Debunking the Clergification Myth

The economy's toll actually may liberate church leaders—and members.

The recession has forced many churches to rely more heavily on volunteers. But with this shift comes the unsettling discovery that churches need to empower more volunteers to effectively serve in ministry. Economic realities may be propelling us in this direction now, but the Bible should have pushed us to this change a long time ago. How ever we arrived at this point, it's time church leaders embrace this opportunity and challenge the "clergification" myth.

I use "clergification" to describe the tendency for people to believe that if they need help with spiritual matters, they must seek a professional clergy member. Or if they want ministry to be done, they must look to the paid church staff member to accomplish it. (Note: Don't use "clergification" in Scrabble; I made it up.)

This mindset is mirrored throughout our society. In our labor-segmented, industrialized culture, we've learned that if you're sick, go to a doctor, or if you're in legal trouble, hire an attorney. When all is not well with our souls, we've been taught to seek the help of professional clergy—ordained ministers—for help with spiritual matters. The result: "ordinary" people have been disempowered to engage in the ministry God has called every believer to do.

By allowing this false division of ministry workers to perpetuate, church leaders:

  • Drain those who are leading;
  • Perpetuate a dysfunctional co-dependency between paid staff and members;
  • Stunt the church's move toward maturity.

Ultimately, clergification is disempowering, unhelpful, and most importantly, unbiblical. When we succumb to clergification, we affirm a false, three-tier mentality:

Tier One: Lay People. This is the lowest tier, and represents the majority of people who attend a church, but do not serve in any kind of leadership position. While most pastors would never openly say this, often they look at this tier's main job as to "pay, pray, and get out of the way."
Tier Two: Pastors and Church Leaders. This refers to those who are "called to the ministry." These are often people who are pursuing ministry as a profession, either full-time or bivocational. They are paid to lead the church while all others are expected to yield to their positional power. We often refer to the phrase, "called to the ministry," but the problem with this reference is that it implies that anyone who is not in this tier is not called to a ministry.
Tier Three: Missionaries. This tier, positioned at the top, refers to those who are "called to missions." They travel far away, don strange garb, eat bugs for breakfast, and get introduced as "real, live missionaries" when they visit a church. They are the uber-Christians. Again, the problem with this terminology is that the majority of pastors exclude themselves from God's global mission because they feel that they are "called to the ministry" and not "called to missions" (which sounds similar to the lay people who don't use their gifts because they are not "called to ministry").

Each tier excludes themselves from the responsibility and passion for the tier that is above them because they think that they are not "called" to it. Such an assumption is clearly a lie that many have chosen to believe. While the New Testament defines offices within the church, this is not the same as being called to the ministry. The truth is that we have all been called to ministry and sent on a mission. The question is not whether we are called, but rather, to whom and where.

The person who is called to be a businessman reaching financial professionals on Wall Street is just as much called to the ministry as the person who is called to be a pastor in Des Moines. And the people who are caring for children in a suburban daycare are just as much on a mission as those who are serving the Quechua tribes in Peru. We need to point out the erroneous thinking of clergification and help people understand that being on mission and serving in ministry is not a unique call for some, but a standard part of life for all Christians.

Now, that is not to say that pastors are not called to a specific office and that missionaries do not have a unique and high calling. They do, and they need to be affirmed as such. But all believers are called to ministry and sent on mission and any system that detracts from that needs to be changed.

Fortunately, church leaders can correct this problem by making some practical changes in the language they use and the structures they adopt.

A Better Language

Instead of saying that certain people are "called to the ministry," we can say that everyone is "called to ministry." In addition to saying that some people are "called to missions," we can also say that all are "sent on mission." These changes remind us that God gave his Church one mission, and as members of his family, we all are responsible for it.

We no longer live in an era of a "priesthood." Instead, we are a part of the "priesthood of believers." Hearing God and serving him is no longer an elite call for a few, but a God-given privilege for us all. When we don't allow this to happen, it often stems from a distrust of people that ultimately rests in a distrust of the Holy Spirit and his ability to draw beauty from ashes.

A Better Structure

We can see the clergification mentality in churches from week to week, perhaps most clearly through the oft-quoted 80-20 rule (80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people). Yes, it is a problem that not enough people serve, but that problem is exacerbated when the pastor acts like a Superman for the congregation. When someone is in the hospital, the pastor is there. When someone needs to know Jesus, the pastor is ready. When some job needs to be done in the church, the pastor fills in. And in the midst of this, the pastor is praised by the congregation for being a hard worker, a servant, and a loving leader. It only fuels the dysfunction of clergification. If pastors and paid church staff members do for people what God has called all individuals to do, everyone gets hurt and the mission of God is hindered.

