Of Christ’s body, the church: how to get healthy

It’s not hard to find signs of health in our church. As I travel around the church, I hear stories of lives transformed and I see growing congregations. But there are other signs that our church is less than healthy, taken as a whole. Too many of our congregations are, if we are honest, circling the drain — being just a few years away from sure and certain death. On the one hand, I think some of that death will make possible our new life as a church, as we give up the idol of 1950s churchianity and recall our true nature as a church.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of church health/unhealth that I haven’t heard much talk about. Perhaps you will report some existing conversation, since I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe what’s in this post. Put simply: our heads are not being heads, our hands are not being hands, and our feet are not being feet. Let me explain.

Body of ChristSt. Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…” (Romans 12:4-6a). Not everyone in the church is called to do everything, and in fact, our health depends on just the opposite. We must learn be interdependent.

Not long ago, I was at another clergy conference. As usual, I heard priests bemoaning the work they “must” do as rectors. Having found myself as a rector sometimes doing some of this, I feel their pain. Sort of. But I also think it’s up to priests and lay people to step up when it’s time and to step back when it’s time. Here’s a specific example. In most congregations there are lay people gifted in construction, finance, office machinery, and even plumbing. So why should a priest take away someone else’s vocation by doing their ministry instead? If a lay person has been given the gift of preaching in a congregation, why not let them do that? What if the priest did only those things that must be done by the priest, and the baptized community did everything else?

As Bishop Thomas Breidenthal preached recently at an ordination, too often we treat the balance of clergy and laity in the church as a zero-sum game. We imagine that when we elevate the ordained, it is diminishing the laity, and vice versa. But as the bishop rightly observed, this is a false dichotomy. When we elevate the laity to their vocation, we are elevating the clergy. And the reverse is also true.

As it is, we atrophy the sense of vocation within a congregation when people do not let others take their part. In a sense, all Christians are members of the laity, and for almost all of us our primary ministry is properly exercised outside the church. Even clergy have missionary responsibilities outside the church, at least if we are doing it right. And inside the church, the job of the clergy is not do be the administrator or worse yet, to be the hired hand for pastoral care. Instead, the task of clergy is to exercise their vocation (preaching, teaching, sacraments, etc.) and to raise up the vocations of the whole company of the baptized community.

I hear parish clergy complain they are overworked, and the things they complain about doing are usually things that they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. I hear bishops complain about the state of clergy (or a lack of discipline) in their dioceses, and I wonder to myself, whose vocation is it to teach, mentor, discipline, and pastor the clergy? Because lay people are sometimes not encouraged or even allowed to do the work that is theirs, I sometimes see the tasks of clergy being done by lay people.

All of this distorts the body of Christ, the church. In healthy congregations, everyone plays her or his part, whether clergy or lay. You will see this in pastoral care, liturgy, church governance, and administration. There is plenty to do in the church, and it will go much more smoothly if we all do our part.

This pattern of the parts of the body doing work that is not theirs accounts for much of the dysfunction at the churchwide level in the Episcopal Church. Executive Council, General Convention, the presiding officers, and the Church Center staff have, at times, either stepped into the role of others or failed to do what was their to do. Until we sort out the whole complicated system, we won’t move toward health.

We have all the resources we need to create healthy congregations and to have a healthy church. The prayer book and even our canons do a lovely job of spelling out the various roles of lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Then there are the scriptures, which also provide much guidance. I hope at least part of the churchwide restructuring conversation will include careful examination of the scriptures and prayer book, as well as the canons.

Locally, it is important for clergy leaders to exercise all the responsibilities that they have been given and not a bit more. Lay leaders must also do what is theirs to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…”

If we can manage that, we will discover that God has given us everything we need in order to thrive as individual Christians and as a church. So let’s all be feet, or hands, or elbows, or noses, or….

Image from the Malphurs Group blog.

