Priorities in ministry: an ordination anniversary reflection

“Well, you only really work one day a week, don’t you?” After decades in ministry, I am not sure I can count how many times I have heard this comment—sometime flippant, but often rather serious.

Of course, ministers do not work only one day a week! That stereotype is based on the perception that the weekly sermon is the sum total of the work of ministry. Whilst it is true that many of my Protestant colleagues see the sermon as the most important, or critically significant, element of their weekly work, it is definitely the case that the work of ministry stretches far and wide beyond the weekly sermon.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of my ordination; I was set aside to the Ministry of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia in a service that took place on 3 December 1980 in my home Congregation of Seaforth, amongst the cloud of witnesses that had surrounded me in my early decades.

I have been privileged to have spent time in congregational ministry in two rural areas and one urban location, in regional roles in two presbyteries, in educational roles in two synods, and to have served the Assembly on a number of committees, as well as multiple committees in synod and presbytery roles over the years.

I have worked with some fine colleagues in each of these placements. And in each place, I have sought to live out those vows that I took at ordination, in the exercise of my ministry at Southern Illawarra and Waverley, in years of study at New Haven and two decades of teaching at North Parramatta, in sabbatical periods at Durham and Cambridge, back in ministry at Wauchope and the Mid North Coast Presbytery, in the venture overwest to Perth, and then at Queanbeyan and in this most recent Presbytery role.

In each of these placements, I have been comforted (and challenged) by the way that the Uniting Church articulates the various responsibilities of a minister. They are set out in section 2.2.1 of the national Regulations. The expression of those responsibilities has changed somewhat over time, although the basic shape of these responsibilities remains consistent in its focus. But there have been some interesting refinements over time.

(The current version of the Regulations is cited at the end of this blog.)

To start, we can note that preaching is given the first place in the list. Is this significant? Certainly, in the history of Protestant churches, the priority accorded to preaching is clear. And I know of colleagues today, who insist that, whatever else is happening, preparation of the weekly sermon is their first priority each week. That is central to our tradition.

Of course, preaching is not held exclusively to the ordained ministers. The Methodist Church contributed the ministry of lay people as preachers to the Uniting Church when it was formed, and Lay Preachers are now one of four specified ministries within the UCA, alongside the lay ministry of Pastor and the two ordained ministries of Deacon and Minister of the Word.

Second, presiding is noted. That sits hand in hand with the role of preaching; these are two of the key aspects in leading worship within the gathered community of faithful people. Leading prayers, reading scripture, explaining and expounding the message, baptising new members of the community, and gathering people around the table of the Lord at communion, are key aspects of leading worship on a regular basis.

Once again, presiding at the sacraments, within current Uniting Church understanding, is not limited exclusively to ordained people; in situations where access to an ordained minister is not regularly available, authorised lay people can preside, after having completed a training course and being recommended by their Church Council.

In fact, the third clause places conditions around the way that a minister exercises the roles of presider and preacher. The leading of worship is to be a shared, collaborative, team-based enterprise. All ministers should, in their practice, cultivate a team of people who can not only read scripture and lead prayers, but also preach and, if need be, preside at baptisms and communion within the placement. Certainly, neither the pulpit nor the table is the exclusive preserve of ordained ministers, as we have noted.

Clauses 3, 5 and 6 each indicate that a key function of ministry is to prepare others: prepare people to lead worship, prepare people to be baptised or confirmed within the church, prepare people to be faithful and more effective disciples, and prepare people to engage in the mission to which the church is committed. Each minister within the UCA is to exercise a ministry of education, training, equipping, resourcing. All ministers are educators; all ministers are called to build up the body of Christ by enabling others to exercise their gifts for ministry and carry out their roles in mission.

The classic understanding of ministry, which is even articulated at points in the Basis of Union, is that the minister the threefold role of preacher, presider, and pastor. Clause 7 addresses the matter of pastoring. Is it significant that this function is quite some way down the list? If the order is in any way significant, we should pause at this point and ponder the traditional expectation that the minister provides pastoral care to all members of the congregation. This is not what the Regulations specify.

And is it also significant, that pastoring the people is (like preaching and leading worship) not the preserve of the ordained alone? That is, all people are called to show care and concern for others. The role of pastor is exercised by those in ministry as an oversight role, ensuring that a team of pastoral careers or elders provide regular and personalised pastoral care. The clause is also made conditional by the phrase “wherever needed”, which suggests that what is in view is a responsive form of pastoring, on a needs basis, rather than a regular “visit the flock every three months” prescription simply because “that is what the minister does”.

Are ministers called to be prophets? Some colleagues that I know place a high value on this role. Nothing explicitly identifies this role, however. Yet understanding how the Bible relates to contemporary situations, and articulating the way that the Gospel speaks into our context, has a dynamic that is very similar to the dynamic that the prophets of old knew very well.

What is “the word of the Lord” for this situation? How do we do just that, in our preaching and teaching? What are the words that best identify prejudices and expose injustices, that advocate for the poor and speak for the voiceless or disempowered? That’s functioning as a prophet.

Practising faith, as a committed disciple, is indicated by a number of clauses. Clause 4 prescribes that ministers bear witness to their faith, while clauses 8, on serving, and 11, on being a committed lifelong learner, also relate to this important dimension of ministry. We need to live, and model, exactly what we say to others, in our own lives.

The final clause addresses the mission of the church. It specifies that Ministers will find ways to be effective in fulfilling that mission. Maintenance is not adequate. Missionary impetus is essential. And “pioneering new expressions of the Gospel” is integral to that process.

This final clause envisages that all ministers will be equally pioneers in mission, as much as they are preachers and presiders, or practising their faith and preparing others for leadership roles in their discipleship. Pioneering is closely linked to “fulfilling the mission of the church”. Over the centuries, the church has regularly reinvented itself, finding new forms for worship, for service, for witness, for fellowship. We need to keep doing that in our own times, to continue being effective in mission.

And might the last clause (following a familiar scriptural dictate) be made first? What would our ministry, and our mission, look like, if each minister made the task of “pioneering new expressions of faith” as their first priority—and, by implication, relegated preaching to a lower spot, maybe even the last spot, on the list? It is a challenge—but I think this might be an important clue for the way ahead.

See further at


UCA Regulations 2.2.1

Within the ministry of the whole Church, Jesus Christ calls men and women to proclamation of the gospel in word and deed through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. This calling is exercised by:

(i) preaching of the Word;

(ii) presiding at the celebration of the sacraments;

(iii) providing for other persons to preside at worship and/or preach within the pastoral charge in which the Minister is in placement;

(iv) witnessing in the community to the gospel of Jesus Christ;

(v) guiding and instructing the members of the Church and equipping them for their ministry in the community;

(vi) nurturing candidates for baptism and confirmation;

(vii) pastoral oversight and counsel wherever needed;

(viii) serving in the community, especially among those who are hurt, disadvantaged, oppressed or marginalized;

(ix) careful attention to administrative responsibilities;

(x) due observance of the discipline of the Church;

(xi) the enhancement of the Minister‘s own gifts for the work of ministry;

(xii) pioneering new expressions of the gospel and encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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