Tag Archives: Church Office

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

When the loss feels more significant than the gain

it's lonely at the top

By Benefit of Hindsight on Flickr

“I can’t do this anymore,” I told my beloved.
“Can’t do what anymore?” she said.
“I can’t do any of this — alone — anymore,” I replied.

* * *

The preaching moment is a fantastic example of the consequences of pastoral ministry. During the preaching moment, regardless of whether the sermon is delivered from the pulpit or standing on the floor in the midst of a seated congregation, the clergyperson stands alone. The congregation is seated, typically silent, listening to the clergyperson expounding on sacred scripture.  The moment of focus is almost completely on the person preaching.

For those who appreciate the spotlight, the lure of preaching, and consequently ministry, is strong. The authority given to members of the clergy, the authority with which the preacher speaks, and the authority on which the message rests is unique amongst public speaking moments.

The lure of attention, the lure of the ability to speak in an authoritative manner, the lure of being the focus is great — often inescapable.  This is the temptation that some of us face, to leap headfirst into pastoral ministry because of the idea that we have about it.  Like many other professions, the reality is much different than the ideal.

* * *

When one stands alone apart from the congregation, one is truly alone, much like in the service for Ordination of a Minister of Word and Sacrament

In the preaching moment, the clergyperson is not actually apart from the body of Christ, but holds a particular role within the body of Christ. Although theologically, the pastor is not at the top, functionally, this often happens this way, and as the idiom goes, “it’s lonely at the top.”

I lost the ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the body of Christ, I lost the ability to be ministered to each week, I lost the privilege of being able to fully enter into the worship experience each week, I lost the ability to hold up and be held up by the body of Christ, as I now have to be very selective of those to whom I go for care and support.

* * *

Ministry is a privilege, but it is a privilege that comes with great loss, and many times that loss feels much greater than that which is gained.  Perhaps this is a hidden grace, to learn to cope with loss and still to learn to see God.

Reflections on One Year of Ordained Ministry

One year ago today I stood in front of the president of the classis, the regional assembly in my denomination.  Behind me sat the members of the classis, and behind them sat family and friends who had come to share this special day.

Of particular significance was the part of the service which is traditionally called “The Interrogation”, although that term is rarely used any longer. It is a time in which the power differential is very visible.  The presiding officer stands behind a lectern on the chancel, and I stood on the floor looking upward.  When I was examined by the classis, I stood with others.  When I made my declaration as a licensed candidate (the intermediate stage between “candidate” and “minister”) I stood with others.  This particular day, however, I stood alone.

There was no one around to answer for me, I could not hide behind anyone.  Even more significant, was that there was no one to lean on, either.

Do you confess together with us and the church throughout the ages your faith in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

This was the moment to which I had felt called, for which I prepared.  This was the culmination of three academic degrees, three years of ecclesiastical examinations following the academic ones, and two years of interviewing with churches.  It was an exciting moment, but also a sobering moment, as I felt a weight on my shoulders that slowly increased with each additional question.

Do you believe in your heart that you are called by Christ’s church, and therefore by God, to this ministry of Word and sacrament?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

Much like my wedding, it was a moment that would set a particular course for my life, and there was no turning back after this. While I do not come from a tradition where ordination is understood to ontologically change someone, we ordain people for life, because in the declaration for Ministers, following the ordination, the newly ordained minister says, “I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ…” Although I remain the same person after the ordination, my place in life and in the church is radically altered.

Do you believe the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the perfect doctrine of salvation, rejecting all contrary beliefs?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

For the previous several years I had been learning, exploring, dialoguing, engaging.  That day, however, was different.  I had no opportunity to defer, to qualify, to write an essay. I did not have the opportunity to confer with colleagues or do further reading or research. It was a scary moment to make a declarative statement, particularly for someone who prefers to consider, think, read, write, and confer.

