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Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Embracing Shared Ministry" (Joseph Hellerman)

TITLE: Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today
AUTHOR: Joseph Hellerman
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (320 pages).

What can we learn from the book of Philippians with regards to Christian leadership in the modern era? How is ancient literature still applicable to modern ministry contexts? What happens when churches grow and their pastors do not?  In the light of a plurality of leadership, what are the appropriate roles for the senior pastor and leader and their subordinates? Why do some promising seminary graduates with high ideals so be easily set aside by the "American trinity of efficiency, growth, and pragmatism"? These questions and many more are dealt with in this incisive, frank, no-holds-barred ministry guide to help us be emotionally well-balanced, relationally healthy, spiritually humble, and willing to use power and authority the way Jesus uses power and authority. Leaning on Philippians 2:6-11, Hellerman demonstrates throughout the book that the letter to the Philippians is Paul's Christology lived out through an ecclesiological agenda. While the book is birthed conceptually via a 2005 academic monograph called "Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi," it accelerates in intensity and purpose when Hellerman discovers with alarming frequency, how many of his young seminarians have been hurt, abused, and utterly discouraged by the mistreatment and abuse of junior staff by senior leaders in churches all over the country. He comes up with a "cruciform" perspective of ministry which is essentially about self-denial, sacrificial service, and our lives be shaped after Christ's image of living and dying.

The first part of the book introduces us to the social, cultural, religious, and political contexts of the Roman era in the first century. Social stratification is the norm. It is the world that Paul lives in. In that culture, it is common practice that authority is strictly dependent on a "pecking order" form whereby there is a hierarchy, there are unequal positions of power, where social privileges are tightly held on to. Roman society separates the elites (senators, equestrians, decurions) from the non-elites (freeborn, freedman, ordinary citizens and foreigners, slaves). The power chasm is stark where 2% of the population rules over the rest. Even among the elites, there are no social level playing field. The superior ranks get special privileges. Even among the non-elites, the separation is also between the free and the slaves. From attire to behaviour, public seating arrangements to the judicial systems, people's lifestyles reflect more of their social status more than anything else. Such a culture makes deep inroutes into the Church.  Then there is the quest for fame. There is the race for honour and glory. While modern thieves steal online identities to commit financial fraud, first century Romans adopt unscrupulous tactics to achieve honour. Wealth, status, fame all are highly sought after.The closer one gets to the Emperor, the greater the honour.  Then there is the shameless self-promotion going on to cement one's place in society. As long as one gets a title or honour from someone higher than self, flaunt it. Use it to exert power and control over others. Seeing such a huge level of social distinctions brought into the Church, Paul has to set things right from a Christ-centered perspective, away from the Roman power minded society.

Part Two is a direct challenge against such worldliness. By examining the practices of the Early Church, Hellerman notices that Luke (writing Acts) and Paul (writing Philippians) were both very aware of the social situations at that time. Both modeled a counter-cultural approach. For example, Paul tries to model a new kind of community that is different and distinct from the society at large. This is particularly so for Philippi, the only place that Luke calls "Roman colony" (Acts 16:12). Paul had visited at least eight other colonies that were Roman, but why single Philippi out? That is because the Philippian society is much more steep in Roman-type of power and authority. Reading Philippians more, we also notice that it is a society very preoccupied with titles, honours, and accolades, so much so that Paul has to state upfront the mindset of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11. Interestingly, in all the epistles of Paul, Paul introduced himself to the Romans and Philippians that he is writing as "slaves of Christ Jesus." We do not read this designation in Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, and others. That is not all. Paul continues to stress the person of Jesus clothed in humanity and humility. While Roman society insists on power and authority to lord over others, Christ uses power and authority to serve. While Roman society prides itself in being in the upper levels of hierarchy, Christ prefers the lowly levels so that he can meet and touch ordinary people. Against Roman view of shame at the cross, Christ shows that he is ultimately victorious at the cross. From equality to incarnation; from incarnation to crucifixion, God in his mercy and grace resurrects Jesus. The great reversal of cultural perspectives is a necessary attitude for the Early Church, much so for the Philippians. What is remarkable is to see Jesus willingly descending down the hierarchy from heaven to earth, from life to death, from glory to shame, only to be faithful and obedient to God. Having set the stage for Christlike view of power and authority, Hellerman then introduces the concept of shared leadership in ministry. Such a leadership is bathed in servanthood. It is marinated in shared responsibilities, and cultivated in a social context that is gracious and trusting. Paul advocates two characteristics for the Early Church. The first is discarding social hierarchies or demarcations. The second is shared leadership. At the same time, Paul redefines honour less in terms of power and prestige, but more in terms of group value, family relationships, and team ministry. Hellerman even calls such a new "social context" as essential for healthy pastoral ministry.

