Friday, November 13, 2015

Affirming the ministry of the many not the one

Members of the congregation gather around
to lay hands and bless their newly called lay pastor
at the South New Berlin Baptist Church (NY).
Part of my work involves celebrating the "big moments" in the life of a local church or a pastor's ministerial journey. Recently, I was asked to represent the ABC New York State Region at two installations of local church pastors. One pastor is in the midst of the Lay Study program and serving in a rural central New York congregation where he grew up. Another pastor attended seminary as a second career student and was called in recent months to serve as a pastor shared by two congregations in the Adirondacks.

Here are some thoughts I have shared with these recent churches celebrating the call of a new minister and the commitment such work takes for the part-time pastor and the many called to be "church".   (NOTE:  In both cases, I contextualized these remarks to reflect the individuals being called to these churches and celebrating unique strengths of their respective congregations.  This version is reset for a general audience readership.)

Often, we talk about ministry as a vocation, a calling to sacred work, particularly in the case of a minister who is ordained and spends her life serving the needs of Christ and the Church. Alas, the word “vocation” was not meant just for the ordained pastor. Indeed, every Christian is called to be a minister, and we Baptists affirm the priesthood of all believers. Yet in practice, many churches become accustomed to the priesthood of the believer, that is, the pastor who is implicitly or outright told “do the ministry for us”.

Understanding that pastors do suffer from a habit of taking on more than they should (or taking on everything but Sabbath and rest), the pattern becomes problematic, and very little ministry gets done, as it is left increasingly to the “one” rather than the “many” working together.

I give this cautionary tale at the outset to remind us of why when we talk of God’s call in our midst, it is not just to those who go and study to be a minister of the Gospel. This word on vocation is for the whole people of God, for we are all gifted uniquely and particularly for furthering the gospel. Each of us has something to add to the work of the ministry. From the pulpit to the person in the back pew, each of us has a vocation, a calling, to serve God and make the gospel known. Some of us may be ordained to this work, dedicated and set aside to a lifetime’s worth, but no Christian is without a call from God to serve in some manner in a way where those gifts of the Spirit are active and engaged in ways that serve God and neighbor alike.

So a sense of call for all congregants is especially important as a church involved with a bi-vocational pastor (that is, one who is part-time in active ministry and the other part is a matter of earning income elsewhere to help make ends meet for their household). The pastor was called to serve as your pastor, yet the call of God on each of you has not gone away once the pastor arrived on the scene. Your gifts to help the ministry and mission of this church flourish are needed and also, the church could not reach its higher potential if it was just left up to the “priesthood of the one”. All of you are called into this, especially now and in this model of ministry.

So you are here today not only to affirm your pastor’s gifts for ministry. You are here today to affirm to one another and to your pastor that you will be committed to the work of the church. You are installing a pastor as well as holding one another in prayer and accountability that you too will help with the ministry. A pastor cannot do much alone. None of us can. Indeed, hear the good news that the Lord has sent workers into the harvest fields, and the answer to your prayer of “Who will do this work?” is already answered in you, and you, and you, and you, and the pastor as well!

Let this day be a celebration of a new pastor who will care, teach and lead, yet also a day to celebrate that you are learning to live in a way that harkens back to the earliest days of Baptists. Our earliest generations of forebears did not have a largely well heeled, educated clergy. No, the early Baptist preachers, hymn writers and missionaries may have been closer to “bivocational pastors” in training and a sense of vocation. So, you are being the best of your past as you move into your future.

And futher more, the bivocational ministry is not a matter of one doing what they can part-time (or being at least paid a part-time wage with full-time service given to them). You are claiming your congregational identity as a partner in ministry with your pastor. You are claiming to God and these witnesses from other churches that you intend to be more committed and more involved in the life of this church, even as active attendance, financial resources and volunteer time to serve are at a thinner margin than most can remember.

Bivocational ministry is about calling. What is God calling you to do with your pastor and one another? Bivocational ministry is about commitment. Are you really ready to live within a model of ministry that asks for “believers” than “a believer” being that priesthood? Bivocational ministry is about collaboration. Are you ready to share of your own unique giftedness to help others learn and grow so that they too may join you in discovering the Gospel in all its fullness? 

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