Ministry today: Incubating crisis or incubating transformation

Ministry is many things; some of them remain unchanged. The unchanging pillars of pastoring, preaching and teaching have remained throughout the history of the role of the minister, albeit adapted to different times and places. Each of these may be redefined or explicated but they remain core to the role. Pastoring includes responding to challenging events in peoples lives, dealing with the faith questions raised by members of the flock, visiting hospitals, nursing homes etc., and following those who are falling away so as to assure them of their worth and belonging to the fellowship of the church community. Pastoring also includes the less well defined notion of availability – reacting to those unexpected phone calls, taking time with people to allow questions and difficulties to emerge and simply moving at a slow enough pace to assure people that if they want to open up a larger subject that will be welcomed. Availability is perhaps more crucial that it ever has been in a world where no one has time and things move at the pace of twitter. On the other hand, the very world that needs availability mitigates against it as pastors play their part in todays fast paced world. Preaching has always been central to the role of the minister in the Reformed tradition. It includes teaching but has many other aspects to it – declaring the Word, applying the Word into the world of the day, bringing the Word into dialogue with the circumstances of the day and the circumstances of the lives of those who sit in the pews. Preaching requires thought and a willingness to connect life experience to the Word. At its best it is not a declaring of the Word no matter what is going in the world but a speaking of the Word because of the world as it is experienced. There is a tradition abroad today which elevates the preaching of the Word above the other fundamental aspects of ministry so that it is easily disconnected from life, hewn from the hermeneutical circle to be separate and without foundation in the real lives of everyday followers of Jesus. Teaching takes on many faces in the life of the minister. From small communion classes, to quiet conversations in peoples homes, to sermons or teaching classes, the teaching role assists in bringing people into faith and bringing them on a journey of faith. If the emphasis in ministry is too much on bringing people to faith then the role of the teacher in deepening and embedding faith is compromised and equally if there is no concern to teach in order to invite a response of faith then the teaching becomes an academic exercise with no result in people’s lives. The flexibility of the teacher is essential in order that they adapt to different audiences, at different times and in different places. Pastor, preacher and teacher – these foundational and core functions of ministry continue to make meaning both for the minister and for the people whom the minister is called to serve. Yet fundamental to the calling as these things may be the minister is so much more and is expected to be more, to fulfill other functions for the good running of the congregation and it’s mission both local and further afield. These other functions have become more difficult to define as the focus of congregational life has been pushed to be missional in character according to the General Assembly’s understanding of the local congregation as the primary unit of mission. Often under resourced congregations where ministers face an array of people whose lives are too busy and who make priorities along lines which place commitment to the church and its work on a continuum with other life choices, result in ministers stepping into many more roles than they are trained for, competent for or comfortable in. So ministers become strategic planners, facilitators of vision, challengers to new vision and implementers of that new vision. Ministers become community workers connecting with the organizations that exist across the parish area and they find themselves sitting on community councils as well as the other traditional community commitments such as school Boards of Governors. Ministers have come to lead disparate lives which arise not from a set of skills already possessed or being developed but from a set of circumstances in which they find themselves. How ministers weather the demands depends very much on internal resources, skill and the type of congregation to which ministry is attached. When all of this is set alongside the drive to engage members of congregations in the life, work and outreach of the congregation together with developing their worship leadership roles it is no wonder that ministers can no longer clearly define their work or the focus of their work. Some of what congregational members are taking on erodes the fundamental role of ministers as worship leaders step into some of the teaching and preaching space which ministers once occupied. This is not a criticism of that development but rather an observation of the impacts on ministers and their self-understanding. It is no wonder that ministers become disillusioned, uncertain of what they are achieving, weary and washed out as they push themselves to activity they neither planned nor were trained for and as they hand over aspects of ministry which they were originally bound to and called to. Feelings of failure and frustration are only compounded when seen inside the statistics for church attendance and financial giving over the last decades. As a bald statistic these figures present a decline which is startling and thought-provoking. Seeking to be effective, in whatever way ministers understand that and they understand it in different ways, becomes a challenge against a backdrop of decline and of disparate lives in which it is more difficult to make meaning. PCI has seen the crisis but, I would contend, has failed to name it adequately. The