Christian Science’s indefatigable pastor

There’s been a lot in the news this past week or so advocating more time off for clergy. (See “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, August 1, 2010 and “Congregations Gone Wild,” New York Times, August 7, 2010). I read the latter Op-Ed piece on Sunday morning before going off to church myself. In it, Jeffrey MacDonald argues that the reason clergy today are stressed out is because they are increasingly being asked to veer from their calling to be entertainers and if they don’t comply, well, the congregation will just vote with its feet. A pastor himself, he describes being warned by his church’s advisory committee to “keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.”

This piece highlighted, for me, a significant difference in the way my own church, the Christian Science church, is organized — that is, without clergy. This was a conscious decision in 1895 by the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy. In the early years of the Christian Science church, she observed the pitfalls inherent in the traditional Christian church structure with a personal pastor who prepared and delivered a weekly sermon. And she determined to avoid these pitfalls by introducing an entirely different structure. Rather than vesting such power in an individual, she eliminated any possibility of the type of personal pressure and stress described in Mr. MacDonald’s article by establishing the Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as the permanent pastor for the church.

Every Sunday, around the globe, excerpts from these two books are read to the congregation by two members of the local Christian Science church. That means, wherever you go, throughout the world, you will hear the same sermon preached in every Christian Science church on Sunday. As a result, there is a consistency uninfluenced by human personality or opinion. Furthermore, the tone of worship in a Christian Science church is not dependent on a dynamic personality and does not change with a change in personnel. The theology is protected from interpretation, as well, as worshippers are directed to the denominational texts for their spiritual inspiration and answers.

This approach is consistent with the theology of Christian Science, which states emphatically, “The time for thinkers has come.” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures) Without a personal pastor, the responsibility for growth and progress in Christian Science rests with each individual parishioner — independent of a hierarchy within a church structure.

As a further example of a democratic church in action, these weekly “Lesson-Sermons” are created by a rotating committee and published by the Christian Science Publishing Society both in print and online. (Bible Lessons) So anyone, anywhere, can read and ponder the passages from the Bible and Science and Health throughout the week leading up to the Sunday service. (For example, the topic of the August 8 sermon was “Spirit” and on August 15 it’s “Soul.”) Then, Sunday morning, people congregate to hear the passages read aloud. Oh, and did I mention that the sermon is published not only in English, but also in Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese?

So why am I blogging about this? Well, it seems important to note that the Christian Science church is an exception to the kind of stress garnering attention in the media, because the church service is offered by an impersonal pastor — one that never suffers from stress or burn-out despite being available 24/7 to seekers throughout the world.

Many people have commented to me after visiting a Christian Science church service that they found a remarkable atmosphere of peace and quiet calm there. I wonder, in the context of this recent reporting, if one reason for this might be the impersonal nature of the service, described above. You listen to a sermon with no political commentary or personal opinion expressed, on a topic like “Love” or “Truth” or “Life.” And then you’re left alone to “think on these things.”

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