The e-mail came in the midst of a busy Monday at work. It popped up in my inbox as I was taking notes at a meeting:


Subject: Clericus on Wednesday—advance reading

Dear Colleagues,

I have heard from some of you regarding your in/ability to be with us on Wednesday. If you haven’t yet rsvp’d (whether or not you can make it), please do so today, so our host church has some time to prepare.

In preparation for our time together, Karen has prepared a paper for us to read in advance of our time together.  Nick will also present before we begin our conversation.

I have attached the document from Karen.  Please do not share it without permission.

Many thanks, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at Clergy Day.



Some context is perhaps in order to understand what this message was asking me to do. Like most ordained pastors, I work within the context of a denomination. That denomination is shaped around a Christian tradition—in my case, the American expression of the Anglican tradition, itself one of the five broad expressions of the Reformation. But it is also an organizational structure in which an understanding of how authority should work in the church is reflected.

In the case of my own tradition, as a pastor in a parish, I ultimately answer to the authority of my bishop. But between my work in the parish and the bishop’s position as the head of the diocese is another, mid-level structure—the deanery. (This is not necessarily true of all Episcopal dioceses.) In my case, the deanery is defined in terms of watersheds: our deaneries are named after rivers. The deanery has a dean, who is the rector of one of the churches in the group. The dean has certain responsibilities delegated by the bishop, one of which is to encourage a practice of collegiality among the ordained ministers of the faith communities within the deanery. And the usual form this takes is a once-a-month meeting over lunch, which rotates between the various churches.

It’s a lovely idea. More than that, it’s an important way to facilitate a degree of mutual support and accountability among people devoted to the work of the church and the health of their respective communities. But it’s completely unworkable if you’re a bivocational minister who, like me, works some distance away from your parish—in my case, sixty-eight miles. I was being asked to come to the monthly lunch the day after an annual day-long gathering of all clergy in the diocese. I hadn’t missed that—but it cost me a vacation day from my other job to be sure I could be there. For the lunch, though, I had to send my regrets. I’ve had to miss nearly every one of those lunches. I tried at one point to suggest that perhaps our clericus meetings might take place occasionally in the evening. My colleagues took that idea on board, but in the end, the dean explained, “There just wasn’t a lot of interest in that idea. You know, family time is important to folks.” Ah, well.

•  •  •

Much of the life of the church—not just Sunday morning, and not just the management and organization of a single congregation—is built around the assumption that the ordained members of the faith community will not just be members of a profession, but professionals—people whose work life and economic life are characterized by being full-time employees of the church. A regular meeting of colleagues in ministry taking place at a weekday lunch assumes at least two things: First, that everyone works near their church because they only work for the church; and second, that everyone can take the time to gather for the purpose, because their working time is given only to the church.

Imagine organizing a regular monthly meeting between the lay members of the governing boards of churches within a given town, who are no less ministers of the church. Almost certainly you would not organize that meeting on a weekday—at least not if it happened in the middle of the day. That’s because you would begin with the understanding that, although they are ministers, they also have obligations during the workday. Yet for an increasing number of the ordained members of our communities, the same thing turns out to be true.

A lot of good has come from the professionalization of ordained ministers. There are similar expectations across traditions and denominations for the educational preparation ministers will have before they are ordained. (No longer is it the case that the bishops have to publish sermons for clergy to read on Sunday morning—as Bishops Cranmer and Jewel did in the first years after the English church split from Rome, because most priests were simply unable to write their own.) There are expectations around work experience that those moving toward ordination should gain—experiences working in the setting of a faith community or as a chaplain in a pastoral setting. And there are systems to attend to the problems that come about when ordained people behave in ways inconsistent with the particular responsibilities of their work in the church—disciplinary canons, for example.

Ministry as a profession dates back to the early modern period, when it was viewed as one of the three “learned professions” alongside medicine and the law. These were distinct roles offering services necessary to society, and for which a relatively significant degree of education was required. But over the course of the industrial age, which saw a tremendous growth in specializations requiring training and emerging as distinct occupations, the idea of ordained ministry somehow became identified with the profession itself, and, more specifically, with an economic expression of that profession—a full-time occupation.