Will you proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; upholding the witness of Holy Scripture against all schisms and heresies?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

I immensely miss the academic environment. I miss the community of scholarship, I miss the intellectual growth that happens, I miss the regular evaluation, and I miss the ability to explore. Parish ministry exists in a different world. It is a world in which one statement, thought to be interesting, may be kept and used as a weapon at a later time. It is a place where a person has only one chance to say the right thing. It is a world in which rejections continue to happen, with the absence of comments or suggestions on how to improve or even explanations. What is more, parish ministry is a world in which I cannot barricade myself in a library for days on end.

Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace?  Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Ministry is a fish-bowl. Not only am I expected to be the perfect pastor, being everything to everyone, I am also expected to keep my entire life in order and maintain healthy self-care practices to provide an example for the faithful. It is an impossible task, one that seems like it will never be accomplished. The days are often when all I want to do is to go where nobody knows my name. The opportunity simply to exist, to be seen with fresh and eyes that do not know any better who I am or what I do.

Will you accept the church’s order and governance, submitting to ecclesiastical discipline should you become delinquent in either life or doctrine?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Will you be loyal to the witness and work of the Reformed Church in America, using all your abilities to further its Christian mission here and throughout the world?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

The answer to the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads, “…I am not my own…”  While this refers to the wonderful comfort of the sovereignty and providence of God, it also became apparent that in every way I am not my own.  I belong to God, but I also belong to the church. I want to belong to myself, to be in charge of my own destiny. However, I largely offered that belonging, that control, to the church when I made these promises.  While there may be something comforting about feeling in control, there is something humbling about belonging, almost completely, to God and to God’s agents on earth.

Will you strive to fulfill faithfully, diligently, and cheerfully, all the duties of a minister of Christ: to preach the Word of God in sincerity, to administer the sacraments in purity, to maintain proper discipline in the household of God, and to shepherd the flock faithfully?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

It was at this final question of the Interrogation, that I felt the immense isolation of standing alone on the floor before the President of the Classis, as I realized that no one could answer for me. I stood alone.

However, this sense of alone-ness was alleviated when the actual ordination occured and all ministers and elders of the classis are invited to participate in the laying on of hands.  In ministry, although we must at times stand alone, we are never alone.  I do not know if this was the design of the rite, to help the candidate feel utterly alone and burdened, and then to welcome them into community.  If it was not in the design, it is a very salient side-effect.

* * *

As I reflect on my ordination one year later, I have the opportunity to examine my promises and my ability to keep them. Have I been able to keep them?  Some better than others, but I strive for all of them.  It occurs to me that the response, “I will, and I ask God to help me” is not a one time promise, but something for which we must continually strive.

One thing that I do know for sure, however, is this: Over the past year, I have learned just how difficult and how weighty those promises actually are.

I still feel that immense weight upon my shoulders, and perhaps, in a way, it is a good thing. It is because I feel this weight that I realize that I continue to take this all seriously.  It is also because of this weight that I can seek God’s help (as well as the help of others) to alleviate some of it, knowing that I do not have to carry it all alone.

The Minister as Particular Theologian

I have not been very faithful the last couple of weeks in my writing.  The reason for that is largely because I have been immersed in writings by and about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This is, of course, in a way unfortunate, as the breadth of the Edwardsian corpus is much broader than this one sermon.

One of the aspects of his life that I am intrigued by is how he lived out his calling as a minister.   I, at times, wonder if this was simply contextually and temporally specific, or if there is something to ministry that we’ve lost.

It cannot be denied that the world of eighteenth century New England was very different from our contemporary contexts.  However, in many other ways, there were great similarities.  Edwards struggled with his congregation to overcome their spiritual apathy, he dealt with teenage pregnancies in his congregation, and people that little interest in helping those less fortunate. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012, the year 1712, or the year 12, human nature is relatively consistent.

As a parish minister, Jonathan Edwards not only composed a large body of sermons, but also letters and theological books and articles.  Edwards was a venerable theologian, and as a theologian he was also very clearly connected to the church.

