Called by God
I’ve just spent three days as part of my annual conference’s board of ordained ministry interviewing people who want to be part of various kinds of full-time Christian ministry. The board is made up of both clergy and laypeople who are leaders in their congregations. Talking with clergy and lay Methodists about ministry may sound dull to some, but I find it exciting. I finished the marathon sessions tired but hopeful for the future.
The process can be described as a cross between a job interview and a professional exam. Men and women submit essay answers to deep and probing questions, then come before a variety of committees who look at everything from criminal background checks and credit reports to their theological ideas about infant baptism. Like the bar or medical board exams, some will pass the first time, some will return next year, and some will choose not to come back. For those who become clergy, it is the culmination of a process that takes somewhere between five and eight years. They stick with it because they believe they have been called by God to a particular leadership role in the church.
God calls ordained clergy, and God calls all Christians into ministry. For those who become clergy, aside from preaching and administering the affairs of the church, one of their most important jobs will be helping every member of the church hear and respond to his or her own call to ministry. One of our central beliefs as United Methodists is that we are all “ministers.”
The word disciple means “one who follows another in order to learn that person’s teachings.” In order to spread his teaching about God’s realm and God’s ways, Jesus recruited people to be his disciples who had a variety of talents and skills. Matthew was a tax collector. Peter, James, and John were fishers. The name sons of Thunder suggests that James and John were fiery and outspoken (Mark 3:17; Luke 9:51-56).
In addition to the 12 disciples, others followed Jesus as disciples. Sisters Mary and Martha were student and servant, respectively (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus appointed 72 disciples to go out in pairs to carry his message into every town (Luke 10). All of Jesus’ disciples had a common ministry: the proclamation of the good news. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gave them the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (28:19-20).
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and the primary place this disciplemaking happens is the local church. Disciple-making does not happen by taking long walks through the woods or gazing at sunsets. It is not something we can do by being “spiritual but not religious” on our own. Just as Jesus gathered a community around himself and sent them to minister to the world, we gather in order to help ourselves be faithful to our call and to multiply our impact on the world. Disciple-making happens in communities of real people who study and work together. We do this by proclaiming the gospel, leading people to commit their lives to God and profess their faith in Jesus Christ, nurturing them in the life of the church, and doing the work of mercy and social justice.
The Body of Christ
While we often use the word member as though it were something that conferred privileges (like membership in a club), the word is actually a metaphor that means something quite different. In English as well as Greek (the original language of the New Testament), member means “body part.” Paul’s famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 uses the body metaphor to address church conflicts among the congregation in Corinth. He reminds them that people with certain gifts should not consider themselves more important or vital to the church than others (see “Core Bible Passages” on this page). In order for the church to be effective, Paul says, it needs diverse people with a variety of gifts.
Some churches publish a list of all the ways people can get involved with their community. They may cover everything from flower-arranging to construction work on a mission project, from teaching Sunday school to singing or playing a musical instrument, from community organizing to graphic design. Churches that thrive attempt to match people’s gifts and passions with real needs. They do not merely assign people in order to fill a vacant slot. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says that our vocation is “the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” When we use our gifts in ministry and do what God created us to do, we thrive, the church grows, and the world sees a bit more of God’s kingdom.
Christian ministry means more than just “getting involved” in various programmatic aspects of a church, however. Lovett Weems, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, points out that up until the 1950s, the primary way people entered a faith community was through Sunday school. In fact, it was not unusual for more people to participate in Sunday school than in worship. All that changed over the next several decades, though, and worship became the place where most church members would invite friends and where people would connect with a larger faith community. Weems suggests we may be on the cusp of another shift in how our church and the larger culture interact. More and more people, especially youth and young adults, connect with a church through missions and action beyond the walls of the church, he says.
Dividing and Delegating Labor
While many organizations have “volunteers” (a word that originally meant “one who offers him or herself for military service”), churches have “disciples” and “servants.” Like a body, though, our diverse members cannot function effectively without some kind of organization. Modern churches have Sunday school and small-group leaders, committee members and chairs, and other leaders who function as “unpaid staff.” Larger churches also have laypeople as paid staff who work in children’s ministries, music ministries, Christian education, and support. Recent research by Ann A. Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, found that there are over 40,000 part- and full-time lay staff in United Methodist churches alone; and those churches increasingly look to these persons to be spiritual leaders much like clergy.
In order to provide effective leadership for the church into the future, however, it is increasingly vital that churches help laypeople—and especially young persons—discern if they may be called into ordained ministry and other Christian vocations. The Reverend Elizabeth Mitchell Clement of The Fund for Theological Education describes churches that help nurture young people into vocations of Christian service as “Calling Congregations,” places that serve as gardens for planting new leaders who will mature in a new season.
Setting apart clergy for servant leadership in specialized ministries to provide leadership has been the practice of the church since the time of the apostles (Acts 6:1-7). However, it can be helpful to think of this role in terms of an even more ancient story. In Exodus 18:13-27, Moses’ fatherin- law, Jethro, tells him that he cannot micromanage all the affairs of the Hebrews. “What you are doing isn’t good,” he says. “You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone” (verses 17-18). Jethro advises him to choose other leaders and delegate responsibility. Similarly, pastors who either work in a church without a culture of servant ministry or who try to micromanage ministry can wear themselves out. Ministry is always a community effort.
Even though our best picture of servant ministry may be Jesus washing the feet of his own disciples (John 13:4-6), heroic self-sacrifice is not all that ministry is about. It is about becoming a community that embodies Jesus’ self-giving love for the world. As a community of servants organized around a common mission, we give the world a glimpse of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
This article is adapted from FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.