Implications for Congregational Leadership Patterns in the Mennonite Church
- The Threefold Pattern of Bishops, Ministers, and Deacons
- The Single Pastor Pattern
- The Team Leadership Pattern
- Forms of Undesignated Leadership
- Women in Church Ministries
We have already seen (Section 2) that Mennonite churches today display different trends and leadership patterns. Each may manifest certain elements of the biblical guidelines. Each may also respond to the challenges of our time in ways which partially follow the distinctive New Testament characteristics of leadership and authority. Each may also be partially influenced by attempts to correct previous shortcomings.
Churches are often tempted to think that only one right form of leadership exists. Or they may be tempted to assume that all forms are about equally good, as long as intentions are good. The New Testament characteristics, however, both allow for variation in leadership forms and reveal a distinctive type of leadership and leadership authority.
We can learn some things about leadership and leadership authority from church history and from today's social studies and organizational practices. However, the New Testament model remains the standard for discerning what present insights and practices may be adapted in the church, what should be changed in line with the distinctive New Testament characteristics, or what should be rejected as incompatible with biblical example and teaching. The main questions we must answer are:
--Which elements of present practice and ideas most faithfully implement the
distinctive New Testament characteristics?
--How can present-day forms move in a direction which better corresponds to this biblical teaching and example?
The following points are guidelines for responding to these key questions. These guidelines begin with present practices in Mennonite churches and suggest their strengths and weaknesses as well as ways of moving toward the New Testament distinctives.
When looking at individual strengths and weaknesses of the present forms, the important issue is the way in which each element fits into a total pattern. For example, the threefold pattern and the team pattern both are a form of shared leadership. But the particular kind of shared leadership and the way it fits into the overall vision of gifts and ministries is different in each form.
This form seems to incorporate several New Testament characteristics:
1. It is a form of shared leadership in the church.
2. It recognizes some diversity and variety of ministries in the church.
3. Although its tendency has been toward obliging persons to fit into prescribed functions of a particular office,* it can allow those sharing leadership to exercise their ministry according to their own gifts and calling.
4. The tendency of this form has been toward limiting church authority to the group of bishops, ministers, and deacons. But it can sometimes reflect the corporate nature of church authority if the bishops, ministers, and deacons function in mutual submission and in sensitivity to all members of the congregation.
5. Those who share in this form of leadership can manifest the characteristic of servant leadership and of an authority confirmed by practice as well as conferred upon them.
In several ways, this pattern does not adequately follow the New Testament guidelines. It would need modification to move in that direction:
1. Some word differences conceal structural differences. The New Testament uses the terms "bishops/overseers," "elders," and "shepherds/pastors" in ways that largely overlap. Mennonite and other churches have usually made three distinct offices of bishops, elders, and pastors. To move in a biblical direction churches would understand these three terms as referring to the same office in a local congregation, namely the leadership group of the congregation. This group might be called a council of "overseers" or "elders" or "pastors."
2. This pattern of leadership has often hardened into offices with fixed expectations. When that happens, it should become more flexible to adapt to the particular gifts of those who have been called to serve.
3. The traditional threefold pattern has often become a hierarchical structure with ordination leading from the office of the deacon to the office of the minister-preacher, and in some cases eventually to the office of the bishop. To move in the direction of the New Testament guidelines would imply eliminating the hierarchical pattern and its corresponding levels of ordination.
4. Practice of the threefold pattern has often led to limiting the active ministries of the church to bishops, preachers, and deacons. To move in the direction of the biblical guidelines, churches would encourage all members to exercise freely their gifts and ministries. All members would share in discerning the direction of congregational and church life, making significant decisions, and mutual disciplining.
A growing number of Mennonite congregations have accepted a single pastor form of congregational leadership. In Mennonite churches, this pattern has usually been supplemented with a group of lay leaders in the form of a church council, an elders' board, or a similar group. Congregations generally elect the lay leaders for a limited period of time, and they are rarely ordained.
This pattern has certain apparent similarities to the New Testament guidelines:
1. The pastoral minister and the group of lay leaders together partially
provide a pattern of shared leadership.
2. The pastoral ministry can correspond to the biblical use of "bishop," "elders," and "pastors" in referring to the same, not different, leadership ministries in the congregation.
3. The pastor usually exercises a teaching and preaching ministry. This represents a partial element of the biblical guidelines in which pastors, who were the same as elders/bishops, were called to teach according to their particular gifts and calling.
4. Those exercising the pastoral ministry often manifest the characteristics of servant authority and an authority confirmed by practice as well as conferred upon them.
5. When the church's expectations are flexible, pastors may exercise their ministry according to their particular gifts and calling, rather than being obligated to fit into prescribed functions of a particular office which are the same in all places.
However, in several ways this pattern needs to change to fit New Testament guidelines:
1. Distinctions are usually made between the pastor and the lay leaders on the basis of ordination, full-time employment, and formal education. Moving in the direction of the New Testament guidelines could mean ordaining more than one pastor. It could also mean including others in the shared leadership group.
