A New Order for Clergy? – Guest Blogger, David Fitch


David Fitch(Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary) shared these reflections on his blog “Reclaiming the Mission.” Given the recent conversations in the Church of the Brethren regardingour polity for ministerial leadership, his remarks seemed appropriate to share with our readers. With David’s permission, I have reposted his remarks here. To follow the significant discussion that has already taken place you can click here to head over to the original post. Much thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with Brethren Life and Thought. To read up on the recommendations before the Church of the Brethren, a number of resources are available here.

So I am sure I’m not the firstto come up with this notion (look here for instance), but it seems to me denominations in the West need to create a new category for commissioning leadership. We need an new order of pastors for mission.

For hundreds of years, and still within my lifetime, churches in the West have been confined to the traditional structures of clergy. This order of professional clergy was defined by a time when there was huge demand for the full time pastor to order the entire ministry of a congregation.  Seminaries were structured to educate persons for this role. They learned Biblical exegesis, preaching, administration, pastoral care, leadership, etc. all in one package. The process to ministry included getting a MDiv at a seminary, passing ordination exams and interviews, and then candidating for a post at one of thousands of local churches.

This made sense in U.S.A. , Canada and even Europe in the last 50-75 years.  But the world has changed and we need less and less full time professional clergy. The churches that flourish with full time paid professional staff are large mega churches who need specialists – worship pastor, C.E.O. senior pastor world class communicator, children’s ministry pastor, justice ministry manager, director of outreach, executive pastor, etc.etc. The other kind of churches looking for a full time clergy are the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. More and more of these churches are floundering smaller congregations looking for a ‘savior.’ It is true that there are more mega churches but they grow on the backs of the shrinking of the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. As we consolidate existing ‘successful Christians’ into larger and larger churches, the old-fashioned single pastor-small staff churches shrivel unable to even pay one pastor let alone a church secretary.  The net-net result is we need fewer and fewer full time clergy to ‘service’ the remaining Christians left in our society.

I suggest there is a need for a new order of clergy (if I may call it that): a missional leader who can understand the relationship between work and ministry so that it is seamless. He or she dedicates 10-15 hours a week to organizing the Kingdom community in their local context.  He or she knows her gifting and can lead out of that gifting. He or she has a job that he/she can support her/himself and her family with. He/she can develop a job skill that can adapt to changing circumstances. Often, he or she adjust their work hours so that she can work a tad less than the average 40 hour week. He or she can then give time to the leadership of their community without disrupting a daily/weekly rhythm of being present with family and neighborhood as well. The small church community can offer a small stipend to make up the difference. He or she does all this with 3 to 4 other leaders who do the same. Each is recognized for one of the five-fold giftings out of which they minister and lead in relation to the other leaders. They are apostle, prophet, pastor-organizer, teacher-organizer, evangelist working together, 15 hours plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours plus 15 hours. They are doing more out of multiple giftings than one single pastor ever could. They are bearing each other’s burdens. They are a “band of brothers and sisters.” This becomes a sustainable missionary kind of ministry that changes the whole dynamics of ministry because they are present in jobs, families and neighborhoods and makes possible long term ministry in context. It is, in essence, a new version of the old monastic orders of mission adapted to the capitalistic societies in the West while providing the means to resist (and provide witness) to its more oppressive sinful patterns.

Denominations need to define a new order of clergy because anyone seeking to operate in ministry this way will easily get defeated. Some of the more obvious ways they will get defeated are:

  • They will get caught up in bi-vocational ministry where they will be expected to get a full time job, and do the work of a full time minister (because no one changed the expectations). This is chaos and recipe for personal disaster. It simply will never work. We need a new order of clergy then to redefine bi-vocational ministry and fund a new imagination for what this kind of order of mission might look like.
  • They will get ordained into ministry and become bi-vocational and missional but the denominations will still expect them to fulfill all the old requirements of the traditional form of full time pastorate.  They will have to go to local ministerial associations, represent the church at local events, make sure the furnace is working at the church, take care of funerals and attend civic events, fill out data sheets for the denomination. But reality is, they have other jobs! They need to be given credentials that recognize the new rhythms of life they have committed themselves to. (This stuff nearly killed me when I was a bi-vocational pastor).
  • They will get a job, take up local contextual ministry and they will not understand the relationship between their work and ministerial leadership calling. They will not know how to look at their jobs once they get successful. They will not be able to be comfortable with 15 hours a week working for the organization of the church (because no one provided these expectations). They will not know what it means when their churches start to grow and some leaders ask them to quit their jobs because they will have allowed the identity of their jobs and its monetary success to overwhelm them. An imagination for the way work and ministry and family (when there is one) go together needs to be cultivated and this can best be done through defining a new order of clergy and then bringing those practicing together to discuss and offer visions for what this looks like.

