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Monday, May 03, 2010

What is ministry?

Ms. Conroy and I rarely, if ever, argue.

Which, considering we are both astrologically Taurus, is a damn miracle.

We had a humdinger of an argument the other night. About ministry. Of course.

In her defense, I think Ms. Conroy fell into the game that has been played for - oh, I don't know - at least the last decade in The Episcopal Church.

We are oh-so-anxious about being oh-so-careful to be oh-so-inclusive that we have reduced everything - including a definition of ministry - to the least common denominator.

It's the position that, why, by golly, if we are all baptized then we are all minsters and well then, gosh darn it, you know what? Everything we do is ministry!

Meet someone in the grocery store who is having a bad day and say a kind word? Why, that's ministry!

Know someone from your church or neighborhood who is in the hospital and go to visit them? Why, that's ministry!

Wait till they get home and bring them a casserole or homemade soup, some bread and a salad? Why, that's ministry!

Ummm . . . No. No, it's not. Not necessarily.

If you are a Christian, it's certainly an act of Christian charity and kindness.

If you are a Jew or a Muslim, it's an act of Jewish or Muslim charity and kindness.

If you are a pagan or a heathen, it's still an act of charity and kindness.

Anybody can do that. Please, God, that more of us would.

That doesn't make it ministry, necessarily.

I would like to think that ministry has more to do with intention.

And, prayer.

And, maybe even some reading and reflection.

Perhaps just a tad of education and training.

Like I said - intention and prayer.

I don't think we do justice to either our baptismal vows or the ministry of the baptized by reducing things to the lowest common denominator.

Here's what I think: Quite frankly, "Everything is ministry" is a crock.

To assert that "Everyone who is baptized is a minister" is a less a statement of the obvious and more a call to prayerful discernment, intention, education and training.

I think the question one needs to ask in order to answer the question "What is ministry?" is "How can I serve?" The emphasis being on the word "serve" and the question "how".

I remember doing my third unit of CPE at a private psychiatric facility outside of Boston. My CPE supervisor was a craggy old Rabbi - a very wise wise guy - who asked questions so pointed they often hurt.

"I know this is your first week of CPE," he said, "but I need someone to take call this weekend. Anyone willing and/or able to do it?"

There was silence around the room. I carefully considered it and thought, Oh, what the hell, I'll do it.

"Sure," I said, "I'll do it."

"Okay," said the Rabbi. "But, why?"

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Why?" asked the Rabbi. "Why would you do that?"

"Well," I said, "because you obviously needed someone, and I can arrange to be available, so, I'll do it."

"Oh, so you are being a good Christian martyr, sacrificing yourself and your own needs to fulfill another's need?"

"No," I said, a little more than annoyed. Which, of course, was his point.

"So," said the Rabbi, smelling blood on the water, "You'll do it because you want to make the others in this group look like schmucks and you're the hero?"

"Of course not," I scoffed, looking up to see raised eyebrows all around the room.

"Well then, you are just being efficient and pragmatic, like a good Anglican - getting this obligation off your plate early and looking good to boot."

Frustrated, I said, "Sure, yeah, that's it. Whatever. Look, do you want me to cover call this weekend or not? Because, you know, I sure don't need to do it and I most certainly don't need this aggravation. So, you decide. You want me or not?"

"Ah," said the Rabbi, "At least now we are coming closer to the truth. This is good. This is, in fact, wonderful. Now we can talk. Really talk."

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room before the Rabbi said, "The world would be a better place - Religious Communities would be better places, producing better people - if those who did ministry or mitzvahs in the name of the institution got really, really clear first why they are doing what they are doing."

He continued, "More damage has been done in the name of God than any other name by religious people who mean well but are driven by their own unexamined motives."

"The clearer you are about why you are doing something," he said, "the better prepared and equipped you will be to manage what you are about to do. And," he added, "the less likely you are to do damage - all in the name of God."

That was almost 25 years ago, and I've never forgotten the good Rabbi's word. I think he was speaking a very uncomfortable, most inconvenient truth.

Furthermore, I suspect that, if all ministry came out of a sense of community, we'd begin to see more effective ministry being done.

