Yes, I’ve already heard the joke: “An order of Abbots? What about an order of Costellos? What we really need is some comic relief!” But the creation of an order of Abbots by the Fellowship Community is no joke. It is intentionally designed to restore much needed encouragement for those called to continuing service as pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In an email, Paul Detterman, executive director of the Fellowship Community described the Order and how it got its name. “As we worked with the formation of the Fellowship Community, one of the great needs we saw was for pastors and commissioned elders to have someone care for them — invested in the state of their heart and soul, their joy, their ministry, their family; are they saying their prayers, are they spending time in God’s Word and in simple adoration of God? This was the inspiration for the model — actually from a pastor member of the Fellowship of Presbyterians Board–and the term arose out of the realization that we were going about this in the setting of a community and reclaiming something many in our expression of Church have lost,” he wrote.
The goal, said Detterman is to “create networks of care and support for evangelical pastors and commissioned elders (CLP/CRE) so they can more confidently engage in the missional opportunities they encounter in their contexts.”
According to Jim Singleton, president of the Community, “Abbots will make sure that people aren’t getting left out. The Abbot does not replace the clergy covenant group and the Abbot may direct them to one — but the pastoral and spiritual formation that we all need is the itch we’re trying to scratch.”
“The idea is highly relational part of being in an Order,” Singleton said. The Abbots will stay in regular monthly contact with the pastors under their care, building relationships and offering a safe, welcoming place for candid conversation and honest accountability.
As it was explained, each Abbot (as many as 50 nationwide) would be assigned Fellowship Community members. Detterman described them as being “compassionate people with the time and gifts to invest in their colleagues.”
According to Detterman, the Fellowship Community is recruiting both male and female Abbots, adding that both will be called Abbot “using the term in the same gender neutral way we have long used ‘deacon.’ … As we build the Order of Abbots, we will be contacting Fellowship members. If this sounds interesting and inviting to people, and by early response it seems like it does, they can contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll welcome them to the Community.”
There have been both positive and negative responses to what some see as a return to Roman Catholicism and a hierarchical governance that denies the power of the Reformation priesthood of all believers and the Presbyterian power of the presbytery as collective bishop.
Wikipedia says that Abbott means father and refers to the head of a monastery. But the Fellowship Community is not comprised of monks or nuns who have pulled away from the world. On the contrary, the Fellowship Community is at once remaining within the PCUSA and responding to God’s sending call to missional living. How then are we to understand the use of a seemingly patriarchal Catholic monastic term like Abbot in an egalitarian Reformed missional context?
Singleton says, “We’re thinking about ourselves a little bit like the Jesuits. We’ve lost the power of living an ordered life in an ordered community. This restores part of that.”
One might see the reclamation of the term as a way to restore the ordered or disciplined nature of pastoral service that has been lost over the decades since the Reformation. But according to Singleton, the Abbot’s role will less about accountability and more about having a person who is the “designated lover” of the pastor and calls once a month to ask, “How’s your soul?”
The need for such a person unmasks the tragic reality that our Presbyterian system of collegiality is broken. Presbyteries were designed to function like collective bishops — not only as ecclesiastical agencies pressing for per capita and insuring the compliance of pastors with mandates from General Assembly, but as inspiring centers of encouragement and growth for pastors.
The challenge the Fellowship Community faces is that they have publicly said they are not going to seek to reform the system of which they are a part (ie. the PCUSA). They are, instead, setting up an order within where they can differentiate themselves from the herd without actually becoming distinct from it. That’s a delicate dance that requires special footwear.
Trying on shoes is the image Singleton offered during our conversation about the Order of Abbots. He said I should think about the models and ideas being rolled out by the Fellowship Community like a trip to the shoe store. “We’re trying on shoes right now. We haven’t necessarily found the exact pair that fits.”
Remember the Confessing Church Movement? Remember New Wineskins? Remember the 17th Synod model? Remember the flexible presbytery model? Shoes … some patience and walking around time is necessary in the complex, rapidly changing world of the PCUSA.
Singleton knows as well as I the impatience of those who want “someone” to fix things — “someone” to lead them to “something” different — and then they balk when the different thing does not precisely fit their personal expectations of a re-newed version of an idealized dream. The conclusion of our conversation left me pondering again the quote he had used at the conclusion of his presentation in Dallas.
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor
more difficult to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer
has enemies in all those who would profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new.” Machievelli (1516)