One thing that I have consistently encountered during my formal education is a growing division between theory and practice.  Those who engage in “practice” argue that they don’t have to know theory because it is “empty head knowledge.” Furthermore, those who are engaged in theory sometimes lack any practical interest as they are interested in intramural academics. This all contributes to a strong distinction between theoreticians and practitioners.  Although in Christianity there is a rapidly growing distrust of knowledge and education, this phenomenon is not limited to the Church and occurs in many arenas.

I, of course, come at this discussion with a master’s degree from a theological seminary.  I also place a great deal of importance on highly educated clergy, and history has always placed an importance on educated clergy. This trend of lowly or uneducated clergy is of relatively late origin, and the anti-educational sentiment among some is recent as well.  Although I am not sure which is the proverbial chicken and which is the egg, I see this as connected to this trend of divorcing the role of pastor and the role of theologian.

I have heard it argued that theologians do theological work, and pastors take care of things “which really matter to people.”  This of course grieves me to my core.  I am a person who both cares deeply about the church and the people of God and also loves theological work and study.  I have always assumed that I would have to choose, either give up my passion for leading the church and teach in a seminary, or give up my interest in theological work and pastor a parish. I have at times felt as though my only choices where to ignore my heart or ignore my head.

This is what interests me about Jonathan Edwards because he was both a parish pastor who sought to make God real to his congregation week after week, as well as a theologian in his own right.  This inspired my journey on reflecting on the minister as a theologian.

To be sure, I do not have a doctoral degree, and I do not argue that my theological credentials are the same as a professor at a seminary.  However, I do see a minister as a theologian, albeït a theologian of a particular order.

In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we have four offices: Elder, Deacon, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and General Synod Professor of Theology.  The fourth office (General Synod Professor of Theology) are teachers and theologians of the whole church, they are general theologians.  However, Ministers of Word and Sacrament earn a master’s degree in divinity at a theological seminary and in the local church Ministers serve as “pastor and teacher” (as my denomination’s Book of Church Order defines the role of minister in a local church).  If Ministers as parish pastors see themselves solely as practitioners or as professionals that deal with practical and “down to earth” matters and not theological work, our churches then are devoid of theology and the manufactured gap between theologians and pastors, between theoreticians and practitioners widens.

A minister/pastor however, is not called to be a general theologian, a minister/pastor is called to be a particular theologian.  A pastor is called to be the theologian for a particular people in a particular place; to help the people entrusted to their care experience and make sense of God and their lives.  We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and part of the role of the pastor is not only to move someone’s heart but also to help them grow in understanding.  After all, theology, according to St. Anselm, is “faith seeking understanding,” so what better place for theology than in the local church?

As ministry has become a profession rather than a calling, and a job rather than an office, this idea of pastor as theologian no longer seems to make sense.  If pastors are professionals, then their highest responsibility is to run a church — administration, employee supervision, building and grounds superintendence.  This is why some argue that pastors should have education and background in business, because much of contemporary pastoral ministry has devolved into running a business.

However, this is a grossly (and sadly) deficient understanding of ministry.  A pastor is not called to run a church, they are called to help teach and lead the people of God, and a part of this is the ability to be a competent theologian.  I do this not for intellectual exercise, but to help my congregation seek an understanding for their faith, to help make sense of God and make sense of their lives, to understand where God is calling them, and what God desires.

Theologians in a seminary or university, while they may be brilliant theologians, are not able to help my congregation make sense of God and their experience simply due to the fact they do not live and dwell among the congregation.  They are general theologians, who teach the whole church and help to educate and form particular theologians who will live in and exist in a particular community, to understand a particular community, and to speak to the particular experience of a particular community.

As I continue to form my understanding of myself as a pastor and teacher, I have come to be convinced that theological study is a major part of my responsibilities. My study, however, is not solely for general interest or for my own edification, but it is so that I can better help my congregation as they learn to love God with heart and mind, and as they make sense of their existence, as they seek to understand and apply scripture to their everyday lives.  Seeing myself as a theologian allows me to ascend to the pulpit week in and week out and help my folks to understand and apply scripture, it helps my pastoral care as I minister to someone who is dying of cancer, it helps my exhortations as I seek to help people live into God’s desires.

