Priesthood of all Believers

In recent weeks, my colleagues and I have been writing about what conversations pastors and their congregations need to be having right now. High on that list for me is what it means to pursue shared leadership between clergy and laity.

Exodus 18 offers a powerful reflection on this topic. Israel is newly liberated from slavery, but questions abound: What will life look like on the way to Canaan? What sort of spirituality will sustain them in the wilderness? How can they battle the grip of nostalgia that pulls them back to Egypt? Who should lead them, and how?

Moses is clearly in a position of leadership and he seems to be doing it all. Caring for the people, teaching, discerning, attending to practical needs, making important decisions, resolving disputes, setting up the livestream for worship (okay, that last one I made up).

Sound familiar?

Excuse the anachronism, but Moses is functioning as a solo pastor, a professional minister who is tasked with leading a large and complex congregation. Such is the situation when his father-in-law, Jethro, comes for a visit. Jethro observes what is happening and offers this assessment: “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you” (Exodus 18:17-18).

Sharp words, even for a father-in-law. Actually, what Jethro says is even more biting in Hebrew. The verb translated “wear out” (nabal) more typically means “to act foolish.” The problem with Moses’ do-it-all-myself approach is not just that it will lead to burn out. It’s an unwise model of leadership both for him and the people he is looking after. Jethro is essentially saying: Look, Moses, you might love this people and be called to lead them, but how you are leading won’t – and can’t – bring about a thriving congregation or vital spirituality. It might even do more harm than good.

In the verses that follow, Jethro recommends a model of shared leadership. He counsels Moses to appoint a bevy of leaders who will help shepherd Israel through the wilderness. As Exodus 18:23 suggests, this approach promises not only to enable Moses to endure, but the people to experience “peace” (shalom in Hebrew) – the wholeness and vibrancy of a flourishing community.

The theological name for the model of leadership suggested in Exodus 18 is the priesthood of all believers. It’s the notion that the responsibility of ministry leadership is the province of all disciples, not a prerogative of the ordained clergy, paid church staff, or those who have gone to seminary. It means that laity are engaged not just at the level of volunteers, ushers, or chaperons on the youth ski trip. Rather, the priesthood of all believers imagines the laity as active partners with clergy in carrying out the various ministries of the church, from strategic thinking, discernment, and teaching to the work of pastoral care, outreach, and liturgy.

The notion of a priesthood of all believers is one of those things that most churches would affirm in theory and theology but don’t live out in practice. I get it. That we tend to have specialized leaders who do most of the work of ministry is, at least in part, a function of the growing complexity of running a church. Even still, the professional, pastor-as-CEO model of leadership that we rely on might be just as unfruitful (or foolish, to quote Jethro) today as it was back in Exodus 18.

To embrace shared models of leadership in the church would be to embrace a faith-driven experiment that just might transform how we do church today. Among other things, it could help:

  • Break the isolation many pastors feel in their leadership positions.
  • Bring to the decision-making table a diversity of perspectives, new energy, and creative thinking.
  • Counteract hierarchies of power and the harmful egos that they sustain.
  • More closely align authority and activity in the operation of the church.
  • Challenge the church to rely on people, not programs, as the key to meaningful ministry.
  • Invite laity to bring their professional skills and knowledge to bear on church life, rather than merely volunteer at or attend programs clergy set up.
  • Open up imagination around bi-vocational ministry, especially in traditions where full-time ministry is the norm.
  • Bridge generational and theological gaps that arise between clergy and the congregations they serve.

As with any experiment, pursuing shared leadership in the church will be risky and require changes, some of which might be painful. From the side of clergy, it would require letting go of a certain degree of control and doing a lot more listening. Clergy would have to see their own position not as the apex of a system of “trickle down ecclesiology” but rather as a node in a non-hierarchical web of intersecting leadership roles. From the side of the laity, the notion of a priesthood of all believers would require a shift away from attendance as the primary metric of faithful church involvement. It would call for more intentional training and equipping – not necessarily seminary, but also something more sustained and structured than what most Christian education programs offer.

Surely there are multiple ways of living into the idea of a priesthood of all believers. And it certainly won’t cure all that ails the church today. But it just might open up a new and faithful way through the wilderness. It did for Moses and Israel.

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