Priesthood of All….

I have been amazed lately how thin our understanding of “The Priesthood of All Believers” has become.  At the Consultation on Ministerial Leadership several years ago the phrase barely surfaced in the discussions.  Instead, in its place, people most often spoke of the Church of the Brethren as “Egalitarian.”  Such a vocabulary takes the robust Reformation conviction, which speaks of the ability of each believer to intercede and guide one another on the journey of faith, and completely flattens the concept to a thinly veiled form of democracy.

Some have said it more clearly: The priesthood of all and the leadership of none.

If it is not clear by now, I think this democratic and flattened egalitarianism is nearly heretical.  At the very least, it is not scriptural.  In fact, Paul is very clear that as a community the Church is comprised of multiple gifts and roles.  Through the metaphor of a body, he helps reveal how the gifts of one person serve the whole.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (I Corinthians 13:7-12, NRSV)

For leaders, there are few things as frustrating as a misunderstanding of this scripture and the beautiful confession the Priesthood of All.  If God had flattened the Church to the point of egalitarian democracy there would be no need for Spiritual Gifts.  To say that the community (congregation or organization) is flat with no uniqueness is to dismiss the created plurality of the human race.  It simply is a means to erase difference, erase responsibility, and erase purpose.  We’re all just the same and have everything and yet nothing to offer one another.  That cannot be the right view of the Priesthood of All.

As leaders, it is necessary to counter the flattening urge of our current culture within the Church of the Brethren. Here are a couple of ways to think about the multiplicity of gifts within a confession of the Priesthood of All.

First, we must reclaim the gift language of Paul.  Here we have to spend time looking inward to ourselves and claim our own gifts.  The flip side of such introspection is to assess the gifts of those around us.  For, as Paul says, all are gifted for the common good.  By naming, valuing, and celebrating the gifts each member brings to the congregation we recognize the pallet with which God paints the Church.

Second, the Church must reclaim the language of roles and ministries.  That is to say, that from the gifted community emerge those who are set apart for the various needs of the congregation.  Here again we turn to Paul:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, NRSV)

Today we may add several vocations to the list, but the idea is clear.  For the Church gifts are spread so that various functions are covered by members of the priesthood.  It should be said that there is no hierarchy here, rather the jobs of the Church are defined by tasks “for the building up of the body of Christ.”  Some are sent out, some gather in, some care for the members, some exhort, and some inform.  To draw this out even further is to say that the pastor nurtures the apostle and the prophet, while the teacher forms the evangelist and the preacher.  In more negative terms, if the pastor were to try on prophecy as a vocation within the community, the Church would be very comforted but never make strides towards the kingdom of God.

We cannot assume that everyone can easily fill the role outside their giftedness.  For the common good we must recognize both that all are gifted and that each one ministers uniquely.  To follow Paul’s image of the body, a flattened view of the Priesthood of All would leave us a body of all ears which never moves, or of all feet which never sees.

The fear among us is that such a diverse approach means that lines must be drawn, differences must be noticed, and expertise must be sought. The challenge is that such a flattened view of community is central to American culture.  The hope is that such difference can be celebrated and nurtured without resulting in clericalism.  However we approach the dangers and opportunities, it is necessary for the vitality and vibrancy of our Church that we reject the “egalitarian” perspective and live into the New Testament image of the diversely gifted and vocationally unique body.


Filed under Discipleship, Leadership

16 responses to “Priesthood of All….

  1. Jeff Neuman-Lee

    Nice topic. I agree with your work here, it’s important and I’ve been working at this for some time now.

    One thing I do is to state that each person, with their gift, is a leader. We submit to each others’ leadership within the congregation. This works well when a person actually owns their leadership.

    Inherent in leadership is the risk of failure. More so is the loneliness of making a decision in faith.

    When we do that together we have true, equal community.

    • Joshua Brockway


      Thanks for jumping right in. I love what you are saying about leading and failing. Fear is such a central component of our life as the Church even though we know better!

