Just what is a priest (pastor, minister)? Each denomination or independent congregation or organization has a codified (formal or informal) list of what constitutes a religious, as opposed to a congregant or ordinary person. These lists define and spell out the duties of religious, i.e. ordained persons according to each organization’s or denomination’s specific theology.
In one favorite Bible image, Christianity considers everyone sheep. Jesus is our shepherd. He is the one who calls individual sheep to that which is their possible future. So, a called sheep is simply that, a sheep with a specific future as offered by God.
I can think of no Christian theology which would disagree with this basic understanding. Each, however, has additional insights which define their own ordained, and the paths each follows within their structures. Now, what are the differences between the ordained and the rest of the flock. This is where so many possible differences exist.
Let’s consider some of the things which occur between parishioners and their priest, pastor, or minister. In most established churches, ordained personnel go through additional education stressing the organization’s theology and structure. This is where some distance begins to occur. Spiritual leaders take on the valued concerns of their organizations, while balancing them with the valued concerns of their congregations, and the individual members within them.
Those concerns usually have rather different weight of importance to each group. These concerns are in conflict with each other from time to time. The ordained must balance how and when each receives attention. Here is the crux of the matter. For example, an ordained person is trained to hold the theology and organizational structures of the denomination as of major importance.
Within the ordained person’s congregation, two major concerns of the priest, pastor, minister is to keep his flock safe from wolves and stay in harmony with the higher organization. An assumption of the leader is that his flock has similar concerns since they are members of his church. In my experience, this is only slightly true, even when protecting them from wolves. It is an uncommon parishioner who belongs to church X because of its theology or history or who will identify the same wolves the leader sees. This in no way is intended to lessen the Christianity and faith of the laity or clergy.
Most denominational church members are there because of their family history, personal relationships, or convenience. Unfortunately for the priest, pastor, minister, it is almost never because of the sermon brilliance, personality brightness, personal attraction, or great intellect of the leader. Those who search out a church of the same or similar denomination after moving generally do so for the cultural ambiance enjoyed before. In case of severe dysfunction within a congregation, there are specific steps to take when resolving it. These steps can be initiated by the priest, congregation, or higher authority. Resolution will depend on the codified procedures of the organization.
Individual congregants generally hold their own reasons for being members as more important than those of the organization. When challenged with change, this has sometimes been stated as “this is my church before you were here, now, and forever. We will be here long after you are gone, leave us and our church alone! We like how it is now.”
The leader of an independent congregation generally holds his/her own evaluation of importance as paramount. After all, that person is holding the position of highest court of decision otherwise vested in a denominational structure. Within the independent ministry or congregation, there is little room for disagreement between the leader and the laity. In the case of disagreement, the individual members usually leave. Only in cases of significant rebellion within will the leader be deposed. I have not run into a serious scientific study as to why individuals choose independent versus denominational church membership, although I have my own strong suspicions.
PART ONE – MORE TO COME