Do ministers work for the church?

I have written before about my mixed feelings about the “professionalization” of the clergy. The relationship was once more like a marriage covenant than a job.  Lately I notice more and more that the relationship between clergy and congregation is construed as a contractual one borrowed from the corporate world.  And I also note with sadness that this model is at the heart of much clergy/congregation conflict when one or both parties feel aggrieved that the contract is not being properly carried out.  A covenant has room for forbearance and forgiveness; a contract does not.

When I was ordained, the preacher (Dudne Breeze) admonished me to be a minister of the Word of God.  He didn’t admonish me to be the CEO or the COO, or even to be a faithful employee of the congregation.  My job I knew was not to make the congregation flourish but to make the Gospel real.

There were times in my ministry when I had to stand against the majority will of the congregation on behalf of the Gospel.  This is no fun when you have come to love your congregation. Years ago I came across this great letter that P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) wrote to his new congregation in Cheetham Hill, England.

He made it plain that although they had called him he had a prior and higher call. Can you imagine a beleaguered pastor saying something like this today to an angry board of trustees?

“You have called and I have answered gladly. But it is not your call that has made me a minister. I was a minister before any congregation called me. My election is of God. Paul speaks of ‘a faithful minister of the new covenant’ … The minister of this covenant, therefore, the minister of Christ, has his call, first, in the nature of God and God’s Truth; second, in the nature of man and man’s need. We have on one side the divine Gospel; we have on the other the cry of the human. His call is constituted both by the divine election and the requirements of human nature. Would that some who are sure of their election by God, were as sure of their election by man, and their fitness to adapt God’s truth to human nature. It is not therefore the invitation of any particular congregation that makes a man a minister. It is a call which on the human side proceeds from the needs rather than from the wishes of mankind, from the constitution of human nature as set forth in Christ, rather than from the appointment by any section or group of men. I am here, not to meet all your requisitions, but to serve all your needs in Jesus Christ. You have not conferred on me my office, and I am Christ’s servant more than yours, and yours for His sake. The minister is not the servant of the Church in the sense of any special community or organization. The old Latin theologians used to subscribe themselves V.D.M., Minister of the Word of God,—Minister not of the Church, but of that Christian human nature which our particular views and demands so often belie. A minister may, on occasion, never be so much of a minister as when he resists his congregation and differs from it.” (“The Pulpit and the Age”)

The church could user fewer employees and more ministers..

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3 thoughts on “Do ministers work for the church?

  1. Amen to the first paragraph, especially. I don’t have enough experience to comment on the rest.

    Our little church, once struggling but cozy, where everyone knew each other and each other’s kids, has modernized to the corporate model. “Employees” get progress reviews. Our vestry are no longer Joe, Maribel, Ernesto, Connie, and Marvin, they’re the “Church Leaders,” and go to seminars about what it means to be a “leader.” We can’t have a meeting without big Post-It posters stuck to the wall, where every mental sneeze and hiccup is recorded, then written down to become our action plan. We have a salaried “Communications Director.” (I am not making this up.) The focus of all this is one thing: to grow the church. That is the thing by which everything is measured. The tradition that has given us our identity for 400 years must stand aside – it’s off-putting to potential pledge units. (Sigh)

    I know that isn’t really what your post was about.

  2. And I almost forgot! We have a mission statement! A freaking mission statement! What does a Christian church need with a mission statement? We used to have a lovely epigram that was unique to our church: “As we are gathered, so we are sent.” Isn’t that lovely? I’ve actually mediated on that for hours. How are we gathered, why are we gathered, how are we sent, why are we sent? We don’t use it anymore, though. We have a mission statement.

    I guess I’m ranting, aren’t I? Sorry.

    • Ranting is such a judgmental word, Bob. I prefer “expressing a strong opinion.” I like yours. Some of the mission statements I have seen don’t mention God or Christ (or either.) So it really is all about us. Who knew?

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