Part Three shows us how to develop this social context. Starting with his own personal distrust of big institutions, big businesses, and even big churches, coupled with the many scandals from Watergate to the Madoff financial scandal, he points his critiques at the dysfunctional leadership cultures in many churches. There is the CEO-type of pastor or leader who insists on their way our the highway. He is skeptical about the "40 days" model that appears clever in implementation but lacking in spirit. He then shares several stories about how lead pastors mess up the Church due to personal insecurities, personal slander, or to cover up some of their own private scandals. Plurality leadership is the way forward, says Hellerman. Success needs to be redefined away from "performances, places, programs, and professionals" toward a healthier structural dynamic that is leading and learning together. It calls for transparency. It calls for servant leadership. It calls for relational communities from the leadership to the lay, from the board to the rest.   

So What?

This book is an open challenge to show us what is sorely needed in Christian ministry. With many real life stories of hurt people struggling to mend hearts, Hellerman is convicted that the type of leadership for Churches in our modern era needs to be relational, pluralistic, shared, demonstrated in an environment of trust and fueled by servanthood. One needs to learn from the Early Church not to accommodate the ways of the world but to re-ignite a new vision of what it means to serve like Christ, the live like Christ, and to die like Christ. I agree with Hellerman that Church leaders must aim toward spiritual maturity and the Church is best served through plurality leadership. His conclusion itself is worth the price of the book. Using Philippians 2:6-11 as the model for service in the Church, he reminds us that the modern Church must re-adjust their sails in the light of a skeptical and distrusting younger generation, especially those who have suffered under leadership types that are "hypocritical, power hungry, judgmental, or arrogant elites." While it is not fair to paint all leaders with the same brush, it is important to be aware of such perceptions. At the same time, leaders must not allow any arrogance to put themselves automatically on the defensive mode. It is way too easy for leaders to try to justify themselves on what they have decided at a leadership level. Sometimes, I feel that leaders need to put aside all their right arguments, prim and proper theologies or doctrines, and learn to accept what others are saying, in their raw forms. Through encouragement and trust, humble leadership means not patting ourselves on the back for the 90% of good works, but be ready to humbly accept and learn about how to do better with the other 10%. His words for the idealistic seminarian is worth pondering.

There is a time to join and a time to leave any ministry. In fact, there is no job on earth that is permanent. The main thing is God's will and God's timing. Let me make five comments before I close. First, the book is a reminder that Church is a people of God held together with Christ as a cornerstone. It is easy to use the name of Jesus through lip service, and then go forth to insist on our personal agendas. This will happen when the desire to do right becomes overwhelmingly strong. There is a difference between doing the right thing versus doing it the right manner. The former does it with lesser regard to other considerations. The latter is sensitive to God's leading on all circumstances . Remember that in all things, Christ needs to be the unifying force.

Second, being relational is critical, especially for the senior leaders. This is seen through their relationships with staff, with the board, with other leaders, and with the lay people. One way not to hang on to power too tightly is to learn to share them. Learn to relate to one another through sharing and open communications. The moment one tries to hide anything, something is wrong already.

Third, the pluralistic leadership is not necessarily the only way to go under all circumstances. There are situations in which it may even impede the speed of implementation. One cannot be too dogmatic about this because I feel that there is a time for everything. Depending on the phase of the Church growth, different leadership styles are needed for different stages of Church. You may need an inspirational decision maker at the start of a Church plant. Sometimes, there is not much choice when the young Church is really small in number, and where leaders are few and hard to find. One cannot simply wait for a board of say ten persons before doing anything. When things are more settled, then there will be room for greater involvement of the rest. While plurality leadership is the aim, one needs to allow the key leaders the flexibility and leeway to make critical decisions when time is crucial. For example, someone needs immediate medical attention. Do we convene a board meeting first before doing anything?

Fourth, humility needs to be the attribute not just for leaders but for all. Even the non-Christian leadership gurus have taught that to their students.  It all comes back to Christ. It comes back to learning again how Jesus had lived. We all need to be reminded by one another about Philippians 2:5-11. Maybe, leaders all over the country in various churches need to memorize this, or at least read it as regularly as possible.

Finally, this plurality leadership structure may be foreign in certain denominations which functions based on a strictly hierarchical structure. That means the idea of a more pluralistic leadership be applied in smaller settings, say a local Church. Probably, a hybrid will be more applicable in such cases.

I highly recommend this book for all leaders or leaders to be.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Kregel Academic without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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