That's because I believe that if ministry came out of a sense of community, we'd tap into mechanism of accountability that are automatically but silently and inconspicuously in place when we are in relationship with each other.

Perhaps it's because I live in the land of rugged individualism where white picket fences are not as much an architectural staple but more a silent but very clear statement about the rigidly imposed boundaries of relationships.

Perhaps it's because I live in a place where people like to do their own thing - when and if they can - and at their own pace and in accordance with their own schedule.

Not in formalized programs where accountability and mutuality and on-going education, training and support are part of the effort.

Not that this is necessarily bad or wrong.

It's not. Absolutely not.

These are acts of good Christian charity. In fact, it could be any religion's act of charity. Indeed, it could even be considered secular charity.

But, please. Don't call it ministry.

Not unless you want an argument.


Elaine C. said...

I've an ongoing conflict with a few folks in the parish who keep playing the game that they will do what they want in the name of the parish, and if anybody disagrees with them, or asks for accountability or teamwork, instead of "doing it their way" they stamp their feet, gather up their toys, quit and go home, because "people are being mean to them" --

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wait, wait, wait. You live in Chatham, too?

Mary-Cauliflower said...

As a lay person, I would even venture to say that "ministry" can be used in a condescending way sometimes. My daily work helping people with their writing and presentations. When I'm able to help them bring forth their best ideas, get their thoughts clear, polish and disentangle opinions and arguments - I'm making a contribution that is the result of about 25 years' worth of discernment, training, gut knowledge, and prayer.
When someone praises my sending a greeting card, sending flowers, or providing a snack as a "ministry," I feel I'm being treated like the family pet. (If pets had checking accounts.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

That's because it IS condescending, Mary-Cauliflower. I just wish more members of the laity would speak up as clearly as you just have - to clergy and other members of the laity.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Conroy is right. You are way over thinking this thing. Just let God work through people. Thought is not needed. A willing heart to hear the holy Spirit is needed.

kitty said...

Thank you for an excellent essay. You're right, not everything we do is a ministry and not all of us are ministers. I know I'm just a lay person who gets enjoyment out of doing things I choose to do (as opposed to feeling pious or spiritual because I do them). I'm not sure what I would do as a "ministry" if I had to label myself as some sort of minister. All I can do is love God and try to help other people because then I feel my existence is justified although I know God doesn't see it that way.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

See, I think that's part of the problem, Anonymous. Any argument - or, prayer for that matter - that starts with "just" is a tip off that not enough thought is going into it.

Anybody can and should do acts of charity.

Ministry is different.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kitty - See, I think we who are baptized ARE all ministers. I think we are all ministers who are all called beyond acts of charity into intentional acts of ministry. Someone sick and could use a casserole? Yes, please do bring it to them. That's a wonderful act of charity done by a baptized minister of the church. Coordinate a regular delivery of casseroles that takes into the dietary concerns/needs of the person? Ah, now we've moved beyond charity and into ministry. See?

Bill said...

Referring to the statement made by anonymous (I can never grasp the need for anonymity): “Thought is not needed. A willing heart to hear the holy Spirit is needed.” Thought is not needed if you’re a turnip. If you’re a walking, talking person, then thought is not only needed but required. The rest of that statement is just the holy, holy, holy stuff that we throw back at priests when we try to tell them what we think they want to hear.
I know that some folks think that everything they do is ministry. If that’s what they think then fine. I won’t dispute it because I don’t set myself up as an expert in these matters. I do however, believe that ministry doesn’t stand alone. There are other components and one of them is commitment. If I help an old lady across the street, that’s nice but where is the commitment? Showing up week after week to visit the elderly shut-ins, is a commitment. This is where all the goodness and holy, and loving verbiage is just so much hogwash. There are weeks where the last thing I want to do is drive 20 miles and take two hours out of the middle my day. But I do it anyway. I usually feel better after it’s done, but not all the time. If the Holy Spirit wants some of the credit, let him pay for the gasoline. I don’t hear little voices in my head (at least not any more) telling me that this or that is what God wants. What I do get in my head are the faces of all those people who have been forgotten by family and friends. I can’t ignore those faces and that is why I make the effort to show up. I don’t think that Baptism is a prerequisite. There have been countless humanitarians who have never taken the plunge. I won’t get into a discussion about symbolic baptism. When we say Baptism in the religious context, we know that we are referring to cold water and screaming babies. How that can be said to be a condition for ministry I can’t imagine. Wet babies – ministry, it just doesn’t compute.
There is also an intellectual component to ministry. It doesn’t happen by accident. It is thought out and planned. It’s requires time, sacrifice, preparation and consistency; all of which refutes the notion that “Thought is not needed. A willing heart to hear the holy Spirit is needed.”

