Ministry Belongs to God

In considering “what is ministry” and “who is a minister” we must begin with the fundamental premise that ministry belongs to God.  Ministry is part of the mission of God. The church and ministry exist to serve God’s mission of redeeming and transforming the world. We are invited to be partners in God’s mission. But the mission belongs to God. In every arena where we work, God is already at work. Ministry is not the possession, privilege, or prerogative of any human agent or institution. No one has a right to a particular ministry or task. For ministry is not a privilege or a right, but a service. Few would dispute the principle that ministry belongs to God. Yet as ministry has grown larger and more diverse, the tendency has been to divide it into more and more narrowly defined, hierarchical categories. Everyone wants their piece of the ministry pie. There are rules about who is authorized to do what and who has authority in different contexts. While the differentiation of roles and responsibilities is part of any complex organism, distinctions drawn too narrowly and rigidly encourage a territorial mindset. The resulting turf wars abrogate the belief that ministry belongs to God.

In this era of expanding lay ministry, clergy often describe their role as “empowering laity for ministry” or “giving ministry away” to the laity. While such phrases are well-intended, they rest on the assumption that ministry is the clergy’s to give away. The Holy Spirit, not the clergy, empowers the body of Christ. And we are given ministry not by leaders, but by God. For ministry belongs to God.

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What is ministry? Who is a minister?

The questions “what is ministry?” and “who is a minister?” are central to any discussion of a more inclusive paradigm of ministry.  These questions were very much on my mind as I began to research the nature and scope of lay staff ministry in the United Methodist Church by profiling church websites and conducting online survey research.  I wisely made the decision not to include or exclude certain categories of staff from this inquiry based on their job titles or my own preconceived notions of what that their jobs entailed.  Instead, I cast the net as widely as possible and included anyone who was identified as church staff. 

I now believe that God guided me in that decision.  For I have learned that the answer to these questions is not found in titles, or job categories, or any preconceived notions about who is responsible for what within the faith community.   Casting the net widely allowed lay staffers involved in all types of work to tell me about their ministries.  Their survey responses amounted to a staggering testimony to the unique ministry of those called to serve on the front lines of local church ministry.  Had I decided ahead of time that only certain categories of staff were “ministry professionals” I would never had heard the witness of a church bookkeeper who sees herself as a steward assuring that church funds are spent wisely, or another who sees an opportunity to minister every payday by writing Scriptures of encouragement on the employees’ paystubs.   I might have excluded the preschool director who sees her role as an opportunity to reach unchurched families, to foster positive relationships that might lead them to Christ, and to be a spiritual leader for the preschool staff.  I might not have heard the witness of a church musician who said:

I have the opportunity to do more than ‘perform’ but to give glory to God through the arts, the opportunity to participate in some small capacity in God changing someone’s life through something I’ve done, and possibly the opportunity for someone to come to know Christ through the art I’ve helped present.

Ultimately, however, the definition of ministry must flow from our understanding of Scripture, history, and doctrine.  My next series of posts will examine an inclusive paradigm of ministry through the lens of an inclusive theology of ministry.

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Recommendations for Strengthening the Ministry of Lay Staff

My research on the nature and scope of lay staff ministry suggests that church members increasingly look to lay staff for the type of leadership, counsel, instruction, and spiritual direction once provided exclusively by clergy. Tens of thousands of lay staff workers provide Christian nurture to our children; counsel our youth; lead the ministries that engage others in Christian formation, education, and outreach; enable worship; and support and order the life of the church in a myriad of vital ways.

But many lay staff felt ambiguities and tensions related to their spiritual authority and identity in ministry. Structures often exist to provide clergy with supervision, accountability, and various kinds of support, but similar structures do not exist for most lay persons with ministry responsibilities. 

Based on the results of this research, there are several areas in which congregations that employ lay staff, as well as the lay ministry practitioners themselves, would do well to give attention.

Spiritual formation. Many lay staff enter into ministry responsibilities without the benefit of the period of formation clergy generally receive in their education and ordination processes. Many lay staff report feeling spiritually unprepared for the expectations placed on them. Others, especially those without roots in the denomination of the church they are serving, expressed a need for a clearer understanding of the beliefs of the denomination. Congregations, particularly those with large lay staffs, should strive to integrate prayer, Bible study, and spiritual formation into the ongoing work of their staff team or teams and encourage spiritual mentoring of lay staff by clergy, other lay staffers, or spiritual directors.

Continuing education. A common theme among lay staff is their felt need for more training of various kinds. Pastors, supervisors, and personnel committees can help lay staff identify appropriate workshops, seminars, and learning resources; chart a course of appropriate and accessible professional growth; and provide funds for professional development.

Theological education. Most lay staff do not have seminary degrees. Nor are many likely to interrupt their careers to pursue a theological degree through the traditional channels. However, most could benefit from specialized theological instruction tailored to their circumstances and needs and made available in accessible formats — such as distance learning options or intensive study programs.

