Horizontal Church: Christian Education


I know a young adult who is really into the study of theology. All the time, people ask him, “Have you thought about seminary?”

This is a worthwhile question. First of all, it would be a great opportunity for him to learn more. But also, there may be a question of calling for him to consider within this. “Have you thought about….?”

But I also think there’s an underlying assumption within this question too: The study of theology is for ministers with seminary degrees. In other words, it’s for ministry professionals. But what if more people in our churches had access to the study of theology, Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and preaching? For the benefit of the church? For the practice of a horizontal vision? For the Priesthood of All Believers?

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), my own tradition, we require our pastoral leaders to have a rigorous education. There is value in this, as we want people to have skills in exegeting Biblical texts in their original languages, making theological connections, and practicing pastoral care. I think this is important.

Earlier last week, I cast a vision for worship that is more participatory – a vision which invites the voices, wisdom, and teaching of many people into the time we often call the sermon. First of all, I believe it’s possible for people to speak about Biblical texts from their convictions and life experience. I can learn a great deal and be deeply inspired when I encounter how others hear, interpret, and live the texts of the Bible.

But I do believe it is important for a congregation to hold the depth and skills of Christian education. I just don’t believe this kind of education needs to be held solely within a professional class. It’s possible for knowledge and skills to be held more collectively. Not everyone can go to seminary, so. . . how can some of the learnings and skills of seminary be taught more broadly?

I suspect this would require more teaching in relationship. Not classes alone. But apprenticing and mentoring. I wonder what might be possible?

Renee Roederer

This post is a part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

Horizontal Church: Accountability


The word corporate has at least two meanings with two different connotations.

-Perhaps corporations first come to mind, and along with them, broader corporate culture. We might imagine board rooms, shareholders, and CEOs. Perhaps we imagine the organizational flow charts that describe how individuals and groups answer to individuals and groups. Profit margins, stock prices, cutthroat competition. . .

-But the word corporate also means ‘of the body.’ In the context of Church, this calls our minds to the language and imagery of the Body of Christ — the whole, collective body — every person, every part, every spiritual gift.

If we’re honest. . . I think our Church organizational models often look a lot like the first example. We already have a shared Church history that includes traditional, hierarchical roles and vertical organizing. In the American context, we then additionally infuse those roles and structures with the culture and power of the corporate business world.

With this in mind, I want to challenge a particular assumption today. Consciously or perhaps unconsciously, many of us believe this:

The more vertical a church is (i.e. the more top down and hierarchical) the more accountability there will be. We assume, when there is a clear and firm understanding that certain people will always answer to certain people, we will have greater accountability within an organization.

But. . . I actually believe the direct opposite.

The more vertical and hierarchical we become, the less accountability we tend to have. Because people and groups at the top have a great deal of power. That power is easily abused.

First of all, when any of us has a tremendous amount of concentrated power, it’s not good for us or an organization. In fact, studies are showing that concentrated power can actually lead to brain damage, greatly decreasing the ability to feel and demonstrate empathy. This is not only crucial for exhibiting kindness and compassion; it also makes it challenging to read people within the organizational structure.

But beyond this, in addition to concentrated power being abused in highly vertical models, it is also easily covered up. The same individuals and groups that benefit from vertical organizing models and concentrated power often use vertical organizing models and power to silence dissent. And people toward the top tend to protect one another. One only needs to recall the horrific sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church. Or perhaps, scratch the surface in mainline churches, and discover just how many incidents of sexual harassment and employment abuse are routinely covered up.

Hearing this may sound depressing. (You may also disagree with me and want to challenge me here. Please add your voices. Let’s have a horizontal conversation!) But deep down, hear this good news: I believe there are other ways to organize church communities.

I certainly don’t claim to know all the answers. I am more in a learning place than a teaching place, but I do think that horizontal organizing structures can actually lead to greater accountability. They can certainly lead to greater transparency. I’ve seen this work in activist organizing collectives. Why not also in Church?

Here, I find myself especially wanting to take my learning cues from the Quakers. (See also, My Awakening). I am aware that there are different accountability risks with horizontal models, including,

pressures to conform to the collective,
group shaming,
sudden shifts in group vision, especially when dictated by dominant individuals.

I’m wondering how the shared practices and procedures of the Quakers (and other horizontal collectives) can help avoid these pitfalls, increase accountability and transparency, and ultimately lead to a life-giving, collective body.

