Sit back and picture your ideal minister. If you are like 74 percent of the people who responded to the 2010 Observer Survey, that minister would be ordained. And if you’re like 28 percent of respondents, the pastor would have a postgraduate degree.
Why we seek out ordained (rather than diaconal or lay) and well-educated ministers could be because of tradition. But as Rev. Peter Wyatt, immediate past-president of Emmanuel College in Toronto, points out, it is a tradition that has proven trustworthy.
“I think there is lodged within the United Church still a great deal of respect for what we used to call ‘learned ministry.’ That is to say, the person who serves them as minister will come with a good education and honed skill at interpreting the Scriptures,” he says.
On the other hand, one in five respondents say it doesn’t matter if their minister is ordained, diaconal or lay. They just want the best person for the job.
Rev. Philip Joudrey, principal of the United Theological College in Montreal, says lay ministry is extremely important in the United Church. However, he adds that in order not to offend lay ministers, the church has tended to give everyone the same responsibilities regardless of their training. And this might not be the right thing to do.
“If I say that I am really grateful that an emergency medical technician showed up when I was having a heart attack, but I really don’t want them to do open-heart surgery on me, everyone understands that,” Joudrey says.
He says the church has to determine what it expects ministers to do and then decide what education is needed in order for them to carry out those functions.
So, what do we expect ministers to do? When asked to choose between preaching and pastoral care as the most important responsibility of a minister, 41 percent picked preaching and 47 percent chose pastoral care.
Those in the pews seem happy with the preaching. More than 76 percent of respondents said the last four sermons they heard were good or excellent.
As for pastoral care, some results suggest ministers might not be serving the needs of the elderly as well as they think. Only 56 percent of seniors over the age of 75 said their minister is good or excellent at relating to the very old or dying, whereas 80 percent of ministers said they are good or excellent at relating to that age group. Wyatt calls these results a “wake-up call.”
What else do churchgoers expect of their ministers? Half of the respondents said the minister is responsible for making the church better known in the community. Rev. Ted Vance, minister at Millgrove (Ont.) United, agrees. “If the minister is not getting up and getting involved and doing it, I don’t think you can hope someone else is going to do it,” he says.
Vance has worked hard to get the church known in the community. He appeared on the cover of the glossy Hamilton Magazine, writes a column for the local paper and tries to be present at community events “where it makes sense and where I’m able to.” In March, he said the prayer of invocation at a NASCAR rally in front of 100,000 fans and millions more watching on television. All of this, he says, helps people in the community feel a connection with him and with the church. In the past two years, Millgrove United has grown from 15 worshippers on a Sunday to 40, with up to a dozen children in the Sunday school and a full choir.
Kylie Taggart is a freelance writer and a member of Glebe-St. James United in Ottawa.
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