2. The pastor is usually expected to be the overall leader of a congregation. To move closer to the New Testament vision would mean that overall guidance of the congregation would normally, be shared by several pastors, according to their gifts and calling. Part- or full-time financial support could vary according to need. Still others might also share in preaching, worship leadership, and counseling, according to their particular gifts calling, and preparation.
3. The practice of the single pastoral form has often led to limiting the active ministries of the church to the pastor. To move in the direction of the New Testament guidelines, churches would encourage the ministries of all members. All would share in testing the direction of church life, in decision-making, and in congregational discipline as appropriate.
4. This form sometimes makes the pastor seem more like an employee than a full-fledged congregational member. When this happens, the pastor's authority to continue depends primarily on periodic majority votes, rather than on the mutual and corporate discernment of all gifts and ministries, including the pastoral ministry.
To move toward the New Testament guidelines churches would see pastors not simply as employees who may continue on the basis of audience satisfaction. They would be treated as fellow members whose strengths and weaknesses can be complemented by others in the church. They may profit from occasional opportunities for growth and/or mutual correction as well as for vocational reorientation and change. Any continuity, correction, or change should be for the mutual welfare of both pastors and congregations and only with careful and prayerful discernment.
5. This pattern also tends toward expecting any one pastor to fulfill a wide range of functions linked to this one office. Moving more in the direction of the biblical guidelines would mean adapting the "job description" to the particular gifts of the person.
Mennonite congregations which have adopted a single pastor pattern of ministry usually combine it with a church council, an elders' board, or similar group. There are significant differences as well as apparent similarities between "elders" in the New Testament (see Section 3) and in most present-day Mennonite congregations.
1. The apparent similarities include:
--The elders' board represents a form of shared leadership.
--The elders may function in ways which give general oversight and direction to congregational life, usually in administrative and organizational matters. They rarely share in preaching, teaching, and pastoral visitation.
2. The differences include:
--The term "elder" and the term "pastor" in the New Testament apparently refer to the same ministries in the congregation.
--Elders in the New Testament congregations could, according to their gifts, share in the ministries of teaching, intercongregational relations, and spiritual oversight.
--Elders in the New Testament congregations apparently provided for greater continuity in general congregational oversight. Today elders may serve for only three or four or five or six years.
--There was no recognizable difference between the way "elders" and "pastors" were appointed or confirmed in their ministries in the New Testament.
3. To move in the direction of the New Testament guidelines would include at least:
--Choosing elders on the basis of their gifts in such areas as teaching,
intercongregational relations, and spiritual leadership as well as in
administrative and organizational matters.
--Giving serious attention to the need for helpful continuity. The more rapidly there is turnover in the elders' group, the less the elders can provide leadership continuity in congregational life. Elders who share in the congregational leadership might also be called to terms of service similar to pastors.
--Finding ways for elders, as well as pastors, to have the experience, orientation, preparation, and training to carry out their ministries. This could include apprenticeships with experienced elders. It might also include shorter or longer periods of training or study in congregations, conferences, Bible schools, or seminaries. --Giving serious consideration to the ways in which elders are recognized, appointed, or confirmed in their ministries (see Section 5B).
A few Mennonite congregations have developed team patterns of congregational leadership in recent years. These patterns attempt to renew the biblical characteristics of ministry and leadership in the church. They attempt to utilize some strengths of the traditional threefold and the pastor forms while correcting their weaknesses.
This pattern varies from congregation to congregation. It usually includes several distinct ministries. For example, one kind of team leadership pattern may include:
1. A minister of the Word, whose primary task is leading in Bible study and
interpretation. This ministry includes preaching and teaching. It may also
include Christian learning and education in the broader sense.
2. A minister of congregational life, whose primary tasks may include counseling, visitation, helping the congregation in decision-making, and in discipline.
3. A minister of resources, whose primary task in the congregation would include helping it discern particular gifts and ministries, overseeing the administration of congregational activities and programs, and coordinating relations with the broader church.
4. A minister of evangelism and service, who would provide leadership in congregational outreach and witness.
As presently practiced, a ministry team may include those who are or are not ordained and those who have or do not have formal training. Some may serve part time, others on a full-time basis, according to the needs and size of the congregation. They may receive partial or full financial support, depending on the resources of the congregation and the time needed to carry out their ministries.
This pattern apparently reflects several New Testament characteristics:
1. It represents a form of shared leadership in the church and recognizes a
variety and diversity of leadership ministries.
2. It encourages the discernment and exercise of other members' gifts and ministries in the life of the church.
3. Those sharing in this pattern of congregational leadership may model in their working together the mutual subordination and servant authority which should characterize all believers' ways of exercising their gifts and ministries in the church.
4. When team members together provide congregational oversight, this pattern corresponds to the recurring shared elder/bishop/pastor congregational leadership of the New Testament.
