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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What are the important leadership roles in the community?
by Kendra Hotz

The earliest Christian communities gathered to share a meal commemorating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (The Lord’s Supper). They read and interpreted accounts of the life of Christ, letters from apostles, and scripture from the Hebrew Bible. They prayed together, took up collections for the poor and widows, and discussed matters of importance in their community. They also proclaimed their faith in Christ to others and received new members into their community through the sacrament of baptism.

Leadership roles within the church emerged in response to these practices, and as the church grew and developed an institutional structure, these leadership roles became increasingly differentiated and specialized. These same basic functions, however, continue to determine the shape of leadership in the Christian church today. That is, leaders in Christian communities live as servants whose function is to assist the church in its worship, ministry, and evangelism.

With very rare exceptions, Christian communities ordain certain individuals to lead the community as clergy. Of all of the practices of the church, two kinds of activities, which are understood to be means of grace, are especially entrusted to the clergy. These means of grace are hearing the word read and proclaimed and receiving the sacraments. The clergy are responsible for planning the weekly worship of the church so that the means of grace are regularly made available to the people.

In worship, clergy offer prayers on behalf of the congregation, deliver sermons that re-tell and interpret the sacred stories of the faith, and administer the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Clergy also offer pastoral care to members of their congregation and coordinate the other ministries of the church. They usually undertake a specialized program of theological education, requiring both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, so that they are prepared to lead the community in these ways.

Another important leadership role in the church emerged in the 4th-century after the period of persecution had ended. This was the role of the monk, an individual who remains unmarried and is devoted especially to a life of prayer and contemplation. Monasticism developed into a variety of forms, both solitary and communal, for both men and women (who are sometimes called nuns). Monks usually live according to a “rule,” a set of practices that govern the community. Such a rule might determine how often they gather for prayer, how many hours a day are devoted to work or to rest, when mealtimes will be, what responsibilities various members of the community have, and how the tasks of the community are distributed among its members.

Monastic orders organized themselves around particular ministries: some devoted to ministries with the poor, others to study and education, and yet others to spreading the faith to new places. Traditionally the office of the monk was separate from the office of ordained clergy, but now the two often go together so that it is not uncommon for male monks also to serve as priests.

Lay people serve many important leadership roles in the church and may even be ordained or consecrated to offices such as Elder or Deacon, though these terms are not always used or used in the same way. Usually Elders and Deacons are lay persons who have been chosen by their congregations to serve on the governing board of the congregation for a set amount of time.

The governing board may be known as the “session,” “consistory,” “vestry,” or by some other term. Members of this body typically make decisions about how church property may be used, develop the budget and disperse funds, assist the pastor by visiting sick and elderly members of the congregation and bringing the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper to those unable to be present for worship, coordinate the educational programs of the congregation, prepare the sanctuary for worship, and assist in worship leadership, among many other things.

Educators, who may or may not be clergy, also play an important leadership role in the Christian church. Because belief and doctrine are so central to Christian faith, Christians have historically placed a high value on educating their children and new converts about what Christians believe and on nurturing faith throughout one’s lifetime through continuing education. Many educators are lay Christians who lead children, youth, and adults in weekly “Sunday School” meetings, where they read and interpret scripture together, discuss the relationship between their faith and current events, learn new devotional practices, and so forth.

Other educators who work in congregations have sought advanced training and certification to become professional Christian educators. They often serve as resource persons for a congregation, identifying appropriate curriculum for various age groups and training Sunday school teachers in its use. Still other educators serve in colleges and universities or in seminaries where they train future pastoral leaders for the church.

Finally, Christian churches have always sponsored missionaries who bring the gospel to new places. They serve as evangelists, but also as ministers to the poor and outcast, as advocates for justice, and as educators. Missionaries may be clergy, monks, or laypeople. They may serve in this vocation for a lifetime or for a set number of years. In recent years, some Christians have undertaken short-term mission projects. Christians with medical training, for instance, may serve for a few weeks in an impoverished or remote area, where there is little access to health care.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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