For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group. There are literally thousands of second career people, and thousands of younger seminary graduates  dissatisfied with current options (dying small church senior pastor or mega church staff person) who would gravitate towards this kind of commissioning.  But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the Kingdom in N America.

What do you think? Denominational leaders, do you have such an order of clergy in your structures? Of course, it goes without saying that we need to fund the education of this new order of clergy differently, not taking people out of their context, but providing training along the way over longer (more affordable) periods of time.  There are many seminaries preparing to do this. We know we have to do it. I can’t wait til Northern unveils its new program for doing just that.


David Fitch is the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and part of the pastoral leadership of Life on the Vine, a congregation in suburban Chicago. He has published several books, including End of Evangelicalism (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Prodigal Christianity with GeoffHolsclaw (Jossey-Bass, 2013).


  • Scott Holland

    Thanks, David, for your creative and constructive thoughts on the need for a new order for clergy. However, I wonder if this proposal properly discerns the nature of what some have called “the coming church,” which some of us wonder might more accurately be named the vanishing church?

    There is indeed a crisis in the church creating a need to re-imagine the order of traditional clergy. Could it be that we need a new order for the church, a new order for theology and a new order for spirituality?

    I know you have written well about various ends of conventional churchly and evangelical expectations. However, what if the classical gods of Evangelical, Mainline, Catholic, Orthodox and Anabaptist churches are sick unto death and dying? Perhaps the dying of old gods has placed the missional message itself in greater crisis than the state of clergy?

  • Andrew Hamilton


    Thank you for your call for a more creative imagination as we approach what it means to be church vis a vis “kingdom workers” in the 21st century. While I appreciate the idea of a new order, I wonder if this one you propose goes far enough. It seems to me that one of the core dysfunctions in the church is the notion that one needs to be paid for ministry. While I recognize those scripture passages that lead us to financially support (or at least supplement) church leaders, I’m not sure it was ever meant to be within the framework of capitalism. In the case of Brethren the employer-employee relationship is toxic to community building. It seems to me that the model you propose could easily avoid this. Moreover, a model such as this re-establishes the foundational belief of the priesthood of all believers. In this way it reunites the notion of ministry with everyday faithful living (discipleship), which has been divorced since the emergence of paid vocational ministry.
    Thanks again.

  • Chris Bowman

    This is an excellent post. Thank you. This is not only a powerfully emerging model of pastoral ministry (as at Washington City COB) but also a reminder of our heritage. It would be interesting to me to interview several of our Brethren churches which still practice the plural non-salaried ministry for pointers (and pitfalls) of such a model.
    From a systems perspective one might also recognize the impact that this type of renewed “priesthood of all believers” could have on a re-imagined middle-judicatory role.
    To do so locally and nationally, however, would require acceptance of some loss of control — control which, paradoxically, is what we cling to even more strongly in times of loss and change.

  • Shawn Flory Replogle

    Yes! Yes! Yes! There are several congregations trying this in the Western Plains District… out of necessity. To small to support the financial obligations of a full-time pastor, they’ve gone to shared ministries. The benefits include a ministry born out of the gifts “among us” and a congregation-wide ownership/responsibility for ministry that occurs. There are tremendous resources also freed up for “Possibility funds”. There are downsides. It is not easy: to recruit new leadership; get leadership trained; to find outside/institutional assistance. Nothing can be taken for granted. There is no one to pass blame: the “buck stops there.” The last congregation I was at tried it, and, because it was somewhat larger, did it in a different way. It was a difficult transition, a different mindset for congregation members. To their credit, that kind of ministry is still going, though I’m not sure it’s reached its full potential.

    In the (American) “West” in the CoB, this *new* model is already here in so many ways. There are few other options in congregations decimated by rural flight. Each of the commentators below has named significant points for which conversation and action needs to happen: issues of institutional control; the nature of ministry changing when paid; and does this even begin to go far enough for whatever the “church” looks like next, to a new generation raised in a world completely different than our own.

    I just don’t think current structures and most of those who inhabit those structures are able and/or willing to engage those conversations at the present. Are there people out there willing to take the risk of joining together in new places/spaces to put this kind of ministry/mission into practice? Perhaps even in a whole place? Then we should talk some more….