The only way to break this cycle is for pastors and congregations to open up the Bible and see that it clearly states that everyone is empowered and called to ministry and mission: "For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building," (1 Corinthians 3:9, NIV).

Pastors must let others have the opportunity to visit people who are hurting, to lead a friend to Christ, and serve inside and outside the church in various positions of ministry. Conversely, the church needs a new view of the pastor—that the pastor encourages and equips others to serve in these ways. By breaking the cycle, "clergy" and "laity" can both live the fullness of ministry and fulfill their calls in the way God intended, ending the damaging cycle in the process.

In a very practical sense, this means that churches may need to realign their staff and ministries to include heavy emphases on volunteer recruitment and training, spread ministries to volunteers (which are empowered to accomplish their goals without a staff member present every step of the way), and provide more specific training on how to prepare potential leaders to become actual leaders.

A hypothetical example might help illustrate this point:

Grace Fellowship Church is like many others. With professional clergy leading the charge, the people who attend feel secure in knowing that the work is getting done. The senior pastor preaches, counsels, and visits the sick. The music minister is busy planning services while the church administrator is busy planning the budget. On the other end of the offices, the directors of the student and children's ministries are looking at the activities for next year's church calendar. Five people are planning the activities of the church. They feel fulfilled in telling the congregation what to do next and the members are sometimes happy to oblige the clergy's well-intended leadership. And periodically, a missionary visits to let everyone know how their mission funds are being used overseas. But here is the kingdom dilemma: The membership of 550 people do relatively little under the heading of "ministry" outside of Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Their expectation, which has been proven right so far, is that the staff will take care of whatever needs to be done. If more planning is needed, or the church grows, the members have already prepared themselves to hire more staff.
If pastors and paid church staff members do for people what God has called all individuals to do, everyone gets hurt and the mission of God is hindered.
Meanwhile, Cornerstone Community Church is in the same town as Grace Fellowship, but it operates differently. With five full-time staff members, the membership of 500 feels it has sufficient staff leadership for the years ahead. The reason: Members consider the ministry of the church led by, planned for, and implemented by all believers. They have de-clergified. The well-taught church relies on the pastors to equip the body of Christ for ministry, instead of acting as their surrogates of grace. Cornerstone prefers for the pastors to provide training rather than do it alone. The church has developed a recruiting, training, and multiplying leadership structure that keeps all believers (staff and members) engaged in the gospel work for the world. And when a missionary assigned to another country visits, it is a time to reflect upon their own calling in the community and how they might reach further into the "lostness" of humanity.

One church has chosen to put the ministry into the hands of a few professionals while the other has placed ministry in the hands of all believers. The way out of a system of clergification will come with intentional systems that work against the human tendency to want ministry done for us. De-clergifying begins with believers owning all of ministry again.

Real Examples

In our own day, churches are seeing great impact when they repent of clergification:

  • Harbour Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has small-group meetings on Sunday nights three times a month. In each, it is organized and led by volunteers. The groups are not dependent on the pastors who rotate through different groups each week.
  • Daybreak Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, started a satellite campus using only volunteers from the main campus.
  • Youngstown Metro Church, also in Hudsonville, uses a group of bi-vocational elders. Erik Bennett, the new pastor, reports that church ministries are done through family groups (small groups), which are led by volunteer facilitators.
  • Mission Arlington/Mission Metroplex in Texas is responsible for more than 200 Bible studies operating outside of its building every week. It has been serving as a model for an empowerment of all believers for many years.

By breaking down the tiers of clergification and empowering all people, we can see all Christians acting as "God's fellow workers." We can stand in awe as God works through all of his people as they live out their ministry and mission for his Kingdom. Pastors will be called to lead and equip rather than coddle and appease. The beginning might be difficult for the long-time sedentary believers in many churches. But as believers begin to see God's grace work through their lives for the sake of the lost and hurting, few will turn back to the old system of sit, soak, and sour.

Instead, an empowered church will learn from the scriptures, leave the nest, and love the lost.

Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research and is LifeWay's "Missiologist in Residence." Ed writes more on the topic of "clergification" with Thom Rainer in the upcoming book Transformational Church. He is also an editorial advisor for BuildingForMinistry.com.

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