The context of ministry today is very different than it was just a few years ago. In 1965 the total membership of the Presbyterian Church (US) and the United Presbyterian Church (USA) was 4.2 million members. At the end of 2007 the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had dropped to 2.2 million members, a loss of two million members in the course of 42 years.
Moreover, the church today is deeply divided on issues of human sexuality, specifically abortion and the ordination of active homosexuals.
But these facts do not tell the whole story. A number of churches within our denomination are growing in membership, attracting young families, and providing strong outreach to the communities in which they are situated. The interest and commitment of young adults to the ministry of the church is extremely strong and many young adults are seeking both a community and commitment to the Christian faith. For that reason these are not only the ‘worst of times’, but in many ways ‘the best of times’ as well.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle sets out his own understanding of the gospel. The Book of Romans is generally regarded as the culmination of Paul’s work. In his introduction (Romans 1:1-17) he refrains from mentioning any co-workers. The reason for this seems clear. This passage represents Paul’s understanding of the Christian gospel and he realizes that, if this gospel is to be a world religion, it will need to be explained in terms that the church at Rome can understand. He begins his letter with apostolic greetings (Romans 1: 1-7). Then he expresses his profound desire to visit the church at Rome (Romans 1:8-15). He concludes this section with a powerful statement about the gospel that has been revealed to him. It is the power of God to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and then to the Greek (Romans 1:16-17). These words frame the context of these four theses that deal with the “Hazards and Joys of Christian Ministry.”
First, ministry is first and foremost a vocation. It is a calling. Many ministers today prefer to be referred to as professionals but that runs the danger of promoting a sense of self- importance and entitlement that is foreign to authentic ministry. Ministry, at its heart, operates as a calling of service to God and to other people. The words of Jesus should control the words of ministry today as for every day. “The Son of Man came to serve and not to be served” (Mark 10:45). That is our vocation.
The Mackay Campus Center at Princeton Seminary impresses visitors with a series of plaques on the wall. They commemorate a number of students who have given their lives in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. One reads about: Walter Macon Lowrie, class of 1840, thrown overboard by pirates in the China Sea, 1847; John Edgar Freeman, class of 1838 and Robert McMullin, class of 1853, who with their wives were shot by the order of Nana Sahib 1857 at Cawnpore India, and many others up to more current times: James Reeb, who in 1965 answered the call of Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma, Alabama, to help register African Americans to vote, was beaten to death on his first day of work.
Ministry is sometimes a dangerous work and many persons have made great sacrifices to fulfill this calling.
For that reason I am always leery of those who believe this is simply another profession, or that you can recruit young ministers to this profession in the same way investment bankers are recruited. Ministry is a profession that requires a great deal of skill and education and one that has its own standards and guidelines. But it is at its heart a calling by God, never to be taken lightly.
Second, the church is called to a mission that is countercultural. The Reformed faith, to use the typology of H. Richard Niebuhr, is called to an ethic of “transforming society.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in area of worship. We are living today in a consumer culture that places a great deal of value on the preacher as entertainer. Many people come to worship seeking personal fulfillment and entertainment.
Reformed theology, at its heart, is theocentric. It focuses on God — the Creator of the heavens and earth, who maintains all things in their being, and who governs them by his will. God is energy, force, and life. God is purpose, intention. and will. He is the Lord God, who “comes with might,” “who measures out the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span” (Isaiah 40:10, 12, 17).
The theocentric character of the Reformed faith sets it over against every ethic of self-realization, against inordinate concern with the salvation of one’s own soul, and against excessive preoccupation with the questions of personal identity.
This notion of the majesty of God is implied in the question once asked in the Church of Scotland to candidates for ministry: “Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?” Whatever one may think about that question, it aimed to root out the last element of self- seeking in religion.
For that reason, we must make every attempt to focus the attention of the worshipper on God. Worship is not about the preacher, the music, or the worshipper, important as these may be. It is fundamentally our attempt to focus attention on the God who encounters us in Jesus Christ.
Marva Dawn tells of greeting a man at the door after worship one Sunday, and he said, “I didn’t like that last hymn.” She replied, “We didn’t sing it to you.”
Third, ministers today are called “to build up” churches. We don’t hear that expression often today. Many of us prefer to view ourselves as great preachers, pastors, prophets, or social critics. But we have been called to the fundamental task of building up the body of Christ.
