Can We Expect Greatness from the Clergy

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 25, 1977, p. 508. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To meet the laity’s expectations, leadership from grass-roots pastor-theologians is essential. For life in a highly fragmented and specialized society, the pastor as theological integrator can perform a socially unique role in building provisional bridges to enable us to stay in touch with our common humanity fashioned in the image of God.

 “Can the laity expect greatness from the clergy?” An active layperson confronted me with that question one day. A successful businessman, he had both a son and a son-in-law in the ministry. He was speaking out of genuine concern for the church and its impact on the public.

The man was not asking his question in a vacuum; he had some particular expectation of the clergy, perhaps one that was not being fulfilled. Was his idea of greatness that parish pastors be Nobel Prize winners? Did he want today’s clergy to emulate the “great pastors” of other eras, some pastoral hero of his own? Or was he simply trying to tell me, a seminary professor responsible for the training of tomorrow’s clergy, something of his dissatisfaction with the present practice of ministry? These were half-formulated thoughts and questions flashing through my mind as I listened to him.


How to discern and fulfill the expectations of the laity is a great concern for pastors and theological educators. In a decade of declining church membership, retrenchment and pastoral surpluses, it is imperative that these expectations be heard and acted upon.

The United Presbyterian Church, like other denominations, has been losing members during the past decade. The denomination wants to know why, and it wants to know the laity’s expectations of the church and the professional clergy. A denominational survey on “Church Membership Trends,” reported to the 1976 General Assembly, showed that many of the popular theories for explaining membership losses were ill founded. For instance, relating these losses to (1) increased leisure time, (2) use of and reliance on mass media, (3) influence of science, (4) standard of living, and (5) competition of secular or volunteer organizations cannot be supported since each of these factors was already present and increasing in the 1940s and 50s as well as in the ‘60s.

Instead, the survey indicated that loss of membership was more apt to be caused by the dropping birth rate and a change in values, especially among young people. Young people tend to think out religious and moral questions for themselves, with less reliance on churchly authority. The church is not in the center of their value orientation.

Another factor contributing to loss of membership is an inability to handle conflict situations within the church. Such conflicts often arise in relation to social-action issues, as seen in the disagreement over the 1971 disbursement of United Presbyterian monies for the Angela Davis defense fund. Resolving the subsequent conflict in many local situations either strengthened or defeated the leadership. It appears that church leaders have not been adequately trained to deal with conflict situations, with the result that members become disenchanted during such situations.

The fact that inflated membership rolls are being trimmed of inactive members has been another inadequate explanation for decline, as is the often heard stipulation that absence of theological conservatism and neglect of the Bible may be the reason. The surveys indication was that the rise or fall of membership apparently depends far more on the strength, clarity, warmth and enthusiasm of the local church leadership and program than on its theological viewpoint. This accent on leadership deserves further attention.


The membership report indicated strongly that churches that are growing have vital pastoral leadership. Members have expressed great satisfaction with pastors who show competence in preaching, pastoral calling, communicating warmth and sensitivity to members’ needs, offering pastoral prayers, and generating enthusiasm and spiritual authenticity. “Members of growing congregations perceive their pastors as having more responsibility for church growth and as more able to handle conflict positively and to develop a spirit of unity in the congregation.” In short, such a pastor knows how to develop teamwork within the membership of the church.

The survey bears out that the caliber of leadership is a far more determinative factor in church growth than questions of liberal-versus-conservative positions, or social action versus personal-individual religious experience and expression. This finding does not imply that the theology or conviction of the leader or congregation is of no consequence; “rather, it is to say that the conviction, enthusiasm, warmth and competence with which the Christian faith and life are shared communicate more effectively” One of the report’s conclusions is that, the dangers of “clericalism” notwithstanding, it is absolutely necessary to upgrade the quality of professional leadership if the churches are to grow and if the expectations of the laity are to be met.

To that end, the laity will expect from the ordained ministry in the future

 (1) clarity, strength and persuasiveness of Christian conviction and commitment; (2) good preaching and the ability to design and lead meaningful worship; (3) conviction of and commitment to pastoral calling as integral to Christian ministry and pastoral care; (4) deep sensitivity to the needs of people individually and in groups; (5) concern for, dedication to, and skill in working for congregational development and growth as a part of faithfulness, for the nurture and retention of members who show signs of slackening commitment, for the motivation and training of lay persons to work for church growth; (6) capacity to generate enthusiasm in other people, personal warmth, competence, spiritual authenticity; (7) ability to encourage and generate a spirit of unity in a congregation; and (8) organizational development and conflict management skills.

