On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XII

In my previous post, I spoke of baptism as ordination to ministry, seeking to bear witness to the reality that baptism speaks God’s word of life and God’s summons to a life of discipleship. All that follows – such as the practice in my own tradition of calling some to the ordered or ‘specific ministries’ of the church, what we call ‘ordination’ – is essentially functional. So Joseph Small in his fine essay ‘Ordination and Authority’: ‘Ordination to one of the church’s ordered ministries is not the simple recognition that a person possesses “gifts for ministry” or that a particular office suits a person’s abilities. Nor does ordination follow naturally from a person’s “sense of call.” Ordination is certainly not about access to position, influence, and power in the church. Instead, ordination is the church’s act of recognizing the movement of the Holy Spirit in the interactions among the church’s ordering of ministries, its standards for these ministries, and its current needs, together with prayerful discernment by persons, congregations, and presbyteries’.

Ordination means that ministers ought to take their primary ‘job description’ not from some local contract that he or she may have entered into but from their ordination vows, vows which are themselves grounded in baptism, that act of the Church which is grounded in the gospel. So there is something of a trajectory from the divine economy to local ordination (even though it is a trajectory that the Church and its ministers has very often misread and abused in the grab for power). This means that here in New Zealand, Presbyterian ministers must do the following:

  • Confess Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord;
  • Believe that they are called by God and the Church to the ministry of Word and Sacrament;
  • Receive the witness of the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life, and undertake to preach from the Bible in order to make Jesus Christ known;
  • Celebrate the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion with the people of God;
  • Accept that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds witness to the core faith of the holy catholic Church, and accept the Westminster documents and the Kupu Whakapono and its accompanying Commentary as witnesses to the Reformed tradition of faith;
  • Relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, commit oneself to the study of the Bible, to model one’s life and ministry on Christ, and to be faithful in prayer;
  • Share in the life and work of the Presbytery and the courts of the Church to uphold the doctrine, worship, government and discipline of the Church, and at all times seek its unity and peace;
  • Accept the call to minister to a particular parish and congregation.

Such vows provide shape and direction to – and place much-needed boundaries around – the task of pastoral ministry. Clearly there is nothing here about the need for ministers to be doing everything! So Brad Greenberg: ‘The big problem clergy have is the ability to say no … it’s only gotten harder in a world where pastors friend their flock on Facebook and are always reachable by cell call or text’.

In a recent sermon on Temptations and Triumphs of Ministry, Kenneth L. Carder properly recalled:

‘Baptism defines who we are, who our family is and what our ministry entails … Our primary calling, then, is to accept and live our baptismal identity! That is a ministry we share as laity and clergy. Ordination does not supersede baptism. Rather, it derives from baptism. And the bedrock calling of the ordained and commissioned is to support the baptized in living their identity in the world. There is no higher calling than our baptismal calling. Baptism has to do with our being as beloved daughters and sons of God: it is who we are. The glorious, triumphant news is that it is all a gift. We cannot earn our worth and relationship as God’s son or daughter any more than we earned our right to be born. Baptism is God’s affirmation, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Therefore, our worth lies in the One to whom we belong, and nothing can take that from us, not even death itself! And the glorious good news is that it is all a gift. We call it grace. Our basic identity and worth are not the triumph of our efforts. They are the free gift of God. In the words of the Epistle of First John: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (3:1–2)’.

He continues:

‘Ordained and commissioned ministry is especially susceptible to trying to prove and earn our worth [i.e. to reject our baptisms and to embrace a self-constituted existence]. One means is by what one of my faculty colleagues at Duke calls “being a quivering mass of availability” – meeting people’s expectations and superficial desires rather than identifying the hungers that cannot be satisfied with bread. Or using the pastoral role to ingratiate ourselves to the masses so they will applaud us, validate our importance, and fill our need for praise and affirmation. The consequences can be catastrophic boundary violations and traumatic abuse of the pastoral relationship; and [this shadow] is often manifested in using congregations as steppingstones in career advancement, which is fleecing the sheep rather than shepherding them. A prayer that I have prayed almost every day of my 50 years of ministry is “Oh God, do not let me be unduly distracted today by either criticism or praise.”

The ministry offers numerous substitutes for baptism as our identity and ministry – size of church, titles, ecclesial positions. We are part of a culture that values worth on the basis of what we know, how we look, what we own, what we produce. Our appointments, salaries, attendance, budgets, ranking on the “work sheet,” political clout and awards become our identity. What we do replaces who we are; being is replaced with doing. Such proofs of our identity are like trying to fill our deep hunger to be somebody with bread made from stone.

Another deadly temptation is the abuse of power inherent in being called by God, confusing political and institutional power with love. Or, rather than being formed by the power of love, we are shaped by the love of power. The tempter showed Jesus the kingdoms of this world and said, “If you … will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Henri Nouwen reminds us that “one of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power – political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power.” He adds that “power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”’.

As I have written elsewhere (in a reflection on 2 Corinthians 11.16–12.10):

Here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.

There is something else that is important to include at this point in this series of posts; namely, that the justification of the Church and of its ministry is not the work the minister. If and when justification is made, it will be the free act of God. At the very least, this truth should divert the Church away from the temptation to engage in those attempts which foster self-righteousness, smugness, and fact-denying illusion. So Richard John Neuhaus warns that pastoral ministry is not the Church’s office of public relations: ‘Our job is not to project a more positive “image” of the Church, as that term is used in the communications media. Our task is to take seriously the biblical images or models of the Church that illuminate the Church’s full mission as the sign of humanity’s future. As we take this biblical understanding of the Church seriously, there is ever so much in the empirical Church of which we must be relentlessly critical’. And Neuhaus proceeds to offer an ever-timely warning about collapsing the Church and the Kingdom of God:

‘Whatever else we may be guilty of, we are not guilty of the fact that the Church is not the historical consummation of the Kingdom of God. Far from our being embarrassed by the limitations of the existent Church, it is among our chief responsibilities to underscore the truth that the Church is not to be confused with the Kingdom of God. The Christian community points toward that Kingdom. In some important respects it anticipates that Kingdom. But the Church is as far in time from the Kingdom as is the whole creation of which the Kingdom is the universal future. The disappointment, discontent, and frustration that the world feels over its distance from perfection is also our disappointment, discontent, and frustration. In this sense, the Church is emphatically part of the world; indeed, as Paul describes it in Romans 8, the Church is the most restlessly yearning part of the whole creation. The difference is that we know the reason for the hope of perfection that is within us (1 Pet. 3). That reason is the preview or proleptic appearance of our hope vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Living in communion with him, we not only share but articulate and intensify the world’s discontent. Our gospel is not the gospel of optimism, which is, after all, simply a different way of looking at things. It is not simply an angle of vision but a new datum that we proclaim to the world. That datum, which is the message and life of Jesus, is the reason for the hope that is within us and, if only they knew it, the foundation and rationale of hope within all people. And so, because we do not pretend that the Church is the Kingdom of God, we offer no excuses for its not being the Kingdom of God. There will be no satisfactory Church, no Church that can be embraced without ambiguity, until the world of which the Church is part is satisfactorily ordered in the consummation of God’s rule. In short, we cannot get it all together until God has gotten it all together in the establishment of the Messianic Age’. – Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 23–4.

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