Who Shall Lead Them?

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2m 18sec


The Future of Ministry in America.

By Larry Witham.
Oxford Univ. Press. 246 pp. $26

Based on reams of sociological data, Who Shall Lead Them? paints an expansive portrait of America’s Protestant and Catholic clergy. Journalist Larry Witham examines the personal, theological, and societal challenges that today’s pastors confront, as well as the resourcefulness and commitment that many of them exhibit in undertaking what must rank as one of the most arduous and ill-defined jobs in American society. Notwithstanding the book’s subtitle, readers are generally left on their own to anticipate what the future holds, but Witham does succeed in providing a comprehensive, historically informed, and heavily empirical (if somewhat breathless) overview of the major concerns.

Among those concerns: long hours (53 per week for Catholic priests, 46 for Protestant ministers); denominational conflicts over the place of women and of gays and lesbians in the ministry; periodic congregational conflicts over leadership, sermons, or financial and social skills, which can result in a pastor’s ouster; the diminished financial contributions to churches, and by extension the diminished resources available to clergy (40 percent of Southern Baptist pastors now hold separate jobs and preach on weekends); and, of course, the lingering fallout from the sex-abuse scandals. Add to this list the inevitable and longstanding conflicts that swirl over pastoral substance and style: Should clergy engage in political speech and activism? Can clergy be sectarian and ecumenical? Should the pastor be a leader or a servant?

The last question may be among the most crucial.  Interestingly, Witham shows, a majority of clergy prefer a style of pastoral leadership that encourages lay participation and collaboration in decision making, especially in smaller congregations. Collaborative decision making these days is supplanting top-down managerial culture in many realms, even on Wall Street. But there’s an important difference: A corporation’s objectives, profit above all, are straightforward and clear-cut, whereas those of a pastoral ministry are amorphous and often mutually incompatible. A pastor must be preacher, biblical interpreter, liturgical expert, counselor, social activist, building manager, and financial planner. Which of these roles can be outsourced to laity and which cannot? If lay members are capable of assuming many of these tasks, what’s left to prop up the sanctity of pastors?

Witham agrees that clergy must in some sense stand apart. “Just as ministry begins with the call,” he writes, “it must keep some semblance of that divine connection, search, or faith throughout. Without this, clergy agree, ministry itself loses its integrity, and ministers lose the power to be examples.” For Protestant and Catholic churches alike, then, the major challenge of the future will be to define which elements must remain truly sacred.

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