Peer learning and support networks. Lay staff can benefit greatly from establishing professional relationships with other ministry practitioners beyond their congregations. In some areas of specialization, such as church administration, church music, and Christian education, professional associations and guilds can provide enrichment and support. Additionally, informal networks with staff working in similar specialties in other churches in the region should be encouraged as a way to share ideas, resources, and best practices.

Training on confidentiality and boundaries. Lay staff generally have not received the same level of training as clergy on handling pastoral concerns, sexual ethics, or other boundary issues. Therefore, congregations must assure that their lay staff members are adequately prepared for this challenging aspect of ministry.

Accountability. For most lay staff, the legitimization of their ministry authority flows from the fact of their being hired. And supervision and evaluation generally follow a workplace model. At minimum, clearly stated job descriptions and review procedures should be in place. But congregations must ask if standard workplace mechanisms alone are sufficient for accountability in ministry. Staff covenants can clarify expectations, foster accountability, and promote communication within church staffs.

Expectations regarding staff who are church members. It behooves a congregation with church members on the payroll to think through some of the questions that might arise. For example, will a member/employee have voice and vote in church decision making? Are they eligible to be nominated to lay leadership positions? What will be the fallout if a member/employee must be disciplined or let go? Clear policies can help avoid confusion, conflict, and inconsistency.

The number of lay staff employed by congregations continues to increase each year. My hope is that some of these suggestions will permit them to flourish in their important ministries.

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Why a more inclusive paradigm of ministry benefits all

It is commonly assumed that the major beneficiaries of a more inclusive paradigm of ministry are laity who enjoy greater freedom and affirmation as servants of God.  This notion rests on the assumption that clergy are the winners and laity the losers in church systems distorted by clericalism. In some ways this is true.  Clergy often enjoy higher status, more institutional power and privilege, greater access to denominational decision-making, and higher salaries and benefits than lay church workers.  But in more fundamental ways, both laity and clergy are victims of the dualistic paradigm of ministry.

The dualistic paradigm of ministry projects unrealistic expectations onto clergy.  When holiness and Christ-like living are seen as the special pervue of the clergy, laity are let off the hook.  In thrusting the responsibility of faithfulness onto the clergy, laity retard their own spiritual development and place clergy on a pedestal.  The superhuman expectations accompanying this bifurcation are stressful, isolating, and often counterproductive.   I believe this dynamic is one reason clergy scandals and misconduct are such a threat to the church today.

When ordained ministry is seen as the only “real” ministry and the only way of acting on or legitimizing one’s call, then everyone interested in serving God – sometimes even everyone with the slighted inkling of faith – wants to be ordained.   This weakens ordained ministry by encouraging the ordination of those with marginal gifts for the ministries of Word, sacrament, and order.  This is one reason the denomination struggles so much with questions of clergy effectiveness.  When all types of ministry are honored and affirmed, people are free to serve in the area of their particular giftedness.

A more inclusive paradigm of ministry also encourages greater collaboration between clergy and laity.  Clergy have monumental burdens placed on them in this day when the church faces so many institutional challenges and the needs of the world are so great.  Allowing gifted lay servants to come along side lightens their load.

Finally, the dualistic paradigm of ministry has placed a “clergy only” sign over the doorways to many meeting rooms, deliberative chambers, decision-making venues, and places of spiritual formation and learning.  A more inclusive paradigm of ministry would open the church to new perspectives, energy, and ideas.  The benefits of this are already evident in theological education, where both faculties and student bodies have become increasingly laicized and on the front line of local church ministry.  But institutional structures have been slower to respond.

An inclusive paradigm of ministry is not just about the status and privileges afforded laypersons.  It benefits clergy, laypersons, and the whole church.

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Christ is the head of the church

Words Matter III:  Christ is the head of the church

Continuing with this series of posts examining the language of church leadership, I now raise the issue of the proper biblical framework for the term “head.”  Sometimes, pastors, priests, bishops, or popes are referred to as “heads” of the church.  But in within the community of faith, Jesus Christ – not the pastor, priest, or pope – is the center of its life together.   Paul clarifies this when he writes in Colossians that “Christ is the head of the body, the church.” (Col. 1:18)  No category of ecclesial servants can claim the distinction of heading the church when Christ is held in proper esteem.

A brief passage from a  recent church leadership text illustrates the regrettable tendency to think of clergy as the head of the body.  Discussing the need for strong pastoral leadership, the author maintains:

The people of God, regardless of size, need someone to whom they give an upward glance for the sake of orientation and direction.  The body of Christ that has strong hands and swift feet needs a head to see the big picture and keep the parts working together … [A] certified, licensed, or ordained church leader is clearly the catalyst who releases and focuses the native energy of a … church.

I don’t want to name the book or the author because I’m quite sure the misuse of this metaphor was an innocent and unintentional slip.  But it illustrates the tendency to use the language of church leadership in a way that is unbiblical, exclusionary, and injurious to lay persons.

A lingering legacy of the sacerdotal paradigm of ministry is the idea that the clergy represent Christ or embody Christ’s presence in a unique way.  Scripture makes it clear that the entire church as the body of Christ bears Christ’s presence to the world.  Every Christian as a member of the body of Christ can be said to represent Christ, but only as part of the whole body.   No category of ecclesial servants can assume the representative function that rightly belongs to the whole body.

