by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
A well-intentioned but unfortunate expression that is sometimes heard when a person is pursuing ordination is: “So-and-so is going into ministry.” The remark reveals a common distortion about Christian discipleship: the term “minister” is reserved for those who are ordained or specially trained religious professionals. It is good to ask in reply: “What kind of Christian is not going into the ministry?” All members are authorized ministers of the church. The next time we say, “So-and-do is going into ministry,” I hope it is concerning someone about to be baptized.
The message for this article is simple and straightforward: as members of the Church, God has given each one of us a unique capacity for ministry and the wherewithal to accomplish it. This is true for every baptized member. Ministry is not a term limited to ordained people and church professionals. Indeed, perhaps the most needed and important ministries do not carry any official church titles at all: husband, mother, sister, friend, teacher, nurse, banker, CEO, community volunteer, golfing buddy, bridge partner, or neighbor.
A critical passage from the Letter to the Ephesians is found in chapter four: “I therefore a prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul goes on: “Each one of us is given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift … The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry …” (Eph. 4.1, 7, 11-12).
The fundamental point is that each of us is given the same saving grace in Christ Jesus. God does not love some more than others. And with this fierce divine love comes the bestowal of differing gifts. The gifts are given according to Christ’s will. They are not ours by personal choice or taste or desire. What we have has been given by the measure of Christ. But everyone is gifted! The spiritual gifts the church needs are not just reserved for apostles like St. Paul or those who have seminary degrees and wear priestly garb in worship.
The giving of gifts for ministry is not merely a passive experience. The grace of Christ activates something. We become equipped to do something ourselves. So, the change that happens inside us when we receive grace begins to change the things outside us by grace working through us. The word for that is ministry.
What needs to happen for all of us to feel encouragement and room to explore activating this grace, to trust that we are in fact equipped for serious, impactful ministry? We need to nurture an empowering, engaging, discipling church environment. I am committed to leadership that tries to help us accomplish this goal. After all, we want SJD to be the kind of church that understands if we are to be the congregation God intends, everyone’s gifts will not only be permitted but desired and activated.
St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England, exemplifies “the priesthood of all believers.” Over the past 20 years, it has become a pilgrimage destination for pastors from around the world and those eager to see a church community where members’ gifts for ministry are operative. I heard a story of an American clergyman who, while visiting St. Thomas, ducked into the church bathroom. Inside, he greeted a man cleaning the toilets. Later that day, there was a worship service where participants were invited to various stations around the church for intercessory prayer. The American visitor sought such prayer. As he stood with eyes closed and head bowed, he was amazed at the words a stranger prayed over him. With his hands on his shoulder, this intercessor spoke directly into what was going on in the pastor’s life, words that could not have been known unless God had given them to the one praying. At the end of the prayer, the pastor opened his eyes and looked up, recognizing in that moment that the one who had prayed over him was the custodian, the man who had been cleaning the toilets.
Why is it so much more compelling that the intercessor was the custodian rather than the rector of the church? I invite you to contemplate this question.
Second, I invite you to consider how you might deepen your discernment and capacity for ministry to grow in your faith, to bless SJD, and to further our mission into the City of Houston. One very practical consideration is to join a small group. Since the inception of the church at Pentecost almost 2000 years ago, such groups have been characterized by fellow believers praying for one another, reading, and interpreting Scripture, sharing regular fellowship, and walking through life together. The activation of our gifts for ministry is fueled by participation in such groups.
In the coming weeks leading into Lent, you will be hearing a lot about our efforts to encourage participation, at least for a season, in small groups at SJD. If you are not already in such a group, please pray about this and let us know. Please also consider inviting a friend or neighbor to join you. This has been a life-changing commitment for many of our members over the years. Perhaps it may be for you as well.
“Our Lord’s pastoral plan, as every page of the Gospels plainly tells us, is based upon his calling, training, and direction of the Twelve. This is his constant consideration ... ”
—Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant
Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado (Baylor University Press, 2016)
The world of Roman antiquity was one of great religious pluralism, yet early Christians were uniquely targeted for social ostracism and political persecution. Given the immense potential costs, why would anyone in the ancient world have become a Christian in the first place? This is the fascinating question at the heart of Destroyer of the Gods, a new book by Larry Hurtado, American-born professor at the University of Edinburgh. Accessible to the lay person who enjoys history, this book is among the very best I have read on the social history of the early church.