We may ask whether the fulfillment and performance of these expectations will point the clergy in the direction of greatness, whether their fulfillment is even within the realm of possibility, and to what extent they are being met in the current models of ministry.


At least eight distinguishable styles of ministry are in existence today. These are: (1) the servant-shepherd, (2) the political prophet, (3) the preacher-teacher, (4) the evangelist-charismatic, (5) the builder-promoter, (6) the manager-enabler, (7) the liturgical priest and (8) the specialized minister, such as hospital chaplain, marriage counselor and so on. Most other distinguishable models of ministry can, I think, be included within these categories, all of which have both positive and negative features. My just-published book Today’s Pastor in Tomorrow’s World (Hawthorn Books) discusses the merits of these styles of ministry. Here, however, I want to direct attention to a more encompassing model: the pastor as grass-roots theologian.

For the most part, clergy today have given up the strenuous task of being pastor-theologians, often in favor of organizational administration. Although that is, of course, important, is it the primary work of an ordained minister? Theological education becomes an expensive detour if administration is ones major preoccupation. Unfortunately, many ministers would be lost in the parish without administrative chores; they would not want to relinquish them. Pastors have neglected their task as the grassroots theologians within the community.

The “happy pastor,” it often appears, is the one involved in some remodeling or building program where administration and its related activities consume almost the entire time. During the building process, the minister is able to bury any lingering guilt feelings over theological responsibilities. Some pastors go so far as to consider involvement with theology too risky an affair, especially during a building program. Theology divides, doesn’t it? Thus it can quickly be dismissed as divisive, a noncontributive factor to the congregation’s life, unity and purity.” In many parishes today the relevant question centers no longer on beliefs, but rather on how the church can become a community of accepting people regardless of what beliefs are held. The heresy of the contemporary church and its ministry lies in an excessive preoccupation with busyness, public relations, and “I’m OK, you’re OK” sessions -- all without theological direction. Isn’t this an effective route to hastening the church’s death?

In our society, who makes significant and prophetic statements concerning the global events of the times? Astronauts, artists, novelists, newscasters -- but for the most part not the clergy. Pastors have undermined their vital role as opinion-makers in society. Harried, tired and ill prepared, they have become inarticulate voices in a world seeking purpose and hope. Where are the interpreters of the Word of God within the events of human life? Where is the theological leadership so clearly lacking in the life of both church and society? Without grass roots theologians, what future will the churches have?


Actually, it is incumbent on every grass-roots pastor to spell out ‘‘the gospel according to Jesus Christ” locally and globally. Unless this is done, pastors will find themselves addicted to textbooks in psychology, sociology and economics as their working frame of reference. Having once abrogated responsibility as grass-roots theologians, pastors then suffer from an identity crisis. The Eternal Contemporary no longer has a clear voice in the community. However, the pastor-theologians who understand their task and learn to think theologically and concretely in the light of new events and happenings will derive deep satisfaction from their labors.

Without such theologizing the church will always be attuned to the culture of the preceding age -- always trying to catch up, but seldom providing leadership. Busy pastors have little time to reflect and to theologize. As a result they tend to be overworked but underemployed, wondering at times whether they are making any contribution to society. Even so, most pastors continue to insist that they are not theologians! Instead, they will strive diligently to program their way out of their dilemma, rather than resort to serious thinking and theologizing within the core of their ministry. The minister is a surgeon with words; the scalpel can cut either way: to heal or to endanger the patient even more. A pastor whose scalpel is dull or rusty is guilty of theological malpractice.

Clergy seeking to become grass-roots theologians must bear in mind four primary tenets.

1. Theology that does not wrestle with life issues is not worthy of people’s attention in the marketplace. Too often theology is merely the sharing of ignorance. It must be more, must speak to and give insight into the puzzling ambiguities and ethical choices confronted each day by individuals.

