Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What is Ministry?

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 2008

What is Ministry?

Some of you know that in January at the diocesan convention Bishop Beckwith appointed me to the Commission on Ministry. Traditionally the COM has been responsible for dealing with people who believe they are called to ordained ministry as a deacon or priest. The COM does interviews, reads documents, checks on academic progress and ultimately votes on whether they recommend a candidate for ordination. Although certainly this has always been an important job, the focus of the COM has been exclusively on those who feel called to ordained ministry, necessarily ignoring the ministry of lay people.

The Canons of the Episcopal Church are very clear that this focus on ordained ministry is far too narrow. Title III, Canon 1, Section 1 states: Each Diocese shall make provision for the affirmation and development of the ministry of all baptized persons, including: (a) Assistance in understanding that all baptized persons are called to minister in Christ’s name, to identify their gifts with the help of the Church and to serve Christ’s mission at all times and in all places. (b) Assistance in understanding that all baptized persons are called to sustain their ministries through commitment to life-long Christian formation.

At the diocesan convention Bishop Beckwith announced that for a year no new people would be allowed to enter the ordination process so that the COM would have this time for discernment – a chance to figure out how it could move from the old model of focusing only on those in the ordination process to a larger responsibility for supporting the ministry of all baptized persons. It has been an enormous and complicated task. We are more than halfway through the year and much work remains to be done. I’ve half-joked that we could have used a year of discernment before our year of discernment!

In our discussions we realized that we needed to find out how parishioners understand ministry and how they see and do ministry in their lives. Is ministry only doing specifically religious or charitable acts? Or can we be ministers in our daily lives? Can we, in the words of the canon, “serve Christ’s mission at all times and in all places”? Can we be ministers in the office? Can we be ministers on the playground? Can we be ministers in the supermarket?

In order to find out what people thought, each COM member asked a group of people from their own parish two questions: What is ministry? How is ministry done at our church? For my part I got in touch with a number of Grace Church parishioners by email and received some very interesting, thoughtful and sometimes beautiful responses to these questions.

To define ministry a couple of people rightly turned to the dictionary or the prayer book. Others took a crack at offering their own definition. One person wrote, “…I would define ministry as trying to understand and carry out what God would have us do to the best of our ability.” Another person elaborated on the same idea, “I think ministry is serving others using the gifts we have been given as individuals by God. Part of that includes pushing ourselves past our comfort zones – whether that is something like public speaking or giving up attachments to vocation, place or material things. (I don’t think God ever wants us to give up our primary relationships.) And I think it means considering our ministry in the context of prayer, so that we can discern how best God wants us to minister to the world.”

Another person offered a very concise definition: “Ministry is the work we do to serve God and the world.” She viewed ministry as a response to needs – the needs of our church community and a response to the needs of the wider community around us. She also saw ministry as a response to our own personal needs – “our longing and need to serve.” She also asked her young daughter, “What do you think ministry is?” And the girl answered “I think it’s church.”

So, what do you think ministry is? To help all of us answer that question, beginning in September one adult seminar a month will tackle the issue of ministry and how we do ministry here at Grace Church. I will lead the first discussion on September 28 and hope that many of you will be able to attend. In the meantime, take some time this summer to think about your definition of ministry and what kind of ministry you have done in the past and might be open to in the future. In the next issue of The Messenger I’ll write about what parishioners had to say about how we do ministry here at Grace Church.