I have a friend (no, seriously, I do!) who, several years ago, worked in an urban ministry organization that went through the change of hiring a new Executive Director (ED). The new ED did what all new heads of organizations get to do: he re-structured the entire organization.
Now, my friend was originally excited for the new boss. She and her colleagues were ready for new ideas. She loved her work – especially the people in the neighborhood that she worked directly with.
She, like many of her colleagues, thought at the time that a re-structuring was in order. However, the ED’s new structure quickly countered her hopes for a fresh beginning. She discovered that new structures do not necessarily bring about new ideas or visions. She learned firsthand that you cannot always restructure yourself into renewal.
Before the arrival of the new ED, the urban ministry seemed to thrive in the midst of chaos. It was exciting, but also tiring. When the ED’s new structure was implemented it benefitted a few in the office, but relegated my friend and her colleagues to the lower rungs of the ladder. Those who were promoted were given new titles and higher salaries, which naturally generated some hurt feelings. What once a community of colleagues took on a corporate culture.
While staff meetings previously had included a time for collective sharing and dreaming, the new staff hierarchy assigned decision-making power solely to the senior staff. Ideas could be submitted, but decisions were owned by senior staff and implemented by the rest of the staff. I never knew the toll it takes on a person when you take away their creative input until I saw it in my friend. Communication no longer ebbed and flowed organically among staff as they sought to discover new and innovative ways to serve their community. The ED’s new structure emphasized more tightly controlled means of communication. Ideas and requests flew up the chain while decisions and responses sailed down.
I remember being shocked when I ran into my friend at a conference a few years ago just a few months after the ED’s new structure had been implemented. I literally could see her depression on her face. Whereas she previously had been fully engaged in the life and vision and direction of the urban ministry, it was painfully obvious that she had become cynical and derisive. She still was passionate about the people in her community, but she felt invalidated, detached and alone in the place she once had felt so a part of.
Hierarchy had brought those who sat at the top greater efficiency and control, but efficiency and control do not always result in faithfulness ad effectiveness. In fact, I believe they rarely do. It is my strong contention that hierarchical structures in the church do not reflect Jesus’ Kingdom as much as “flatter” or more egalitarian structures.
Most of the renewal movements in the Church throughout history have reflected aspects of the New Testament church. It is in the birth of the Church that we see worship at its most vital, missional outreach at its most effective, and communal love at its greatest sense of harmony. That is, until a dispute erupts over the distribution of food.
It is in Acts 6 when the Hellenist Jews complained that their widows were being ignored in favor of the Hebrew Jews. This was, in fact, a cultural divide between Jews who spoke Greek and were acculturated in the wide reaches of the Roman Empire. In contrast, Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic and came from Israel. This dispute over food was not a minor problem over structure or the need for better organization. It was a clash of cultures.
But the disciples instead saw the problem as one of structure and organization. Look at how they respond: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (6:2) Of course, in one sense they are right; they cannot do everything. But I cannot help but feel when I read this that they view this problem as less important than their work of preaching and teaching. Their work is viewed as more significant than that of “waiting on tables.” In this early moment in the life of the Church, they have created a hierarchy of responsibility within the Body of Christ. What makes this so problematic is the fact that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born, Peter stands up and recites the prophet Joel:
In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
When the day of Pentecost comes and the Spirit is poured out, the hierarchies of the world are flattened. Valleys become hills and hills become valleys. The last will be first and the first will be last. It turns out that God prefers a more flattened structure where all people, men and women, sons and daughters, old and young, slaves and free, are to speak the words of God to God’s people.
I am saddened by what I see in the local churches and agencies of the United Methodist Church today. We seem bent on making the hills more hilly and the valleys more…valleyer? Instead of reflecting the New Testament church’s emphasis on the prophetic priesthood of all believers, we are a corporation filled with employees seeking upward advancement and the titles and recognition that go along with rising mobility. As we develop new structures and fool ourselves into believing God’s anointing will bless our misguided efforts, we too easily forget that those relegated to the bottoms of our little individual fiefdoms will be lost. Many of our pastors and deacons will leave the ministry and while there will be various reasons that account for their departure, one of the reasons I hear often is that they didn’t feel like their ministry mattered to the life of the institution.
God damn us for opting for the life of the institution and the preservation of a hierarchical structure over the gifts and callings of even the “least” of our sisters and brothers in fulfilling their callings and living out their gifts. Hierarchies work for those who are at the top, or those who buy into the ethic of climbing to the top, but hierarchies are not effective when the task is about loving God and loving others. Any structure that relegates large numbers of voices to the bottom and innately values some and invalidates others will never be effective. That is why Paul compares us to a Body with equally important parts, and not just a big head that mandates unthinking, subservient appendages to engage in mostly insignificant tasks for the pleasure and the benefit of the head.
I pray we recover the bottom-up ministry of Jesus and leave the top-down, title-filled, power-hungry hierarchies to the corporations where they belong. If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers then let’s allow everyone a turn at speaking. Let’s get rid of the titles and the corporate-based salary structure that ignores legitimate need among our pastors and instead rewards institutional ass-kissing. Institutional hierarchies are efficient for those at the top, but they are not effective in helping us love God and love people. Flattened structures may be a little chaotic at times, but it was in those chaotic moments when everything seemed out of control that Pentecost happened once and can happen once again. I say let it come.