In seeking relevance the great temptations to tell people only what they want to hear. Relevance in practice so often turns out to be simply the reinforcing of the prejudices and biases found among parishioners. At this level, relevance quickly becomes irrelevant, and the pastor becomes a defender or offender of the status quo -- in either case no more than a pawn among parishioners. Relating theology to life points to a deeper note of relevance; namely, relating biblical truth to the numerous gray zones in which we find ourselves. Applying the biblical truth will never be easy; trade-offs may even be necessary, but at least all parties involved should become aware of the pitfalls and rationalizing processes that dilute our commitments and convictions as believers. It is at this point that the pastor must be a clear and articulate voice, not only having something important to say at that moment, but also through experience learning how to say it.


2. Theology must be not only a matter of verbalizing our faith but also the living out of that faith. The Christian style of life is always a matter of word and deed. We may tend to forget this as we sit through committee meetings boring each other with our “orthodoxy” and busyness. Ministry in its essence is the embodiment of that old yet ever-contemporary story that God loves the world and is in the process of redeeming it. Grass-roots theologians are an extension of that redeeming process, making theological pronouncements incarnate in their locality. The doing of theology in concrete deeds will he the most eloquent testimony of its relationship to life.

Some time ago I asked a group of clergy in a continuing-education course to write a brief essay on the question “Can you picture Ralph Nader as your pastor?” The responses were interesting and thought-provoking. I presented the topic as an experiment to see whether it would be possible to grasp one’s mission as a pastor better in the light of what a well-known crusader is doing. Here is one pastors reply:

My First tendency was rather naturally to answer in the negative to this question because as far as I know Ralph Nader has no personal faith that is witnessed to publicly through his frequent pronouncements about “consumerism.” And yet his seemingly selfless concern about the consumer in relationship to society may strike some resonant chords as well, in terms of a theological concern about man in relationship to his world.

If one accepts the kind of thinking that even the practice of theology must begin at the point of meeting the needs and anxieties of man, then perhaps it could well be said that Ralph Nader could function in the context of a pastor, given that same kind of concern. In the respect that Nader is concerned as well about the basic stewardship of wealth and goods, it does not seem to me to be too far from there to a stewardship of life, which appears to be an essentially theological kind of orientation. Thus I can picture Ralph Nader as a pastor with the assumption that his practice of law would become a practice of theology.

Although I can appreciate that pastor’s attempt to view Nader through the filter of his own profession and discipline, I’m not sure how much sense it would make to Nader. Still, the important challenge to those in the clergy is Nader’s ability to translate his concerns into deeds. He makes mistakes; he has enemies. But he also has the respect of countless millions who see in him an authentic doer of what he believes. His presence challenges the grass-roots theologian to be a doer as well as a speaker of God’s involvement in human life.


3. Theology’s intimidating language must be translated -- and its style streamlined -- for the idiom of the day. It may surprise many a pastor to be told that theological jargon is intimidating to the congregation and the general public. Even the term “theology” itself presents to laypersons difficulties in expressing how they understand it. Even more astounding will be the suspicions of some that the pastor is trying to intimidate them with a “theological” solution to a contemporary issue. Every profession has its “in” language, and not all technical vocabulary should be abandoned. However, what ministers need to learn professionally is a method of translating their technical terms into everyday vocabulary.

We are all laity in regard to each other’s profession or trade, and we constantly need to remind ourselves of this. Each professional’s special vocabulary is intimidating to anyone standing outside that profession. Those who are aware of this fact and consciously work to overcome the resultant alienation are practicing the art of their profession. As the medical doctor must practice the art of medicine along with its science, so must the pastor practice both the art and the science of ministry. The grass-roots theologian is regularly called on to translate the language of theology, a task involving a creative synthesis of the art and science of theology.

When such a synthesis is consciously put into practice, the level of intimidation will be reduced and ministry can take place. Clergy will also discover a need to streamline theological doctrines so that they speak more meaningfully to the idiom of our day. In a technological world that knows no boundaries, the theological enterprise desperately needs to unload yesterday’s inventory of formulas, divisions and agenda in order to embark or, new ventures. Such ventures call for a new style of theologizing, designed for more flexibility amid our numerous revolutions -- social, technical anti informational. To date, theologians have been traveling with cumbersome trunks laden with a theological past -- a difficult position from which to meet the space age’s demands.


