Ministry without Hierarchy

Clericalism is a model of leadership that disempowers those who are led or served, and turns them into clients and dependents. This is opposed to ministry, in which one uses gifts and powers of leadership to empower others, to teach them, to draw out their capacities, so that one can enter into a relationship of mutuality. …

This understanding of ministry does not mean that there aren’t structures, or that certain people aren’t chosen to lead at times; it simply means that the mandate of leadership is to nurture the community into mutual ministry, rather than to disempower the community and make its people into dependents.

The attempt of basic Christian communities to overcome this clericalism is relevant to feminism because what disempowers women in ministry is clericalism, which is built on the patriarchal model of relationships. Women will always be disempowered in ministry as long as ministry is understood in terms of patriarchal clericalism.

The most critical focus for feminism in the church is precisely the liberation of the church itself from patriarchy. Women in the church cannot really rest with a clerical, patriarchal church. They must struggle to convert the church to an understanding of its mission, which will include the full promotion of the humanity of women. The church must come to recognize that patriarchy is fundamentally contrary to the gospel and that the liberation of humanity from patriarchy is in fact an intrinsic aspect of the mission of the church itself.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, via Sojourners

7 Responses to “Ministry without Hierarchy”


  1. 1 seguewm January 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Well said. The January 2-8th,2010 issue of the Economist focused on women in the workforce. “Women’s economic empowerment is arguably the biggest social change of our times.” p. 7 At 50% of today’s workforce I think we will begin to see church doctrine change in response to who holds the purse strings. I wonder when more women then men will be graduating from seminaries. In some sectors, we already have even that answer.

  2. 2 sacredsalvage January 13, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Clearly Israel’s push for a King was resisted by God, but allowed because it is what they people wanted (Saul, who was taller and more handsome than his peers according to scripture). I have wondered what that other system of leadership might have looked like.

    Clericalism is roughly the same response to the same want. We tend to shop for the leaders we want to admire and follow, which places one more layer of bureaucracy between the people and responsibility for their faith.

    I do not know what the other version of leadership would look like. Most of what I hope for does not seem feasible because those in leadership inevitably abuse the trust placed in them, and those following them inevitably promote those who they want to reflect their ideals. We want to see our ideal leader at the head of the crowd, even if it’s a lie.

  3. 3 Sheila January 13, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    As a female interfaith minister, trying to decide what leadership might look like in place of any sort of hierarchy, I am coming to the conclusion that my role is to act as sort of a facilitator, creating opportunities for people to speak freely as we all learn from each other. We are each on a personal journey, creating our own pathway to God – we do not need to live by fear – for those who are truly seeking God, they will find God on every path. A supportive community and fellowship with other seekers helps everyone navigate the path a little better.

  4. 4 John Sobert Sylvest January 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Church Servant-Leaders, properly conceived, in my view, are great hosts with really great servers in a p2p environment. This is true literally and metaphorically.

  5. 5 Andrew January 13, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    I’d be curious to know whether “clericalism” for Reuther actually refers to hierarchy? She is, after all, a Roman Catholic.

    Having asked that, I personally have come to see that clericalism can exist in many forms of church (hierarchical / non-hierarchical doesn’t really change much). In other words, less hierarchy often does not solve the problem of clericalism. The issue of clericalism is a moral & spiritual problem for pastors / priests / ministers and is not necessarily intrinsic to the structures of the church.

    In Reuther’s own words, I agree that the role of leaders in the church is “to nurture the community into mutual ministry, rather than to disempower the community and make its people into dependents” but I just don’t think that precludes official leadership or hierarchy (necessarily).

  6. 6 John Sobert Sylvest January 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Mike, I used this as a jumping off point in celebrating the Epiphany. I hope it’s not too dense. If so, with a few questions and charitable promptings, I will fix it.

    When Reuther uses the phrase “intrinsic aspect of the mission of the church,” I sense in that a subversion of some of the logic employed by many in her (our) church’s teaching office. There is an old, sterile scholasticism that employs a substance metaphysic as an ontology from which a deontology then issues forth with all manner of descriptions that specify the intrinsic nature of this reality or that. Where sex and gender issues are involved, such an approach is sterile because it is too rationalistic, a prioristic, biologistic and physicalistic and therefore divorced from the concrete lived experience of the faithful. Its all abstractions, like the sentences above, which leave us scratching our heads and asking: say what?

    Put differently, such an approach takes too narrow a view of the way things are (ontology) and then reasons to how things ought to be (deontology) from their very nature (intrinsically). A male is created like this and a female like that, therefore a male must do this and a female must do that and neither must do otherwise because that would go against one’s intrinsic nature. This then pervades one’s views of church polity, moral doctrine, sacramental theology and church disciplines.

