The Gifts and Graces of Ministry

Chutney has been writing on the question of what makes a minister a minister. In his summary post, he lists six points. The first four are general statements of the accepted opinion among free churchers and congregationalists everywhere. But in numbers 5 and 6, Chutney tosses a couple of wild pitches.

5. At times it seems we “believe” that seminary and denominational proceduralism makes someone clergy, that there is an ontological change that takes place upon the approval of academy and guild. This is not just a violation of congregationalism. Behind this notion is a hidden doctrine of “ministerial transubstantiation,” that is, the belief that the Words of Academic and Denominational Institution transform a person into the Body and Blood of Ordained Ministry.

6. Why would anyone hold this view? Because it makes them feel safe. Ministerial transubstantiation allows congregants to skip past the relationality that makes someone their minister to the quick fix of certified clerical authority. This act of spiritual cowardice lays the foundation for congregations to neglect their responsiblity to call and form ministers. Congregations grow frustrated with the unformed clergy they encounter and demand better quality control from their denominations. The denominations, in turn, demand more from the seminaries. The seminaries, in response to this slight, increase their academic requirements, a move further complicated by the academy’s own guild politics. Every move reinforces belief in ministerial transubstantiation. It is a vicious circle.

I know of no one, ministerial or lay, within the free church tradition, who holds that an MDiv and MFC approval creates an "ontological change" in the one called. I know of no one who believes that ordination creates an ontological change in the minister. Such is the stuff of Catholicism. The doctrine of "ministerial transubstantiation" is a strawman.

Ministerial authority in the church is always a controversial topic. The basis for the minister's authority in the congregation is in the office of the called minister in a free church. It is not in the person of the minister.

The role and duties of the office of the minister in a free church has been developed over time and is pragmatic for the most part. Those roles and duties have served the community well, and have changed over time as the needs of the religious community have changed. The renewed interests in lay ministry, shared ministry and community ministry are all part of the present reconsideration of the division of labor between the ordained and the laity.

Institutions in flux generate all sorts of conflicts and competing interests and perspectives. In times like these, there will be ministers who will feel compelled to assert what they perceive as the authority of their office, and there will be congregants who feel that they claim too much authority. They will have to work it out. It helps working it out if the issue is posed as the proper role and duties of the office of the minister. But it the issue is framed as a cheap effort by the minister to claim that he or she is somehow a superior form of being, how can that help?

In his sixth point, Chutney appears to argue that a reliance on "ministerial transsubstantiation" allows the congregation to neglect forming ministers, which is the real cause of the low quality of ministers. Is there an unstated assumption that the cause of ministerial/congregational conflict is the low quality of ministers that are out there? I would argue to the opposite, that the cause of ministerial/congregational conflict is frequently a mutual inability to define the roles, duties and authority of the minister in ways that serve our current needs and is true to the traditions of the free church.

I would even argue, to be more provocative, that the balance of power between minister and congregation is so far in favor of the congregation, so adverse to ministerial authority, that it makes brave, far-sighted, prophetic religious leadership rare, and has resulted in the stagnation of liberal religion, as a theological trend and a social force.


  1. Perhaps I should have been more clear. (And thank you for the reply.)

    I don't mean to say that folks say that they believe in ministerial transubstantiation. Of course they don't. (And I chose the Catholic wording to be provocative.) My point here is that behavior contradicts the congregational tradition here, which is only to be expected now and then in a denomination so overwhelmingly populated by converts.

    On point six, I don't mean to blame the natural and inevitable conflicts over authority on poor ministerial formation. I grew up in a Methodist congregation where folks who believed themselves to be called to the ministry were nurtured and groomed for ordained ministry over a period of years. First Sunday School, then part time staff, then full time, then seminary. This tradition also exists in many charistmatic congregations. It seems very similar to the apprenticeship tradition you outlined earlier.


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