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Richard Lischer

New Rules

Contemporary ministers face challenges they never anticipated.

In his classic study The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested that entering the ministry is something like joining the army. You don't know if you'll be firing a gun, driving a truck, or peeling potatoes, but whatever you do, you will be a soldier in the U.S. Army. There was a time, a half-century ago, when recruits to the ministry cheerfully accepted the analogy, knowing that the actual practices of ministry did not greatly differ from church to church or community to community. The stability of ministry was rooted in the theological markers and fixed polity that identified the mainline denominations and the Catholic church. You may have joined the army, but you had already learned in seminary that every duty you performed could be connected to the authority of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments. Recruits to the ministry assumed that they would be called on to perpetuate the same quality of life that had nurtured them and invited them into its service. They were confident that their fellow soldiers would look like them, act like them, and share a common set of cultural values. Recruits to the ministry could count on the homogeneity of the ecclesial landscape in America. You knew what you were getting into when you entered the ministry.

Today, most clergy-watchers would admit that we aren't in Kansas anymore. As the demands of ministry have outrun the terms of their call, contemporary ministers are facing challenges and frustrations they never anticipated. That is the message of two books about the clergy, Who Shall Lead Them?, by journalist Larry Witham, and Faith of My Fathers, by emergent church pastor Chris Seay. They have written books that could not be more different from one another in style and purpose but whose bottom lines are remarkably similar. Witham's book is filled with fascinating statistics documenting the crisis in church leadership across several denominations. It is a valuable resource for those ...

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