Pondering. . .

Renee Roederer

This post is a part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Christian Education


Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing


I want to thank you all for following along with this series on Horizontal Church this week. As I said at the beginning, my thoughts on this are all in process. Though these thoughts are unfinished and still emerging, I’m glad to be writing about these things, because when it comes to church and spiritual communities, I believe these are important conversations for us to be having.

I’m going to continue discussing some of these things next week, particularly some of the ways I believe vertical structures and cultures (not limited to, but certainly including entrenched hierarchy) are falling short. These thoughts are all in process too. There is much for me to learn, and I’m glad to explore a variety of ways that communities are organizing their collective life.

But I will say this: In large part, I base all these emerging thoughts on the foundation of two things. . .

The theological conviction of the Priesthood of All Believers


The wisdom of activist organizing

Early Christian communities were pretty radical in their forms of collective community life, particularly in the ways they included people in belonging, participation, and leadership across economic, ethnic, and gender lines. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood. . .” the epistle of 1 Peter says.  Much later, the concept of “The Priesthood of All Believers” became one of the foundations of the Protestant Reformation, with the conviction that people should have access to the scriptures themselves (not just priests and scholars) and participate directly in their interpretation.

Part of my curiosity with pondering all of these emerging ideas and convictions is rooted in wondering, “How can we put this conviction — the Priesthood of All Believers — into practice in concrete, life-giving ways, in the context of our particular 21st century culture?”

And along with that, much of this has become important to me because I’ve experienced what horizontality can look like outside of the context of church. Horizontal organizing, in practice and as a term, comes in large part from the world of activist organizing, including Black Lives Matter. I have witnessed and participated in organizing collectives where there is no formal leader. I have watched communities utilize shared procedures and practices to guide their community life, without setting apart a particular class of leadership roles. And if I may be honest, all of these ideas and wonderings became especially important in my mind because I saw that organizing collectives were more committed to egalitarianism as a core principle than most churches I know. I think that’s a core conviction of our tradition. And though it’s never practiced perfectly in any context, I see that this principle is important to a lot of people who do not typically connect with organized religious communities.

So keeping these frameworks in mind, both theological and cultural, what might we learn? What might we try? How might we change?

(And also for your enjoyment, here’s a funny: This is definitely not Horizontal Church.)

Renee Roederer

This post is part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education


Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)


Earlier this month, I had the great privilege to be present at the Sunday worship service of the 8th Day Faith Community in Washington, D.C. Their community is a great expression of what I’ve been calling Horizontal Church — a non-hierarchical, participatory expression of Christian community.

8th Day is an ecumenical Christian community with members who grew up in a variety of faith backgrounds or none at all. The community has has no clergy, but instead, members take turns leading parts of their shared worship (more about that in a moment). They consider themselves to be a community-on-behalf-of-the-larger-community. Their shared commitments to economic, racial, and environmental justice are central to their life together.

The worship experience at 8th Day is very participatory. I admit I’m not always a great judge of crowd size, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think there were maybe about 60 people there? The community used liturgy in a bulletin that was very similar to what I might find in my own Presbyterian tradition. People had signed up to lead different parts.

Each week, a different person gives the sermon. Occasionally, the community collectively holds open sermons, where a scripture is read and someone facilitates a larger group discussion. After the sermon, there was an extended time of prayer where many people prayed for others on behalf of the community. Members of the 8th Day Community also celebrate the communion meal at the table, sharing the prayers and breaking the bread. We all received communion as a part of this service.

It was very meaningful to see this happen and participate fully within it. Much of this is possible because of the learning and empowerment that takes place in 8th Day’s membership process, spiritual direction, and mission groups. Everyone is invited fully participate in the community’s life, with or without membership. Those who do decide to become covenant members take five classes (a lot of education happens here), engage in spiritual direction with one another, and join a mission group.

Mission groups are a core part of the vision for the 8th Day Community. Members are invited to participate in a group where they feel a special calling. Current groups are working to create relationships and build conversations about race, class, and disability; practicing spiritual disciplines to heal trauma; focusing upon theologies and practices of creativity; planning shared community worship; and supporting The Family Place and Jubilee Jumpstart, two organizations working with children and expectant mothers in Washington D.C.

I think there is a lot to learn from this model.

Renee Roederer

This post is part of a larger series. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Organizing Collectives
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education

Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)



Of all the things I’ve experienced in congregations, one of my greatest joys took place during my time in Pasadena.

