Reimagining ministry in these different times

I have exercised ministries in the position of Presbytery Minister over the past 12 years, more than half of which have included an explicit linkage with a local Congregation as part of that ministry. I have served in my current position for forty-two months (initially in part-time supply, then fulltime from February 2020). On Thursday I became a retired minister, and today I have shared with friends and colleagues in a Closure of Ministry service for my role as Canberra Region Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing.

As I began this role, a huge swathe of the east coast of Australia was in the grip of multiple fires, during the Black Summer of 2019–2020. The air in Canberra was thick with smoke; one night, the fires came within just a few kilometres of our house. With most of the rest of our street, we stood in the dark, watching the flames at a distance, as planes and helicopters flew overhead, dropping water in an attempt to slow the spread of the fire. Many communities within the Canberra Region Presbytery were seriously impacted by these fires. It was a time of great tension, and continued breathing difficulties.

As the fires diminished, our car was caught outside in a hailstorm that raced through Canberra. Then a few weeks later, we began learning of the virus that was infecting many and spreading rapidly; and so much of the next two and a half years would be spent in lockdown, with all worship, Bible study, fellowship, and organisational meetings held online. It has been quite a learning curve!! And then, multiple times in the ensuing months, friends and family members in various locations were forced to leave their houses, as rain far beyond the normal range fell, flooding river systems and causing widespread havoc.

So there have been fires and smoke, a hailstorm, a viral pandemic–the plague, it would once have been called–and floods. All very apocalyptic!!

In the midst of this, I have exercised ministry. At the end of my time in stipended ministry in formal placements, as I step into a period of unstipended, non-placement, but perhaps still somewhat active, ministry, my thoughts have turned to what I have learned, what I have valued, what I would wish for, and what I might say.

Ministry is both a calling and a profession. Ministry is taken up as Jesus invites his faithful followers to live out their faith in adventurous ways. Over the last two years and more, restrictions on gathering in person have led to a suspension of the regular activities of the church–worship, fellowship, prayer groups and bible studies, discipleship activities, training courses.

Then, as restrictions were eased, a return to each of these forms of gathering became possible. But, as we regathered, under the conditions of the COVID Safe Plans that were required, it became obvious that we were not simply entering a “back to normal” phase. Each form of gathering would be different from the earlier, more familiar, form of gathering. Yes, there would be familiar elements; but there would be additional requirements, and some changes in what we do when we gather.

In short, we were moving on into a different form of gathering–be that for worship, for study, for prayer, for meeting, for learning, or for sharing the Gospel with others. In contrast to the pre-COVID period (a time of settled familiarity in our various gatherings), we were now moving into a time of post-COVID realities–or, at least, a time when the realities of COVID needed to co-exist with the hopes about how we might gather, informed by the traditional practices of the pre-COVID period.

All of this has presented a challenge to the church, as we have grappled with what is possible at each stage of the process. All of this has also opened an opportunity to rethink what we do and reimagine how we might go forward. Many Congregations have been doing exactly this.

Alongside this review and reshaping of congregational life, a similar revisioning and reimagining of ministry can be–indeed, should be–taking place. Ministry itself can be reviewed and reshaped in this current time.

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So in what follows, I want to offer a proposal about how we think about ministry in a refreshed way: that we might consider ministry to be a call to be on mission, through worship, witness and service, as we collaborate, resource, and pioneer.

These last three terms–collaborate, resource, and pioneer–invite us to approach ministry in a different way, when compared with the “traditional minister” of years past. These terms might sound like a different approach to ministry–different from the “preach the word, celebrate the sacraments, visit the people” pattern that shaped ministry for so many decades in the past.

Yet all three terms can be found in that section of the Regulations of the Uniting Church in Australia about the duties of a Minister. The Regulations provide a clear and comprehensive statement of the various duties that are expected of a Minister. (The full list is pasted below, from section 2.2.1 of the Regulations.)

