Primarily, I intend this document to articulate my understanding of ministry in a general sense. That is, the material here addresses what I think ministry is in a functional and definitional way beyond just what I think ministry “means to me.” In attempting to be so bold as to title something “A Theology of X,” it strikes me that what is produced ought to be more than just individualized conviction, ought to attempt to lay out a sense of things beyond the personal level. Thus, I think it is vital to be able to articulate a category like “ministry” in a way such that it is not simply a personal statement of preference and opinion, but an attempt to actually make a claim about the nature of ministry in a denominationally and historically justified context. This is an attempt to make just such a claim.
NOTE: This is to be considered a permanently in-process draft. It is here both (1) for others to read in the event it is of use to them and (2) so that I can continue to develop it as I think through it in community. If you have thoughts you’d like to share one way or another I’d appreciate comments.
On the Nature of Ministry
At the core of my understanding of ministry are three affirmations.
- Ministry arises in individuals in the context of community for the sake of helping people enter the Kingdom of God.
- All people – of every age, sex, and orientation – are called to ministry and some are called to a greater degree than others.
- The gifts of the ministry are not the minister’s but God’s, stewarded by the minister while they rest with his or her person.
Inherent to this view of ministry is an understanding that the Priesthood of all Believers is an actual work of Grace from God such that the notion of “the laity” has been abolished. All are called to the ministry and are ordained by virtue of their baptism into service for God to the whole of the world. Those of us who serve more intentionally or regularly are merely called to that task more directly, there is nothing more granted to those who serve in the ministry than that service and the opportunity to more faithfully labor under the yoke of Christ. That being said, I do affirm that “some have a more particular call to the work of the ministry and that therefore… are especially equipped for that work by the Lord. [And that our] work is to instruct, exhort, admonish, oversee, and watch over our brethren more frequently and more particularly than the others” (Barclay 215).
I believe that the gift of prophecy – in the sense of Divinely Inspired speech, not future predictive speech – is yet still poured on flesh and that it is especially upon those who serve in Ministry to not speak frivolously or without mind towards the possibility that we may be called into speaking prophetically at any time. “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:31-33). In more contemporary terms I find that I unite with the language of Brian Drayton who writes that “a concern for the ministry is a calling to be intentionally available to put our experience of the divine light and life at the disposal of others, for their refreshment and encouragement… a commitment to redouble our inward watchfulness, so that we grow in faithfulness, and grow in our ability to serve” (Drayton 17). In effect, I understand Ministry as an act of catalysis, the bringing forth of some word, some story, or some comfort that enables those present to come more fully into the Presence of God which was most certainly there prior to the minister’s arrival. The particulars of the action(s) done by the minister differ according to the spiritual gifts and leadings of the individual, but their effect is that people are intentionally brought closer to one another, to God, and/or to Creation.
On the Calling to Minister
While it follows from the above, it is worth mentioning the means by which one is called to ministry. Put another way, how does one come to be a minister? Again, I stand firmly with my tradition and affirm that “by the inward power and virtue of the Spirit of God, which will not only call the minister, but will – in some measure – purify and sanctify him or her… Since the things of the Spirit can only be truly known by the aid of the Spirit of God, it is by this same Spirit than one is called and moved to minister to others. Thus, the minister is able to speak from a living experience…” (Barclay 219). The intent here is to affirm that from beginning to end, to the extent that there is any transformation or revelation through the work of the minister, its source was not that person, but the Spirit which inspires all.
I think that it is incredibly important that those of us called into ministry never come into contempt of those we are to serve or come to think that somehow we have been given more than them. I think often of Paul’s letter, “for what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). The calling is not into any social esteem or power. Mine is the task to be of service to others, not to adjudicate or cast dispersions upon them, but to be a servant to them. A bondservant.
Furthermore, as a calling, I believe that the impulse to serve can also be lifted such that the “more particular call to the work of the ministry” no longer compels someone into service. I do not think that God ever withdraws the call to serve, which we are all to be engaged in, but I do think that the “more particular call to the work of the ministry” can have its season and may then transform or be put to rest. This means that we must be in regular discernment: Am I being called into a particular service? If I have been called before, is that calling still live? Is it changing?
On the Qualities of Ministry
Ministry is a way to embody the claims of the Gospel about liberation, justice, and freedom through service. Enacting ministry is to demonstrate that when we act from our core convictions we can bring an increasing awareness of the presence of God. That is, ministry is both about action and being. That being said, it ought not be measured by the worldly yardstick of “success,” lest we forget the parable of the sower and lose track of the fact that ours is merely the task of sowing seed and not to ensure that each one cast grows. Conversely, while faithfulness – rather than “success” – is always to be the primary mark of “a job well done” it is important that attention be paid to the wake in the minister’s passing. That is, if the minister is constantly leaving behind crowds of sad, weary, and listless people who do not seem any more marked by the Kingdom of God, well… then something might be up.
In a situation such as this if I maintain that I have been nonetheless faithful though no mark of love, joy, or liberation is noted, a sincere and weighty period of discernment is in order. I believe firmly that our service in ministry is a form of discipleship and ought to be patterned as Jesus taught: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). My service is perhaps best marked not by particular sermons, services, or articles, but in the character of the relationships I cultivate within and beyond my community.