      One thing I might ask/challenge is about giftedness and leadership. Are we all called to lead? Or, are we all called to minister? Those seem, to me, to be two separate concepts. In fact, its difficult for me to imagine a leadership by all. Could you help describe this a bit more? Or am I being too specific with terms?


      • Jeff Neuman-Lee

        Glad to comment a bit on this, Josh.
        I think a lot of the failure to offer ourselves is the failure to risk leading. Leading means taking responsibility for how one’s work effects and guides the whole group. So a person who is singing in a choir might not be leading the choir like the director and may even be submitting themselves to the director’s moves, still, their offering of themselves helps to shape the whole. Looking at it this way helps each one to take responsibility for how they work and how the whole works. It is not the same sort of thing Dana’s complaint of everyone thinking too highly of themselves. I certainly get her point. It’s just that sort of self-centeredness has nothing to do with the love that is involved in genuine leadership.

        Think of each one being a priest for everyone else. Each one does their part to mediate between each other and their God. This is not just your opinions spread broadly, but rather a work of listening and caring and applying your gift for the good of the community.

        Need anything more clarified?

      • I have taken to using the language coming out of family systems theory when I talk about leadership. To wit: any emotionally healthy person is by definition a leader. They have dealt reasonably with their stuff, they have clear personal boundaries, they have healthy resources of support and self care, etc. This kind of person will by definition be a leader in their family or community or wherever because they will be positively effecting change in their systems.

        In the church there is a two-fold task to 1) teach and promote the development of healthy leadership and then 2) to call these people into positions of leadership based on their gifts.

        As a pastor, it has been my own personal experience gained through plenty of mistakes that once I took care of my own emotional health and then insisted that this was the first order of business for calling leaders in the church it then became much easier to name gifts and invite people to lead. No guilt, no getting people to fill the ballot please, please, no dealing with hidden agendas and other stuff oozing out everywhere at meetings. People want to participate in a healthy community.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Jay and Jeff,

        Both these images make sense. What I hear in both your comments is that part of leadership is the responsibility for and tending of the common life. I agree that is central, yet it seems to fall on the priesthood end rather than the leader end of the spectrum.

        What about that aspect of leadership which is about vision setting, energizing the community, articulating a description of the context, establishing a narrative for the community and setting that narrative within the wider story of God?

        Like my middle quote highlights, I am thinking of priesthood and leadership as two different (albeit overlapping, as you both highlight) categories. When we are all charged to care for one another, and take responsibility for the common life….who is that points to needs, growing edges, and formation? Seems to me that there still can be a leader, yet that leader must be willing and able to listen to the variety of gifts within her community and help people activate their ministries.


  2. Point taken, Josh. But there must be some paradox hidden somewhere in there. I deal with a challenge from the other end, namely the idea that everyone is “special” and “unique” and each of us is tasked with finding our own particular and singular calling in the world before we can begin to contribute anything anywhere. People – especially young people, I think – get really caught up on that discernment of gifts, so much so that we seem never to be able to move beyond it and into living life as a Body.

    Maybe the difficulty comes because we as the Church (and as the CoB) are wary about buying into one fallacy, and so we lean over too far and fall right into the other. That is, maybe we’re so cautious about being proud and standing out in any way that we bend over backward to make sure everyone blends in, all are equal, and no one gets particular recognition. Neither are particularly healthy or biblical, but I’m not sure how we go about getting ourselves out of that conundrum…or into that paradox, as the case may be.

    • Eric Rajaniemi

      I think what all of us continually forget is that we are to do everything in moderation. That being said, we must begin discerning what our gifts are but simultaneously move in service to the body of believers in some form. We can’t be consumed with searching for our gifts nor can we be consumed with giving every possible person a vote on everything all of the time. Christianity is not a democracy, Americans fall into that trap on a regular basis. Christ is the head of the body and He informs us as to what He wants us to do and when to do it and how to do it.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Great catch Dana, and it really isn’t something I even tried to work into the post.

