Last Thursday, Eileen and I brewed beer together at Copper Kettle Brewing. My dad had given us a gift card to Copper Kettle, allowing us to use their equipment and ingredients to brew a beer from a recipe which we chose. Because we’re not very experienced in brewing, someone from Copper Kettle accompanied us through the process, guiding us as we measured and added ingredients and sharing interesting facts about brewing along the way. At one point, she said something that I think is significant for how the Church thinks about leadership, and which connects quite well with what I read for my class at PTS this week.
She said that the title “brewmaster” is becoming increasingly rare in the craft brewing world. According to what she’s learned, certified brewmasters have to have a master’s degree in the science of brewing. As more and more people have learned to brew on their own or while working at small breweries, fewer and fewer have gone to the trouble of pursuing a graduate degree in brewing, which they could only do in Germany or at one of the few American schools which offer such programs. As a result, many of the craft breweries which are proliferating across the country have brewers who were self-taught or apprenticed into their trades, rather than ones who received formal education.
Some would say the same is happening (again) in the Church. Seminary enrollment is generally decreasing, and alternative formation programs are springing up across the country. Many new churches in my denomination are led by “commissioned ruling elders” who haven’t been to seminary or completed the ordination process. I loved my seminary so much that I’m currently pursuing a second degree at it, but I do think this trend raises an important question: How do we recognize the authority of leaders in the Church? Do we look for degrees, credentials, or titles? Or do we look for something else? How can we tell that someone is worth trusting with the spiritual oversight of others?
Francis Asbury, one of the founding leaders of the Methodists in America, had no degrees. But he had an authority that others recognized based on the integrity of his spiritual life and his abiding commitment to his flock. As John Wigger writes in his book American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists,
Asbury redefined the religious landscape of America. There was no blueprint for what he did, for building a large strictly voluntary religious movement led by non-elites in a pluralistic society. Yet his understanding of what it mean to be pious, connected, culturally responsive, and effectively organized has worked its way deep into the fabric of American religious life. (p. 417)
Asbury did all of this with little formal education. He was born in England in 1745. When he was a child, his father worked a humble job at a brewery and public house. This meant Asbury was raised in what we would consider a “working-class” home. Asbury’s mother taught him to read, but the highest level of formal education Asbury seems to have completed is an apprenticeship as a metalworker. It was during this teenage apprenticeship that he began preaching at Methodist class meetings. That he had little education didn’t matter. As Wigger explains, “Most Methodists weren’t the kind of people who could attend university, and Wesley didn’t require his preachers to have a formal theological education. Instead, they learned on the job, by speaking in prayer meetings and to crowds gather outdoors” (p. 33).
Having “learned on the job” in England, in 1771 Asbury was selected to go to America to help extend the Methodist movement there. This was before American Methodism formally split from the Anglican Church, and while it existed as something of an unwelcome renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, Asbury at times received harsh treatment at the hands of Anglican clergymen. John Wigger explains part of the conflict between the Anglican establishment and the Methodists this way:
Here in a nutshell was the conflict between Methodist preachers and Anglican priests in the South. From ministers’ points of view, Methodists were unlearned charlatans seeking to break down the basic foundations of church and society. They took people away from their work and challenged the authority of the clergy, which was based largely on their superior education. From the Methodist perspective, Anglican priests were mostly lazy hirelings, too much addicted to the pleasures of this world and too little concerned with the salvation of souls. (p. 58)
Authority, by the standards of the Anglican establishment in the mid-eighteenth century, was recognized by university degrees and statuses conferred by the Church. Asbury’s sense of authority, on the other hand, came from a deeper source. Unlike George Whitefiled, Asbury did not gain a reputation for being a dazzling preacher. But he did gain a reputation for outstanding personal piety and a deep love and commitment to the flock entrusted to his care. Asbury was like other early Methodists in that he valued hard work and treated wealth and worldly goods with suspicion. His poverty and charity were seen as signs of his apostolic character. So also was his devotional life, including his fasting and early morning hours of prayer. On top of this, and even as he aged, Asbury maintained rigorous itinerary of travel in which he visited preachers and church-members throughout the entire eastern half of the United States each year. Those who knew Asbury knew him as a man of spiritual integrity, and so they trusted his leadership.
Interestingly, though he was recognized as a spiritual leader, Asbury refused to celebrate the sacraments until he was ordained. Methodism was renewal movement, existing within the bounds of Anglicanism, though it evangelized people who would have been alienated from the Anglican Church. This created tension between Methodists who wanted to baptize their converts and celebrate communion together, and those who still submitted to Anglican discipline. All of this changed in 1784 when John Wesley finally broke with the Church of England, legally incorporated Methodism in England, and began ordaining preachers on his own. One of those ordained by Wesley, Thomas Coke, came to the United States and with Asbury was elected joint superintendent of the new Methodist Church in America. Asbury, who had no degree and had never celebrated the sacraments before, was suddenly ordained a bishop in a brand new denomination.
Asbury’s acceptance of ordination at this point raises several deeper ecclesiological questions worth pondering: Why is it that ordination has historically been reserved for the celebration of the sacraments, rather than merely the preaching of the Gospel? What did Asbury believe about ordination that gave him such respect for the authority associated with it? For our purposes here, though, it suffices to say that Asbury’s episcopacy, which he held and stewarded faithfully for decades, was conferred upon him and upheld not because of degrees or worldly status, but because others recognized his faithfulness. Wigger concludes that “If ever there was an American saint, it was Francis Asbury” (p. 417). How different would the Church look today if we entrusted positions of leadership primarily to those who we could one day call saints?