My views on the nature of ministry spring from a deeply held belief that we are, ultimately, responsible for ourselves. To put it another way, in order to be creatures of God that are capable of both receiving and giving love, we must be free from being coerced into submitting to God’s will. We must have the freedom and room to succeed, or to fail, and the right and responsibility of experiencing the consequences of our decisions and actions. If this were not so, then we would be no better than slaves or pets, or perhaps robots: not responsible for our own actions, and dominated by an unloving and unloved God.
Although my father was a UCC Pastor himself, I spent most of my 30’s and 40’s as a member of several “non mainline” congregations; often with a majority of members who were not Caucasian Protestants. In that journey through different cultures and different ways of expressing and living our Christian Faith, I learned some valuable lessons.
One is that intellect without spirituality is insufficient, just as spirituality without intellect is also insufficient. The two complement each other. Both must be present if we are to succeed in developing and maintaining a strong and robust faith.
Second, God is present in every congregation (or gathering) and in every person. With an infinite God, it is no surprise that God can manifest in an infinite variety of ways, some astonishing to us from where we currently stand. God’s love manifests itself in (and celebrates) the uniqueness of every individual, every faith, and every culture.
Finally, given God’s love for us just as we are, we are called to live our faith unashamed (to which I must add the caveat, based on the previous point, that this also means not shaming or dismissing others for their faith, or apparent lack thereof). Christ’s teachings mandate we respect and embrace the uniqueness of others, not condemn (or avoid) them for failing to follow our example.
These four concepts – of the nature of Freedom, of the importance of both spirituality and intellectualism; of the belief that God’s Word manifests itself in every person and needs to be respected and valued unconditionally; and of God’s call to love the Other unconditionally; lead to these foundational principles of ministry:
- We are responsible for our own faith, and must take responsibility for the nature, quality and depth of our relationship with God and with each other. This is true at both the individual and group (congregation / community / global) level; and is at the heart of the classic “Reformed” tradition of which the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) are both a part.
- Therefore, a minister is not responsible for a church in the way that a business owner or CEO is for their organization. Instead, a minister is a spiritual leader, helping bring us closer to God and to each other, as well as to our faith tradition & history, using a wide variety of modalities; including preaching & teaching, pastoral care, personal example, worship and ritual, etc.
- A corollary to this is that a Minister helps bring God closer to us and to others – helping us better understand how our tradition & history, the scriptures, and the movement of the Spirit, reflect upon the issues and topics of the moment; and should occasionally challenge us to question our own perspectives, to “get out of our shells” and see things from a viewpoint different than that we’re accustomed to.
- It therefore follows that a minister must be actively involved in the life of the church and its members; and always aware that ultimately the church and its members are responsible for their own faith. As a minister, one is a mentor and model for Christian living, a teacher, and a minister; but must take care to not damage, divert or inhibit the movement of the Spirit within the congregation and its members. One must be sensitive to that movement, nurture it as is appropriate, and do so at the right time.
- A Minister is a servant of the church, and of God’s Love. One does not enter the ministry to achieve power, glory or fame. Rather, one does so out of a deep and abiding love for God, for the Body of Christ, and for our fellow human beings. Ministry is about living that love, sharing it, sowing it, helping it grow, and rejoicing and celebrating in all that proceeds from it.
- A final (and critical) point is that a minister is not just a connector of persons, but also a connector of ideas and concepts. Through teaching, preaching, counseling and personal example, a minister seeks to help others to “connect” various concepts, insights and ideas together; and refine them through the tools of constructive criticism and skepticism. In this way, an interconnected “net” is woven, producing a faith that is more robust and flexible than it would be if it were founded upon an isolated set of ideas and/or a limited range of interpretation of Christian teaching. Such a “net” of understanding is crucial in this complex and rapidly changing world, giving us access to resources we otherwise might not be able to draw upon when we find ourselves confronted by new situations, new ideas, or adversity.
All of these principles center around the idea of Empowerment: empowering individuals and congregations through knowledge, through providing opportunities for growth, through providing a safe place for people to be accepted and affirmed for being exactly as they are, through providing (or modeling) tools and ways of living that will enable people to live fuller and more purposeful lives; and through learning how to be a force (in turn) for empowering others.
In my preaching and teaching, I usually delve deeply into scripture. The Bible is a gift from those who preceded us; a compendium of knowledge and insights that are invaluable in daily life in this often disjointed, terrifying and confusing world. It should not be taken lightly. When read carefully and faithfully, it challenges our views and perceptions in ways that deepen our faith and our love for The Other, which then helps us build a more deeply nuanced, interconnected and stronger understanding of what it means to be a Christian; and helps us attain a clearer discernment of God’s call on each of our lives.
I am committed to constantly seeking Social Justice for others, particularly those who do not yet have the tools, voice, power, or resources to free themselves from whatever injustice or oppression they may be experiencing. This is borne out of a conviction that we are all children of God, equally worthy and deserving of respect and dignity because we are all equally loved and valued by our Creator. And so, we are called to make room for others in places where there seems to be no room for them.
Ultimately, the Bible is not a tool for justifying our stances on various issues. Rather, our stances on any issue must proceed out of an ongoing quest to achieve an ever more thorough understanding of what the Bible teaches us, as well as listening carefully to how God is moving in the lives of those around us, particularly within the congregation of which we are a part. We must always remember that the Bible was not written to justify where we stand, but to challenge us to move to new places, to embrace ever more comprehensive and compassionate points of view. In so doing, we develop stronger relationships with God and with each other.
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work (and all original material on this site) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Featured image is the “Cross of the Path,” a handmade wooden cross by Reverend Woody Shook, one of six crosses made by him that I own. This design and many others are available at his website: Crosses by Woody.
The views and opinions expressed here on “The Here and The Hereafter” are purely my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which I am associated, or which I represent.