      One of my central criticisms of the Theology and Vocations stuff is that it leans in two ways. First, it either over emphasizes following your passions at the expense of true discernment and decision making. Or two it creates a hoop for seekers to jump through before they can be part of the community. I read your comment as highlighting that same effect in my post.

      To think briefly how I would avoid committing the fallacy, I would add two aspects to this post: Time in the community and the Role of guides in the community. First, I assume a long tenure in the community. This means that people live into various aspects of themselves in the presence of others. Their gifts may seem to change, or they may not understand their gifts. My example here is being elected to serve on the congregational board when I was in high school. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I could live into my roll there regardless of how I could understand my gifts. That is in part because others recognize gifts before we ourselves do.

      Second, this means that there must be spiritual guides, mentors within the community which call and accompany others into their life of ministry. They recognize gifts, call them out in people, and help each one explore if that is indeed their gifts.


      • You wrote my next paragraph for me, Josh. I think you’re exactly right about time and guides in community – that gifts are discerned when others take the time to know us and call them out from within us. I was another high school aged board member, and can name multiple people in my home congregation who named certain gifts for me before I even considered them myself.

  3. Josh,

    For some reason I didn’t see a reply button at the bottom of your latest post/thread. In any case, I have no argument with you about the need for leadership that is focusing on vision and narrative. It is necessary.

    My point, though, is just that I see this as in some ways a secondary function of leadership in the community. Of first importance is seeing to it that emotionally and spiritually healthy leadership is being called and trained and modeled. Otherwise the community isn’t going to go anywhere. In my experience this is where most churches struggle. Because they are desperate for leadership or have an unhealthy history, they don’t know how to call healthy leaders, including pastors.

    This is very much related to the vision of the church, btw, and what it means to call people to discipleship so they can grow and live out their calling. I just think it gets short shrift in far too many congregations.

    At Open Circle, we have a leadership team made up of a handful of people, right now 3 plus me, whose task is to 1)carry the vision of the congregation and continually raise the question of where we are going and if what we are doing is congruent with our core values, and 2)train and nurture leadership. This group of people all have been members and leaders for years. And their gifts and skill sets are in the area of vision as well as nurturing other leaders. We offer leadership training (we call it conversations) at least once a year that focuses on emotional and spiritual health, church vision, composing and sharing a statement of faith journey, and gifts assessment. We have ministry teams that function to carry out the various areas of church life, as well as regular short term teams that give people a chance to serve for limited times and get their feet wet as well as giving us a chance to see how they function and what their gifts are.

    The vision piece is important as is calling out people’s gifts. But unless there is a strong focus and expectation around healthy leadership, it all founders. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Yeah, Jay I noticed that the “Reply” link seems to appear at random. I haven’t decided it’s WordPress code that does it or the theme. Either way, we get to chat!

      I am right with you about the leader being a healthy example in the community. As I am finishing out my first year on denominational staff one of the things I am returning to is idea of Spiritual Hardiness of our leaders. Part of that I think is the need to nurture a healthy ego. By that I mean a sense of ego strength which is self confident and yet realizes “that it’s not about me.”

      So I am hearing us both say that shared responsibility and accountability for the common life is central to the Priesthood of All.

      Behind my skepticism is what I see as an unhealthy articulation of the Priesthood of All. I’m thinking about that aspect of our congregational culture where we expect the pastor to do everything (in the sense of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher) and yet when his or her efforts seem too much like leading, getting the community to go in a particular direction, the “Egalitarian” hackles come up and the pastor/leader is shut down.

      So I would say that in some of our congregations we have developed an unhealthy sense of Priesthood of All. To me, its the worst kind of congregationalism which seeks all the power and none of the responsibility and accountability of being in community.

