Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ministry as a Shared Vocation

By recognizing that we are all gifted by the Spirit we find in this realization a call to ministry. This recognition also serves to narrow the gap that often exists between clergy and laity. Yes, clergy do ministry but they are not the only ministers. It is also inappropriate to assume that the work of the laity is any less a form of ministry. I don’t wish to negate the place of the clergy. Pastors serve a very important function in the life of the church, but what they do in church and community is not the totality of the church’s ministry. Another way of asking this question would be: What aspects of church life should be considered off limits to lay people? So, whether we teach Sunday school, visit the homebound, lead grief groups, serve meals to the homeless, march for civil rights, evangelize our neighborhoods, preach; what we are doing is ministry.

Whatever form ministry takes, it is by definition an act of service. The Greek word for ministry (diakonos) can be translated in a variety of ways, but its most important nuance is that of servant. Jesus offers us a very pertinent model of servant leadership when he bowed down before his disciples and washed their feet (Jn. 13).

There is a second defining image of ministry, that of priest. Traditionally a priest is a religious professional who acts as an intermediary between humanity and God. The message of the gospel is that in Christ we no longer need human intermediaries. Jesus, who is now our high priest, serves as our mediator and point of access to the throne of God. However, even as Jesus is our high priest, each of us has been made a priest of God who is called to intercede not only for ourselves and for our neighbors as well (Heb. 10). Because we are part of the royal priesthood, a form of priesthood eloquently defined in 1 Peter 2:5-9, eliminates the clergy as necessary, priestly intermediaries, and empowers each person to join in the priestly service of intercession. Therefore, as one of the founders of my own tradition once wrote, "whatever constitutes the worship of God is the common privilege of all the disciples as such." [Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, (St. Louis:  Bethany Press, 1961), 175.] As disciples of Jesus, baptized by the Spirit, we are servants and priests for all people, and thereby we are freed to join in the full ministry of God.

There is one caveat that I should add. To say that all are servant ministers and priests does not mean that we all have the same roles and callings. There is the need for freedom because freedom is the catalyst for change and new opportunities to serve. There is also a place for order – chaos and anarchy are not necessarily helpful to the cause of Christ. The gift lists themselves suggest that some are called to ministries of leadership. The ship needs a pilot if it is to navigate difficult waters. As we discover our gifts and join in the community of faith in service, it will become evident that some among us have specific gifts and callings for leadership roles. There is a place for the religious professional as well, as long as both clergy and laity understand that such a calling does not relieve the laity of their ministerial callings.

Excerpted from Gifts of Love (unpublished mss.)

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