Before we turn to this document, however, let me explain that I am using the term “Minister” to refer to a Minister of the Word or a Deacon, the two specified ministries to which people are ordained for life and for whom the normal form of ministry is exercised through placements under the oversight of the Presbytery. This is in accord with the definition that is given in section 3 of the UCA Constitution.

Deacons and Ministers of the Word are exercising their ministries in different, perhaps unprecedented, ways, in this current situation of change. The months where restrictions have been in place, prohibiting gatherings in person, have presented a challenge to many of my colleagues.

Our sense of what it is that we were called to, and how we have come to operate in response to that calling, has come to confront head-on the need to operate in different ways in this circumstance. How prepared are we, collectively, and individually, to meet these challenges and to re-orient our ministries to fit the new situation?

Tradition has seen that the role of Ministers has been to preach the Gospel, preside at the sacraments, and offer pastoral care. That threefold pattern has a long and valued history. I still hear it stated, from time to time, in the present age.

However, learning to do things differently, and re-prioritising what we do in ministry, is the challenge of the moment. I think it is worthwhile highlighting some of the points contained in this Regulation, to show that our ministerial charter actually invites and encourages us to engage in this process.

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Let’s start with the final point in that list of ministerial responsibilities, that a Minister will be involved in pioneering new expressions of the gospel. This contains a clear call to move beyond the “traditional” expectations of a Minister–that she or he will preach, undertake pastoral visitation, and organise the business of the congregation (which is perhaps the traditional way of reading a statement contained in the Basis of Union).

The restrictions of the past few months have forced us to develop new ways of ministering: new patterns of online worship, study groups online, distributing worship materials by email or post, and providing practical assistance through doorstop calls. We have developed new patterns of working, whilst new skills have been needed to minister effectively. Creativity has flourished under this stimulus.

The other clause in this final Regulation orients ministry in the same direction, emphasising the collegial or communal nature of the role of the Minister: that of encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church. This means that it is not up to “the Minister alone” to pioneer new expressions and develop the missional impetus of the church. It is to be “encouraged” by sharing the task with others–and presumably equipping those people to be effective in that role.

And that goal, to fulfil the mission of the church, has been to the fore in all that has been undertaken, in new ways, over recent times, as people have worked together in different ways–and as people previously unconnected or rarely engaged with each other, have co-operated and collaborated in many ways.

The same collegial and resourcing role is articulated in clause (iii). This clause follows two earlier clauses which specify that the Minister presides and preaches, but now it goes on to say that the Minister is charged with providing for other persons to undertake these roles.

That means that the Minister does not necessarily occupy the worship leading and preaching role for 48 Sundays a year (allowing for annual leave), but makes provision for sharing this role with others — who presumably are trained and equipped in appropriate ways for this role. I know of a number of Congregations where lay people have provided worship leadership for online gatherings, for instance, in situations where they have been reticent to do so in gatherings in person.

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The Basis of Union, at a number of points, identifies worship, witness and service as the lynchpin of the work of the congregation. Interestingly, whilst the “traditional” role of worship is embedded into the duties of the Minister, so too is witness specified at clause (iv) and service is likewise identified at clause (viii).

So what is expected of the congregation as a whole, is to be modelled and implemented by the Minister, personally, in their ministry. Those who argue that the Minister has a primary focus on worship and preaching, supplemented by pastoral care and administration, are not actually reading their Regulations carefully!

The “traditional” role of the Minister (the solo individual who preaches, presides, visits, and chairs) is so, so far removed from what the UCA Regulations actually articulate. We are called to be on mission, through worship, witness and service, collaborating, resourcing, and pioneering. It is a fine calling–and the challenges of the current context both enhance and challenge the way that we seek to carry that out.

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Regulation 2.2.1

(a) 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, dis-advantaged, 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.

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See also a series of posts that I made during 2020 about the challenges being faced and the changes being undertaken:

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/16/going-back-to-church-what-will-our-future-look-like-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/greet-one-another-2-cor-13-but-no-holy-kissing-and-no-joyful-singing/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/