I think that Ministry also has the quality of transforming not only the communities in which the minister serves, but also the minister. I agree with Lloyd Lee Wilson that “the individual who does not feel stretched out by calling, who does not feel to some degree exposed and made vulnerable by the act of ministry, is not likely to be surrendered and accountable to the true promptings of the Holy Spirit” (Wilson 73). Another way of thinking about this is that I believe that the minister functions as a conduit of God’s Grace and Spirit, and as such, the ministry that flows from the minister will be marked by the qualities of God’s Grace and Spirit as well, namely that God “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-3). As a conduit to these graces, if I find that I am myself not more deeply reflecting these qualities I must question the rightness of my service.
Note that nowhere in this articulation is a description of powerful intellect, rigorous debate, or proof. This is on purpose as I believe the fullest power of God does not come through physical or mental coercion. That is, I believe that “Truth proceeds from an honest heart. When it is forthrightly spoken by the virtue and Spirit of God it will have more influence and take effect sooner and more forcefully than a thousand demonstrations of logic”(Barclay 200). I think that academic prowess can certainly supplement faithful service, and, in fact, feel that sometimes education can be a ministry, however the emphasis is always to be on God and the Kingdom of God and not on my own faculties.
The minister’s relationship to scripture is two-fold.
First, it is one of a dear companion with whom much is shared, all is entrusted, and yet with whom there are sometimes terrific arguments and disagreements. Scripture is the record that we have of human reflections upon God, including the life and sacrifice of Jesus and the culture and world from which he came. It is inspired and yet if we are to be critically engaged, thinking servants we must acknowledge that at times it frustrates and confuses us.
Second, it is one of the type of acknowledged limitation as might be encountered when reflecting upon a much-loved and much-used tool box full of the finest tools when the problem at hand is a broken heart. There are many fine metaphors and truths that the scriptures contain, and they are pertain absolutely to our lives, but they will not in and of themselves mend broken people. That task is God’s alone to do. Too often I find that the Bible is treated like an added fourth person of the Trinity, or worse, as a substitute for the Spirit. That is not something I find useful or spiritually beneficial.
Furthermore, while education may assist in helping the minister to more fully understand the scriptures and help them bear fruit in the church, I do not believe that it is necessary. Again, I find powerful resonance with my tradition: “All that someone can interpret from the scriptures though industry, learning, and knowledge of languages is nothing without the Spirit… Whereas, by the Spirit, a poor, illiterate person can say when she hears the scriptures read “This is true.” And by the same Spirit she can understand “open,” and interpret it, if necessary. When her “condition” answers the condition and experience of the faithful of old, she knows and possesses the truths that are expressed there, because they are sealed and witnessed in her own heart by the same Spirit” (Barclay 49).
That is, as with the calling and nature of ministry I believe that the origins of service and action rest firmly with the Holy Spirit, even when that action is the right reading and interpretation of scripture. This is said in no uncertain terms again in Barclay’s Apology.
Because the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself, they are not to be considered the principal foundation of all truth and knowledge. They are not even to be considered as the adequate primary rule of all faith and practice… We truly know them only by the inward testimony of the Spirit or, as the scriptures themselves say, “the Spirit is the guide by which the faithful are led into all Truth” ( John 16:13). Therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the f irst and principal leader (Rom 8:14). Because we are receptive to the scriptures, as the product of the Spirit, it is for that very reason that the Spirit is the primary and principal rule of faith” (Barclay 46).
On the Minister, who Stewards the Gift of Ministry
While it is the case that the Minister’s service is primarily as a function of conduit to God’s Grace and Love via the Spirit, it is nonetheless the case that the minister remains clay-footed and human. While the Spirit moves as it will and manifests as it does without apparent particular concern for human desire, the minister has significantly more limitations. Rather than consider this a negative thing however, I believe that it is a beautiful reminder of our finitude and our reliance on God. Were ministers suddenly transformed into superheros then our capacity to serve would be impeded in two immediate ways.
First, we would find it all the more challenging to act in humility and service, and second, others would look to us and not find connection, thinking that perhaps only “special” people can follow God’s vision. Instead, we are called in our brokenness to witness to the world that even through it God can redeem and uplift. I am regularly encouraged by the words of George Fox written in an epistle to traveling Friends ministers in1656:
This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples, in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savor, and a blessing.
As such I feel as if the minister’s life ought to be one of increasing integrity in all places: home, store, service, work, and play. If our “carriage and life” is to preach, if our very walking upon the ground is to be a pattern and example, then our health must be tended to, our family must be given space, time, and love, and we must remember that God’s work is for God and those of us who serve can only help but where we can.
Barclay, R. Barclay’s Apology. Dean Freiday (ed.)
Newberg, OR: The Barclay Press. 1991.
Drayton, B. On Living with a Concern for the Gospel Ministry.
Philadelphia, PA: Quaker Press. 2006.
Wilson, L. Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.
Philadelphia, PA: Quaker Press. 1996.