5. This pattern may take seriously both the particular gifts and preparation of those serving in the leadership team as well as the needs and mission of the congregation. It need not oblige them to fit into a particular office which is the same in all times and places regardless of who serves.
This pattern also needs evaluation and changes to better incorporate the New Testament guidelines:
1. This pattern may tend to limit the active exercise of ministries in the church to those who share in the leadership team.
2. It may discourage a shared form of congregational leadership, if each team member is seen as the only specialist in a particular ministry rather than as one of several persons who shares in that ministry. To move further in the direction of the New Testament guidelines may therefore include, for example, a shared ministry of the Word (and other ministries), according to the gifts of those in the congregations.
3. There may be a tendency to ordain, support, or train only some of the leadership team. Moving further in the direction of the New Testament guidelines would therefore include responding to the questions of financial support, training, and ordination according to the effective service and need of each team member.
4. Team ministries and other patterns of shared ministries also need to work in ways which assure continuity in teaching and preaching, in coordination, and in following through on decisions. For example, someone may be designated as coordinator, those who preach and teach may need to plan cooperatively, etc.
If there is also an elders' group in congregations having a team ministry, the same considerations would arise as with an elders' group linked with the single pastor pattern (see Section 4B).
During the 1960s and 1970s small groups and house fellowships, sometimes within larger congregations and sometimes independently, have functioned without designated continuing leadership or with informal leadership. Undesignated leadership has taken a great variety of forms and has been motivated by many concerns.
Many of these forms apparently reflect several characteristics of the New Testament guidelines:
1. There is broad participation in discernment, decision-making, worship
leading, and mission.
2. There is usually an emphasis upon all members exercising their gifts and ministries.
3. There is usually an emphasis on the non-coercive styles of leadership.
Ways in which many of these undesignated patterns need to be changed include:
1. The frequent reaction against the misuses of authority in traditional
leadership patterns should go on to the recognition of appropriate oversight and
2. The exercise of particular gifts and ministries in the church needs to be distinguished from the kind of egalitarianism which assumes that everyone should do everything on an alternating basis.
3. The informal patterns of leadership should be recognized and structured in order to provide mutual accountability, clarity of direction, and continuity.
We have seen that women shared in church ministries, both in the New Testament church, and among Anabaptists and earlier Mennonites in ways which have been discontinued among most North American Mennonites today. This loss came about because of influences from the broader society and because of passing over some New Testament examples and teaching. Partly because of a renewed discovery of the biblical message and partly because of influences of the broader American society, the role of women in the church has become a controversial issue in recent years. Furthermore, this issue has often been reduced to the question of whether women may be ordained as pastors.
The following guidelines should be considered as we seek to be faithful to the New Testament vision in our time:
1. The matter should not be narrowed to whether a woman may be ordained as a pastor. As we have seen, some women shared in several recognized ministries in the New Testament church.
2. In the New Testament, congregations moved in the direction of shared ministry and leadership teams. Both in the first century and today, shared ministry can manifest the new oneness of men and women in Christ, as well as reflect the newness of headship and mutual submission in Christ. In shared leadership patterns, women and men can exercise the ministries for which they are gifted and called, and can make their distinctive contributions to the building up and mission of the church.
3. The apostle Paul's injunction that women should not teach in the church may be understood as a general rule with no exceptions. It is also the case that women exercised other ministries of leadership in the New Testament congregations and missionary outreach. Applying the injunction today that women should not teach would fit the biblical model only if other significant and recognized ministries are shared by women. Otherwise, we would simply be choosing some parts of the scriptural teaching and example and omitting others.
4. It may also be that the apostle Paul's injunction not permitting women to teach should be understood either as a general rule with exceptions or as directed toward specific misuses (see Section 3C). Then, cases when women may be called to a teaching ministry would be discerned according to their gifts and calling, the welfare and edification of the church where they serve, and the New Testament vision of mutual submission in Jesus Christ.
5. As we seek to be faithful to the biblical vision and practice, we need to refuse both the temptation to keep traditions which fall short of the biblical vision and the temptation to accept uncritically trends of today's society. Too often Christians are caught in identifying their use of Scripture with either the more conservative traditions or the more liberal fads. Often neither side corresponds to the newness of life in Jesus Christ and the Spirit, a newness of life which is to be lived out in a world whose form is "passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31).
Seven Articles of
Schleitheim (Anabaptist, 1527)
Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632)
Mennonite Confession of Faith (Mennonite Church, 1963)
Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men (Mennonite Church, 1975)
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Mennonite Church/General Conference Mennonite Church, 1995)
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Mennonite Church. "Implications for Congregational Leadership Patterns in the Mennonite Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1981. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L42.html/L42_4.html.
APA style: Mennonite Church. (1981). Implications for Congregational Leadership Patterns in the Mennonite Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L42.html/L42_4.html.