result is that ministers contain the crisis in order to protect their congregations from hopelessness on the one hand and in order to continue to make meaning for themselves on the other hand. The crisis in numbers has been noted with the shift to a more missional focus for congregational life. But this missional focus has not been matched by an across the board strategic response to focus resources effectively into the new situation. At every level of church life the difficulty is pushed to another level and others are made responsible. This ‘passing of the buck’ is facilitated by a lack of theological understanding of what church is. There is no new teaching on what it means to be church in the postmodern era which is often an experience of chaos and I would go so far as to contend that the chaos ‘out there’ is matched by chaos ‘inside’ the church. Ironically, I would contend, the internal chaos of the denomination has arisen not because the outside has come in but because the church has shut the windows and the doors to the outside. Effective and dynamic public ministries have been eschewed for the maintenance of an often failing congregational system which requires a duplication, indeed often multiplication, of resources that is no longer tolerated across society. So within a literal stones throw of each other congregations seek to provide an identical set of organizations and structures which use up all the available resources and free none to step outside the front door. This congregational or ‘fiefdom’ model of church is embraced to support the notion of the local congregation as the primary unit of mission while mitigating against space, time and imagination for ministry in a postmodern world in which people are faced with all kinds of choices, difficulties and sets of relationships none of which can be addressed by self-consumed congregations or a denomination interested in maintaining itself. Chaos will only begin to subside when the risky strategy of dying to the old and seeking the life of the new is adopted. There are grains of wheat that must fall into the ground and die if there is to be life and this will require a gutsy theology of hope together with a softening of the stiff-necked Presbyterian attitude to life. There is a crisis stretching now over decades. The crisis is not yet quite ready to erupt in a spectacular moment, nor is this crisis only at its beginning. It is well underway and there is still time to respond to it, to face it as a growth moment and take hold of the courage which is called for if the signs of the times are to be addressed. As long as the crisis is passed around the structures and as long as local congregations are retained as mirror images of one another, including the failing congregations which mirror one another particularly in the urban setting, there will be no alternative but for the spectacular moment to be reached. It would also be dangerous to make the assumption that this is an urban problem. The urban situation is a portent of things to come and not an aberration. The unaddressed and unacknowledged crisis leaves ministers as the incubators of the crisis. In their lives and work ministers incubate the crisis to protect their congregations from its reality, to maintain the vestiges of hope that exist and to make some meaning to their own lives. They attempt to maintain an atmosphere by which life can go on, taking to themselves the realities of the crisis. Behind them the denomination continues to pass the buck and in front of them sit ever more struggling people who seek refuge from the chaos of the worlds in which they live. This at least ministers can achieve – a place of refuge where the crisis is incubated in another space in order that people can be renewed to hold on for another while. The implications, however, for ministers and for ministry are far-reaching and frightening. There are costs to health and faith. There are costs to the capacity to vision a new church, dying to live, reformed and ever reforming. There are costs to the effectiveness of ministry both inside congregations and in localities. There are dangers to relationships and to good choices and the rising number of judicial challenges across the church is perhaps enough evidence to suggest that ministers incubating crisis is simply not working. In truth most ministers began with a vision of a life and calling in which transformation could not only be incubated but loosed from the incubator to stand on its own two feet. That transformation is understood in many different ways, as social justice or being born again for example, but nevertheless there is a common vision for transformation of individual lives, congregations and the world. There is now an obligation for the denomination to face the crisis as it is unfolding, to face the lie that all is well, to resist the story that the world has had no effect on us and to rebuild a radical vision for a community of faith transformed and transforming. There is no alternative but to own a vision of dying in order to live and ministers face the greatest dilemma in deciding whether to collude with the crisis and bear the consequences of incubating the crisis as if martyrs or whether to examine the ground for new places to step which will open up new connections, new ways of thinking and a rejuvenated radical, theological and biblical understanding of what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ in todays world. The process will be inevitably painful as the place of refuge will itself be diminished but as the life-support is withdrawn to see if the body of Christ can breath without these false supports then in the mercy of God new life with splutter into reality. For ministers new roles, for congregations new arrangements and for the denomination new responsibility is the ultimate for change-making out of chaos and into life.

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