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Essay Review – ‘The Pentecostalist Minister: Role Conflicts and Contradictions of Status.’ 

04/04/2020

Reflections on Pentecostal Ministry Challenges in 

The Pentecostalist Minister: Role Conflicts and Contradictions of Status. 

A Review of an Essay by Bryan R Wilson 

While reading for my Brethren History Project I came across an out of print book, ‘Patterns of Sectarianism’ a series of essays edited by Bryan R Wilson, and published in 1967.  The book has two essays on early Brethrenism, but to my surprise, it also has an essay, by the editor himself, on the British Pentecostal Movement.  At least that’s what the cover advises, but It’s actually more specific than that; the essay is about the Elim Church, and even more specifically about the Elim ministry.  And uncannily, it is revealingly accurate in its assessment.   

Now I began my ministry in Elim, and was an Elim pastor for almost twenty years, from 1983 to 2002, and I am grateful for the experience and the friendships that I made during those years.  I never write about those years, I never preach ‘against’ my former denomination, or write articles or blog post critical of them, so this blog post, a review of Bryan Wilson’s essay on Elim ministry, is a departure for me, and I have done my best to keep it as objective and non-judgemental of Elim as possible. 

-oOOo- 

Wilson begins with an assertion that Elim began its life as a ‘sect’ (after all, the title of the book hints at this), and to some extent the article charts its transition from ‘sect’ to ‘denomination.’  Beginning in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, Elim was essentially a ‘REVIVALIST MOVEMENT,’ the early evangelists were revivalists, and the first converts were (at least in a human sense) the product of fiery revivalist style preaching.  The question then, that Wilson asks is: 

HOW DO YOU MAKE ENTHUSIASTIC REVIVALIST CONVERTS INTO STEADY, REGULAR CHURCH MEMBERS? 

Those first church members were made up of people converted through the ministry of the Jeffreys brothers and their band of evangelists, together with some independent mission halls who were revivalist in character.

GeorgeJeffres

George Jeffreys

The new converts were now meeting together, and would need some form of ‘after-care’ – they had responded to a leader/preacher with an attractive, exciting, charismatic style, but now they needed a steadying, instructive and sometimes restraining influence.  The difficulty was that revivalism itself implied (and practiced) freedom from the restraints of the more established denominations, freedom of the spirit, freedom to minister as ‘lead by the Lord.’ – Of necessity, in a church setting some of that freedom had to be constrained for the good of all, and for the ordering of services of worship.  The answer to that dichotomy was, of course, a pastoral ministry.   

The initial response to the growth of the new churches was to appoint honorary pastors from among the people themselves.  These were quite capable men, ‘spirit-filled’ and able to lead meetings and to preach encouraging sermons;  but essentially laymen, with little or no theological training.  Very soon though, a ‘regular ministry’ began to develop. Wilson notes that George Jeffreys had a particular interest in helping and encouraging boys of a poorer background to receive a Christian education.  The original idea would be to send these young men out as missionaries, but a logical extension was to equip them to lead the new churches, and to send them out as evangelists or ‘home missionaries.’  Initially the leadership of the local churches was restricted to those who had attended the Elim Bible College. 

The establishment of a regular ministry may have solved one problem, giving some structure and restraint to the revivalist tendencies in the new churches, but it caused another, especially in Ireland, where the new churches were heavily influenced by the ‘brethren’ or ‘baptist’  backgrounds of some of the new converts and some of the now incorporated independent revivalists.  (Perhaps less so in England where Elim people came from more traditional backgrounds; Church of England and Methodist)  The tensions created by the establishment of the regular ministry among people who rejected the whole idea of a ‘clergy’ persisted in some churches for over fifty years.   

