleague and the circuit still misses you. I have to say I wrote a Grove booklet five years ago (on Church Merger), and annual sales have never exceeded 20 copies, so I’m not holding my breath for high volumes!

    If I may add to Ian’s very full review, I would say that the book as a whole gives practical solutions to the issue I’m addressing, which is a tendency for incumbents to make themselves the heart of church life.

  8. Thank you Ian!
    I am rather new to this ordained priesthood life and should shortly be starting my first post following curacy, but I have always been passionate about ‘growing disciples’ and ‘encourage all followers’ in order to, to be frank, do myself out of a job! As a parish priest I want to be present to teach and grow the community and yet at the same time, absent to ’empower’ the leaders I have grown, by God’s grace. Holding the calling lightly, remembering that at any time God could call us elsewhere.
    I had a wonderful role model in my previous training incumbent who moved on and left a church ready, willing and able to continue in the mission of God for the area, even growing! He would be so proud.

  9. There are many hard things about being a sole vicar in a multi-parish benefice, but priest and congregations quickly learn that one cannot be indispensable – it truly is impossible to be in four churches at once! So congregations have to learn how to manage with their minister not at the centre of their church. It can make for uncomfortable relationships sometimes but good communication is absolutely essential, and trusting that God is in control, even when either vicar or people feel that one or other holds the power.

  10. Thank you Ian,
    You have inspired me, as have many of the comments to continue in my ministry to point the way, by helping to open doors, encouraging those I am ministering with to step through and trust God to be with them.

  11. I don’t think it is only clergy who feel like this. When I was in industry, my boss, whoever he or she happened to be at the time, also thought I was indespensible and that they owned me 100% of the time. I am often frustrated by clergy who think “poor me”. Try working in the private secrtor, or even the public sector. Certainly, we struggle to have time off, my one day off per week is often taken up with work, but there is huge job satisfaction. As an employee, I workred from 9-5 Monday to Friday, except there was huge pressure on me to start at 8.00am and not to leave until 6.30pm, and to take work home, and to be available on the phone. And, on top of this, I had a 70 min journey into work and another one home again. Sadly, there was very little job satisfaction, the only upside was that I was paid a darned sight more than I am now!!No, the grass isn’t always greener!

  12. A big assist to enable clergy to feel less indispensable would be to remove the clerical exclusion zone around Eucharistic presidency (and non-emergency baptism). By implication, in Acts, if you got converted, you got baptised immediately; if you met with fellow Christans for a meal, you commemorated the Lord’s death. I recently looked at all the NT scriptures I could recall that referred to bishops, presbyters and deacons, cf Bryant Williams post, and both Paul and Peter seem, arguably, to conflate the offices of presbyter, bishop and shepherd, as differing attributes of one role. Also, it seems each church had multiple presbyters (Acts 14:23). And, almost by definition, they were initially made without episcopal ‘laying on of hands’ – same reference, Saul and Barnabas being, if anything, apostles.

    I write this as a Reader who ‘presided’ at Holy Communion by extension during a recent vacancy only to be told “I don’t see why you can’t do the whole service.” “Church rules” is a pretty lame response but the only honest one – I don’t see why either. Interesting to note that Archbishop Sentamu is proposing to ‘ordain’ Readers in York. I, personally, would prefer to see my LLM become LEM, Lay Eucharistic Minister. It would make me much more useful if I were in multi-parish benefice (where the ‘ordained’ presbyter would then be needed to ‘oversee’!). Not indispensable, just refocused.

    (BTW, just ordered the book!)


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