Even so, the professionalized notion of the ordained ministry was not always the case in the United States. Early on in the history of the nation, when the culture was considerably more theocentric, ordained ministers were viewed as people who held a public office; they were chosen and paid by the people in a given town. By the mid-1800s the role of the church in society had significantly changed, and its sphere was understood to be limited to the role of private conscience, not public administration. As Donald Scott has written, “By the 1850s the clergy was no longer framed by its role and position in the local community but was shaped by a new kind of translocal structure [i.e., a denominational polity] and professional consciousness.”[1]

It could be said that this increasing “professional consciousness” was a way in which the church asserted the case that its ordained leaders should be accorded the respect and social stature given to other professions. And it should be no surprise that the economic institutions that express in substantive ways the authority structures of denominational polities were strongly influenced in their development by the corporate structures that emerged as industrial organization matured. These structures are well-suited for rationalizing costs, assuring consistency in the performance of socially significant functions, and developing equitable treatment for similarly trained and similarly employed professionals across a nation growing in both population and geography. But in important ways, they simultaneously constrain our ways of thinking about and living out the work of the ordained members of our faith communities—and restrict our imagination for adapting to a changing future.

•  •  •

The emergence of bivocational communities will make new demands on denominational structures created for the most part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They will pose new questions—about how the life of the church is ordered; about the qualifications and qualities to be sought in candidates for ordained ministry; about how authority can be structured in ways consistent with both the purposes of God and new realities for the church; even about how the relationship of authority and hierarchy might be reimagined for a moment in which the most successful and innovative organizations are nimble, flat, and far more focused on functions and outcomes than on titles and process. We can anticipate at least three ways in which bivocational communities push against the long-standing routines and preferences of our denominational polities:

The sharing of authority between ordained and lay members of the church

In virtually all churches, and certainly in Protestant churches, the understanding of authority begins with the gifts conferred on all people in baptism. The gathered community of the baptized is called to undertake its ministry by aligning itself with God’s purposes in whatever circumstances they find themselves. That ministry is carried out by the expression of the authority all members have received in baptism, and guided by the understanding of God’s purposes as the church has received it through its traditions, reflections on scripture, and engagement with the world.

Ordination in the church has long been understood to confer on those ordained certain kinds of authority, to be exercised on behalf and within the context of the community of faith. Ordination is not meant to be a means of conferring a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on the spiritual maturity of an individual—although it is too often mistaken, and sought, as such. It is predicated on the context of Christian community, a community within which the expression of this particular authority can meaningfully be expressed. Across various traditions this authority can be expressed in a variety of specific ways. It can mean the authority to shape and direct the worship experience of the community; to pronounce absolution of those who have confessed sins; to preside at sacramental functions (specifically to bless the elements in the Eucharist, to pronounce the nuptial blessing at weddings, to offer prayers of healing, and to bless the people); to preach, or more generally to serve as the principal teacher of the community; and to read from the gospels under certain circumstances of worship.

Beyond these, however, there are a variety of expressions or signs of authority that have rather less substance and are the accumulated perquisites of custom. Think of clerical collars, or the use of the honorific “The Reverend” and its various combinations, or the practice of signing one’s name with a cross. These are forms of professional distinction, like calling your physician “Doctor” or addressing the judge as “Your Honor.” They are meant to signify authority. But they also serve to create distance between the members of the faith community and one particular kind of member (the ordained). If we consider them thoughtfully, it is not always clear how it is possible to reconcile these practices with the task of carrying out a ministry in the name of a gospel that teaches the radical equality of all people, and is set in the terms of a story about a God who cares so much for people that the personhood of God takes on flesh and lives among us in order to collapse all that separates us.

Bivocational communities are communities that are intentional and thoughtful about the purpose, and sharing, of authority. They understand that there is a need and a role for ordained ministry in any Christian community, but they are willing—both lay people and ordained people—to examine with care the purpose and effectiveness of the kinds of authority traditionally handed over to the pastor in congregational life. And they are willing to ask how much of that comes not from the wisdom of the Spirit but from the accretion of custom into something posing as doctrine, or from the unspoken desire to concentrate in one person the broader responsibility for the community’s ministry that all should share.

The challenge for denominational structures—which, after all, are first and foremost systems for shaping the rules by which authority is expressed in the life of the church—will be to create space for, and have patience with, this kind of questioning and exploration. Polities can encourage the emergence of strong bivocational communities in a number of ways—by providing resources (funding, expertise, pastoral support), but even more significantly by resisting the reflex to solve problems or create solutions from the top. Viable, Spirit-filled, innovative answers to the “question of the future of the church”—of which bivocational communities are only one—are far more likely to grow from the bottom up, and not be dispensed from the top down. It is one thing to say this; it is another, harder thing to shape practice and process around it.

