Becoming Your Own Vicar

Author: Haydn J. McLean, MDiv
Photographer: Dr. James Griffith. James Griffith, MD

While working a hospital shift, I chanced upon a seminary colleague with whom I had been ordained 25 years prior; he was visiting a church member in the emergency department. We had been in touch infrequently over the preceding few years, so this unanticipated reunion was an occasion to get reacquainted. He informed me that he was approaching the conclusion of his five-year leave of absence. I asked whether he was going to return to the parish. He replied, “No; I’m taking early retirement.” I brought my friend up to date by informing him that I had resigned from our formerly mutual denomination, relinquished my ordination, and united with a contrasting spiritual fellowship. He asked me if I remembered our class of ordinands; I replied that I did not — except that it had been a large class. He confirmed that it was — “25 or 30,” to his recollection. He asked me if I knew how many remained in the parish. Shrugging my shoulders, he replied, “My last count was 5.”

I was astonished, although, off the top of my head, I could recall colleagues who had taken a leave of absence and never returned to the parish, some who left the parish for teaching or counseling, and those who were unable to make it to retirement in an appointment system without the courtesy of conversations regarding relocation; some had crises of faith and were unable to continue as proponents of their faith tradition (e.g., The Clergy Project, http://www.clergyproject.org/), while others were wounded in the parish and were unable or unwilling to risk vulnerability out of fear of re-experiencing parish or denominational maltreatment.

Reflecting on this conversation, I recalled that each of us in our ordination class appeared multiple times before various committees in our jurisdiction. Each candidate had been appraised as deserving ordination and oversight committees confirmed each aspirant’s “call” to the ministry. This recollection forced me to consider the presumptive meaning of a “call” to ministry, considering that 80% of our class of ordinands had left the parish, if not the ministry or religious life, altogether. In some circumstances, the rigors of parish life diminished the sense of call through mundane work or parish conflict. Is it time for the church to reconsider its denotation of “call” or its reference to such a confirmation, and to replace it with the innovative concept of a “profession,” lacking the connotation of Divine activity?

These questions arose when I considered my own place in the above transitions. I had recently concluded a spiritual progression that commenced in college when, envisioning my ideal spiritual community in a religion class essay, I did not describe the denomination of my formative years; I imagined that which I did not know existed. I parted company with the denomination of my rearing, turned in my ordination, and joined a fellowship that does not differentiate between clergy and laity, which was the archetype of my idyllic fellowship, and through which I have felt an ever-strengthening sense of spirituality.

My imagination was captivated by the remarkable decline in clergy colleagues, as reported by my associate. Considering the trend of my clergy colleagues’ attrition, I projected their preceding record and anticipated the future. What if, over a period of a few years, all of the clergy in seminaries — Protestant and Roman Catholic — decided to complete their education, but to enter vocations other than the parish?1  What would be the result if, over the same duration, clergy serving congregations decided to take early retirement or enter vocations other than parish ministry? Further, imagine that this attenuation of clergy were to permeate the ranks of the rabbinate and the Islamic imams. My imagination asked what the religious laity would do if clergy of all faith traditions were to vanish over a period of a few years. Where would they find their religious mooring or spiritual sustenance?

What might the character of congregations, of any faith tradition, resemble if there were no clergy to teach in the religious education department, to lead worship or preach, to conduct classes on the scriptures, to lead small groups, to perform weddings and funerals, make hospital visits, and, most significantly, if there were no clergy to offer public prayer? (Due to the observed torment when called to do so, my intuition suggests the last might be the most distressing matter.) What would be the result if laypersons of all traditions could no longer project their spiritual satisfaction or dissatisfaction upon their religious leaders but were responsible for their own spiritual well being?2

