Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A trinitarian calling

Good morning God,
I've been thinking about the number of ministers I know who have left or are leaving the Church and circuit ministry and I need to talk to you about this.
I remain convinced that there is nothing more wonderful than being a minister of the word and sacrament, but I would be a liar if I didn't admit that I too, frequently, think long and hard about leaving the Church.  So how is it possible to love being a minister, but still have such thoughts.. and what has made so many of those I trained with make the decision to leave?

I believe ministry is a trinitarian calling:

It is a calling from you - to be more fully who I am, to be the person you created me to be
It is a calling from the Church - to live out my calling in service to the body of Christ
It is a calling from the people - to minister your grace to them and tell them the truth of Christ. To go, not only to those who need me, but to those who need me most!

All three calls are necessary for ministry:

I still hear your call - I wake to it every day, it upholds me, delights me, challenges me and transforms me. I cannot conceive of my life without you in every part of it - not as some religious symbol or abstraction, but as the ground of my being, the spark in my soul and the truth of my life.

But, yes, I admit, the other two calls become harder and harder to hear as the years pass - especially when they are mistakenly conflated into one by those who believe that ministry is all about keeping a local Church the way that it was when they were younger.

For a Methodist, the calling from the Church is not the same as the calling to a particular local Church as with the Baptist or URC. The calling from the Church is the calling to serve as an ordained presbyter in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ. It can't be pinned down to one local Church, or Circuit, or District:  It is a calling to live the life of a Presbyter in Connexion with others :-
'Declare the Good News
Celebrate the Sacraments
Serve the needy
Minister to the Sick
Welcome the Stranger
Seek the lost'
Of course - the problem is that too many people presume that this can only be done in a local Church setting. I suspect that good ministers are lost when their calling to the Church is denied to them by those who insist that they KNOW what the minister should be doing - and they are going to make damn certain that they do it!

The calling from the people is the one that causes the most heartache. The words of the ordinal haunt me as I am sure they do others:
Let no one suffer hurt through your neglect.
 Like many ministers I grieve for the lost - and for those who suffer hurt through my neglect. I know one minister who left because he could not live with the pain of neglecting the lost.

Peculiarly, the opportunity to proclaim your truth and minister your grace to those who need it most seems to decline as the Church declines. The smaller the Church becomes, the less willing or able the laity seem to be and the greater the insistence is that the minister tend the sheep that are found - rather than the one that is lost.

I am convinced that Presbyteral Ministry ceases to be Presbyteral ministry when its primary focus is on those who are 'found'. And I believe it may be the inexorable demand for this 'maintenance ministry' which causes so many to leave Circuit ministry - and some even to leave the Church altogether: It exposes the Church as a self-serving society, more concerned with its own welfare and comfort than with the Gospel it was set up to proclaim and the kingdom it was created to serve.  It denies the minister the ability to fulfill their calling and in so doing severs the two-way nature of the Covenant relationship behind the call of the Church and the minister. Consequently, too many ministers have suffered harm through neglect, too many ministers are never 'ministered to', are seldom, if ever, given the opportunity to HEAR the good news, RECEIVE the sacrament, BE served, be ministered to when they are sick,  - and too few - far too few, are sought when they are lost...

Tell me God, might this be the reason so many leave?


  1. Angie - great post. It takes a great deal of graciousness on the part of a congregation to reject the worldy way of "He who pays the piper...." and instead see precious ministerial resources poured out upon people who have not, and in all likelihood will not, make a contribution to the ongoing maintenance of the church's work. It also requires a firm grip of the gospel :o)

  2. Angela - for those of us who are amongst the laity, this is a challenge to service. We must support those who exercise an ordained ministry, recognising in that support and in our own lives that the good of the kingdom should be uppermost in our thoughts. It is all too easy to settle into selfish desire that "our minister" is there for us or, indeed, that a chapel where the work of saving souls is over stays open just because we cannot bear to let it go. The more we place unrealistic demands on our ministers, the heavier we make the burdens they carry into the challenging work of seeking the lost.

    The Gospel is a radical challenge to live and serve Christ, just as it was two millennia ago. The church is not part of a consumer society - it is not "Pastoral Care 4 U" or "Spiritual Comfort Warehouse", much as it has a continuing role to play in providing both pastoral care and spiritual comfort.

    My health problems have meant that I have needed what I feel is far more than my fair share of patching up by my own minister and friends who are ordained. I find myself feeling guilty about my needs and especially the demands that I feel I make on those who are ordained that I am far too reluctant to ask for much needed support. I recognise that in my reluctance to ask, I deny lay and ordained friends alike the privilege of serving me that I treasure when opportunities present to serve others. I have a way to go yet, though at least I know my failing here! We need to recognise the importance of being balanced as Christians - ready to ask for help and ready to serve, always sensitive to the needs and burdens of others as we journey together in discerning how Christ is calling us to live.

    I have often remarked that ministry is a team sport. Some are called on to take supporting roles, others, including those who are ordained, are called on to exercise particular roles in seeking and serving the lost. The work of pastoral care and of seeking the lost is not uniquely the task of the ordained, though the ordained have a particular calling as expressed in those solemn and demanding words that you quote. As I listen to those words in Winchester next month when I attend one of the ordination services at this year's Conference, I am sure that I will find myself reflecting again on the challenges of ministry and committing myself afresh to doing what I can in support.

    May we all recognise the roles that God is calling us to take on that ministry team, learning to look beyond any selfish desires to the needs of the kingdom. May we also learn to support and encourage each other in the ministry that we have been given.

    Thank you for all the ways that you continue to serve and challenge us.

    David Wood