The identification and formation of those chosen for ordained ministry and the nature of the community they share

Central among the purposes for which denominational structures are created are the functions of identifying, forming, and certifying the readiness of those who are called to an ordained vocation in the church. The balance of responsibility between the local congregation and the denominational polity varies from tradition to tradition when it comes to identifying and raising up individuals for ordained vocations; but for the most part it is for the polity to establish screening processes, articulate qualifications, and prescribe requirements for entrance into the ordained ministry.

Not surprisingly, the dominant model of how that ministry is expressed has historically wielded considerable influence in shaping the qualifications regarded as essential, and the qualities regarded as desirable, in candidates for the ordained ministry. To say it in sharper language, if the way in which we construct the ordained ministry is exclusively as professional occupation, then it will tend to be the case that we look for candidates who see the highest purpose of the church as the building up of the institution of the church—and not necessarily the transformation of the lives of its members.

Like most of the bivocational pastors I met, my view of the church is more instrumental than institutional. What I mean by that—and what I see lived out in the lives of bivocational communities in real and transformational ways—is that the church is a means, not an end; it is the means by which lives are transformed by the message of the Gospel and the experience of being part of a gospel-centric community. It is, in short, a contingent structure, not a permanent one. If it does not accomplish the purposes for which God has brought it into being, God will work in some other way to accomplish God’s purposes. On this view, more fully developed in the next chapter, the church is not the purpose of our life of faith; our purpose is to remake the world in terms of God’s plans, not to build an alternative reality called “the church” at a safe remove from the world.

The sort of people I’ve observed who live out a bivocational ordained ministry effectively and magnetically are people who do not see the church as a refuge, but as a refueling station—a place for reflection, renewal, and rededication, but not for residence. They are comfortable with the public identity of being a Christian in the secular world, without a need for the trappings of ordained life to receive deference or achieve distinction. To use an old word, their ministry is, at its core, apologetic—an idea that presupposes living in the borderlands between the church and the world as yet beyond its reach. By walking through the world in secular roles as “out Christians,” they provide powerful leadership by example, encouraging all ministers in their community—ordained or lay—to do the same.

To find more such people we’d look for potential candidates for ministry who see the professional skills and experiences they bring as enriching their understanding of, and work in, an ordained role. We’d look for people who have career paths in professions that they value, perform well in, and wish to pursue alongside their work as an ordained member of their communities. We’d see that the fact they wish to be bivocational is not a sign of a less-than-serious commitment to the demands and expectations of ordained ministry, or to the life of the church. We’d understand that it might rather be that they bring with them a different understanding of how the ministry of the church can adapt to the demands of new circumstances, and a sense of how their own gifts for ministry might offer something creative and constructive in advancing that ministry.

In years past, commissions on ministry, annual conferences, presbyteries, candidacy committees, and similar entities sought those who brought, together with the needed skills and spiritual maturity for ordination, a desire to become wholly a part of the life of the church. It’s this last bit that came to distinguish the Standard Model: a person who, somewhat prosaically, not only had the capabilities required for ordained ministry but who fit the working culture of the church as well. But the world has changed. Consider these lines from a guidance document set before people inquiring into ministry in the Presbyterian Church:

. . . these questions about self-understanding in the context of ministry need to be paired with frank and honest conversations about the current realities of pastoral ministry within the Presbyterian Church. For example, a sizable majority of most Presbyterians—and so, not surprisingly, most inquirers—belong to congregations with more than 250 members. However, a majority of our churches have fewer than 100 members, and many are in rural areas or inner-city neighborhoods. Such congregations often do not have budgets that can support salary and compensation packages in keeping with presbytery-set minimums for full-time pastoral positions. Additionally, one current trend within the church is the formation of smaller faith communities that may be intentionally smaller than 100 members as a means for maintaining mutual accountability in their discipleship. Is the inquirer willing and able to consider ministry with churches quite different from the congregations where they may belong? Is the inquirer willing and able to accept a call that may require both relocation to another area and pairing pastoral ministry with other forms of work to make the arrangement economically viable?[2]

This is a statement of admirable candor from the very highest level of a denominational polity, acknowledging—if not quite welcoming—the reality of bivocational communities as a path toward the church’s future. It invites us to think about the qualities and skills we might look for in candidates for ministry who would answer to those challenges affirmatively and willingly.