Kirkepiscatoid said...

But you never got to the most important part of the story...

Who won the argument?

(Says the Aries in the crowd.)

Pansyliz said...

i do not know if i am anyhwere near your same track, but the idea that a 'discrenment committee' only known, in 99% of the time, in the world of the church and specifically as a process for ordained ministry corrupts the concept that we all need a 'discernment committe' for our call, for our ministry to be stated/claimed. It seems besides your blog, the comment of Mary-Cauliflower gives readers the idea of a difference in ministry watered down and the ministry we are called to in our Baptism. It seems to me that this applies to the wonderful saying...."Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, a bird can fly..." from the Tao of Pooh in Pooh's Song.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Bill. You said it well. It is about commitment. That's part of what I meant when I talked about intention. I only mention baptism because, for me, intention and commitment, etc., take us right back to our baptismal vows. Ministry is what happens when we - lay or ordained - take our baptismal vows seriously.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - No one wins or loses in this house. We just brood (her) or slam doors (me). Then, we change the subject and laugh.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Pansyliz - I'm sorry, but I must be dense this morning. I've read what you wrote several times and I'm not sure I understand completely. When I talk about discernment, I am not talking about the work of a committee appointed by the bishop to help someone more clearly understand a vocation to ordained ministry. I am talking about doing the care-ful, prayer-ful work of "figuring out" what to do with a call to ministry that may come from a clergy request, or the request of a friend, or a pull or tug on your soul to make a commitment to a particular act of service. You may 'discern' this in conversation with a friend or a 'Soul Friend'. You may even have a small group of friends that you discuss this with. But, whatever the process, you've entered a process - thought about it, prayed over it, discussed it, and made a decision that involves a commitment.

Does that help?

Theodora May said...

I do not like the term "ministry" or "minister." I do like the term "priesthood of all believers" better. And Christ as the High Priest who is with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the way I am.

Hiram said...

You have nailed one of my pet peeves. I think that one reason why "everything is ministry" is so popular is that it allows one to go about daily life and call almost anything one does "ministry." No thought, no choosing, no prayer - just an ordinary day, using one's best manners, and calling it all ministry.

I suspect this idea might have begun as a way to break the idea that ministry was only what an ordained person did, and of course, it is a good idea to let lay people know that most ministry needs to be done by those without collars. But there has to be prayer, thought, commitment, and planning for ministry to exist. Otherwise, one is just being decent, and using that to keep from feeling guilty about not being engaged in a formally recognized ministry.

I have the same irritation at calling being pleasant to people "evangelism." I have been in more than one adult forum where people decided that, since being open and cheerful is needed to do evangelism, any time you are being open cheerful, you are doing evangelism. Nonsense! It is not evangelism until you have at least invited someone to church.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Theodora - I understand but I think it's because we have watered down the word "ministry" so that it is meaningless - but Priesthood of all Believers works for me, too.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hiram - WOW. We agree on this, and the word evangelism (another of my pet peeves). I suspect you are right in terms of the origins of the "abuse". However, we need to take back the word - both words - so that they actually mean something.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of being hit by both Elizabeth and Hiram again, I'll defend my earlier statement that you are over thinking this question. Elizabeth you asked what is ministry? And how do we serve? 1 Peter 4:10-11 uses the word in both a general sense and then in a more specific sense: "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides." The comments in the NRSV provide, "and service used frequently in the Gospels as a generic term for 'discipleship." It seems to me that if you are a true disciple of Christ then you will often act before thinking. You feel compelled/obligated to serve others as Christ did so without thought to your own good or safety. The Holy Spirit moves you because you are a disciple of Christ and you seek to serve as he served others.
Ok you can let me have it. I have not been to seminary. This is my lay impression having grown up as a RC in a state full of Evangelicals.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Let me guess: A Post-Vatican II RC in a state of Evangelicals.