This line of inquiry may be foreign to the uninitiated, but it is familiar to clergy within mainstream Christianity. Many Protestant clergy have received the complaint that they “aren’t spiritual enough.” This complaint presents itself as a comment on the lack of spiritual engagement by ordained clergy; however, that would amount to deception by the presenting complaint, for this projection reveals more about the congregant than the clergy. Protestant laity feel religious when they perceive their clergy person to be speaking or acting in a spiritual manner. Likewise, Protestant laity do not feel spiritual when they perceive their clergy person to be speaking or acting outside expectant spiritual values, for example, cursing, drinking, gambling, and so forth. (Protestant laity hold their clergy to a higher moral standard than they expect for themselves. Therefore, Protestant laity continue to excuse themselves from the same standards to which their clergy are held (Matthew 23:3, NRSV). Clergy are to provide the example that laity tacitly know to ignore.)3  Because Protestant laity depend upon their clergy to be the source of their spiritual well-being, it becomes essential that the clergy speak and function in a manner that meets or exceeds the spiritual expectations of parishioners. It is the emotional attachment to the designated spiritual person that functions as the agent for the layperson’s spirituality. To fall short of such spiritual projections and expectations, from which laity garner spiritual sustenance or comfort, the ordained clergy places him or herself in the position of being accused of being “not spiritual enough.”

When clergy are assessed by laypersons as, “not spiritual enough,” the anticipated rejoinder is, “Not spiritual enough for what?” The allegation that a clergy person is “not spiritual enough” implies little concerning the spiritual state of the ordained person, but reveals considerably more regarding the spiritual state of the layperson, for the comment that a pastor is “not spiritual enough” implies the pastor is “not spiritual enough for me.” The implication is that the layperson has assembled an inadequate spiritual foundation upon which to satisfy his or her spiritual longing and must satisfy the spiritual yearning through emotional attachment to the designated religious leader. The layperson that alleges that a pastor “isn’t spiritual enough” is revealing that the laity’s spirituality is deficient and must be augmented by emotional symbiosis to another who is perceived as spiritual (termed “identification” in psychology). The need for laity to fulfill their spiritual satisfaction through emotional identification with clergy is a common projection in Protestantism. Protestant laypersons persist in their expectation that the designated religious leaders will practice their piety before others for the laity’s spiritual satisfaction, despite the founder’s prohibition to do so (Mathew 6:1, 5-6).4

II.

Ordination by religious associations necessitates the examination and approval of candidates, who aspire to represent the religious tradition that provides the ordination. Ordination qualifies a candidate to represent the Divine to the laity, signifies that the candidate has met a minimum standard of education and/or qualifications, and is examined to ensure that the ordinand will preserve and protect the standards, doctrines, and practices of the body conferring the ordination. Candidates for ordination understand they will be expected to conform to their tradition’s doctrine and polity if they are to be approved for ordination.

Women’s ordination is accepted within Lutheran practice, but a Roman Catholic seminarian knows to reject the same value for women’s ordination, unless he is willing to jeopardize his ordination. While a Presbyterian candidate may be doctrinally Trinitarian, a rabbinical student will find his or her ordination jeopardized by the same doctrine. United Methodists practice infant baptism as a historic ritual, but a Church of the Brethren seminarian can expect repercussions when holding to an equivalent baptismal interpretation. Each religious tradition has practices and beliefs that differentiate it from other traditions. The rituals, doctrines, and polities enable denominations to distinguish themselves from other traditions, resulting in each faith tradition’s characteristic identity. It is the history and spiritual meanings that define each religious tradition’s uniqueness. Without distinctive characteristics, religious groups would lose their defining traits and differentiation that enables them to be distinguishable from any other group, religious or otherwise. Religious distinctiveness provides the function of group identity and boundaries.

III.

Religious institutions deserve credit for the benefits provided to their adherents and society. In Griffith’s opinion, “religion ensures group security, religion can support the morale of individuals, and religion can attenuate personal suffering, of self and others,” and that, “There is evidence suggesting that recovery is speeded and risk of chronicity is lessened when a robust personal spirituality is also supported by traditional religious practices, doctrinal beliefs, and a caring community that makes up the sociobiological dimensions of formal religion.”5  When adherents of a faith tradition cooperate in benevolent programs, the affect is to multiply the influence of that religious organization. Few individuals have the resources necessary to establish orphanages, schools, or training centers; working in concert, the practitioners of a religious tradition have the ability to launch programs, hospitals, food banks, nursing centers, and social service agencies. More so, the influence of religious institutions on a societal level cannot be minimized when moral issues are addressed, leading to the realization of a higher standard for people and their culture, e.g., the Civil Rights movement. None of these social developments would have been possible on the level of personal spirituality alone. Each necessitated the cooperation of like-minded religious individuals.