As part of my doctoral work, I initiated an ethnography project which involved conducting interviews with people from Pasadena Presbyterian Church. After looking through those interviews, a clear theme emerged: There was a desire in that community to be more connected with neighbors in our local area. Most of the people in the church community lived somewhere other than the neighborhood where the church building was located.

And in response to this, we initiated an incredible time of discernment. We assembled a team of people that ranged in age from 24 to 81, and we spent 7 months dreaming about the possibility of creating a new, evening worship community and connecting with neighbors. Let me just say. . . doing something like this changes you. The process invited our relationships to deepen in such meaningful ways. Our discernment team became so close. This was never an opportunity for pastoral leaders to do all the visioning alone, then invite others on board. We were a team of people from different generations and life experiences. Millennials, Boomers, Silent Generation. . . . Pastors, Immigrants, Musicians. . . It was a powerful time together.

Then, in October 2012, we launched this new community into the world. We began worshiping on Sunday nights. Folks from the neighborhood began to wander into our service, and it was a joy to get to know them. Some then began to claim the community as their own. Then they began to participate in its leadership.

Here’s the thing our discernment team decided from the beginning: The teaching, preaching, praying, and planning of this community would not be led solely or even primarily by ordained staff leaders. Instead, we invited members of the church, then later, members of the neighborhood to lead in these ways.

And I tell you what, it changed me. It was powerful.

Sometimes, I did teach, preach, and pray, but my primary role as a pastoral leader was to empower the community. If I or we didn’t plan well enough in advance, I would occasionally jump in too readily. But when we kept a vision for full participation and full empowerment at the center, it was so life-giving! I watched people blossom as they discovered gifts for speaking, teaching, and preaching. I witnessed the joy of people telling their life stories and making-meaning with them in community. One person came alive in the invitation to set up the worship space. She always showed up early for it. Later, she started writing prayers, and she was so grateful to share those with the community.

And friends, I have to say that now, I would not want this any other way. I believe in a horizontal vision for church. A non-heirarchical, fully participatory, empowering vision for church. I’ve seen what it can do.

After leaving Pasadena, it was meaningful for me to continue to follow along. The Evening Worship Community began serving a full meal as well. Neighbors experiencing homelessness then became a part of that community too, receiving a vital need, but in addition, they also began to help lead it.

Horizontal Church: This changes things!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about my recent experience in visiting a remarkably horizontal church in Washington D.C.

Renee Roederer

This post is a part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces too:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education

Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?


This year, I crossed the threshold of having worked in ministry for 10 years. (This amazes me. Grateful!) Within that span of time, I’ve had a certain experience many times:

A church is holding a lunch or a potluck dinner together after a worship service. Perhaps I come into that meal about ten minutes late. Maybe I needed to organize some things in my office, or more likely, someone has stopped me after the service to chat. When I’m ready, and I do walk into the space of that meal, someone often says to me,

“Oh, good, you’re here. We can pray now.”

Folks want me to bless the time together and say a prayer over the meal. And they’ve been waiting for me. I say yes, and of course, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be present. But always, always, I feel a bit sad about this. “Do they think I’m the only one who can pray on behalf of this community?” I wonder.

It has to do with my role, of course. It has to do with the fact that I am an ordained clergy person. By the way, this happens even if I’m not the pastor of the specific congregation — even if I’m simply the guest pulpit supply preacher. Folks expect me to lead the community prayers. Or maybe, they’ve gotten used to it being this way.

But is a church diminished if only one person —
or one type of person; in this case, clergy —
speaks, prays, or preaches?
I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

Not only is it possible for multiple people to lead the community. I think it’s better for the community if that is the case. First, the community is enriched with shared leadership and opportunities to hear different voices and perspectives. But also — I believe this is so important — people are enriched and their faith is deepened when their own leadership, spiritual gifts, and voices are empowered.

Last year, I had the chance to meet and befriend Richard Jacobson. He’s written a book with a fun title: Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity. He hosts a podcast with the same name. About a year ago, I met him and co-host Gunnar Falk when I was a guest on their podcast, discussing Michigan Nones and Dones. Together, along with thousands of others, they have started a house church movement. They’re not standing against church altogether, but instead, opening a new way (with themes that are connected to an older way) in communities of shared leadership and participation.