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20 Responses

  1. Fr. Jonathan says:

    A fine reflection. You’re quite right, of course, that part of what leads to health in the Church, or lack thereof, is when people are allowed and encouraged to exercise the gifts they have been given. Along those lines, my only quibble with what you’ve said here is your statement : “If a lay person has been given the gift of preaching in a congregation, why not let them do that?” This, in fact, is the opposite of allowing people to exercise the gifts they have been given. There may be limited circumstances in which a lay person may occasionally be called to preach, but by and large this is the responsibility of bishops and priests. It is the pastoral vocation writ large. We have been given the Holy Spirit for just this purpose, to delier the Word to the people. But in many cases, because the priest has taken on so many other responsibilities that lay people could and probably should do, preaching suffers. It becomes a shallow exercise in the clergy just sharing their latest hobbyhorse. How many of our clergy learn Greek and Hebrew anymore? How many attempt to translate the text each week, or look up what the Fathers had to say about the passage in question before spewing out their own opinion? How many priests practice their sermons and actually think about presentation? This, I submit, is where a great deal of health can and should be recovered.

  2. Mary Keenan says:

    Very interesting. I wonder how much of this struggle is related to the fact that many parishes and dioceses are run as if they are businesses…and nothing else. We look for “efficiencies.” The person “in charge” is the CEO rather than a pastor.

  3. Don Parker says:

    Scott, I agree fully. The problem that I ran into in some congregations was that there were few or no lay persons ready or willing to exercise ministries. Trying to encourage them and train them often took more time than was available after doing the minimum “stuff” that just HAD to be done.

    I think that I would do it all differently now – I would not take on the role of primary “doer” in the congregation in order to keep the congregation functioning. Easier said then done;however, when one is not working in a congregation!

  4. Mary Thorpe says:

    Well put, Scott, and I’m convicted by your words. I think there is another element at play here: we don’t encourage the laity to share these tasks because 1) we fear they won’t be done right (read:the way we would like them done); or 2)we fear that if we ask, they will say no; or 3) it’s just quicker to do them ourselves than to teach or coach folks. And then we complain how overworked we are.

    I was at a meeting of our audit committee this past week and one of their comments to me – odd how this came out in this venue, but God gets a word in when God can – was that I should put together a committee to do some of the things they recommended. Bless them for naming it, and I am doing just that. Sharing this post, BTW…

  5. Matt Boulter says:


    Thanks for this! Love the line ” our heads are not being heads, our hands are not being hands, and our feet are not being feet.”

    May I register a counterpoint? One that is often floating around in my head when I attend “clergy conferences” like the one you mention.

    I agree that we (priests) need to allow & indeed empower the “baptized faithful” (ie, the “laity”) to exercise their vocations and use their gifts. But the problem is that they (like us clergy?) are too damn busy & overcommitted.

    The very real, thorny issue for me, frequently, is: how do I (we) deal with the insane busy-ness of our lives, which so often results in the work of ministry being pushed to the margins of life (often times because people are just trying to “survive” & keep their heads – and families – above water)?

  6. Michael Tessman says:

    Nothing here about the Laos as ministers to the world – Christ’s Intercessory Agents (CIA) working in and among the powers and pricipalities (of which, Bill Stringfellow wisely said years ago, the church behaves as one). Where did we get the idea that ministry (and ministers)are “deployed” or that “church work” only goes on under the roof of a church ediface? Oh, what idolatry we’ve made of “church” and the ediface complex is tasking the church with more surviving than thriving!

    Sadly, when clergy wonder why people aren’t more involved in the program life of the “church” – those same clergy rarely know, let alone, visit, their parishioners in their places of work. Every parish needs a “workplace cycle of prayer” for the many corporations, businesses, volunteer associations, and other entities where the Baptized invest their precious time & talent. The best lay leaders in my congregations have always been those who understood their Christian faith “out from under” the roof of St. Swithins.

    If parishes lament “lack of outreach” all that is necessary is to start taking account of, and praying for, the wide and varied mission field of parishioners workplaces and weekday associations. (On any given Sunday in our area, we pray for at least one Fortune 500 company, several small businesses, and the schools where our children learn and some parishioners teach.) Extending our “tents” beyond “employment/occupation” to
    empowerment for “discipleship/vocation” (whether one is employed, underemployed or unemployed, the church does well to support these ministries.

  7. The other piece of this is that people (especially clergy) end up doing things they ally aren’t any good at. Many clergy are poor administrators. As a result, we take longer to do it and we don’t do it very well.