Personal spirituality, devoid of a religious tradition, that has become untethered from its historical moorings, risks becoming an entity unto itself. According to Stephen Prothero, “Spirituality, in short, is religion stripped down to its experiential dimension. More than do-it-yourself religion, spirituality is do-without-religion, a form of faith that denies its connection to the institutions, stories, and doctrines that gave it birth — religion without memory.”6  This tendency has been discerned by Prothero, dating to the 1950s, when sociologist Will Herberg observed, “Christians flocking to church, yet forgetting all about Christ when it comes to naming the most significant events in history; men and women valuing the Bible as revelation, purchasing and distributing it by the millions, yet apparently seldom reading it themselves.”7

Prothero raises a pertinent matter: spirituality devoid of its historical roots risks pitching itself from the gravitational attraction of its origins and assuming a trajectory bereft of direction, or, more significantly, meaning. Prothero returns the spirituality vs. religion contrast into balance by insisting upon the contemporaneousness of spirituality and religion. Prothero’s presumed ideal is to create a coexistence of spirituality and religion such that they exist in tension with each other, through which neither spirituality nor religion gains the advantage.

Through human history, the agents for finding one’s way to the Divine have been limited, but ubiquitous. Despite the variety of global religious traditions, people have continually sought God through similar, if not identical, means. God, although varied in definition and concept, has been sought and sometimes found through nature (mountaintop locations, Native American traditions, the discoveries of science, sacred personal space, the golf course) as well as self-sacrifice (Christian and Buddhist monks). The Divine has also been sought and found among the arts (music, literature, scripture, paintings, icons, etc.), while others have found God more accessible through mind-altering experiences or activities (prayer, meditation, alcohol, mescaline, LSD). Other devotees of the Divine have found him/her close at hand through service to others (missionaries, hospice volunteers, service projects, chaplaincy), while others have found a shortcut to God through God’s designated representatives (imams, rabbis, pastors and priests, shamans, etc.). Consider the aforementioned religious conduits to the Divine that are included in traditional services of worship: music, incense, prayer, art, scripture, service through offerings, and a homiletic religious leader as the vicar of the Divine.

What may be the implications for our religious organizations should the vicars of the Divine no longer exist as thoroughfares to God, but rather if each adherent is responsible to be his or her own vicar of the Divine through the attributes of nature, the arts, prayer, and service to others? What might our religious and spiritual practices approximate if each adherent is an equivalent vicar of the heavenly? Religious institutions and practices might prioritize personal spirituality, rather than the contrary circumstance of institutional preservation or servitude.

IV.

There are potential liabilities for those aspiring to be sanctioned through ordination or lay membership, but they are more rigorous for ordinands, as delineated by James Griffith, MD.8 Religious bodies evince sociobiological traits, as do other social systems (kin recognition, peer affiliation, social hierarchy, social exchange9), which are the source of emotional pressure employed to promote conformity and control over the group members. Within a religious group, the development of personal spirituality is superceded by the group’s needs and preservation. The perpetuation and integrity of the group becomes the prime value, supplanting the integrity of its members as the group’s priority.10  Working within the constraints of sociobiological pressure, the religious organization inhibits the expression of the values of its members when a member’s conscience is at odds with the norm of the group.11  Griffith observes, “Powerfully experienced encounters with the sacred, common within personal spirituality, often lead individuals into idiosyncratic paths at odds with the religious behaviors prescribed by ecclesiastical authorities.”12  Within the constraints of the religious sociobiological systems, Griffith concludes, “One gains closeness to God not through emotionally intimate interactions but through behavioral submission and obedience.”13