Richard Jacobson uses an analogy I find myself thinking about sometimes: Referencing the imagery of scripture, we often say that the Church is the ‘Body of Christ.’ But what happens if we only use some of the muscles? Is it possible that other parts of the body might atrophy a bit?

If we only allow or empower one voice (or one type of voice) to speak, pray, or preach, it’s possible that we encourage passivity in the larger community. I’m certainly not saying all the other Christians I know are passive. Hardly. As a pastor, I have benefited so much from the convictions and wisdom of members of congregations.

But I want everyone to benefit from those voices. What if their storytelling was invited from the pulpit? What if more than one person taught during the time we often call ‘sermon’? What if members were invited to pray over those potluck dinners? Or teach during worship? What if people could display their art? What if people could improvise with music? What if shared decision-making invited more people to speak into those decisions?

This is part of what it means to encourage a horizontal model of church.

Tomorrow, let’s hear about some communities that are doing this.

Renee Roederer

This post is part of a series this week. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education


This Week: Horizontal Church

Hello Friends,

Have you ever found yourself wanting to articulate something that’s not quite complete. . . but in process? That’s how I feel about the topic I want to explore this week. If you’ve been following with me for a while, you can probably sense my inklings on this. I talk here and there about my desire for a “Horizontal Church.” What do I mean by that? Well, that’s in process, including in my own thinking, but I mean a community that is more participatory, more empowering of the collective body, and more shared in its leadership. I mean a church (likely, building-less) that views itself as community-alongside-a-community, always with neighbors and justice in mind. I mean a community that finds God and the sacred in everyday experience. These thoughts are all in process.

I’ll be doing some writing on this all week. But today, I want to begin with a re-post that can lay some groundwork. Does the shift from vertical to horizontal resonate with you?


Transcendent Horizon

Earlier this month, my husband and I spent a weekend in Petoskey, Michigan. This small town is located alongside Lake Michigan, and each night, if it’s not too cloudy, people can watch the sunset right over the lake. The view is stunning. Sometimes I forget how miraculous this is. . . The sun sets without fail every evening, yet no two views are the same.

The first night we were there, we saw a sunset unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Just above the water, along the horizon, there was a thick, fiery band of light. No grand swirls in the sky; just one bright, luminous band.

A jetty was in front of us as well, and it contained a walkway toward a lighthouse. As we watched the evening light in the sky, two individuals came into view. One was walking toward the lighthouse, and the other was walking away from it. Though they did not know each other, their silhouettes met within this light of the horizon. It was gorgeous, and no photo did it justice.

Beautifully, it reminded me of a metaphor that Diana Butler Bass uses for God.

Dr. Diana Butler Bass is a theologian and religious historian, and I love her newest book. It’s entitled, Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution.

She says that throughout most of our human history, we have practiced a vertical spirituality. In our minds — and especially, in our unconscious minds — we tend to think of God as literally ‘up.’ God is up there. . . somewhere. Some of this thought is connected to Christian scriptures, but it’s also a vestige of having believed in a literal, three-tiered universe. God is up, far away in heaven. We are here. And below us lies some kind of netherworld.

Diana Butler Bass writes that for most of our history, religious institutions have functioned a bit like an elevator within that consciousness. They work to bring us closer to that distant God, who is up there. . . somewhere. In response, she says, we have built vertical hierarchies, and Church architecture often mirrors our vertical spirituality too.

Bass believes that we are experiencing a major shift these days. I also sense it. Do you? More and more, people are longing for a horizontal spirituality, a sense that God is with us in our everyday experiences.

. . .God with us on the ground.
. . . God with us in our everyday lives.
. . . God with us in the midst of suffering.
. . . God with us in horizontal relationships,
connecting us in friendship and community,
connecting our world in justice and equity.

God with us. This conviction brings us back to the language of incarnation.

I recently heard Diana Butler Bass talking about these thoughts on a podcast. The hosts asked her if she might provide a particular image or metaphor to think God in a horizontal framework. I loved what she said.

She said, “Yes, actually, the horizon itself.” She mentioned that some have expressed concern that she’s de-emphasized the transcendence of God in her arguments — that is, God as holy, mighty, and mysterious. She said that the image of the horizon gives a different view of transcendence.

No matter how much we approach the horizon, it’s always before us, still a mystery. Yet it’s always with us on our plane.

I love it.

God with us.
Mysterious, yet incarnational,
an ever-present Horizon on our plane.

Renee Roederer

This piece is part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education