Are ministers a luxury some congregations can no longer afford? The Anglican Church has many non-salaried priests serving its parishes. If we are short of ordained or diaconal ministers, is this an option for the United Church?
A deeper question is whether we need ministers — period. After all, the United Church comes from the Christian tradition that believes in “the priesthood of all believers,” a key doctrine of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. The principle affirms that all have access to God through Christ, “the true high priest,” without need of priestly mediators.
The Reformation sought a return to the early church and to Jesus’ teachings on ministry. Priests existed in Jesus’ time, and he occasionally sent those he healed to them, as in the story of the 10 lepers (Luke 17:14). He did not seem to be against the institution, but his power came from another source: the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ resurrection, his followers saw him as the direct intermediary with God.
In Acts, we hear of complaints that some widows were not receiving their share in the daily distribution of food. Apparently, the 12 disciples were responsible for this duty, but as they began providing for growing numbers, they were “neglecting the word of God.” The solution was to select “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, who we may appoint to this task while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word” (Acts 6:1-7). This early specialization is the basis of the United Church’s division of ordered ministry into two streams: ordained (responsible for word, sacrament and pastoral care) and diaconal (focused on education, service and pastoral care).
Jesus also sent out 70 people in pairs to announce the Kingdom of God (Luke 10:1-14). He “called” and “sent out” some from among his followers, and this remains the foundation of Christian ministry — leadership and service in the church.
But every Christian is called to ministry. “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to return to this universal calling.
Most Protestant denominations did not do away with “set apart” ministers. They see ministers as representatives of the whole congregation, responsible for preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments (baptism and communion).
There are dangers with having an ordered ministry. One challenge is that rather than seeing our leaders as “set apart,” we see them as “set above.” Can we have orders of ministry without one above the other?
Another danger is limiting forms of ministry when there is a wide diversity of callings. The Apostle Paul sees the Holy Spirit bestowing a rainbow spectrum of gifts and ministries: healing, teaching, prophecy, utterance of wisdom and knowledge. I fear we lose the rich fruits of these gifts when we preoccupy ourselves with who is set apart and who isn’t.
The Quaker tradition has managed well and faithfully without assigned ministers. Granted, many worship in silence so they don’t have to worry about sermon preparation. They do have defined leadership roles but no order of ministry, and Quakers are among the most exemplary Christians I know. Consequently, I don’t think ordered ministers are a fundamental necessity.
Then again, I’m sufficiently United Church to value the theological education our denomination requires. Our scriptures are ancient and not easy to interpret without a huge amount of study. The pitfalls of bad theology and human frailty are legion, so we need good oversight and accountability. If an order of ministry assists with that, perhaps its pros outweigh its cons. In addition, training for ordered ministry requires several years of study and considerable financial outlay. And if we already have a shortage of ministers, not paying them could lead to an even bigger shortfall. As a retired minister, I am happy to pay for someone else to lead worship on Sundays and to tend the health and well-being of our congregation. I rejoice that others are happy to do so as well.
Rev. Janet Silman is a minister and writer in Sidney, B.C.
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