A candidate for ordination may expect emotional pressure to conform to the values, standards, and attitudes promoted by the body granting ordination as the outlay for inclusion in the religious tradition and attaining the sanctioning of the body. Those who deviate from professed standards may anticipate pressure to conform to the group, under threat of sanctions (for example, withholding of ordination or restrictions on pastoral functions). Sanctions may be executed prior to ordination, in order to coerce the candidate’s conformity, in preparation for ordination, or may be implemented subsequent to ordination as a punitive measure or to return the ordinand to group conformity. A Jesuit priest (having earned four degrees and five certifications) was invited to submit a guest column for a national periodical. Following the publication of his article, he was invited to meet with members of a ministerial oversight committee (The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, originally known as The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition,14  historically known as The Inquisition), which unceremoniously stripped him of his credentials due to his article’s content. In midlife, the priest found himself without a career, home, health insurance, or pension, because of the content in his editorial. Compassion toward the priest was displaced by conformity to his denomination’s values, standards, and doctrines, confirming Griffith’s prediction that when the religious organization places a premium on consensus, individual lives become expendable.15  Karen Armstrong has observed, “Religious leaders often spend more time enforcing doctrinal conformity than devising spiritual exercises that will make these official “beliefs” a living reality in the daily lives of the faithful.”16  Examples of intimidation and coercion are commonplace for ordinands and those who aspire to ordination, in diverse religious institutions, by the groups whose ordination is desired, but which place a higher value on compliance and orthodoxy than individual spirituality.17  Due to the aforementioned sociobiological pressures for religious conformity, ordination, in part, may be interpreted as an ecclesiastical term for indoctrination. It is for this reason that, according to Griffith, beliefs are more not important for their truth, but for their consequences.18

V.

To raise such matters is to provoke speculation regarding the ramifications of a religious landscape bereft of ordained clergy. The prospect holds promise and peril. To return to our original inquiry, should clergy vanish from our religious institutions, would congregations cease to exist if devoid of religious leadership? Would faith traditions vanish? If members of a denomination or congregation find themselves absent a religious leader, would they disband in the absence of a leader, or would they remain loyal to their heritage and persist without a designated religious leader?

Human nature is inclined to repeat past behaviors out of familiarity and predictability and religious organizations, likewise, have a reputation for planning for the future by repeating the past.19  Should religious organizations find themselves without a designated religious leader, it might be expected that the body would fill the leadership vacuum with replacement leadership, as one purpose of leadership is to provide a place for people to take their problems. New leaders might be chosen by the organization to accomplish this role, or leaders might arise to fill the leadership vacuum on their own, since a leadership vacuum is fertile ground for self-appointed leadership. Whether the newly designated religious leader would function with competence would be a matter of the individual’s functioning and the congregation’s ability to hold the new leader accountable. Should approved clergy disappear from religious organizations, the leadership vacuum would be fertile for the rise of both competent adherents and unethical charlatans. Religious leaders, self-designated but devoid of orthodox standards, would be fertile ground for unorthodox or heretical teachings. Synthesis of divergent religious thought would likely increase in the absence of educated and trained religious leaders.

Rather than engaging in speculation concerning what might occur in religious organizations should pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams vanish, laity may hold the answer to our question and may be queried on this hypothetical situation. Questions to pose to laity include, “If clergy were to vanish from religious organizations and society, what would you miss most and what would make you feel their absence most acutely?” “How would the absence of clergy make a difference in your life?” “Would you continue to worship without clergy leadership, would you make yourself available for a leadership role, or would you cease participating with a worshiping congregation?”

One result of the realization of this vision may be the fulfillment of an ancient depiction of the church, prior to the advent of designated clergy. Paul described a community of persons with spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12: 4-31), in which there appears to have been a hierarchy in Paul’s mind (vss. 28-31), but no designated ordained persons who functioned in spiritual ways on behalf of the community. All persons in the fellowship possess spiritual gifts (vss. 4-11), but there is no sense of greater value assigned to one member over another due to the credence of any gift. While the members of the community possess various gifts (vss. 15-21), no gift is more highly esteemed than another. Paul has portrayed an egalitarian spiritual community (vss. 25, 26) consisting of diverse spiritual gifts, but devoid of a sociobiological hierarchy of greater or lesser individual value, as described by Griffith.

Despite having no more than conjecture and past history, this former pastor will make one proposal and one prediction. The proposal consists of promoting seminaries as places of learning that are not restricted to aspiring religious leaders or clergy. While this marketing has occurred, a greater emphasis on rabbinic schools, seminaries, and other religious schools as places of learning, on equal standing with colleges, trade schools, and technical schools would potentially promote greater enrollment. Such marketing will reduce the tendency for persons to connote that such schools are bastions of orthodoxy or preservers of tradition. Society would benefit from such advancement, for in offering society substantive religious education, laity would become less inclined to follow the temptations of magical thinking and erroneous scriptural interpretations by those who are well intentioned but without understanding. Encouraging religious institutions of higher learning to be open to the public would discourage the tendency for these schools to be perceived as promulgating secret or esoteric knowledge (gnosticism remains a perpetual temptation).

