At the end of 2000, I decided I needed to take a sabbatical from four decades in the United Methodist Church. When I walked away, I was worn out, burned out, jaded and angry, first from watching what happened to family and friends who served in the church, and then from what happened to me and people I grew to care about when we also served.
In 2013, as I weigh whether to rejoin the denomination, I'm uncovering a lot of old reminders of why I left. And they're making it hard to return.
At the top of the list of things I need to come to terms with if I return is the terrible chasm and disconnection between the UMC's clergy and its laypeople. It's the main reason I needed to take a break back in 2000, and things don't seem to have gotten much better in the interim.
The UMC is not alone in this regard. Many kinds of churches suffer from the uneasy relationship between clergy and laity. This recent opinion piece on the Alban Institute's website illustrates the issue.
Being a clergyperson, the writer sees the problem from the clergy's perspective. And that perspective is that the laity are sheep who are unreasonably dependent on, and have unrealistic expectations for their clergy. If only the laity would take more responsibility, be more mature, stop seeing the church in terms of what benefits them, and serve and welcome those who are on the outside, clergy tell each other, things would be so much better and we could really be church.
Then there's the counter perspective of the laity. They've seen clergy who do think their role is to have all the answers and the congregation's role is to follow them. They've been led by clergy who like being in charge with a more or less helpless congregation that they alone can lead. They've noticed that some clergy do not want to share power in the church with even their most mature members and will use their position to make sure that does not happen. They've been talked down to by clergy do not think people in their congregation even have
ideas, or that if they do, that they are silly, or stupid, or "backwards,"
and certainly not based on what the latest church
thinking happens to be. And they suspect some clergy
enjoy feeling superior and "closer to God" than their congregants,
and are more than happy to have a handy group of people to blame for
things that do not work and problems that arise.
How do I know this? I am in the strange situation of having a foot in both camps. I went to seminary and am ordained, but I have spent most of my service in a lay capacity. I know how clergy complain to each other about their people, and I also know how frustrated the laity are with their clergy and denominational officials.
What I have hardly ever seen is an actual dialogue on equal footing between clergy and
laity, where any of these kinds of issues are discussed and perspectives
shared. Instead, each camp mutters about the other behind the closed doors of their own camps.
So let me say it here. Laity, you can be pretty immature, lazy and petty. Clergy, you enjoy the power and the feeling of spiritual superiority. And by the way clergy, you do hold most of the cards and you haven't played them very well over the years.
This is not just a UMC problem. It's a problem in all
churches. We've got to figure out a way to work together, not at cross purposes. Things would be so different if clergy and laity were actually partners who had respect for each other, rather than people who see each other as problems and antagonists. Let's power share and responsibility share and honor our mutual and separate gifts. To get there, though, we first have to be willing to at least talk to each other. The time to start is now.
Greg - FIVE; Alien - ZERO
4 years ago