Paul’s comparison of the church to the human body reveals that no part of member of the body of Christ is less essential than any other.  To the contrary, functions regarded as less important are vital to the overall health of the body.  They are deemed vital by Paul and worthy of respect.  This teaching is the foundation of a non-hierarchical understanding of ministry.

As Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson have written in their book Leading from the Second Chair, “Ultimately, in Christ’s kingdom, we are all in the second chair, submitting to Christ as the head.”

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Reexamining Ministry Titles

Words Matter II: Why Use Secular Titles for Sacred Work?

In the course of my research, I studied the staff listings of about 400 congregations.  In the vast majority of churches studied it was very easy — indeed painfully easy — to tell who was ordained and who was not by their job titles.  Most commonly the title pastor is reserved for the clergy.  Lay staff are distinguished by the secular nature of their job titles.  They are directors or coordinators or administrators.  A clergy person responsible for administration is called executive pastor while a lay person with the same responsibilities is called the business administrator.  A clergy person responsible youth leadership is called the youth pastor or youth minister while a lay person with the same role is called the youth director.

This approach raises the question, “why use secular titles for sacred work?”  A small fraction of the churches studied have chosen to use the titles pastor and minister more inclusively – for a clergy person or a lay person – if that individual’s job is to pastor or minister.  The title describes the person’s function rather than their status.

During my formative years as a Christian adult, the lead clergyperson in my church had a wonderful way of referring to himself.  “I’m one of the ministers of the church,” he would always say as a group went around the table with introductions.  His refusal to assert the title Senior Pastor was a deliberate effort to level the playing field, to elevate the rest of us, and to take our ministries seriously.

I invite congregations employing lay persons in ministry to communicate their openness to the ministry of all Christians by reexamining their system of job titles in a way that affirms the sacred work of their lay ministers and is precise about responsibilities and expectations.  When it is necessary to specify the status of those who are licensed, commissioned, or ordained, it is probably more precise to use the words “clergy” or “ordained,” which have specific meanings in the discipline, than pastor or minister.

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The People of God aren’t sheep

Words Matter I:  The mix messages inherent in using the term “pastor” for clergy

When I was a child, the only term I knew for the clergy in my church was “minister.”  Later on, the idea that “all God’s people are ministers” became increasingly popular.  So what, then, do we call our ordained clergy?

Over the years, I have noticed a shift in the title most commonly used for clergy, away from “minister” and toward “pastor.”   And I have wondered how much of this stems from a desire to maintain clerical distinctiveness, or even status, in an era when the concept of the ministry of all Christians has received renewed emphasis.

Most clergy persons I know thoroughly embrace the role of “pastor” as key to their theological identity.   And I don’t begrudge them this.  There is great appeal for both “pastor” and “flock” in the notion of the caring, nurturing presence of pastoral leadership.  But I would offer a few cautionary comments:

1) The people of God aren’t sheep.  Shepherding is a potent biblical image of God’s loving care for humankind.  But this divine metaphor becomes problematic when it is transferred to the realm of human interaction — particularly when it becomes the dominant image associated with the role and responsibility of the ordained.

If pastors are shepherds, then congregants are sheep – not exactly the most challenging or enlightened image of Christian personhood and discipleship.  And yet, this is the way we talk about church members – as a flock of helpless animals.  James O’Toole, a contemporary leadership expert, critiques shepherding, the dominant Christian metaphor for leadership, as paternalistic and anachronistic.  “How far,” he asks, “would a business get today acting on the assumption that employees are a flock to be herded by the organizational equivalent of the yank of a crook or the nipping of a sheepdog at their heels?” ( Leading Change:  The Argument for Values-Based Leadership, Ballantine Books,  New York,  1996, p. 6)

Certainly all Christians, in their sin and human frailty, stand in need of love and care.  But I believe the Gospel calls us to a more active notion of discipleship and a more egalitarian understanding of the leader/follower dynamic than is inherent in the construct of shepherd and sheep.

2) The shepherding function is only one of many aspects of Christian leadership.  Scripture names many other gifts and capabilities as essential to the function of the Body of Christ, such as prophetic leadership, evangelism, and so on.  When the title used for clergy prioritizes the shepherding function, we  risk underemphasizing other important aspects of Christian ministry.  We must remember that the primarily calling of ordained leaders is the ministry of Word, order, and sacrament.

3) Shepherding,  identified in Scripture as a gift of the Spirit, is not a role that should be restricted exclusively to clergy.  Lay persons can and should be engaged in “pastoral” ministry.  But using the word “pastor” to identify ordained clergy implies that only ordained clergy can attend to this function.

I  have no hope or expectation that the church will move away from talking and thinking about its clergy primarily as pastors.   I use the word.  I have no choice.  It is simply the way everyone refers to clergy.  And some will surely take umbrage with this critique of the beloved image of clergy as pastors.  But it is important to think about how our use of language limits ministry in this day when the Spirit of God is calling us to a broader understanding of ministry.

Words matter.

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