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Blog // Thoughts
September 11, 2006

On Ministry And Calling

Recently I blogged about some issues related to church leadership. My thinking in this particular post is specifically related to how “low churches” like the Baptists call their ministers; though to some extent it applies to churches that operate under other models as well. One question implicit in the discussion of leadership is the role […]

Recently I blogged about some issues related to church leadership. My thinking in this particular post is specifically related to how “low churches” like the Baptists call their ministers; though to some extent it applies to churches that operate under other models as well.

One question implicit in the discussion of leadership is the role of ministers, or paid church staff. The answer to why a church bothers, or does not bother, to have paid staff and ministers will reveal a lot about its ecclesiology and how they see God operating in the world.

There are (if we can speak broadly), at least two ways of thinking of this. Either the calling is the job, or the calling is the person.

The calling is the job when a church sees a clear set of tasks, or responsibilities, or programmes for which they need a minister. A church may determine, for example, that they need a minister for their youth or children’s work, or that some functions, such a preaching or administration of worship are best handled by paid clergy. Sometimes, the sense of calling for the job reveals a level of sacramentalism in churches where one may not expect it (such as Baptists). It says to a potential minister “we have a job we want you to do.”

By contrast, called for the person doesn’t start with a job description that needs to be filled. Rather it starts with a sense that a particular individual has a unique set of gifts and abilities and it is in the church’s interest to free that person from the concern of caring for their financial needs so that they are better able to continue on that path. It makes it easier to consider calling people from outside traditional ministry training routes and maybe even calling people working outisde established ministry methods and fields. It says to a potential minister “we want you to give you more room to do what you are already doing, just do it here with us.”

Importanly, the sense of authority is very different. Calling the job signifies conferring authority – we will give you the authority to do the job. Calling the person signifies recognising the authority – there is already something authoritative and important in what you do.

Of course this hints at two quite different sets of relationships. Calling the job places a great deal of stress on competency for the role and accountability to the detail of the position. It is a lot easier to call into question a minister’s “performance” to list criteria for dismissal. Calling the job implies lots of reports, reviews, appraisals and so on; the processes of the management world. It compartmentalised the church’s view of the minister into the present role.

By contrast calling the person suggests more mutuality – the “sucess” of the call is not just down to the minister meeting external criteria. Rather, there is an important role for the church to play in creating the conditions for the minister to continue what they were already doing. The way the minister’s current work fits in with their greater biography becomes important.

Any system is fragile and prone to conflict if the parties are unwilling to stand by their own commitments. However, I’m no longer convinced that calling the job works, unless there is real ecclesial oversight on churches of the kind not found in most Baptist associations. This approach is just too prone to exploitation.

Of course, there is some level of (or potential for) hybidisation in this, churches may both call jobs and call people (some do). But my experience is that most church positions are calls to the job rather than calls to the person and this creates a shifting sense of both authority and commitment from the church to ensure the flourishing of the mission. Given the level of conflict (especially in Baptist churches) over the role of ministers, as well as the debate in the Emerging Church over the role of paid staff and programmatic approaches, it seems worth some reflection on the what and why of calling ministers.

[tags] Calling, Vocation, Baptist, Clegy [/tags]

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