Every May I get to watch the Facebook updates of folks who are graduating from seminary, many – though definitely not all! – also becoming ordained and for some, beginning their full-time vocational ministry through an appointment to a church or ministry. Often times the first appointments are at a small country church off the beaten path. It is exciting to see the faces in the pictures, seeing both the excitement and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
Though I have never been ordained, I have served churches in various capacities and, much more importantly, I have attended church for all of my life. I have worked under and attended church under some really, talented, amazing pastors. My current pastor is the most amazing pastor I know in fact. I have also worked for and attended church under some pastors who were either awful or abusive. I have seen the good and the bad and I feel deeply invested in the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.
So, I want to offer my unsolicited thoughts and hopefully, exhortations to all entering full-time vocational ministry – particularly those newly ordained and beginning their ministry in the coming weeks.
First, no matter what your theological or political leanings are, your call is essentially the same: love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!). One particular encouragement I want to make will sound strange coming from someone who works at GBCS, but here it is nonetheless. Don’t try to be prophetic. Just stick to what is essentially the same call for all of us – love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!).
Why don’t try and be prophetic? Here’s why. I am quite suspicious of people or organizations who wake up one day and “decide to speak prophetically” about some issue they feel passionate about. How are you, of your own volition, able to speak with God’s mind and God’s voice regarding something God is deeply passionate about? Certainly it is incumbent on us to speak and act on what God is passionate about, but we do not have the power to be prophetic. I believe the prophetic is more gift of the Holy Spirit than a result of our own decision-making, or especially the decision of some group or agency in the church.
I also strongly believe that you can think you are being prophetic and not be loving, but you cannot fully love without being prophetic. Try loving all of God’s people in your community (and remember Wesley said the world was his parish and not just the butts in the seats of our comfortably-located sanctuaries!) without ultimately speaking out for those who are marginalized or oppressed. If you can go 2 years – heck, if you can go for a single year – without speaking to the economic inequities, or the demonic nature of racism, or the warehousing of millions of people through the criminal justice system, or the objectification of women, or any number of other issues present in your community (and I don’t care where you live, they are there) then you really haven’t loved the people in your community. You likely do not even know your community. You are probably just doing church maintenance.
More importantly than speaking, if you are loving God’s people then you will not be able to go a year without finding ways to bridge any separations or detachments that exist between your congregation and your community so that all the people in your community and congregation may not only know your love – they might know the love of the Body of Christ and hence, the presence of God. Love God’s people, just love ‘em.
My second exhortation is this: after a few years (maybe shorter for some or longer for others), you will be tempted to think the problem with the Church is with the people. But let me tell you this: the problem ain’t the people, it’s the system; it’s the institution. I know there are problem folks in every congregation and unfortunately, some congregations have more than their fair share. The Church attracts problem people like white on rice. But who did you expect to be in the church? A church full of Oprah Winfrey’s – fully actualized, spiritually self-sufficient (though is one supposed to be spiritually self-sufficient?), and extremely wealthy so there is never any problem with the church budget? The healthy don’t need a physician, the sick do, and sadly, the church is swimming with needy, enmeshed, emotionally detached, angry, racist, classist, hurting people. Sometimes it feels like the church is drowning with them. Guess what you are supposed to do?
LOVE THEM. Yep, go back and see #1.
The problem ain’t the people, it’s the system. What kind of system anoints one person to head at least one, and sometimes, unbelievably up to 4 congregations? What kind of a system circulates people around geographically every 3-5 years touting that this sole person is the fount from which all of the vital ministry of the local congregation will emanate? What kind of a system is it that calls good behavior paying the bills and adding butts in seats (and let’s face it, you could have one butt in the seat if that one butt paid all of your apportionments and the system would only sit back and smile) and rewarding that “good behavior” through higher paychecks and bigger churches just as if you were working at IBM?
What kind of a system does all this? A corporation, not a Body.
So, when you are tempted to blame the people for their odd behavior, remember, they are behaving exactly as the system expects them to. I truly believe that for the Kingdom to break through in your local congregation you are going to have to resist the strong temptation of corporate relevancy and institutional conformity and you will just have to love God’s people. #1 really is a keeper. Don’t buy in to someone else’s definition of a good church “career.” Just love God’s people and let those who climb the institutional ladder get lost in the building of their own empires. Be true and love God’s people.
Thirdly, remember that as you are called to be ordained, as God has called you to lead the Church, as you have been set apart for the purpose of serving the Body of Christ; lay people are called to ministry as well. If we have received the transforming power of God’s grace and love, then we are called by God to participate in the building of God’s Kingdom. God has significant callings on the lives of lay people. Often, it is the lay people who will do mighty things more so than those who are ordained.
Just as you resist corporate relevancy and institutional conformity you will need to resist the false dichotomy that has developed separating the ordained from the non-ordained. As a lay person I do not mean to take anything away from those who have gone through ordination. It is a high and holy calling and one I celebrate for many of my friends though not for myself personally.
But those who are ordained are not loved by God any more than anyone else. You were not created more special than others. In fact, your calling is most difficult of all for you are called to empower and lift up others, often while standing unheralded behind the stage. That can be hard!
But as soon as you see your congregation as not just a bunch of random individuals waiting for you to pour your magical words into, and instead, see us as fellow members of the Body of Christ filled with the Spirit and called to do amazing and spectacular deeds for the building up of the Kingdom of God, the sooner you will see the Kingdom moving in your community. Our churches are vital not because we have a preacher who is the best in town. We have significant ministries in our local congregations because we have churches filled with people collaboratively living out missional dreams and visions given to us by God for the purpose of building the Kingdom; a Kingdom eradicating poverty, eliminating oppression, and celebrating diversity. As an ordained leader, lead us in the articulation and manifestation of those dreams and visions.
And in a letter already too long, lastly, have fun. Too much in the church is taken WAY too seriously. There are too many battles, too many fights and too many endless debates and “conversations.” Fighting oppression, lifting up those who are voiceless, welcoming the marginalized into our communities and so much more all is fun! Live into the excitement that is the Kingdom and make folks laugh along the way.
God has called you to the most important work on the face of the earth: leading the Body of Christ in building the Kingdom of God on earth. There is truly nothing greater to do. So, work hard, pray unceasingly, take care of yourself and your family, and laugh. It’s a good life.