Thinking aloud about clergy professional standards

The job of ordained ministry in congregations is big, complex and hard to nail down.

The Rev. Elizabeth Keaton began to think about this and she talked about it with local colleagues and others. She writes:

The conversation arose out of doing some case studies of problem situations in our congregations. It became clear to us that most folk in the pew – indeed, on our Vestries or those serving as Wardens – do not understand the role of the clergy as Servant Leaders in their communities of faith.

Those who enter ordained ministry often come with grand and frequently impossible expectations for themselves, and the people whom they serve bring their own which vary from person to person and from community to community.

Last June, Justin-Lewis Anthony decried the overly romanticized view of the role of clergy that persists in the Church of England, saying that the lives and health of clergy and the ability of the church to fulfil its mission is hampered by what he called “Herbertism.”

Much of our reverence for “George Herbert” is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.

Keaton understands that clergy have themselves perpetuated these unhelpful assumptions, even while society has driven massive shifts in local church life:

Truth be told, it’s mostly our fault. The role of clergy in a congregation has been shifting for some time now, and many of us have kept up the role in the script of “Priest-as-Father-Knows-Best.” We know our lines quite well.

For many, many generations, rectors have been a combination of CFO, CEO and pastor. That has a certain appeal to a certain type of person – from those who take on this impossible vocation as part of the notion of ‘Suffering Servant / Slave for Christ’ to hard-core ‘People Pleasers’, to those clergy who are acting out their role of ‘Family Rescuer’ or ‘Hero’ which they played in their own families of origin.

If you are everyone’s everything, it not only places your persona (instead of the person of Jesus) at the center of community (great for your faltering ego), it is also a set up for a consumer-based religion to continue the downward spiral into an empty, ultimately soul-depleting piety – as opposed to one that empowers all the baptized (including the pastor) to do the work of ministry and work out their own salvation in community.

After a year of reflection, discussion and study comes a document which Keaton is “test driving” on her blog. It is an attempt to articulate professional standards for clergy, mainly as a teaching tool for the lay leadership in her congregation. She raises up four areas of work: “Pastoral, Teaching, Liturgy, and Other” and readily admits that her document reflects her own style and priorities, and so another pastors list will look different.

Some of the areas she outlines include:


1. Handwritten thank you notes in response to any contribution – monetary or otherwise – to the church. For stewardship pledges, that means a note signed by the committee chair and/or rector.

2. Acknowledging and praying for, within the context of community liturgy, major milestone events: birthdays, anniversaries, special accomplishments.

3. A brief pastoral letter, along with community announcements and copies of the previous Sunday’s sermon, sent weekly to all those who are fragile elderly or confined to home, hospital or extended care facility.


1. Sermons which deepen the congregation’s understanding of the texts appointed for the day and also help them link the message of the gospel to their daily life. Sermons ought to challenge and comfort, as appropriate.

2. Occasional sermons designed for children and young adults, either in the principle service or a service primarily for children and young adults.

3. At least one preparatory meeting with each family (including sponsors) with a candidate for baptism on a day other than the day of the baptism to: review the liturgy, discuss the meaning of the various renunciations, affirmations and vows.


1. Sunday morning service:

Prepare a written order of service

Conduct liturgy in accordance with the provisions of the national and Diocesan canons and the vows of ordination.

Preach on the lessons appointed by an approved lectionary

Begin on time.

2. Leadership of the Pastoral Offices in the Prayer Book as appropriate


1. Active membership / leadership in the community of local clergy in the diocese and among those of other denominations in the immediate area (Chatham Interfaith Council).

2. Spiritual leadership of Vestry meetings in consultation with the Wardens and following a prepared agenda

3. Attendance at parish fellowship events and coffee hour – with emphasis on the role of pastor and trying not to conduct church business during these social times.

The Church of England developed Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy in 2000, which explores and fleshes out the categories named in the Ordinal.

Read the entirety of Elizabeth’s work here and then tell us what you think. Is the idea of professional standards helpful or counter-productive? What would you include? How can this applied to all clergy and congregations in a way that respects differing styles and circumstances? What standards would be universal to all clergy?

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