The Formative Faith Experiences of Clergy & Laity

When was your formative faith experience?  As a child, youth, or adult?  And what occasioned this formative faith experience?  A personal crisis?  A moving worship or prayer experience?  A period of study or retreat?  Immersion in a traditional faith practice?

If you are a pastor or seminarian, it is likely that one of your most significant formative faith experiences – if not your most significant formative faith experience – took place at seminary.  Placed for three or four years in a unique community marked by daily worship and intense study of the Bible, theology, and the practice of ministry, it is hard not to have a formative, even life-changing, experience at seminary.

But this presents two challenges.  For many students the largely academic focus on right belief and proper worship of seminary represents a shift from the personal experience of faith that may have led them to seminary in the first place.  I came from a (publicly-funded) college where I was involved in weekly prayer and Bible study groups for several years.  This intimate, weekly Christian fellowship ended when I went to seminary, and was replaced with a study of proper worship and right belief.  I hate to revert to simple (and usually false) dichotomies, but when I moved to seminary my faith also moved, to a large extent, from my heart to my head.

The other problem with seminary-as-formative-faith-experience is that it sets up a divide between clergy and laity.  If many of our pastors have their formative faith experience in seminary, immersed in a unique community and formed by reading thousands of pages of ancient and modern theology, how can they relate to a laity that is likely never to step foot on a seminary campus?  It seems to me that some pastors preach with regular references to their seminary days, or model their liturgy, teaching or preaching after a seminary mentor – as if seminary were the end-all-to-be-all of the Christian experience!  Seminary is a very unique place – a wonderful place,for sure – but a unique place that cannot stand as exemplar or model of Christian practice.  For if we put the seminary on the hill, we leave most of the laity in the valley.

I first explored this theory in a comment over on Kelly Fryer’s blog.  In a post entitled The Chasm Between Pew and Pulpit, she referenced the clergy-laity divide, and how this divide seems wider in Lutheran or Main Line circles than it does in Evangelical circles.  I commented, wondering if this divide was born, in part, out of the formative faith experiences of clergy and laity in Evangelical and Main Line circles.  It seems to me that in Evangelical Christianity the formative faith experience – whether you are clergy or laity – is the act of accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.  All Evangelicals – clergy and laity alike – have this experience.  This formative (and usually emotional) experience does not depend on tomes of books or enrollment in a seminary, but on relationships – with other Christians and with Jesus himself.  Evangelical clergy and laity, therefore, are more likely to share formative experiences of lived and practiced
– of piety, if you will – that begins with accepting Jesus and continues with a striving to live a Christian life, a life that is marked by disciplines of bible study, worship and
prayer.  Clergy and laity alike have the experience of accepting Jesus and striving to live a Christian life.

For us Lutheran or Main Line Christians, the shared formative faith experience is likely to be . . . what?  Confirmation?  Youth Ministry?  Weekly worship?  A Mission Trip?  I’m not sure we Lutherans have a shared, paradigmatic experience of faith.  In our Lutheran circles the practices of faith are varied (Word and Sacrament are accompanied by a number of education or fellowship-oriented programs) and are based in the local congregation.  That is, our faith practices are usually tied to experiences led or facilitated by seminary-trained clergy.  So rather than share a faith experience with my pastor (as with Evangelicals, above), the laity must depend on a clergyperson to provide the faith experience – creating a chasm between the pew and the pulpit (to use Kelly’s phrase).  Furthermore, our faith practices by and large do not have the
faith-defining, life-altering character of the Evangelical experience of accepting

Without an emphasis on personal practices of piety, spirituality and (yes) study that other Christians embrace as essential to the Christian life, we largely limit the experience of faith to Sunday morning or other church-sponsored activities.  But it’s not a liturgical vs. non-liturgical dichotomy.  At both ends of the liturgical spectrum – from Evangelicals to Roman
Catholics – Christians are encouraged to engage in daily practices of
prayer and piety.  Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and some Anglicans encourage strong practices of personal prayer – the rosary, daily offices, or devotion to the saints, to name a few – that allow the laity to grow into their faith on a daily and personal basis outside of the central Sunday gathering.  We Lutherans, by and large, don’t have or promote such practices – to our detriment. 

(We tried to emphasize discipleship and faith practices, back in 1999, with a church-wide program Living Faith: An ELCA-wide Call to Discipleship.  Even though such grand initiatives need a long time to sink in, it was largely abandoned within five years.  And we have some books – including Michael Foss’ Real Faith for Real Life: Living the Six Marks of Discipleship – but again, I see little change in how we Lutherans approach piety and the practice of faith.)

Well, that’s it for now.  At some point in the future I might have more to say about the clergy/laity divide (particularly about the differences between what clergy believe vs. what laity believe, and how this divide is probably much less pronounced in Evangelical circles than in our Main Line circles), but I’ve probably said enough – or too much – for now.

Peace to you.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “The Formative Faith Experiences of Clergy & Laity

  1. It is probably quite jarring to be in college where you are one of the mix…perhaps a minority, and then go to a seminary where everyone falls within a much more narrow spectrum of Christianity. I think a lot of students arrive at seminary thinking that we all have the same piety and beliefs. They never recover.
    Sometimes it’s good to be the minority.

  2. An insightful, thought provoking post, Chris. I think you’ve hit on some important issues. I have been in both camps evangelical (and charismatic) and now Lutheran. The divide is not as great between clergy and laity in evangelical circles. I had been unable to discern why, however. But I think you have hit upon it.
    These insights, I think, will be valuable to you in future ministry. Thank you and God bless.

  3. There is much focus in the course of instruction at LTSS put on lay ministries so that students on the ordination track don’t leave the laity behind in ministry. Personally, I enjoy the daily reminders from our ordained and non-ordained professors. After all, if we are going to confess the priesthood of all believers, we ought to lift up all believers.
    Great post and another great reminder that we are in ministry WITH the laity, not TO the laity.

  4. During my first two decades of life I regularly attended a Southern Baptist congregation in IL. Ours was a more formalized SBC tradition where the senior pastor was always looked upon as one who was supposed to walk on water. During those years all but one pastor served no more than four years. In hindsight I see those pastors as teachers and leaders who were constantly engaged in prophetic roles to the congregation and community at large.
    Looking back at my own formation, I see where the only commonality in their pastorates was the dogmatic insistance that a “born again” experience was the only valid ticket for their voice to be heard above the congregation’s or anyone else’s heartfelt opinion or belief.
    When I came to my own decision many years ago to grow into vocation, I deliberately rejected the faith tradition of my youth to accept the discipline of Holy Orders. I thank our Creator I have made those choices when I see the reality of Evangelical pastors’ lives and the health of their congragations here in my newly adopted community.
    I am in total agreement when the writer speaks about seeking a shared uniformity through some common form of daily prayer, it has been a huge blessing when confronted with other members of Christ’s body with their own heartfelt motives. My experience is one where common discipline in daily prayer provides an avenue for each recipient to speak in peaceful tones.

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