Canaries in the Coal Mines of Ministry

Seminarians are the canaries in the coal mine for the professional ministry. They give an advance warning that the atmosphere in which professional religious leadership is performed is growing toxic.

One toxic atmosphere is the economics, which many have pointed out already. Ministry is dependent on congregational stewardship. Congregations are being squeezed by lack of income growth in the middle class. The people are taking on big debts to become ministers are going to be among the first to notice what a risky proposition it is.

The second toxic atmosphere is the system of personal judgment and evaluation that governs our ministerial careers. The Commission of Appraisal in its study on authority pointed out that ministers have very little positional authority in our congregations. (Positional authority would be authority that comes with the office, no matter who is the minister. No, ministerial authority, as we now conceive it, is relational authority that is earned by personal behavior in the relational system of the congregation.)

Ministers, in other words, are evaluated constantly by people who are judging them on the most vague, personal, and undefinable standards. The RSCC and the MFC start the process of vague personality evaluations (the question in my day was whether we had "ministerial presence") and then hand the work of making these judgments off to search committees, committees on ministry, and governing boards of congregations. For many on those bodies, the evaluation is not much more than whether they "like" us, or remind us of people they don't like.

The canaries in the coal mines of our seminaries are telling us that this is crazy-making. It's making them crazy with anxiety and paranoia. And it's not just the problem of the formation process.


  1. I wish I could say it gets any better after ordination or even final fellowship.....this as a minister's spouse.

  2. Clyde Grubbs7:55 PM

    My my Tom!

    "For many on those bodies, the evaluation is not much more than whether they "like" us, or remind us of people they don't like."

    Your saying we have to deal with transferance! Gosh!

  3. Steve Cook8:08 PM

    I witnessed the dramatic difference between positional and relational authority during my ministry in Hudson, MA in the late 90s. I was a member of the local Rotary Club, heavily populated by middle-aged men (and a few women) many of them Catholic in practice or by birth. They didn't quite call me "Father," but I was deferred to by them in all kinds of subtle ways just by virtue of being a minister. The contrast with my own church, in which I was often embattled based on theology, personality, gender or politics, could not have been more marked.

  4. Clyde Grubbs10:20 PM

    Not a fan of clericalism, or anti-clericalism. So I do not have have a strong desire for positonal authority. But pondring this, if some asks me to teach, I expect to be given the chance to do that. And the same with ministry. So I guess enought "positional authority' to do what I was called to do would be nice, but I like "earning" my reds by relational leadership.

    And perhaps some of toxity is based on clericalism/anti-clericalism, Ministers who presume and congregants who project onto all ministers that presumption. Leaders who are tone deaf and people who need to raise their voice to be heard.

    Toxicity is not endemic to congregations, I have experienced its absence in most of my two decades of ministry. But I have also seen it build and get nasty, so we need to be "non anxious." If we respond with factionalism, scapegoating, and blaming we will become ineffective. Being "non anxious" is very tiring after a while.


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