When people think of church leaders, the person that usually comes to mind is a priest or pastor. Through many years of church history and varying traditions, we have come to associate church leadership with extensive training for ministry and ordination.
The early Christian movement was a lay movement outside of the strict training of temple priests and local rabbis. This quickly changed with even more complexity being added to an energizing clerically system.
In the fourth century, the Church of Milan did something risky and radical when they ordained an unbaptized Christian to be their bishop. They made this decision because they felt that Ambrose was the right person for the job and that the gifts he offered were precisely what was needed in their context. Nevertheless, the church steadily built a clergy led or organization.
Every cycle of Church decline has been followed by a dramatic mission movement. These mission movements challenged the established paradigms. Moreover, they challenged them by diversification of mission and ministry and by depending upon lay vocation.
I believe that today’s church can learn from the past. I am not saying that the future Church will ordain the unbaptized to the episcopate, but I do believe that God invites us to reimagine church leadership as we learn to work with individuals of all kinds who are committed to the betterment of the community. The future Church will see everyone as a potential missionary of God's work of reconciliation, regardless of education, jobs or credentials.
In our earliest churches, leadership was very neighborhood-oriented. You would choose your leaders from the group of people that were connected to you, your family, community businesses, and from people who demonstrated a commitment to the betterment of the community. The future Church will relearn this ancient model, choosing our leaders from all aspects of society as we grow a diverse network of ministry that can amplify God’s work of mission.
As we work to empower leaders in the future Church, certain traditions will need to change. No longer will formation be only for those who seek ordination. Instead, the church will equip its people to lead missional communities. The future church will understand that there is a new wave of makers who are deeply invested in seeing the future mission flourish and thrive in their context, and new models of formation will help people take ownership of their own learning experience in a manner suitable for the context where these new leaders are called to serve. The learning that takes place between student and faculty will be reciprocal, reflective, and rooted in practice.
In the Diocese of Texas, we have transformed our Commission on Ministry process to move outside the old parish model. We begin not with discerning a call to the diaconate or priesthood, but rather with the deeper question: what is your vocation? By doing this, we are helping everyone into a home of curiosity about God’s invitation to mission. Then they are invited to discover other opportunities to serve. Coaching, guiding, and partnering, we in the Diocese of Texas are undoing old inherited systems of servings; ordaining one priest, one church and one plot of land. We have laity who have joined our community startups and today are responsible for some 4 small Christian communities with over 700 total weekly attendance. As of this writing, 18 congregations have sent people out. 16 congregations are developing plans to start communities. 56 congregations are actively sending people out, curious about their neighborhood. 20 congregations are becoming a journey of discovery about the “missional concept.”15 of the 42 are lay led. 2 of the 42 are led by people in the discernment process. 5 of the 42 are led by deacons. 13 have clergy involved. We have not experienced such expansion in the church in decades.
We are also paving the way for new models of forming ordained leaders with the IONA School for Ministry. Developed over ten years ago, the Iona School was created to educate and empower the laity and bi-vocational clergy in our diocese. In conjunction with the Seminary of the Southwest and the Diocese of Texas, the IONA School has expanded to over 20 dioceses through the Iona Initiative. This kind of multiplication is key if we are to successfully support the formational needs of all those who wish to serve God and the mission of the future Church as leaders. Today the Diocese of Texas is partnering across a web of relationships to form over 150 clergy for mission.
Rooted in a desire to amplify God’s mission, the future Church will raise up lay and clergy leaders who will work in a variety of contextual settings. The Gospel will not be held from its applied purpose by economic factors.
Is God preparing you for leadership in the present-future Church? What context might you be called to serve, and how might you amplify God's mission of reconciliation in the world that God loves so much?