4. Theology must seek to integrate the experiences and events of life into a meaningful framework under God. In this case, the pastor must consciously work at being a theological integrator at the grass roots. Everyone is in search of a frame of reference in which to place the events and experiences occurring throughout life. Since as a pilgrim people our theologizing will always be incomplete, the framework will also remain unfinished. In our search for meaning, we will never solve all of life’s mysteries. Finding meaning in the many tragedies of nor lives will he difficult, yet our framework must be sufficiently flexible to include such tragedies. It is incumbent on the grass-roots theologian to be a guide in helping persons build a viable frame of reference under God. The pastor as theological integrator can perform a valuable service in freeing individuals from a sense of being locked in with their past. Exciting possibilities within the grace of God will open to those escaping a narrowly conceived framework. The pastor serving as theological integrator, in fact, will undergird and shape the congregation and the community at large in once again placing trust in God in a meaningful way.

Individuals are searching for relational patterns of meaning between their concepts and their daily experiences. For life in a highly fragmented and specialized society, the pastor as theological integrator can perform a socially unique role in building provisional bridges to enable us to stay in touch with our common humanity fashioned in the image of God.

A need for integrators has been recognized among management and business personnel, and industry is actively recruiting such individuals. Effective integrators speak the language of each of the industry’s specialist groups, and thus are able to work at resolving interdepartmental conflicts. Coming from a cross-specialist perspective, the integrator’s insight enables specialists to see beyond their ghetto. The pastor as integrator can serve a useful function through working for a level of unity among the compartmentalized elements within a community. Individuals need guidance to overcome their fragmented frames of reference. At times we are blind and deaf to the marvelous ways in which God’s grace is operating in the lives of others. The pastor as integrator can provide the overview necessary to help us transcend our tendency to bury ourselves in the ghetto of our own “reality.”


Can we expect greatness from the clergy? Can the biblical standards for greatness presented in Mark 10:35-45 and Luke 9:46-48 be fulfilled? The answers rest with the entire laos. To illustrate: I recall a visit with some friends who were committed Christians active in church life. Their youngest son, Bob, was a college student. Blessed with a good mind, he was compassionate, attractive and imaginative, capable of succeeding in a number of careers. Bob found church meaningful and respected his pastors; he had on occasion considered becoming a pastor, and I believed that he could make an outstanding contribution in ministry.

Bob’s parents mentioned to me that he was still in a quandary about choosing a particular career. When I inquired, “How about the ministry? Bob would make a great pastor,” there was a long pause. The father began to explain that entering the ministry is really a private affair between God and the individual; parents shouldn’t interfere.

I continued: “If Bob were thinking of becoming a medical doctor or a physicist, how would you feel?” Replied the mother: “We would be thrilled and would encourage him. We know he has ability and we believe he would be dedicated in either field.”

So then I asked: ‘Why is it that as parents you would ‘encourage’ him to become a doctor or physicist, but won’t ‘interfere’ in a possible decision for the pastoral ministry? Becoming a pastor is neither a higher nor lower calling of service than being a doctor or physicist. Belief in the priesthood of all believers implies our universal obligation as followers to commit ourselves to God’s service whatever our choice of career goals. The call to pastoral ministry is no more a ‘private affair’ than the call to any other field of worthy endeavor.”

Never neutral when it comes to career goals for the children, every parent wishes the utmost well-being for them and sometimes gets too involved in interpreting what that welfare ought to be. Bob’s parents agreed, and responded frankly: “At church we have seen both the joys and frustrations of pastors. We wonder if, in the balance, it is really worth what it costs. We love the church, but the hassles our pastors have to face at times are unbelievable We would like to save our own flesh and blood from that kind of grief. Bob can serve the church, as a devoted layperson, just as we have.”

In reflecting on that conversation, I realized that the laity who are most active are the very persons who often prefer that their own sons and daughters avoid careers in the church. Among the many reasons for this trend is the fact that in recent years the church’s inner workings have been revealed; this public exposure has taken its toll, and the ministerial mystique no longer exists. One consequence is that many active laypersons have quietly begun steering their children away from careers in the church. Where, then, will the outstanding leadership and commitment for the future come from? What of the laity’s expectations of greatness from the clergy? Ultimately the answer lies as much with today’s laity as with tomorrow’s clergy. God’s call addresses laity and clergy, presenting the responsibility and the fulfillment of working together in ministry.