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Friday, October 7, 2022

The Value of Well-Prepared Clergy

While the Unitarians and Congregationalists of New England in the 1800s carried on with business as usual, the Methodists and Baptists were spreading through the westward-moving frontier. Aside from fervor for making converts, a big boost to the spread of the latter faith traditions was the ease of sending out preachers. Men would be licensed to preach and sent out with minimal formal ministry training. Circuit riding Methodist preachers kept new parishes going and helped found new ones, while Baptist preachers did the same and put in place local leadership for young churches. The Congregationalists and Unitarians, on the other hand, were committed to a well-educated clergy, and thus you will find that most small towns across the Midwest have both Methodist and Baptist churches, but not Unitarian (UUA) or Congregationalist (UCC, NACCC, CCCC) churches. This reality has long made me critical of the more stringent educational and formation requirements of some denominations, but I believe my perspective is changing.

When I went to Brazil the first time in 1997, as a 'mission intern,' it was all the rage for churches there to operate in cells. They called it 'cell church,' and it's basically a highly organized way of doing small groups. Although that terminology and the formal practice is no longer in much favor among evangelicals, small group ministry remains quite big. It's a simple fact that the larger a church grows, the fewer people any individual member can feel like they really know. That makes it extremely important for such churches to have small groups where people can build deeper relationships and have that sense of being known and truly belonging. While this can be accomplished relatively easily, having reliable leadership in the group is another question.

"What I found in our research is that small groups are terrific for establishing and sustaining community. They're not very effective at growing people spiritually because what you wind up having is ignorant people sharing their ignorance. It's kind of a democratic form of education: 'We're going to vote on what the truth is.' That's not actually how biblical truth works." - George Barna, quoted in Soul Winners: The Ascent of America's Evangelical Entrepreneurs, but David Clary

During my short stint in Bible college many years ago one of my professors described most church Bible studies as people 'pooling their ignorance.' It's harsh, but there's a truth to it. I've heard so much nonsense said in Bible studies, both by participants and by the leader or teacher. Sometimes someone says something crazy and it simply goes unchallenged, and it other cases the leader agrees. One example of the former is when in a Bible study at a Methodist church one of the men attending insisted that a sign of Christ's return would be Elijah reappearing. He'd read that in the Old Testament but was apparently unaware that Jesus affirmed that John the Baptist fulfilled that prophecy. The Methodist pastor got a funny look on his face but continued without comment. 

Given that I'm a Humanist, what difference does any of this make to me? Well, it helps to explain the Christian Right. Although the Bible is full of genocide, misogyny, homophobia, and other morally and/or ethically questionable content, I still think that a complete and balanced reading of the canonical text should result in churches that at the very least don't attempt to obtain political power to enforce their vision of the world through legislation. Further, a person like Donald Trump, with his vulgarity, lies, and history of unethical behavior does not conform to any New Testament ideal, and thus should not have the sort of rabid support that white evangelicals in particular give him. 

Of course, what's happening is that white evangelicals see in Donald Trump a person who will push back against the things that frighten them, such as the loss of hetero-normative white hegemony in American society. His is their 'Cyrus,' an ungodly man to deliver them from the ungodly. Although, of course, many would not admit his ungodliness as such, and instead argue that he's a politician, not a pastor. What enables this perspective is a shallow understanding of the Bible that allows people to impose whatever vision of the world they have on it.

Clearly, the Bible is ineffectual at correcting anyone. It's a tome of writings created and edited at different points of ancient history, with a wide range of purposes, and addressed to a variety of audiences. It is open to a great deal of interpretation, and so we have the thousands upon thousands of sects and denominations that exist today. It can mean whatever one wants it to mean, this is so much easier to do when people do not know the truth about how it came together or the likely earliest meanings of its contents. The more one learns about these things, the humbler one will be in making absolute statements about it, and also the less inclined a person will be to buy into radicalism. Note that I'm not saying it's about knowing the contents of the Bible really well, because that alone enables some of the wild of speculative teaching. I'm talking about serious, critical scholarship of the Bible as an ancient text. 

Anyone with a Bible can self-declare as a preacher. It happens all the time, and no formal process or ordination is even required. This is freedom of religion. The sad result, however, is people who gather others to pool their ignorance, and often at a serious cost to those involved and to society at large. A poorly-prepared minister is one who goes to the bedside of a cancer patient and insists that God will heal that person through faith and prayer. When the patient dies, loved ones are left picking up the pieces and wondering if the outcome could have been better if they'd had more faith. An unvetted preacher is one who could never prepare a background check and ends up stealing from people or committing sexual assault. An unqualified Bible teacher is one who encourages hatred and fear over faith and love. 

While I continue to support the concept of other forms of ministry than ordained ministry, such as licensed or commissioned ministers, these cannot be without proper formation. In my own Central East Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association we have a Commissioned Lay Ministry program. While it does not lead to ordination as a UU minister, the successful candidate will be commissioned to serve by their local congregation. There isn't a set course of study, but one will be prepared as appropriate for what the candidate aims to be doing. Most importantly, I believe, there's a measure of accountability both in the formation process and once the person is commissioned. 
 
Beyond that, I want a well-prepared ordained clergy. Growth for the sake of growth is no good, particularly when it results in congregations that foster bigotry. It's better to take the time to lay a good foundation and then do actual good in the world.