A society in which schools of higher religious learning become more available to laity (many are now, but with enrollment restrictions and limited marketing) will not only promote a higher standard of religious education and understanding,20  but will allow laity to become less dependent on their clergy for their spiritual or religious growth.21  This would promote the laity’s independence and responsibility for their own spiritual well being, which would necessarily be independent of denominational theology and pastoral competence. With the American movement toward personal spirituality and away from denominational hierarchy, polity, and orthodoxy,22  the time has arrived to consider the benefits of a spiritual landscape that remains the responsibility of each adherent, and to divert from religious hierarchies focused on self-preservation where the priority is preserving the institutional status quo. The time is upon the American religious landscape to promote responsibility for each adherent’s spiritual well being and to diminish the prominence of religious hierarchies, which have usurped responsibility for the spiritual well being of laity, but less for the laity’s benefit than for the benefit of preserving the religious institution. The time has arrived for members of religious institutions to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, to cease shirking that responsibility while lamenting that designated clergy are “not spiritual enough,” and to return our religious institutions to organizations that promote the spiritual development of their members, while diminishing the effort to conscript clergy and laity into the service of organizational perpetuation.


1Not an imaginative question. An Alban Institute Report of several years ago indicated that half of all Presbyterian seminarians at that time planned to enter vocations other than the parish. Of those Presbyterian clergy who served the parish, half had left the local congregation after five years. According to the posting of “CDM”, identified as Chris Mangum, Mount Croghan, SC, on Puritan Board, “When I was in the PCA, the Chairman of the Ordination and Credentials Committee asked me if I was going to be one of the 8 out of 10 men who are out of the ministry within 5 years of ordination.” (www.puritanboard.com/116/attrition-rate-first-call-ordainjed-poastors-30556) Accessed December 21, 2011.

2“Spirituality is a person-centered religion.” James Griffith, MD, Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms, A Guide for Clinical Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010, pp. 30, 31.

3Gil Rendle, PhD, The Alban Institute, Herndon, VA (retired)

4Compounding this spiritual identification are the varieties of spiritual expressions as elucidated by Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey, Prayer and Temperament, Open Door Publishing, 1985. Congregants’ spiritual dispositions may differ from the spiritual expression or values of the designated clergy person, thereby compounding the difficulties inherent in spiritual projection. See Haydn McLean, “I Know Where God Is,” The Clergy Journal, Vol. LXXVII, No. 3, (January 2001): 20.

5Griffith, pp. 16, 156

6Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy, Harper Collins Publishers, HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 116.

7Prothero, p. 113

8Griffith, Religion That Heals.

9Griffith, p. 97

10“Sociobiological systems work efficiently but mindlessly, though, without regard to any good larger than group survival and stability. A dark side to their operations can emerge, ranging from violence toward outsiders to deprivation of group members by virtue of lost access to resources from the outside world.” Griffith, p. 160.

11“The influence of personal spirituality is expectedly weak when religious life is largely about pride, honor, shame, humiliation, or guilt.” Griffith, pp. 126, 127.

12Griffith, p. 34.

13Griffith, p. 26.

14(http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_14071997_en.html) Accessed December 1, 2011.

15Griffith, p. 97. Further, “In the company of their followers, God and human religious leaders activate sociobiological systems for dominance and submission…” Griffith, p. 119.

16Karen Armstrong, A Case for God, Anchor Books, New York, NY, 2009, p. 325.

17Compare the antithesis: the needs of the individual take priority over the expectations of the institution (Mark 2:27).

18Griffith, p. 66

19Gil Rendle, PhD. C.f., Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past, London: Ikon Books, Ltd., 2011.

20Consider the woman who asserted that, following ordination, clergy ceased sinning. She was also convinced that clergy did not produce offspring in the same manner as other people because, “they wouldn’t do that.” How clergy produced children, she had not discerned.

21This potential is exemplified in the question posed by a woman in the author’s parables class. (Again, this author is now affiliated with a denomination devoid of ordained clergy.) Commencing the Sunday School class, the attendee asked this convener if the parables under discussion were considered “historical”—a question not posed to this formerly ordained pastor in twenty years of parish ministry.

22See Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2012.