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America’s Clergy: Facing the Future by Looking at the Past

By April 1, 2009 No Comments
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As we consider the state of the church
in our culture today, there is much
nail-biting. Noting the long decline
of membership in mainline churches and
the many other problems the churches face
today, some question the future of denominations
such as the Reformed Church in
America and others like it. But as is often
the case, as we face the future, it is helpful
to take a close look at the past.

E. Brooks Holifield’s book, God’s Ambassadors:
A History of the Christian Clergy
in America
offers an excellent historical
vantage point from which to view the
church in the United States. Holifield is
a professor of American Church History at
the Candler School of Theology at Emory
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His book, funded by the Lilly
Endowment as part of its “Pulpit and Pew”
project, examines the history of the clergy
in the United States from colonial times to
today. It covers the history of the clergy
in a vast array of churches, ranging from
independent churches and mainline Protestant
churches to the Roman Catholic
church and the various strains of the Orthodox
church. The book also offers solid
and enlightening overviews of the growth
of minority churches, and pays special attention
to the struggles surrounding
the ordination of
women. As Holifield narrates
this complex history, it
is evident he has a high regard
for the clergy and deep
respect for the church.

Holifield pays close attention
to three major factors in
the history of the clergy–the
weight given to ordination,
education of the clergy, and
the acknowledgement of a
divine call. Interestingly,
while there is disagreement
about the need for ordination
and education, all traditions agree a
divine call is indispensable for clergy. He
notes that the ordained ministry, as a profession,
is unique. It is the only profession
that has a constant community in relationship
to it.

Holifield questions the conventional
wisdom that the influence of clergy has
declined in our society. While clergy are
not necessarily the foremost of our culture’s
leaders, Holifield shows that within
their congregations, the authority and importance
of the minister or priest remains
quite strong. Though the nuances and extent
of that authority vary depending upon
many factors, nevertheless the clerical
leader of the church is still just that–the
focal leader. The depiction of the history of the authority of the Roman Catholic priesthood
is especially fascinating. In times of
early immigration, Catholic newcomers to
the U.S. gave their priests enormous power,
and the priests often used this power
to help and advocate for their parishioners.
The priests’ power waned, however, as their
congregations became assimilated into
American society.

The long history of disagreement over
the necessity of education for clergy is also
explored. Reading about how little education
ministers often have had and the resistance
of some churches to education for
their clergy made me realize how fortunate
I am to have a college and seminary education.
The current debates about Commissioned
Pastors within the RCA and other
denominations in America take on new dimensions
when considered in light of similar
historical debates about educational requirements
for clergy. It appears there is
nothing new under the sun!

Besides offering a detailed analysis of
these long-term trends, this quite readable
and entertaining book also offers numerous
historical facts that were a delight to
bring to the leaders of my congregation, especially
those concerning clergy salaries.
For example, clergy in Virginia were once
paid in pounds of tobacco. This became
an enormous issue when the value of tobacco
soared, then sank. Certain clergy
sued to have the state pay them the higher
value! (They lost.) Holifield reports that
the clergy in Georgia were once paid in part
by state duties placed on liquor. Did these
Georgia preachers preach sermons encouraging
members to drink heartily in order
to increase their salaries due to increased
revenue from the liquor duties?

Another theme Holifield grapples with
is the tension clergy face between cultural
immanence and transcendence. There
is a constant tension between the desire
to transcend the culture by leading the
church according to the principles of the
Kingdom of God, while at the same time
the desire to share the standards of the
culture. Combine this with the temptation
to define success in terms of educational
attainment and worldly standards, and Holifield
believes this partially explains why
clergy throughout American history have
viewed the office as a calling in crisis.

For clergy facing the challenges of
the church today, Holifield’s book is quite
heartening. It teaches us that our trials are
nothing new and have been lived through
before. The fear of the decline of the church
has been with us from the beginning, yet
today there are hundreds of thousands
of churches, the majority alive and well.
More importantly, the story Holifield tells
assures us that the Spirit is alive and well
and the church’s value and importance are
as real and vital as ever.

Fred Mueller is pastor of the Hillsborough Reformed
Church in Hillsborough, New Jersey.