Our church strongly affirms and celebrates every member a minister—in part, the recognition of everyone’s service and everyone’s responsibility to serve, in part, recognition of the conversational reality of the church—our worship, our organizational structure—all complementing the relational truth of our fellowship and the narrative truth of our faith (a story told).
Appropriately, the traditional baptist affirmations of the autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of all believers both (at their best) fall within the truth of an ongoing conversation through time.
Thus we believe God’s call comes to individuals within the community in conversation.
So I was asked, “What’s the difference between clergy and laity?” Actually a distinction increasingly being called into question by some who prioritize conversation as metaphor for the people of God—who ask, “If conversation is our model, how can we grant authority to certain conversationalists and not sacrifice the integrity of the conversation?” (I’m not sure this question accords enough respect to servant leadership, but then, I’m not sure clergy [as a whole] have earned the right to lay claim to servant leadership anyway!)
So what’s the difference between clergy and laity when every member’s a minister and part of the ongoing conversations?
First, it has to do with the specific call that comes to some individuals—within community in conversation. Now I never felt it appropriate at youth camp to stress the call to vocational christian ministry as the call to work within the church (or on the mission field!) instead of interpreting vocational christian ministry as the call to christian ministry within vocation—any vocation. DIGRESSION ALERT: We have missed a significant boat in not stressing, as part of vocational call, God calling people to work in the classroom and the courtroom, the factory, the garage, the bank and the hospital—God calling people to work as a plumber, a carpenter, an accountant—in the laboratory or the heating and air conditioning field. Our deplorable de-emphasis (or non-emphasis, really) of God’s call to a variety of vocations (that has undermined and compromised the appropriate expectation of christian ministry in and through vocation) does not, however, deny the also specific call to work within the church setting. There is a call to the clergy.
Then, often subsequent to that call, comes a certain education—a certain kind of training. And I would ascribe a high value to theological education—having been taught church history and scripture, world religions and christian theology, philosophy, pastoral care and preaching. It’s so much not about having learned all the right answers as having gained experience thinking about God made manifest in history—having gained experience being in conversation about implications of God-with-us.
So there’s the call, and the education—the training. Finally, there is the expectation of the congregation—which is admittedly congregation specific, but constitutes the local expectation that the “ministerial staff” will both facilitate ministry for the membership and represent the congregation.
“We are all ministers,” acknowledges the congregation, “but many of us are ministers in a variety of different vocations. We don’t have time to study and pray and reflect like we might want to, so we want the benefit of someone having that time—not to give us the answers, but to keep the questions coming—not to tell us what to do, but to find opportunities for us to do—not to be the authority, but to be a resource. We also don’t have the time to be present to people in circumstances when we might want to be—in hospital rooms and homes, at weddings and funerals. We expect our ministers to be there for us—on our behalf—representing us.”
It’s an interesting balance (clergy as ministers, every member a minister) to negotiate in a time in which we are more and more coming to affirm non-hierarchical structures and roles and affirm an experiential justification of faith along with the significance of Scripture and respect for tradition.
What’s that Irish curse? May you live in interesting times? … Or is it a blessing?