    In other words, we end up spending an inordinate amount of time doing things that bring us no joy … And doing them badly.

  8. Scott Gunn says:

    Michael, I’m not sure how your statement “Nothing here about the Laos as ministers to the world” squares with this line from the blog post, “In a sense, all Christians are members of the laity, and for almost all of us our primary ministry is properly exercised outside the church.”

    I don’t know where people got the idea that ministry only happens inside the church, but I’m not one of the people who thinks that.

  9. Nancy Suellau says:

    You are preaching to this choir. One of the best things that I had to do, due to budget problems, was to cancel the lawn and cleaning service. Next I explained what I did and why to the congregation. Much to my delight, folks stepped up to the plate. Working in teams to clean and to mow have given them not only a sense of ownership, but has built up community. Now the question that I ask, when bump in the road occurs with maintaining the buildings is “Who has the talent to do this work?”

  10. Michael Tessman says:

    I wasn’t referring to you or your post, but to the “comments” previously posted.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    This is a very important conversation in a congregation, a diocese, and the wider TEC. One thing I think is very important to remember about giftedness in the church is that we should not presume that the career of a lay person is the gift most appropriate for them to be asked to offer. For example, instead of presuming that the CPA would like to handle the books, have you asked if they have a skill and passion that they would like to exercise that you don’t know about. It could be that the CPA is the best plumber you could ever want and loves doing that manual work for a change of pace. We need to be open to being surprised by what people will enjoy doing as members of the body.

  12. Stephen Holland says:

    Fr Jonathan. It need not be a free for all with untrained preachers taking the pulpit. I am a licenced Reader and have had a training as rigorous as the Clergy, but preachers do not need to be ordained Priest. What we need is for those with recognised gifts to be given appropriate training. What is the distinction that only a priest can do anyway. Itr seems to me that the Church authorities do not see it as preaching but in administering sacraments. the sacraments.

  13. Scott Gunn says:

    Matt, I agree — it’s hard to make time for ministry (and even basics of living). I’d say as part of our challenge, we in the church need to tackle this head on in our own lives and in the lives of those we serve. A sermon series on how to use our precious time on earth would be a good use of the pulpit, for example.

    Clergy can model this by taking plenty of time off (two days each week and full vacation time) and demonstrating good work/life balance.

    Within the church, we create some busyness by continuing ministries that might be retired.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment. I think we share a similar perspective on this, actually.

  14. Jon says:

    What does this do to the clergy-as-boss paradigm and the closely associated questions of social hierarchy and compensation?

  15. Scott Gunn says:

    Yeah, Jon, I wonder what it does to that. I wonder what it would be like in the US if we followed the English model and flattened clergy compensation. The rector of St. Bigchurch makes the same as St. Chapel-in-the-Wilderness. Hmmm….

  16. Jon says:

    Not to mention the clergy/lay compensation difference.

    There are times when I think we’d be better off if clergy were more like artistic directors being in charge of liturgy, Christian formation, pastoral care, and possibly evangelism if they know the area in which they’d be ministering, with someone else handling the business side of keeping a church meeting at least some of the time.

  17. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman says:

    Yeah verily! Ironically there are fewer and fewer once known as “cardinal” parishes where such division of labor can/does occur, freeing the clergy to attend, one hopes, to the matters for which we are ordained. I’d include “rabbi” in your list above (not as equivalent to “running a parish/schul/temple” the way priests are often defined, but in its true sense as teacher). The sorely diminished scriptural/theological literacy of our congregations is really undermining the missio Dei. I once knew a bishop who said, “the church needs more rabbis than priests, and I wish I could ordain them!”

  18. For reasons that have nothing to do with the matter at hand, most Canadian dioceses stopped appointing “rectors” years ago. I frequently remind folk where I hang my biretta that “rector” means “ruler.” I’m not the rector so I don’t rule. I’m the incumbent. That just means I’m here.

  19. neal says:

    Is “the body of Christ” slide copyrighted? Would like to use it as a background for a sermon series in our church.

  20. Scott Gunn says:

    Check the page for the link to the original source for the image. I don’t include images here that I know to be copyrighted, but you’re better off asking the source from which I borrowed the image. Hope the sermon series goes well!

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