Without adequate study and reflection, my sermons and teaching can become formulaic, simply regurgitating what I find in commentaries.  Without knowing the fundamentals of biblical Greek and Hebrew I am unable to understand the nuances of the original languages.  Without a theological lens or hermeneutic, I will tend to approach every piece of scripture as isolated and I will lack any coherent beliefs that hold consistent, and can be blown easily with any shift in the winds of change.  Without seeing myself as a theologian and scholar, my work to preach and teach the scriptures becomes trite and irresponsible.

My only hope is that we will be able to deepen our understanding of ministry and return to a focus on minister as pastor and teacher and not as the professional who runs the church.

The Most Important Task of a Minister (Part Two)

In part one, I looked at the function and role of a minister by looking at the Book of Church Order, the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America, the Belgic Confession, and the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the church in Geneva, Switzerland.  The two tasks that continued to recur in each document are preaching of the Word of God and administration of the Sacraments, and these in fact are the only tasks which are specifically delegated to ministers alone.

The question that remains, however, is this: if preaching of the scriptures and the administration of the sacraments are the most important tasks of the minister, then why do I often find myself thinking, “I don’t have time for this sermon!”  Now it is quite possible that this is a failing on my part, I will own up to that possibility.  However, I don’t think that I’m the only one that has this experience, at least periodically.

I wonder if in the greater society, as well as in the church, there has been a dark underbelly to the professionalization of ministry.  You pay a physician to diagnose and treat an illness, you pay an accountant to take care of your taxes, you pay a lawyer to answer your legal questions and take care of your legal business.  But when it comes to ministers, the role is to build up people for the work of ministry, not to do all of the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12: “The gifts that he gave were that some would be…pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ”).  I wonder if the professionalization of ministry has made the pastor the default person for taking care of the things that the church does (“We need to do something…have the pastor do it…that’s what we pay him/her for after all!”).

But ministers are not like other professionals. It is not the role of ministers to run the church, and it is not the role of ministers to do the “religious stuff”, and ministers are not simply purveyors of religious goods and services.  I think that a major challenge to contend with is that ministers are seen as another professional.  However, ministry is not another profession.  Ministers have a role like no other professional.  Ministers are “stewards of the mysteries of God”.  Ministers study and preach the sacred scriptures, ministers administer the sacraments.  Ministers build up the body of Christ for the work of ministry.

Ministers empower people to minister.

To answer my question…the most important task of the minister.  This answer is in two parts: preaching of the Word, and administration of the sacraments.  The sacraments are only celebrated during times of public worship, so what is the most important task for pastors “between Sundays”?  Studying the scriptures. The challenge, however, is this: in a world of clergy as professionals alongside other professionals, how is this to be lived out?

The Most Important Task of a Minister (Part One)

I, of course, speak from a Reformed context where “Minister” is an office, not a role and where pastors are ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament.  However, not all Ministers are pastors of churches, some are in other specialized ministries (i.e. chaplaincy, counseling…), and therefore I use the broader term of Minister.

Ever since I was ordained and I began my time as a pastor of a small urban church, I have been working on redefining and reformulating what I view as my most important task as a minister as well as the pastor and teacher of the congregation.  If someone who didn’t know anything about me or my inner thoughts observed me, they might say that responding to emails, making agendas, and organizing papers might be my most important tasks, after all, those are the things on which I spend a good deal of my time.

However, I don’t think that this at all qualifies as the most important task of the minister.  In thinking about the most important task of a minister, I think it is beneficial to look at sources within my tradition.  The Book of Church Order [BCO] (which I view as much a theology book as a book of church government) refers to ministers as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1.I.1.3).  The next section reads as follows:

The Office of Minister of Word and Sacrament is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit.  Ministers are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the ministry of the Word of God (1.I.1.4).