That point weaves through Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. In this introduction to his letter Paul states that he is not “ashamed of the gospel.” He was certainly not afraid that the gospel that he preached would not be able to meet the challenge of the most powerful city in the world. Nor was he afraid that the gospel might not be equal to its encounter with the accumulated culture and vulgarity of that metropolis. The reason why he is “shameless,” and why he is not afraid of all Rome is because the Gospel itself is power; it is God’s power and therefore in every respect superior power. It is not one power among other powers. It is not a power to which other powers could even be compared. It is not a power with which another power could compete but the power that stands over and above all other powers, which limits and governs them all. (Luther) How could the messenger of that Gospel be ashamed?
That is why the church today needs to recover the role of evangelism in its ministry. John Calvin devoted more than one fourth of the Institutes of the Christian Religion to what he called the “external means of grace.” For Calvin evangelism was understood as incorporating individuals into the community of faith where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are celebrated. The notion of private Christianity was no more a possibility for Calvin than it was for the early church.
Today ministers struggle with conflicting roles. Many see themselves as agents of change, social activists, and community agitators. These roles may be important from time to time but they are not the essential roles of ministers. The essential functions of a minister are preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Included in these are the responsibilities for gathering a congregation.
Recently, I came across an article by Craig Barnes of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary entitled “Sometimes Ministry Stinks.” Barnes recalled a time when as a young minister, he visited Bryant Kirkland, who for a number of years was minister of the Fifth Avenue Church in New York City. Barnes was discouraged in his ministry and sought the advice of an older, more mature minister. Kirkland told Barnes of a time when his wife was in the hospital and he was particularly impressed with the care of the nurses. They were thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate. When he commented on this to one of the head supervisors, she said, “We tell our nurses that there are a lot of smelly jobs in our profession, but every job can be conducted with dignity. Our motto,” the supervisor said, “is this: ‘If you get stuck holding a bedpan, carry it like a queen.’ Then the focus is not on the bedpan but on the graciousness of the one who is holding it.”
Craig Barnes went on to say that there are a lot of smelly jobs in pastoral ministry. Churches often attract odd people — that is our business. One seminary professor said, “If you want to be the light of the world, you have to expect a few moths.” Sometimes a minister has to fire an unproductive staff member, meet with chronic complainers, wade into conflicts with leaders, and represent unpopular changes being proposed by the church board. These are smelly jobs, but someone has to do them and often that someone is the one person who is actually paid to come to church.
Fourth, ministry brings its own rewards that are multiplied many times over whatever hazards and burdens we may encounter along the way.
That is certainly the thrust of Paul’s message to the church at Rome. When Paul speaks of the Gospel as the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, he is saying something that no other profession or calling can claim.
At the end of the day the ministry is a blessed vocation, not because of the worth of those who practice it, but because of the power of God that vindicates it over every other power in the world. It is nothing less than the power of God for salvation.
Karl Barth, in his famous Shorter Commentary on Romans observed, “There is no sentence that starts with “I” and finishes somewhere with salvation and liberty.” The only sentences, notes Barth, that end with salvation and liberty are those that begin with Jesus Christ. He is, for all of us, the way, the truth, and the life.
In an address to a group of ministers and laypersons in Charlotte, Dean Thomas Currie of Union Theological Seminary-PSCE in Charlotte spoke to the embarrassment that ministers sometimes feel about this particular profession. This is certainly true today when the newspapers are filled with stories about exorbitant salaries for ministers and the corruption that inevitably comes with this abuse of power. But Dean Currie concluded his remarks by observing that the greatest embarrassment is the embarrassment of riches. That is its great secret. Not that ministry is not hard or frustrating or lonely at times; it is.
But rather the great joy of this particular calling is that all who enter this ministry enter into the ministry of Christ, and he is rich and gives lavishly. He is there with us during the storms of life rebuking the winds and the waves. He is with us on the hillside when there is nothing to eat and thousands are looking for us to feed them. He is there even when ministry seems so difficult and lonely, when criticism and complaints appear on every side. Even in these times, we know that in truth it is all a gift, and we have received more than we have ever given.
William P. Wood is pastor of First Church, Charlotte, N.C.