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Religion Library: Protestantism

Leadership

Written by: Ted Vial

Protestant churches reject the idea that there is a special class of religious people called "priests" who mediate relationship with God and have exclusive privileges regarding the dispensation of grace. The Roman Catholic sacrament of Holy Orders bestows an authority on the priest to confer God's grace to the believer through the sacraments, and this authority is not extended to the laity. The reformers rejected this mediatorial role of the priest. Their insistence that God has done everything for salvation, and that humans can do nothing to merit salvation or earn God's favor, makes salvation a one-way street, a free gift from God to humans that comes in the form of forgiveness and is received through faith.

The implications of this for the way that Protestant Christians think about their clergy are huge. People have no need of a human intermediary. Each person stands directly before God, receiving God's grace not because a priest performed certain actions, but simply because, by trusting in God's love revealed in Jesus, the believer is reconciled and has a restored relationship with God. The reformers expressed this belief with the phrase "the priesthood of all believers." Anglican and Episcopal churches still retain the term "priest" for their clergy, but their clergy function as ministers rather than intermediaries, consistent with other Protestant denominations.

There are varying degrees of leadership in Protestant churches.  Most have a "senior pastor" or clergy member (called a pastor, minister, or reverend) who has been ordained by the denomination, a formal recognition that he (or she, in some churches) is called by God to serve in this way. Depending on the size of the church, other pastors may serve alongside the primary leader as specialized ministers—e.g., pastor of young adults, or pastor of adult education, etc.

The next level of leadership differs by tradition. Many Protestant churches elect elders to administer the Church in cooperation with the ministers. These are lay leaders in the church chosen to serve as advisors to the clergy and give guidance regarding various matters of the local church community. For some congregations, these elders are spiritual leaders and teachers; for other congregations, they operate more as a board of directors managing the temporal affairs of the local church.

Many churches also have an office of deacon. In some, this denotes a person on the way to full ordination as clergy. In most, however, a deacon is called to a ministry of service, typically assisting the minister with outreach to the poor and sick. Some deacons help administer the sacraments, and in some denominations may, with the permission of the local bishop, administer the sacraments in special situations if no clergy is available.

Some denominations require a very formal process of training to be eligible for ordination as a minister. Mainline denominations and traditions that have historically placed a high value on formal education (such as the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist traditions) typically require a three-year graduate degree, called a Master's of Divinity, that includes training in theology and pastoral care. They also have ordination boards that oversee the progress of candidates and question them on theology and other matters before allowing them to be ordained. Pastors of many non-denominational churches and traditions that have not always placed a high value on formal theological education (such as some Baptist churches, some Anabaptist churches, and many Pentecostal and Holiness churches) may or may not have formal training at a seminary. Since no institutional structure oversees and legitimates non-denominational churches, potentially anyone may begin a such a church or be called to serve in it by the congregation. Many black churches in America ordain clergy without an M.Div. degree. Leaders in such communities are often identified and trained within the congregation.


Study Questions:
1.     How and why does the Protestant understanding of leadership differ from the Catholic one?
2.    What is an elder? a deacon?
3.     Is theological education necessary to be a leader within the Protestant Church? Explain.

 

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