Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Altar Rail that Divided the World

Why is there, in vast swaths of North American Christianity, mutual disenfranchisement of the clergy and the laity? Why do so many clergy feel overly set apart by their congregations, and burdened with more than their fair share of the ministry? Why do so many of the laity feel frustrated by heavy-handed clericalism, a sense that they can't ever really break in to leadership in the congregation because the pastor does all of it?

I've been talking about this topic for a while now with a good friend and theologian, Gregory Walter at St. Olaf College, who studied at seminary with me but who has remained among the "laity" while serving as a professor of religion and studying and teaching theology as his lifelong vocation.

As a lay person, he experiences church differently than I do. As a friend, he alerts me to the ways clergy regularly disenfranchise parishioners. In a recent text exchange, he wrote this:

I'm going to come back around to the points he raises in a bit, but first a disclaimer. I would like to think that in my own ministry, I don't disenfranchise folks. My ideal is to, as my letter of call states, equip the saints for the work of ministry. I desire to be a facilitator of the ministry of others, not a block to it.

However, in the congregations I have served, I have had parishioners, over time, report to me feelings on both ends of the spectrum. Some folks report that I really have equipped them for ministry, and they feel I lead in a way that creates space for the ministry of everyone. I have had others report that they felt like I said in an unspoken (or perhaps even spoken) manner, "You don't need to do this, I've got it."

I imagine there are two reasons for this phenomenon. First, it probably happens because I treat different people differently. I don't mean to, but it might happen. So, it might be that I encourage the ministry of some while discouraging the ministry of others. In those instances, mea culpa. I'm really sorry, and I repent. I want to do better.

Second, it probably happens that different types of parishioners perceive my actions differently. The complaint of disenfranchisement might be a self-imposed one, created by the emotional reactions of people. They might expect to be disenfranchised, or simply perceive actions not intended as such as tending that way. Sometimes it might arise out of the past experience of the parishioner, or their response to a new leadership style (mine) than what they were used to.

Basically, there's just something about that altar rail. The old joke goes: Do you know why there are altar rails in Episcopalian churches? Answer: To divide the Republicans from the Democrats. But the real joke, which isn't a joke, is that ordination and clericalism hoards too much of the ministry on one side of the rail, and the laity, oddly but really, let this happen or even passively encourage it, even while being discouraged by it.

What's more awkward, however, is that this cycle is mutually reinforcing, and most of us, clergy and laity, are unaware of how deeply this system is embedded in our congregational practices. It's probably why clergy have a hard time retiring. They simply don't know what to do in a congregation if they aren't the pastor. Frankly, it will mean being on the receiving end of the hoarding they have done for so many years.

It's also why strong leaders in congregations who aren't pastors frequently leave or get frustrated--there's very little room for strong leadership than isn't the pastor taking the lead.

Returning to Greg's note above, I'd like to focus from here on out on worship. Although we might talk about the ministry of the people of God in all its forms, and how the clergy/laity divide influences things like social ministry, mission, etc., by focusing on worship and how we prepare for it, we can offer a really good test case for the thesis that clergy and laity mutually disenfranchise each other (and themselves), in different ways.

Take my own worship leadership, for example. I offer it here not as model practice, but as actual practice. Ideally I will modify some of what I analyze here because I realize it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But I need to describe for you what I actually do, here, at Good Shepherd in Fayetteville, AR. I'd love for my own parishioners, and other readers, to weigh in and modify my description according to their own perceptions.

Here's what we do. The pastor is primarily responsible for preaching, and for presiding at the sacraments. The laity take many of the other roles. We have an assisting minister who chants, prays, and assists at the meal. Other lay people serve as lectors, ushers, greeters, and on the altar guild. A professional lay person plays the organ and directs the choir. A lay worship band leads music for the contemporary service. Two other lay leaders do sound and video. Other lay leaders offer healing prayer (our parish nurse). There is a worship committee that focuses on paraments and other worship supplies and seasonal decor. We have a fairly large choir who also offers an anthem most Sundays, plus some other music ensembles like chimes and a band.

During the actual worship service, the leadership of worship is divided up by these roles. We maintain lists of folks who have volunteered for these roles, and our office manager assigns them to specific services and Sundays. Only a rather limited subset of the entire congregation volunteers in these roles. By my estimate, about 20% of the congregational membership volunteers for some kind of worship leadership role. That's not bad, but it's still only 1 out of 5.

Greg's point is that lay people are left out of the planning of worship. I think this is true. Although I sometimes think about the sermon mid-week by posting status updates on Facebook or talking about the text with folks, etc. I do not have a regular group that meets to evaluate my sermons after the fact, or study the text with me to prepare the sermon in advance. We do not have a committee that selects the lessons or studies the lectionary texts to make decisions about the liturgy for various seasons. I write or adapt the prayers of the people (I once tried to organize a group to write these, but it kind of fizzled out).

