Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today is a long title. But it is very descriptive of both the style and point of the book.
Embracing Shared Ministry has three parts. The first part is background on Roman culture and society. The main point is that Roman culture was very focused on status and honor. It was not a mobile culture, people that were born low status, stayed low status. People that were born high status mostly stayed high status. And not completely unlike today a very small portion of the society controlled a very large portion of the wealth.
In today’s culture, efficiency and wealth creation are highly valued. But in Roman culture it was honor. Government was small and rich individuals donated much of the infrastructure and entertainment to the cities (aqueducts, fountains, stadiums, festivals, etc) not to generate common good, but to produce honor. If you gave away the most stuff to the city, you had the highest honor. And nothing was done anonymously, everything had long inscriptions giving all of the titles and honors of the one that donated it.
Part two builds on the understanding of Roman status and honor culture by looking at Paul’s letter Philippians. Philippi was a Roman colony established primarily by settling retired Roman soldiers on confiscated land. So when Paul is writing, he is writing to a status conscious church that is well aware of its honor. Philippians is the only letter where Paul notes that they are Roman citizens. But it is also the letter where he most develops his theology of Christ’s sacrificing of status and honor to save us. (Some have called this the Theology of Downward Mobility.)
Part three is the point of the book. After developing the cultural background and the biblical content, Hellerman starts with pastoral leadership case studies. The case studies are various looks at how an unchecked Senior Pastor, without an appropriate level of community and accountability, spiritually abused his staff or church members. All of the stories are ones that I know real life variations of.
Hellerman ends the book with what he believes is the proper biblical model for pastoral leadership (a shared Elder system with a mix of clergy and lay leaders that share ministry). The particulars of Hellerman’s model of leadership are flexible. There can be different ways that it works depending on the denomination and church polity, but the essential point is that without accountability and community bad leaders (or gifted pastors that are not gifted in leadership) end up working outside of their gifting and the result is abuse of staff and members. This is important not just for staffing and stability, but because one of the big reasons people leave the church is because of spiritually abusive leadership.
I have to say, that while I agree with the point, and appreciate the cultural background and explication of Philippians, I still wanted more from the book. I have seen this model work at a variety of church sizes. My current megachurch is probably the healthiest church I have ever participated in, and I and my friends that are staff all attribute it to this shared leadership model and spiritually mature and humble public leaders that keep pointing back to the group instead of themselves.
I also have seen this attempted in two different very small churches. In one case, there was no paid staff, but a leadership team that shared preaching, pastoral care, administrative and other duties based on gifting and community. Another church where I was significantly involved had shared leadership model, but it was unable to overcome some of the leaders lack of spiritual and emotional health and still flamed out. In one sense, the failed church failed because it observed the structure of shared ministry without the deep community. But the lack of community was based more on the lack of health of the leaders than the lack of commitment to the model.
So I think the book over plays its case a bit. I really am committed to this as the best model for ministry. But the model by itself is not enough. I also wanted less details building the case or showing how poor leadership happens and more examples of where leadership is working. Essentially the only picture of leadership working was Hillerman’s own church. The book would have benefited from at least two additional illustrations of churches in different polity or church size situations so that the reader could start to see what was essential to the model and what was cultural to the local church.
All in all, this is a book worth reading if you are in church leadership or studying models of spiritual leadership. It just wasn’t as complete as I thought it should be.
Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today Purchase Links: Paperback
A PDF copy of the book was provided by the publisher for purposes of review.