Unlike candidates of the past, they will neither be interested in, nor necessarily suited for, the church as a working culture. They will have demonstrated a clear capacity for leadership and the creativity, focus, and charisma that align with entrepreneurial skill. They will be passionate about connecting the message and life of the church to the world’s needs, and perhaps would have demonstrated skills for doing so in their ministry before ordination. They will show a capability to balance stewardship of the church’s traditions with a willingness to reimagine received structures and question assumptions about their purposes and processes. Their experiences and personal inclinations will give evidence that the focus of their approach to the work of ministry would be more on outcomes than on process, more on creating solutions than maintaining structures. They will, in short, be guided in their understanding of the call of the church to ministry in the years ahead by the warning of Jesus at the end of the parable of the wicked tenants: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43).

There is one additional consideration that poses a considerable challenge to the institutional structures we have received. It is the difficulty of seeing ordained ministry as one thing, with one kind of function or purpose in God’s gathered community, even though it is expressed in economically different ways. Said differently, it’s the difficulty of all ordained members of the church to understand that they share a common calling regardless of the nature of their appointment.

This tension can find expression in difficult, sometimes hurtful ways. The emergence of new models of ministry that are at a variance with the received expectation of a full-time professional occupation can seem to question the legitimacy of older models, or find us falling into that one singular proof of the doctrine of original sin—our insistence on rank-ordering each other. The difficulty became very real for the members of Saint Luke’s, Hastings, who were raised up for ordination, mentioned at the outset of the previous chapter. They found that at least some of their new colleagues in ministry among the diocesan clergy were not at all prepared to receive them as equals, and even sought to ensure that they would not be permitted to function as ordained people outside their own parish. As it turned out, their bishop made it clear to all clergy that there were no second-class priests in the diocese.

There is an unlikely, perhaps surprising, but potentially instructive example for denominational polities to look to in creating a feeling of common purpose and vocation across the ranks of full-time and bivocational clergy. That example is—believe it or not—the military. For decades, the armed forces have created a leadership cadre of officers comprising both full-time, active-duty members of the armed services, and officers in various forms of the armed forces reserve. As of 2015, out of a total of nearly 390,000 officers in the American military, roughly 59.25 percent are full-time, active-duty military members, while 40.75 percent are in some form of the ready reserve—and working in other jobs.

That said, when it comes to the purpose of their profession—being deployed to the front lines—there is no distinction in the authority or the responsibility of these officers in the performance of their duties. They understand themselves to be part of one profession, sharing one purpose, and formed by one ethos.

Achieving a similar sort of outcome for ordained pastors in an increasing variety of professional roles and settings is a leadership task for denominational polities. Permitting a system of rank or class to emerge between full-time and part-time pastors, bivocational or otherwise, is tantamount to saying that the faithful in smaller congregations served by non-full-time pastors are somehow second-class as well. Leaders of denominations have the responsibility to reimagine ways of working in the church in order create a deeper sense of common purpose and a greater degree of practical equity between all ordained ministers serving faith communities.

Practical steps toward this end might encompass everything from choices about who gets seen as a candidate for governance roles in the polity to the time meetings are scheduled and the ways participation is engaged. (In my work outside the church, nearly all of my meetings are held by videoconference—enabling my colleagues to organize a common work involving people across the country.) If we were to project imaginatively the upside-down ideas of the gospel onto church life—the kingdom Jesus describes where the first come last, life comes out of death, the marginal are central in concern, and the servant is the leader—we might construct a new vision of Christian community in which bivocational communities were the standard and norm, and communities that needed full-time professionals to lead them would be the cause of concern and worry.

The understanding of, and teaching about, ordained ministry in the life of the church

The emergence of bivocational communities reflects a response to the dramatically changed circumstances of the church in society, circumstances that many Standard Model churches have not yet addressed. These twentieth-century institutional structures, carrying out nineteenth-century ideas of ministry, are often neither capable nor willing to rethink and reframe the role of ordained clergy to adapt to the needs of the twenty-first-century church.

In the following chapter we’ll look more deeply at a theological approach to an understanding of the purposes of ordained ministry within the Christian community. Here, our focus is more on the practical consideration of adapting the structures of the church to a world unimaginable even to those who built the castles of America’s Protestant ascendancy a century ago.