    Now, I’m all for deontology- is it right? (complemented by consequentialist- is it helpful?, contractarian- is it fair? and aretaic- is it virtuous?, approaches), but it is premised on starting with a good ontology, which, when we’re talking about people, means a good anthropology. We can ask the question, what if we as created co-creators, rather than being passive observers and characters playing out an author’s script, have been gifted with a participatory role in creation such that we have something to contribute to how things are supposed to unfold (teleologically)?

    What if this whole notion of original sin as some ontological rupture rooted in the past is bass-ackwards and our experience of finitude is due, instead, to Somebody’s unfinished business, which we experience as a teleological striving oriented toward the future? In that case, we as created co-creators, while still partially determined and bounded (by our genetic inheritance & environmental parameters), would also be autopoietic (self-organizing) and free (quasi-autonomous in the divine matrix).

    From an axiological (value-oriented) perspective, as semiotic (meaning-making) animals, we would not just discover meaning and values, but, without in any way disvaluing those we have discovered or violating them, we would create new meanings and new values, which is to say that they would be novel, emergent realities.

    If we thus change our perspective on the nature of our finitude, then we must change our understanding of the nature of atonement. This is to say that, if we change our assessment on what we think is wrong with reality (original sin and the Fall), this changes our view of how reality is to be fixed (soteriologically), which changes our view of the incarnation, itself (why God became man and why the Spirit so profusely permeates our reality). This would suggest that the incarnation, rather than being some grand cosmic repair job of some ontological rupture located in the past (“the” Fall), was a grand telic design built into the plan from the cosmic get-go, teleologically (think Teilhard and Scotus).

    This would all then change our perspective on 1) where things might be headed in the future (eschatologically) 2) Who the Cosmic Christ is (Christologically), and 3) how the Spirit empowers us (pneumatologically), all which then bear directly on 4) how we will experience one another in community (ecclesiologically).

    And I think the answers to these questions will have to take into account a radically incarnational and profusely pneumatological reality, which is then “intrinsically” participatory, profoundly inclusive and wonderfully universalist in its indelible catholicity. This need not, in the least, call into question the salvific efficacy of the incarnation and its indispensable role in effecting our at-one-ment. Rather, it broadens our conception of how deep is the love of the Trinity for creation and how we are called to a relationship of unspeakable intimacy in response to this divine eros, which then impels our agape’ toward self, toward other, toward our cosmos and toward our God, all in right-relationship, shall we say, intrinsically.

    A servant-leader’s role becomes that of a host, patterned after this grand cosmic hospitality that I just described. As such, this role more so resembles that of a scribe or note-taker, asking each Participant where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to and where they’ve witnessed the Spirit at work and inviting each to give voice in hymn, psalm, story-telling, ritual-sharing and fellowship-enjoying community, as they say, lex orandi lex credendi, our worship birthing our creeds. There is nothing top-down about this. It’s all peer to peer (p2p), in essence.

    Do we institutionalize sacrament? Sure we do, as the radically social animals we are. Is there a clerical role? Sure there is, but we needn’t be clericalistic. Neither do we need to be institutionalistic, over-identifying the Mystical Body with one aspect of an institution or another, denying the salvific efficacies of other traditions, institutions or even what are, ostensibly, noninstitutional vehicles.

    We might ask what the role of a hierarchy is in a p2p environment and whether that need be an intrinsic feature of its architecture. Emergence, itself, is intrinsically hierarchical, which is to recognize that a system’s novel emergent properties can indeed effect a top-down causation. But we must also recognize that it is also in the nature of this causation to not violate the structures and properties from which it emerged. Complex emergence is a rich reality with both bottom-up and top-down causations. The essential element of the systems approach is that the value added to the system come from the relationships between the parts and not from the parts per se, which is to suggest that the hierarchy doesn’t impart value per se but that the value derives from the feedback loop as the hierarchy channels the information it has received from other system structures and processes for the good of the system as a whole. Anything else devolves into a degenerate hierarchicalism.

    In robustly semiotic systems, we must also pay heed to Walker Percy’s distinction between information and news, or what Benedict XVI calls the informative and performative, the latter which can be of profound existential import and eminently actionable. We might call such: Good News.

    What the hierarchy is to pass along, then, for example, is only that information first heralded by a shepherd who asked: Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Do you now what I know?

    It is only then that the king has any authority to say: Listen to what I say!

    That’s what an epiphany is per dictionary.com: a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

    If it isn’t simple, homely or commonplace in origin, well … my advice is to leave it alone.

    David Foster Wallace said it well:

    It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

    “This is water.”

    “This is water.”

    One might want to see: DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, IN HIS OWN WORDS. He says stuff way better than me.


  1. 1 christiannonduality.com Blog » Blog Archive » What Does p2p Networking have to do with Epiphany? Trackback on January 14, 2010 at 4:31 pm

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