Whom does the minister serve?








Being back in a Church of Scotland context, in my placement, reminds me of what always seemed a crucial difference between my idea of the primary context of ministry and that of my fellow students from the Kirk.

As someone who belongs to a denomination formed out of traditions who self-consciously distanced themselves from established or national churches the natural focus of ministry and of church life is the congregation. Our (often unconscious) image of ourselves is of the particular (or peculiar) people called to be God’s people (whatever that might mean. The minister is called to serve the congregation in responding to that call. The working out of that response includes understanding how the congregation is to serve the community (or communities) it is set amongst but is not necessarily entirely dominated by that context.

My perception of ministers in the national church is that they see themselves as called to serve the parish, the people of the geographical locality defined by the church, rather than the congregation. The church has a responsibility to all the people of the parish, whether they feel any call to Christian discipleship or not. One expression of this is the funerals and weddings conducted, another might be “evangelism”, often there are elements of community building and service (as expressed most concentratedly in the establishment of “priority areas).

These aspects of service to community are not absent in the URC, far from it, after all we have a commissioned ministry of the Church Related Community Worker, but we do not have either the geographical unit of the parish nor a felt obligation to be present everywhere. We exist where there is a congregation called to be part of us and nowhere else.

This difference reflects itself, it seems to me, in the instinctive attitude of the minister to the congregation (not in all cases but as a tendency in the two denominations). In my case, and I think I express at least a tendency in my denomination, I regard the congregations I will serve as the main focus of my ministry. It is they who have called me and it is through my ministry to them that I will answer my call.

This may in part reflect my own feeling that it is to a ministry of teaching and preaching that I have been summoned (discussed here) but it is also consonant, I think, with the constitutional predisposition of the dissenting gathered church. Service to the wider community is not foreign but it is subordinate, in my case, to service to the congregation, and may well be primarily operative through enabling the congregation to hear its call to such service.

In the national church this is much less obviously order of priority. It could be felt that if the congregation make demands on the minster’s time this distracts him or her from ministry to the wider parish. It might even be the case (as I have heard some CofS candidates say) that the primary vocation is to those outside the church, who need the minister’s attention more than those inside, whether because it is imperative that they hear the Gospel and be converted or because they are more needy in other, less immediately spiritual, ways. My kind of ministry could be dismissed as “chaplaincy” by people who felt this (and it must be said some inside the URC would use this term in this way).

My point here is not (as it would have been 2 years ago) to argue that my theology of Church and ministry is better than that of my colleagues who stand closer to the traditions of the established or national church. It is rather to say that there is something to be said for both.

There is plenty of Biblical warrant for the idea of the Church as the new or expanded chosen people. The idea that called has called out a new people to be God’s earthly representatives or home (depending on one’s preferred ecclesiological metaphors). This can be heard and understood as supporting the idea of the Church as a peculiar people, an ecclesiology of separation and in a contemporary context where Christians in our country are clearly a minority this makes more sense.

However we also believe and assert that Christ is Lord of all, not just of those who recognise him as such. This might well be taken to imply that those who are called into the body of Christ are called also to a universal service. The civil authority (to use the Reformation designation of what we would now call the state) covers a geographical space claiming dominion over all within it. Why should the church do less? I have to confess to not being wholly convinced by this line of reasoning but neither to I fell able to dismiss it.

There must be room for both conceptions of the church and of ministry and I wish my friends in the national church who feel called to a parish ministry in this fullest sense the very best in pursuing that vocation.

1 comment
  1. JohnO said:

    Interesting thoughts, especially as I am beginning to work through some of what you’re thinking of in the reality of parish ministry.
    I do acknowledge my responsibility to both ‘parties’ and juggling time between them is difficult. I’m also realising that to do the parish work requires a negotiation with the congregation (or at least the Session) to give me the freedom to commit time to the parish. That comes down to managing expectations, enabling others and re-aligning deeply entrenched mindsets.
    There is no shortage of calls to ‘get more people’, ‘engage with the younger generation’, ‘do more schools work’, ‘increase the congregation/church’s profile in the community’. But when that means you can’t spend every waking minute visiting the elderly, housebound, ill, etc, then much muttering seems to ensue. The problem is that all of these things are often seen as the minister’s job. It then comes down to having the ‘strength’ to hold out for what you’ve deemed important in your own ministry priorities.
    Thankfully, many congregatiosn are beginning to see that ministry is becoming more and more of a team effort. And a lot of the training (at least with the CofS) is geared towards effective team-working. So things are changing, albeit slowly.

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