A Proposal: Abbots & Abbesses

Alan J. Roxburgh

If the North American church is to become a missionary movement in our culture, it will need a leadership that is not primarily shaped by executive, administrative and expert roles. These leaders will need to become more like Abbots and Abbesses; men and women whose vocation is cultivating local movements of God’s people. This is about a fundamental shift in imagination. Up to now the dominant focus of national and regional leaders has been upon the established roles that think, primarily, of how the local fits into national/regional agendas and priorities. The whole agenda of these leaders has to be turned on its head. The transformations required to achieve this are immense, but without this change the viability of the church as a missional community is questionable. A major adaptive response to leadership is required.

In the book, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition, I proposed an alternative typology for local leadership (what we normally call clergy or pastoral leadership based upon acquiring a degree, such as the M.Div., sanctioned by the denomination as a requirement for admittance into church leadership). It was a proposal that characterized our time as one of massive transition. Thus we need leaders skilled in guiding people through transition. These are profoundly different skills from those taught in most seminaries and embedded in the M.Div degree. There I described such a role in terms of leaders as midwives, poets, prophets, local theologians, and so forth. I spoke of the need for local leaders to break out of the sola pastoral model. Over the past five years the changes I described have been occurring at a rapid pace. The reality for practically all denominations is that the time has come when the M.Div model of leadership is no longer tenable. A majority of congregations can no longer afford full time clergy of the M.Div typology. We are rapidly moving into a time when we will need leaders who can form multiple missional communities across an area rather than manage a ‘congregation’ built around a building to which people drive for meetings based on common, tribal identity. That model simply has not capacity to form the church as a missionary movement in our culture.

What this shift is going to mean is that the primary administrative, executive, programatic and judicatory roles of existing national and regional leaders will very quickly become irrelevant to the shifts now underway. This is where national and regional leaders MUST reimagine and reframe their basic roles. The key to such re-imagining lies in the willingness of national and regional leaders to become much more like an Abbot/Abbess. An Abbot/Abbess is someone with the capacity to call forth the gestating imagination that is wanting to be birthed in the midst of the local and everyday of ordinary congregations and parishes. Abbots and Abbesses are focused on the local and everyday. This is the fundamental re-orientation required of national and regional leaders. It is so hard for them to imagine because all of their training, all the established expectations orient them away from the local toward the demands or national and regional expectations. The type of leadership I am proposing was found in elements of the earliest traditions of the church, especially in some of the monastic orders. I am not advocating a retreat into monastic orders but there is a way of leading that these orders have to teach us today in terms of what it means to forms communities of God’s people in times of massive transition and we are leaders lost in transition right now.

It is difficult to imagine denominations addressing the massive crises that are now upon them without the emergence of some kind of leadership akin to the ancient Abbot and Abbess. This role goes back into the traditions of the church’s missional life. Abbots and Abbesses attend to the formation of local missional communities through being with them and forming a new kind of leadership among them. Historically, Abbots/Abbesses gave oversight to a community of men, women and children around a way of life. They were forming an extended contrast society whose characteristic way of life was self-giving love. In the Celtic context they were not cloistered communities, but families, households extending their lives outward into the neighborhoods and communities where they live. Benedict explained the role of an Abbot/Abbess as: to care for and guide the spiritual development of many different characters. The elements of their role I want to lift up are:

Formation of a witnessing community of love shaped around the ideal of the new family. This kind of community lives in contrast to the dominant use of family language in many congregations where it functions to protect a narrowly-defined, bounded group comprised mostly of a homogenous, socio-economic class huddling together against difference and strangers. The notion of a community of love as a witnessing family in the world is very ancient; it goes to the core of Christian identity as the Spirit-filled society among whom God’s future emerges.

Ordering of common life around the “work of God.” Abbot/Abbess’s role direct the life of the community around discerning what God is shaping in neighborhoods and how to join with the Spirit in the local. This is a different work from that of leader as executive, CEO, administrator or cheerleader for national and regional programs. It is profoundly different from the role of therapist or caregiver to expressive individuals. Rather, it involves the formation of people around practices of Christian life.

Practically, in a city or town, a combination of congregations, church plants, and house churches would form a common leadership group under the oversight of an Abbot/Abbess. This would not be a clergy person for each congregation or house church. On the contrary, there would be a small number of primary local leaders, together engaging with these congregations and house churches. The role of the Abbot/Abbess is to empower these local leaders. The focus of this leadership is addressing the question: How are we forming local, on the ground communities of God’s people who are entering into and engaging their neighborhoods as a Gospel people. This means, of course, that the Abbot/Abbess has to also be engaged in this way of life and live intentionally in a neighborhood as part of a neighborhood based congregation or house church.

The Abbot/Abbess is not a denominational executive carrying out policies and procedures. The role is to oversee by example and presence these multiple, connected communities and experiments in being the church in transitional space. Some of the commitments this will involve are:

  • Commitment to place—the geographic area/neighborhood.
  • Forming these various communities in some form of Daily Office such that these communities, at various times, set aside time in a day for prayer, silence, reading Scripture, and confessions of faith.
  • A focus on discerning how to ask what God might be up to in the neighborhood and forming its worship life out of the sounds, mixtures and meanings of the people in that neighborhood.
  • Commitment to welcoming the stranger and making space for the other.

If this proposal sounds new, it is because we have lost the memory and experience of how the church framed itself in other missional contexts. We need to recover this memory and channel it into fresh imagination and new risks for the kingdom. The precedents for this proposal go back a long way in the church’s history. In the post-apostolic period, the church in a city was comprised of a series of house churches, or larger gatherings, connected to each other through a bishop and group of elders who provided oversight and training for the house churches. Augustine, as Bishop of Hippo, operated in this way. As Bishop he had oversight of the church in Hippo (note the singular) which was comprised of a small numbers of people who gathered in households. A group of elders (presbyters) worked as a team in the care and training of these smaller groups.

In some monastic orders similar structures emerged. In Ireland, after Patrick, an Abbot/Abbess shaped the overall life of a people who saw themselves as both a gathered church and a missional band commissioned to demonstrate and announce the gospel to their surrounding community. One can imagine national and regional leaders starting to learn how to return to this form of vocation by starting small. They might begin by calling together in an area a group of congregations and house churches into an experiment that seeks to discern what God is up to ahead of them in the neighborhoods then forming experiments in discerning how to join with the Spirit in these transitional spaces.

First published by TMN, February 2013.
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