The challenges we face are not just cultural; they’re not just technological; they’re not just intellectual; they’re not just economic. They are all of these together, and more besides. At the deepest level they reflect a dislocation in our sense of the spiritual in our lives—or of God’s place in our world. They undermine our capacity for community building, as we retreat behind the glow of our individual screens. They confuse connectivity for authentic connection. And they are shifting our ways of organizing to be focused on purposes or causes, not on institutions. Set in these terms, it’s plain that the structures of church we have inherited are poorly suited for this set of challenges. To a world accomplishing more and more by commons-based “peer production,” we offer hierarchical structures that insist on respect.[3] To a world increasingly suspicious of the claims of any institution to legitimacy, we offer a story about a five-hundred-year-old history of institution building.

When the ministry was one of the very few “learned professions,” it commanded a kind of deferential respect from people both within and outside the church. That deference arose from the notion that the ordained minister had obtained a body of knowledge that conferred a kind of power over one’s spiritual well-being, in the same way the doctor’s knowledge conferred power over our physical well-being, or the lawyer’s knowledge conferred power over our political well-being. But this has now fundamentally changed. Doctors still know more about our bodies than we do, and lawyers still know more about the law than we do—and we have a great deal at stake in both our physical and political well-being. But having their spiritual lives in order no longer seems quite as urgent to most people—even to people in the church. For many it is little more than a kind of moral therapy, not a profoundly consequential struggle between good and evil fought on the battleground of our souls. What’s more, it’s no longer self-evident that the minister possesses any particular authority, at least not authority dispensed by a secular institutional structure over eternal consequences.

The question we must grapple with, then is a profound one: What is the nature of the authority of the ordained ministry in a moment that nearly all of the church’s claims to authority—claims we simply took for granted not so long ago—have either been revealed as unfounded or subjected to suspicion? Said in different words, if all our claims to authority were shown to be empty, what would the role of the ordained minister be in the context of Christian community?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the twentieth-century German theologian and martyr to Nazism, is perhaps the best guide we might find to the work and functioning of Christian community under these circumstances. For Bonhoeffer, the failure of the institutional church and its unsuitability to achieve God’s purposes on earth had been revealed in the willingness of the church in Germany to align itself with Nazism in a desperate bid to retain its social prominence and privileges. In his last writings, gathered by his editor and friend Eberhard Bethge as Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer mused on how Christian community would continue to move forward in history stripped of the power—and the pretentions—of its institutional forms and structures:

. . . if we had finally to put down the western pattern of Christianity as a mere preliminary stage to doing without religion altogether, what situation would result for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord even of those with no religion? If religion is no more than the garment of Christianity—and even that garment has had very different aspects at different periods—then what is a religionless Christianity? . . . For the religionless working man, or indeed, man generally, nothing that makes any real difference is gained by that. The questions needing answers would surely be: What is the significance of a Church (church parish, preaching, Christian life) in a religionless world? How do we speak of God without religion . . . ? How do we speak (but perhaps we are no longer capable of speaking of such things as we used to) in secular fashion of God? In what way are we in a religionless and secular sense Christians, in what way are we the Ekklesia, “those who are called forth,” not conceiving of ourselves religiously as specially favored but as wholly belonging to the world? Then Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, indeed and in truth the Lord of the world.[4]

For those of us who love the church and have been shaped for good by its work, these can be unsettling, even sorrowing, words. But it’s hard not to glimpse our present moment in these words written more than seventy years ago. What Bonhoeffer makes clear is that, while the institutional structures of religion may rise and fall, the church—as the Ekklesia, the gathered community of those called after the name of Christ, those who willingly take up the work and identity of disciples, those who together make up the community called forth on God’s behalf into the midst of a world incapable of belief—will endure. It will endure because, rather than offer Christ as an object for veneration, it follows after him and reveals him to others as the source of truth.

Bivocational communities are emerging in our context as lived experiences of the church alive and at work without the trappings of authority and the pretensions of power that we once thought were our inheritance. At the center of their identity as communities is a willingness to place everything under interrogation, and to ask how it serves the message of Christ in the world of which Christ is the sovereign. And they do so with a new expectation that the structures of authority we create, and the patterns of community we weave together, must themselves be consistent with the basic claims of the message of radical equality, human dignity, and the profound virtue of humility at the foundation of Christian community.