I don't think I've thought of worship planning as a form of Christian faith formation, although I should and could. We do not rotate people in and out of the worship committee and other worship leadership roles so that a majority of the congregation, over time, connects to and plans worship.

And we don't share the leadership of the sacraments. If I'm not here, there can't be communion, unless we find another pastor to preside. Interestingly, I disagree with this practice theologically, but I imagine most of the lay leaders actually agree with it. They want a pastor to preside.

I don't think it occurs to most people to baptize others. They leave that to the pastor. Similarly, the office of the keys, offering confession and absolution, is left to the clergy, and I do not think we have any solid practices in place to offer or exercise this office with joint lay and clergy planning and leadership.

I could go on. But you see the point, I think. You could analyze your own context, and tell us what you do. It would be informative.

I like the ideas presented by Greg. I think they would be worth implementing. I do believe some congregations probably already have structures in place that accomplish this. I remember reading stuff from Doug Pagitt in Minneapolis, and perhaps others, about sermon-planning together with a group. Some traditions (like the Quakers) even allow the sermons to arise, inspired by the Spirit, by whoever is in the gathering.

In order to break the negative cycle currently in place, of clergy and laity mutually disenfranchising each other, both sides of the rail would need to own their contribution to the problem. Clergy would need to recognize the extent to which they have happily hoarded the ministry. As much as clergy complain about having so many parts of ministry placed on their shoulders, clergy are also, as a group, quite enamored of that Cheap Trick song, "I want you to want me, I need you to need me."

On the other hand, laity need to stop caving so quickly and readily to a system that disenfranchises them. As much as many laity complain about disenfranchisement, they are also, on the other hand, quite happy to let the pastors do quite a bit of the ministry (especially talking in front of groups of people and praying in public). It wouldn't take much for the laity to take back the ministry. #Occupychurch anyone?

In a sense what I am saying here is laity should become pastors, and pastors should become laity. Clergy should return to the priesthood of all the baptized. The priesthood of all the baptized should claim its priesthood.

On the one hand, this is an unfulfilled aspect of the Reformation. In our practice, even if not in our theology, we have set clergy and laity apart from each other to the detriment of both.

Clergy feel alone and burdened, while they enjoy their power.

Laity feel powerless and passive, but enjoy their seats and the freedom to critique without being responsible.

There are also probably great cross-sections of the laity who have no such feelings, or practice nothing of the sort, and many clergy who share their ministries and equip their people.

Even in these instances, however, the divide still holds, because in order to equip, you already have to be, in a certain sense, the patron. Or to be so unconcerned for the organization of the church, as many laity are, you already have to be as free as the laity are not to feel responsible.

I am aware this argument will meet resistance. I am also aware that a good portion of the phenomenon is energized by who is salaried in a church, and who is not. On that matter, we should all go back and read Kierkegaard's Judge for Yourselves again.

The organic church movement wants to get rid of clergy altogether (Neil Cole). The Orthodox movement wants to maintain the role of bishop/pastor as essential to the church (Zizioulas), with the laity having as their proper role simply saying the "Amen."

The ministry writ large is the most contested field in ecumenical conversations. Just look at the lengthy portion of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) that is devoted to it (link to this here).

So I'll leave the topic lifted but not settled here, as it needs to be. What are your thoughts?


  1. My thoughts? Remove the rail. Distribute out into the seated and/or peace-passing congregation. How Presbyterian of me, right? :)

  2. Pastor, great post and way to get ideas flowing. One thing I think we need to recognize is how much American/Western consumer culture is a part of this. The construct of Pastor as professional service provider and congregants/parishoners as consumers isn't hard to fathom and is striking when you think on it. The church is called to be counter-cultural in this respect, however, we are facing heavy headwinds and our divisions are not helping us overcome them. Thanks and I hope for more conversation. Yours, Erik Backus

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  4. Well said. I dont go to your church, but I recognize all the elements that you have described. They have been in every church I have attended. Most of my life, I spent in military chapels with various denominations leading the service. I have not been in a church that was completely dominated by clergy or laity. Although I have seen plenty of strong personalities leave a church because they could not be the sole leader or set the direction.

    The rail may symbolize division to some, but to my family, its a coming to the alter. Some the churches we attended there was no rail. We still went to the steps and knelt for communion where we could. Rail or no rail, its about coming to Christ. Its easy to forget the meaning when we commune weekly.

    Your comment on the 80/20 of service has been the rule. My version, 80% of the time, 20% do all the work. How do you break that? One thing that Greg mentions is regular rotations of positions of ministry staff leadership. Not sure that would work. There are already to few volunteers, now you would move someone because they were there for 2 years? We do that for council members, for not for ministries. God gives each of us different talents, use those talents for God's glory.