"the" ministry

I have a pet peeve. It always gets me when people refer to ordained ministry as “the” ministry, as in, “How long have you been in the ministry?” The only “the” ministry is the ministry of the Church. Ordained folks are set aside for a handful of particular tasks within the larger Body. In the United Methodist Church, we understand those tasks for ordained elders to be under the headings of Word, Sacrament, and Order. Yes, we added “service” a few years ago, but service is a ministry that belongs to all Christians by virtue of their baptism and was added when we started ordaining deacons to service, probably so that we didn’t have deacons ordained to something that elders were not also ordained to. When we ordain deacons to Word and Service, in that instance, we are drawing on particular leadership within the service realm and pointing back to the ministry of food distribution in Acts 6 to which the early church appointed several folks to head up.

That being said, UM ordained elders are to attend to preaching and teaching and to oversee the teaching ministry of the congregation (Word), to oversee and administrate with discernment and integrity the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion (Sacrament), and leading the spiritual life and ministry of the congregation (Order). That’s it. That’s all that makes the ordained ministry any different from the ministry of any Christian. That’s why, in addition to designations of “lay” and “clergy,” we also use the terms “general ministry,” referring to the ministry of all Christians, and “representative ministry,” referring to ordained ministry. The ministry of ordained persons represents the ministry of all Christians, since the teaching and sacramental ministries belong not to the ordained, but to the Church as a whole. For integrity’s sake, we set aside some (who also feel a calling to be set aside) for the purpose of prayful study and reflection so that we the Church may teach the Word, administer the Sacraments, and order the community’s life and ministry together with all the theological integrity that are due these important tasks.

“The” ministry belongs to the whole Church. A few particular tasks related to that ministry are entrusted to the stewardship and leadership of the ordained members of the Body, but the ministry rests squarely on the entire Body of Christ. Let’s stop disempowering the laity and overburdening the clergy by continuing to refer to the ordained ministry as “the” ministry. When we leave out “ordained” between “the” and “ministry,” we skew our meaning severely.

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5 thoughts on “"the" ministry

  1. When people ask me, “How long have you been in ministry?” my standard answer is, “Do you mean (a) how long have I been in ministry, or, (b) how long have I beeen appointed to pastor a church?” They usually affirm that the latter is what they’re trying to ask.

    Sometimes when I’m feeling troublesome I follow up with the same question to them: “How long have you been in the ministry?” Perhaps if we “ministers” ask that of enough “non-ministers” they’ll get the hint.

  2. Well said, Guy. I agree completely. It’s probably good to let others know that, so they don’t feel “less” than ministers. I don’t think most ministers try to convey that feeling whatsoever but empowering & confirming that we too are in “the” ministry only builds everyone up. That can never be a bad thing.

  3. I have been thinking about this very thing recently. I was told that there have been more seminary students graduating who “feel” they are called to be pastors than there are Churches available in the UMC. So I got to thinking…If God is the one who calls us and gifts us to be Elders in the Church wouldn’t he know the exact number he needs for the UMC. I think we can safely say that we do not need more churches, or at least we need to close some Churches as we plant new ones (i’m all for church planting). As I heard one DS say recently, “we have the best churches man can make, we need the best churches God can make”. On the one hand we have all these churches which statistically a good portion of them are maintaining and not seeking the lost and on the other hand we have pastors we are simply creating positions for because we do not have enough churches to support “full time” pastors. This leads me to think that there are a great number of people who think they are called to be pastors who are not. But why? We all seem to agree that all are called to ministry. But what I see happen so often is that when someone says they feel called or shows an interest in scripture and sharing their faith, both clergy and laity begin to ask that person if they are thinking about being a preacher. I think the problem might be that we evangelicals get so caught up in “calling” we forget to talk about “sending”. God calls us all, but we are not all sent in the same directions.
    Do we, as seasoned Christians (not just pastors), take seriously our responsibility in helping one another with the discernment process to discover where God is sending us and others? How frustrated can we really get with laity when we reinforce the image? What are we doing to dispell the ministry myth? I’ve heard of the “Is God Calling Me” conferences, but where is the “Where is God sending me conference”?
    tangent done.

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