Here, it is clear that the main function of ministers is to proclaim the Gospel and the ministry of the Word of God, which I will assume is faithful exegesis and exposition of the sacred scriptures in preaching, teaching, and individual conversations.  The church order continues:

In the local church the minister serves as pastor and teacher of the congregation to build up and equip the whole church for its ministry in the world.  The minister preaches and teaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, shares responsibility with the elders and deacons and members of the congregation for their mutual Christian growth, exercises Christian love and discipline in conjunction with the elders, and endeavors that everything in the church be done in a proper and orderly way.  As pastor and teacher the minister so serves and lives among the congregation that together they become wholly devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ in the service of the church for the world (1.I.1.4).

Here, there are a few tasks identified: preaching and teaching the Word of God, administering the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), sharing responsibility with the consistory and congregation for mutual Christian growth, exercises discipline in conjunction with the elders, and endeavors that the work of the church be done in a proper and orderly way.  Now, these are the tasks of the minister in the local church as “pastor and teacher of the congregation”.  As you see, there are more items here than the description of the office, above, but there is one commonality: preaching and teaching the Word of God.

The Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America is one third of the Constitution (Doctrinal standards, Government and Disciplinary Procedures, and Liturgy), and in the order for the Ordination of a Minister of Word and Sacrament, an exposition is given by the presiding officer after the candidate for ordination has been presented.  This exposition gives the tasks of a minister:

Ministers are called to build up Christ’s church.  They are to proclaim God’s Word, to declare forgiveness through Jesus Christ, to call publicly on the name of the Lord on behalf of the whole congregation, to celebrate Christ’s holy sacraments, baptizing and presiding at the Lord’s Supper.

They are to be pastors and teachers, sharing people’s joys and sorrows, encouraging the faithful, recalling those who fall away, helping the sick and the dying (p. 148).

The first paragraph we see similar things as above: proclaim God’s Word and to administer the sacraments.  However, the second paragraph, particularly in referencing the role of pastor and teacher includes many pastoral tasks: sharing people’s joys and sorrows, encouraging the faithful, recalling those who fall way, helping the sick and the dying.  These pastoral tasks, while certainly a part of the role of pastor, are not the exclusive domain of ministers.  Returning to the BCO, the Board of Elders is charged with determining whether any in the congregation are: “in need of special care regarding their spiritual condition and/or are not making faithful use of the means of grace, i.e., attending worship and participating in the sacraments and shall provide the means of extending Christian ministry to such persons” (1.I.5.3).  Additionally, “The deacons shall minister to the sick, the poor, the hurt, and the helpless, shall aid the victims of the world’s abuse, and shall express the social concerns of the church” (1.I.6.2).  Additionally, when discussing the role of the Classis (regional assembly and judicatory consisting ministers and elder delegates from the churches within its bounds) in the superintendence of the churches the question is asked: “Is care and visitation faithfully performed in your congregation by i. elders?  ii deacons?  iii. minister/s?” (1.II.7.1e).  This all goes to support the idea that care is definitely a part of the role of the pastor, but it is not the exclusive domain of the Minister of Word and Sacrament.

The Belgic Confession (one of the foundational doctrinal documents of the Reformed Church in America and one part of the Doctrinal Standards, which is part of the Constitution), Article 30 reads: “There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments.” Again, there are commonalities with the statements above: the purpose of the minister is to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments.

The Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the church in Geneva, Switzerland (of which John Calvin was the major theologian) listed four orders (or offices), of which the minister/pastor was one.  The description of pastors reads as such:

With regard to pastors, whom Scripture also sometimes calls overseers, elders, and ministers, their office is to proclaim the Word of God for the purpose of instructing, admonishing, exhorting, and reproving both in public and in private, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise fraternal discipline together with the elders or delegates (Hughes, p. 36).

Again, we see common tasks: proclaiming the Word of God, administer the sacraments, exercise discipline in conjunction with the elders.  Now, we have seen that discipline is the task of the elders of the church, and the minister is an elder of a special order (BCO, Preamble p. 4) but it still remains that two tasks are continually given specifically to the minister: preaching of the Word of God and administration of the sacraments.