Through their willingness to reassess and reconfigure the sharing of authority and responsibility in the work of Christian community, bivocational congregations are returning to much earlier patterns in the building up of Christian life and witness in a world that is not dominated by Christian culture nor sympathetic to its claims, its ideas, or its hopes. They are, perhaps not surprisingly, much like the very first communities of Christians. They have a much clearer, if narrower, understanding of the authority set apart for the particular ministry of ordained people, and a much broader understanding of the identity and responsibility all members of the community of disciples must share. The similarity is not surprising because—despite the vast capabilities of our technology, the immense reach of our communications, or the great growth in the general welfare of the planet’s population over the past two millennia—the world upon which we have entered is far more like the world of Christianity’s first few centuries than any time since. We are returning to patterns of pre-institutional discipling communities because those patterns turn out to work well in a world indifferent or hostile to our faith.

Scholars of leadership distinguish between formal and informal sources of authority: the authority of titles, rank, and custom on the one side, and the authority of charisma, authenticity, and influence on the other. In the realm of international relations, the distinction is sometimes thought of in terms of “hard power” (force) and “soft power” (influence). In the Standard Model of ministry, much of the authority of ordained ministers is derived from formal sources of authority (they were quite literally “ordered” into distinctive ranks of authority). But in emerging bivocational communities, the authority of ordained ministers derives much more from informal sources: from the transparency of their spiritual lives, through and in which all members of the community can find a salutary example of a life transformed by God’s grace; from the discipline of their prayer lives, and their openness with the struggles they may have with their own doubts and despairs; from the authenticity of their communication, and the alignment of the pattern of their lives with the gospel they proclaim. Authority in these communities is much more organic and context-specific. In bivocational communities, all have something to learn and all have something to teach. It’s the unique task of the ordained minister, not to claim all of the authority for teaching and leadership, but to create a community in which this more mutual sharing of gifts can flourish and grow.

•   •   •

In my first years of ordained ministry, my work was divided between running a research center and working as a minister in a non-denominational church, both situated in a university. When the annual convention of my diocese came around each November, I’d try—often not very hard—to arrange my schedule so that I could knock off work a little early on Friday to go into Boston where the gatherings were typically held.

One year I made excuse after excuse to delay my departure, until finally I arrived at the convention so late that I had to stand against the wall at the very back of the room. Next to me, as it turned out, was a person I had come greatly to admire for her ministry among the homeless in Boston—Debbie Little Wyman, an ordained woman who started a non-profit called Ecclesia Ministries and who had created a weekly Sunday service outdoors on Boston Common for the city’s homeless population. Debbie didn’t work in a church; she was bivocational, in the sense that she was a social entrepreneur who started a non-profit to do something she thought disciples were called to do.

I don’t remember what was on the agenda at the moment I came in. What I do remember, however, is that it was a matter of heated debate—perhaps a resolution about world peace, or environmental stewardship, or the treatment of immigrants, or the formula for calculating parish payments to the diocese. All worthy causes, to be sure, but the crowded room had fallen into bitter division as the contending perspectives lined up at two microphones to lob verbal grenades at each other.

We stood there next to each other, leaning against the back wall, for half an hour or so. Finally, during a break between speeches, Debbie leaned over to me and quietly asked a simple question: “What does any of this have to do with the man on the donkey?”

As I said, I’ve long since completely forgotten what the argument was about. But I have never forgotten that question, and I never will. “What does any of this have to do with the man on the donkey?” It was a question asked by a woman with profound informal authority as a disciple and, incidentally, as an ordained minister, despite the fact that she had no title, no office, no building, no vestments, practically no budget, and no formal status as a minister in a congregation. But the power of her example—of willingly going without all of the protections and pretenses of those formal sources of authority to live fully into a ministry completely aligned with the call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned—gave her unchallengeable authority to ask such a question about the operations of the formal structures of the church.

“What does any of this have to do with the man on the donkey?” It is a strong, clarifying, powerful question. It is a question we must ask ourselves as disciples, as communities of the faithful, and as institutional religious structures. It is a question the leaders of our denominational polities must ask in a moment of change and challenge, even if the answers mean surrendering prestige, precedence, and power for the sake of clearing a path for God’s message to move into the world. If we ask it faithfully, it will become easier—not easy, but easier—to give up things that seem precious but are weighing us down, things that have become old in order to grasp that which is new.

[1] Donald M. Scott, From Office to Profession, 154.

[2] “Deciding about ‘suitability for ordered ministry,’” Advisory Handbook on Preparation for Ministry PC (USA), June 2015, 42; emphasis added.

[3] “Commons-based peer production” is a phrase drawn from Yochai Benkler’s insightful The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

[4] Dietrich Bonhoffer, letter to Eberhard Bethge, April 30, 1944; in Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 122–3.