It shows.

I don't mean to be snarky, Anonymous (and, I really would appreciate your leaving a first name, at least - strong opinions like these left anonymously in the comment section of blogs always brings out the worst in me), but scripture must be taken in context. Those words were being said to early Christians who have been oppressed by the government and the Temple. It was an oversimplification in order to rouse the folk to do the work of ministry. Same as when we first started hearing "Every/any thing is ministry."

St. Paul also exhorted us to strive for excellence. I think that's what I'm doing.

dr.primrose said...

I have a sense of what you think ministry of the laity is not -- it's not random acts of charity. What I don't have is a sense of what you think ministry of the laity actually is, except perhaps whatever it is, it requires prayer, discernment, intentionality, and community. That's pretty general.

The Prayer Book catechism has something to say on the subject:

"Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
"A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church."

That's also pretty general. Could you offer your thoughts, in perhaps more specific ways, of what you believe lay minstry is?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

See, I really don't think it matters if you are ordained or a member of the laity. I've certainly known clergy who "go through the motions" of preaching and presiding. It's painful to watch and listen to.

Discipleship requires two things: Witness and Sacrifice. If you're not fully present and if you aren't making a sacrifice - of intention, thought, prayer, praise and thanksgiving - what you are doing may well be an act of kindness or even charity, but something in me wants to keep insisting that ministry is something more.

Whether you are ordained or not.

J. Michael Povey said...

Blessed and beloved Elizabeth

You have articulated so well something which has bothered me for a while.

(Here is how I think - if everyone is a hero then there is no heroism; and if everyone is a minister then there is no ministry)

Good works,kindly deeds, passion for justice, &c, &c, &c: --- all these are vital for the tikkun (sp?) of the world.

They are in no way "inferior" to ministry.

But within the Xian community, "ministry" is that which intentionally builds up the body of Christ.

That body is built up to be a witness and sign of the Realm of God.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, I'm not sure that I fully understand after reading the post and the comments. Is it that ministry must come out of the church community and the rest of the good work is Christian charity or human kindness?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for the question, Mimi, b/c it gives me an opportunity to clarify. I think you, for example, have a wonderful online ministry. You put thought and care and prayer and intention and commitment into it. It often provides kindness and charity, but it is much, much more than that. That being said, it has nothing to do with the church in terms of being "officially recognized" or "sanctioned" or "authorized" by the church. Neither are you ordained or specially trained for this work of ministry. Perhaps it didn't start out as 'ministry' but it undoubtably is now.

Does that help?

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I would say my blogging has the same issues. It did not start out as a ministry. It started out as a safe, semi-anonymous spot for my spiritual thoughts. But boy, howdy, one day I woke up and realized it's a ministry! Now I think about it differently, it is aimed to reach out to others rather than satisfy myself.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Kirke, exactly. I started my blog as a lark, with little thought about where it would go.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke and Mimi - Exactly. I am ashamed to admit it, but when I first started this it was for the 2006 General Convention so that my congregation could read what I was up to. Within three days, I had people from all over the world commenting and I didn't know what was up or who was down. Amazing. It still amazes me.

This is now a ministry, as I know both your blogs are. It takes prayer, commitment, discernment, planning . . . . and love. And, it is neither sactioned nor, God knows, approved by the church. But, it is ministry, sure and true.

Ann said...

Sorry - you know you get an argument from me on this - all Christian are ministers all the time - being a point of God's presence is what we are-- it is not something to do. Baptism is our entry-- not to say we can't learn more, have training, be accountable.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sorry, Ann. I don't think "least common denominator" and "warm body theory" edify either the Body of Christ or those who are baptized to do the work of ministry.

Ann said...

more for me about challenging people to live into their call instead of accepting that they are losers or just pew warmers.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...