      I’ve come back to Alan Roxburgh’s book ‘The Sky is Falling” this week. At the end he offers his constructive proposal and highlights what I am talking about: “The place where these forms of individualism and social contract relationality most deeply have embedded themselves is in North America. Here, the fundamental social commitment is to the self’s fulfillment and development and personal growth and needs, not communal submission and responsibility” (160).


      • Josh,

        I am not totally convinced that the problem you describe with some congregations is related to the quote from Roxburgh’s book. I have to admit, though, that I have limited experience with congregations. I served one church in Ohio for 8 years and have been at Open Circle for nearly 18.

        The congregation I served in Ohio was a declining congregation and I was not well-equipped then to help them turn things around. They had a very small and loyal core of leadership that had been around for long before I came and I know for fact that a few of them are still there in leadership. Which says something. I would say that congregation had a great sense of “communal submission and responsibility” and very little sense of being in church for personal fulfillment. On the other hand, they had some very wounded people in leadership and there was also an attitude that was communicated to me on many occasions that they were going to be around for a lot longer than me so they were somewhat resistant to change.

        However, the previous pastor had served for over 10 years and his ministry was all about visitation and care-giving which he did a great job of. My assessment was and is that he did not do much work with them helping them think about where they were going or in the area of equipping them to serve and lead. I think it would not be fair to say that they resisted leadership from him but rather they accepted the kind of leadership he offered.

        When I came right out of seminary they got a pastor on the cheap. And I think that if I had been better equipped then and/or I had stayed around another 5-10 years I might have been able to help them turn things around. Again, I am not sure they resisted my leadership but that I didn’t have much then to offer.

        What am I getting at here? Again my statistical sample is mighty small but my personal as well as anecdotal evidence makes me a little skeptical that there is that much of a problem in COB congregations with churches that resist leadership from pastors because they are in church for themselves and don’t want to listen to the voice of the community.

        I have experienced and can imagine resistance to leadership and change because churches have experienced wounded or ill-equipped pastors and/or know that pastors are going to leave. As you have suggested there is simply no substitute for long-term pastorates where trust is built up (or were you talking about long-term members?) and with healthy pastoral leadership good congregational leadership and vision can be nurtured.

        Interestingly one of the challenges of our polity as it works today is that congregations are free to hire and fire who they want. What I suspect happens is that unhealthy congregations hire and fire unhealthy pastors and healthy and visionary pastors find their way to healthy and visionary congregations. What we need is an episcopate which could have the authority to place healthy pastors with churches and make it difficult for churches (as well as pastors) to exit early. We once had a version of this, of course. This probably speaks to your concern – we have lost the sense of being part of a larger body that has some authority over us. How to put the genie back in the bottle? I don’t know but I suspect it would take a denominational effort to equip district and denominational leadership to build trust with congregations and move towards a different vision.

        If I were pope of the denomination I would target significant denominational resources at creating healthy pastors and congregations. And I don’t mean a scatter-shot approach where anyone can get help but I mean actually choosing 10-20 congregations that already have some history of health and potential for growth (of various kinds) and say we are going to offer to work with you and your pastor and leadership to equip you to thrive. You will be given expectations and benchmarks and as long as you meet them we will continue to work with you over a significant period of time. If not, you will not continue to participate in the program and we will add a new congregation. We need more models of healthy congregations and a model of meaningful participation from the denomination to help make this happen. What I see now from the denomination is a generalist approach – and perhaps this comes out of the egalitarian mantra – that isn’t helping us move things forward.

        I am not sure this ramble of thoughts gets to your concern but it is what came to mind as I thought about it. I would be interested in seeing evidence in whatever form suggesting that COB congregations are guilty of the kinds of individualism suggested in the quote you mentioned.

  4. Jeff, I’m not sure I made my point clearly in my first post. The problem I was trying to describe wasn’t the selfishness of a few or that some people think too highly of themselves. Of course, that’s true – people are selfish and think too highly of themselves. But I’m after a broader trend in the way we think about vocation. There’s so much expectation and pressure – at least for young adults – to find their calling and pursue their dreams and become leaders that we tend to get wrapped up in that process of figuring out what it is we should be doing and trying to do it perfectly and consequently forget that we’re actually already in the world doing things and ought to just attempt to do them well.