Wilson lists some of the challenges to the Pastor that this tension posed:- 

  • The minister must perpetuate a Pentecostal tradition, in a revival-orientated congregation, in the knowledge that were he to succeed he would jeopardise his own position as ‘spirit-filled’ leader of the people.
  • The minister is expected to encourage the free exercise of the ‘Gifts of the Spirit’ in the congregation, while at the same time regulating and controlling their expression, preventing excesses and misuses. Wilson:

Member commitment is volatile and the establishment of a ministry helps to regulate relationships and minimise the threats which Pentecostalism’s inspirationalism and subjectivism engender.” P.149  

  • The minister is expected to exercise the gift of ‘interpretation of tongues.’  If he does not, someone else will, and that person’s spiritual standing in the church, will then be enhanced, – they will be seen as ‘hearing from God’ as opposed to the pastor, who was not so spiritually gifted.  This may eventually lead to an undermining of the minister’s authority.  (This is one of the aspects of this essay that I found particularly interesting, for it accurately describes my own personal experience).
  • The very essence of Pentecostal revivalism was that men are called by God to do his work, they heard his voice, spiritually, leading them into the work.  Yet in early days of Elim, the ministers were appointed to the local churh by Elim Headquarters!  At that time the local church only had a veto.  Of course, the counterfoil was that a man should have experienced a call to the work before he applied for college training.  In fact the early requirement for admission to training was simply that a man was Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.  No requirement for educational ability or qualifications was imposed, and entry from the working classes was positively encouraged.  This seemed to reconcile, to some extent, the dichotomy of the revivalist understanding of the priesthood of all believers with the imposition of a regular ordained ministry.
  • The minister is responsible for the leading of the worship, yet at the same time he must encourage the participation of others.  Lay members were frequently called upon to lead in prayer, to testify etc.  Often such participation was to be spontaneously sought.  Again, this could undermine the pastor, as it could (and in my experience DID)  give rise to ‘pulpit personalities’ where a man or a number of men saw themselves as minor celebrities within the congregation, – having ample opportunities to rival or compete with the pastor for pulpit exposure.
  • The minister must identify with the local congregation, lead the people, shepherd them, and at the same time, given the apathy, even hostility towards ‘clericalism,’ be one of them.  He must not appear to be ‘above them’ in any way.  Yet the minister was ultimately answerable to Headquarters, not to the local congregation.  Wilson:

… the fact that the Elim minister is indisputably the agent at the local level of the movement’s headquarters implies other conflicts.  The Elim movement is loosely structured at the bottom, and tight at the top; the mechanisms of control are institutionalised and unambiguous at headquarters, some being embodied in constitutional provisions and regulatory codes, but ill-defined at the more informal local level. This in the matter of doctrinal conformity, the minister is specifically committed to headquarters, and his pulpit preaching is firmly circumscribed by formal rules; but no such attempt is made to ensure correct doctrine in the laity, who need to know little more than that they are born again believers, eligible for spirit baptism.  The minister stands to bridge the gap between these two social systems of which forms a part…” P.151. 

The other source of conflict for the Elim minister, in Wilson’s view,  is 

Conflict of Status. 

What about the minister’s status outside the church and congregation?  Pentecostal ministers had little or no community or ‘official’ status in society before World War Two, when they were recognised as clergy by the government and exempted from military service.  This change raised them to the same societal status as other ministers.  Wilson: 

In a sense, the ministry was taken ‘into the establishment.’  …There are clear limits to the extent to which the minister can identify himself with other ministers, and these are more or less defined by educational and salary differentials”  P.155 

Likewise, to the general public, there is incongruity in a minister with only an elementary education and ungrammatical speech and a marked regional accent…” P.156 

Wilson was speaking of the conditions of his time, and those of the earlier days of Elim. In some respects these challenges were still lingering (to some extent) when I entered the Elim ministry in 1983.  There were still men who were suspicious of formal theological education, those who were vehemently hostile to any form of ‘clericalism’ and those who wanted their pastor to be different from the clergy of other denominations, even other evangelical denominations; never to look like them, identify with them or assume their titles. 

-oOOo-

As I write this review, I am sitting in my study, and ahead of me on the wall is my framed ordination certificate from the Elim Church, still in pride of place among my theological and photographic qualifications and diplomas.  I am grateful for my 19 years of Elim Ministry.  I met many good, faithful godly Christian people, who ministered as much (if not more) to me as I did to them.  I like to think that my time there has taught me to preach the gospel with enthusiasm and warmth, although obviously I will leave it to others to pass judgement on that. 

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Dr. Bryan R Wilson was Reader in Sociology in the University of Oxford, and Fellow of All Souls.  

’Patterns of Sectarianism’ Organisation and Ideology in Social and Religious Movements, edited by Bryan R Wilson, published by Heinemann Educational Books at London, in 1967.

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