[This post is the last (bar conclusions) of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

On a Sunday night more than twenty years ago, I sat in the balcony of the large church in which I grew up listening to a missionary give a talk about her experiences working in Mexico. Her words were powerful, but it was her passion that made a deep impression on me. This woman loved the people she had been working with. Her love was clear as she spoke, and I was moved in ways I didn’t understand.

It is this experience that I identify as the first stirrings of what I came to understand as my call to ministry – to love people as God loves them, to serve people, to help them discover a more full and healthy life. For nearly two decades I searched for the right expression of this calling, eight years ago, I thought I had found it.

Every day Facebook reminds me of my “memories” – the things I have posted about, or others posted on my virtual wall, “on this day” over all the years in which I have had an active account. Recently I found a post about my nerves prior to an interview about my desire to train for ministry in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. I had been asked to give a brief presentation on the topic “What is the role of a Baptist minister in the 21st century.” In the comments on this post, a friend had asked for clarification on how “Baptist” would change my answer. In response, I wrote a post on my then-blog entitled “the role of a minister.”

Looking over this blog post (and if you choose to click through and read it, please understand this blog represents a different “me” than I now am) I can see the same core ideal of ministry that I internalised all those years ago. For me to be a minister is, first and foremost, “to walk with people through all the joy and pain of life.” I believed that ministry “in the 21st century” could be played out differently:

We seek to spread the message of Jesus as a contagious disease rather than an exclusive club. We seek to preach in how we live, attempting to cultivate integrity, humility and solidarity with others, avoiding violence in our words about and towards others as well as our actions.

As is frequently the case with my brain, my ideas about “being a minister” were big and general – love, encouragement, teaching, walking alongside – rather than detailed and structured. In my head, the minister is the one who loves as Jesus loves, who is, to borrow a phrase from my past “Jesus with skin on.” There are many songs about being Jesus’ body – his hands reaching, touching, healing; his feet going to places of need; etc. In my heart, ministry was modelling this and encouraging others to join in the process of spreading love and peace.

Although I have been a Baptist all my life, it is only in recent years that I have began to wonder what is the theological basis for the role of “minister” within the free churches. In other, older traditions the minister is the priest, the representative of Christ, the mediator between the people and God, the administrator of the sacraments, the one who hears confession and offers absolution.

In these traditions, priesthood has a clearly necessary, theological role, connecting humanity to God in important, not to say indispensable, ways. In such a context, ordination is a sacrament which initiates an “ontological change” in the ordinand. He (usually) is fundamentally different in his being after undergoing ordination and becoming a priest. He is set apart and consecrated to carry out his indispensable divine task.

In a tradition that believes in the priesthood of all believers – the freedom of all to approach God through Jesus with no other mediator – the traditional theological content of the priesthood of ministry should be subsumed. There is no need for someone consecrated to serve communion. There is no need for someone ordained to pray or absolve. The role of “priest” belongs to everyone, and, therefore, logically should not belong to any one, particular person.

If this is the case, why do the free churches still invest so much in ministry and ministers? I have yet to discover a convincing theological explanation of the need for a minister in a free church context or what his or her role is meant to be. This is particularly complicated among Baptists, who have a principle of the freedom of conscience – meaning that there are probably as many opinions about any given topic of debate as there are Baptists in the room. Indeed, there’s an old joke that between two Baptists there will be three opinions.

The inevitable result, it seems to me, is that ministry becomes purely functional, and that function, as with all other matters of faith and practice among Baptist churches, is subject to the opinions of all interested parties. (That is to say, is subject to the will of Jesus through the leading of the Holy Spirit as discerned by the community in a Church Meeting.)

Practically, this leads to an exponential multiplication of roles for “the minister.” He or she is a pastor who cares for the needs of the flock, a teacher who believes and expounds correct doctrine, an administrator who sees the business of church gets done, a leader who identifies a vision and inspires others to follow it, a “priest” who performs rituals, the individual personification of “the church” or God or Jesus, and the one person in the church of whom it is acceptable to make unreasonable demands or to undermine and contradict with no reference to his or her feelings, needs or personal life.

In short, the lack of clarity on any theological basis for or definition of the role of “minister” within free church (or at least Baptist) tradition has created a vacuum of understanding that is filled by the individual needs, experiences, beliefs and cultural backgrounds of the various members of the church congregation all of whom desire, expect or demand different things of “their” minister.

The reality is that no one person has the gifting (or the time and personal resources) to meet all these expectations. A church/ministry relationship can work reasonably well when the diaconate or “leadership team” of a church recognises this, enables the gifts of their minister, and quietly sees to the other needs for ministry in their midst without trying to force him/her to meet them. Unfortunately too many churches are occupied by people who think a minister can and should be all these things. There are also still many who have a priestly view of Baptist ministers and complain that “no one” from the church has visited/spoken to/helped them merely because the minister hasn’t been available to do so.

As can be seen in several of the other topics I have visited in this series, my experience as a minister’s wife and a minister-in-training taught me to be wary of people in churches. Although there will always be some who support their minister and see the minister and his or her family firstly just as people and as someone filling a role, there will always be others (often the majority) to whom the minister is an object and the ministerial family are props. These people inevitably become angry or hurt when the minister fails to meet their uncommunicated (and often unacknowledged) expectations, and will take this out on those in ministry without humanity, decency or honesty.

I had high ideals of ‘being a minister’ – to help, to serve, to love. What I found instead were expectations that I should obey, surrender my intellectual integrity, alter my personality, and submit myself to the needs and desires of others without considering my own. My definition of my role and the ways I felt I could fill it were irrelevant to the institutionalised “church” which forced its own definitions and expectations onto me, as it does to so many others who desire to serve Christ and his body in this way. In many ways the death of my ideals about ordained ministry was the catalyst that forced me to confront the reality that I don’t believe in the church anymore.

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2 thoughts on “Disbelieving Church: Ministry

  1. So many of your comments on the roll(s) of ministers in protestant churches are right on the money. In the Presbyterian Church (at least the PCUSA) the minister is, in the Book of Order, referred to as a teaching elder. The minister chairs the the governing body of the congregation which is responsible for all the ministerial duties you mention. Ideally the minister and governing body together come to agreement as to how all the many tasks get done and by whom, recognizing that different people have different talents. Of course things don’t always work Ideally and there are those who expect more of the minister. You have learned so much, and invested so much. I am truly sorry for your disillusionment and that the church universal seems to have lost your talents. I do hope you find a way to do ministry that works for you.

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