    I think this problem comes from the widespread message that we received: everyone is a leader, and anyone can do anything they want. I just don’t think either of those things is true. If everyone is a leader, who are we leading? Jesus didn’t call us to lead God’s people, or the people of the world – he called us to follow him. And I know the second part isn’t true – even if I practiced 8 hours every day, I’d never be a great vocalist because I’m just not gifted that way.

    This is where the community comes in. We need people around us to call out our gifts, and to let us know where those gifts are needed. Instead of telling young people that they can do whatever they set their minds to, why don’t we get to know them and put them to work using the giftedness we see in them already?

  5. Joshua Brockway

    jay there are so many things I agree with in your comments that I wonder if its an issue of emphasis. I think we can safely agree that just as there unhealthy and unprepared pastors, there are unhealthy communities. Unfortunately, we are talking about a wide spectrum of communities and some of the stories and examples I hear are disconcerting. I just cannot post them, or really share them. This is part of my effort to understand the appreciation yet resistance I hear in relation to the Congregational Ethics paper. Yet, I will say that all of us want the best for our congregations, lay and clergy. And I feel that there will always be some tension in vision between the two. The effective pastor, I think knows how to navigate and negotiate between those two visions.

    Part of what Roxburgh helps me highlight is the deep acculturation of our congregations and individuals in the American narrative of individualism. Part of the conflict I am trying to describe (albeit not a universal one) is that in the desire to control/lead we start with a skewed perception of what it means to be an Individual (both individual person and individual congregation).

    I am really interested in what you are saying about identifying congregations. One of the things I have heard mentioned and discussed is a cohort system much like the Advanced Foundations for Pastors, only for congregations. Part of that idea is about allocating resources and energy to congregations which are striving and thriving while offering meaningful chaplaincy to the others. But as soon as any one says that, or even uses the language of excellence, you’re right, the egalitarian mantra surfaces. How dare we tell our congregations they exist in a two tiered system, or are not equal.

    I think you are exactly right, though, that part of the congregational problem is that its a competitive, capitalistic system. Congregations with money draw the more skilled and capable ministers. Congregations who cannot afford a capable and confident pastor will draw what they can. Then the cycle continues and the old guard members say exactly what they said to you: We’ll outlast you, so we make the decisions.

    There are just so many factors that influence this: individualism, money, power, leadership, and theology…it is hard to say just what is causing what. Part of what I hoped to do with this post was reshape the narrative around Priesthood of All so it can no longer be a tool to dismiss competent, creative, and confident leadership. I want to keep a clearer line between the need to care for one another as priests (taking shared responsibility for one another), and the need for what Sally Morganthaler calls intuitive, connective, and responsive leadership.

  6. Jeff Neuman-Lee

    Well, I have truly enjoyed this discussion.

    Jay’s emphasis on emotional health (for me emotional maturity) and that leadership is simply part of being in that place is exactly what I would reply, if I could say it as well, to Dana. And Dana, I did speak too broadly as I was trying to reflect what you said. I appreciate your clarification, it helps me get your perspective better.

    I like Eric’s point, but I don’t like the word moderation. Just a thing with me. It forces complex issues into a linear format. Just a thought.

    More importantly (not really) I figured out that this blog only allows three levels, so comments on the third level to not allow for the reply button. You have to go back up to reply.

    Josh, what do you do for the denomination? Whatever it is, I’m glad it is a person with who has this sort of question and your sort of depth of answer.


    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Jeff, both for joining in and for helping to sum things up. Hopefully I can keep posting on topics which engage people like this one did.

      As for my work, I serve as Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship in Congregational Life Ministries. I work with the Congregational Ethics Paper and the Spiritual Directors, along with other discipleship things.


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