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Being part of an Anabaptist/Pietist fellowship, a dark cloud always hovers over whenever the conversation turns to paid ministry (or at least how we do it). Over the past several years I have been wrestling with the questions of what it means to be the church and how we go about doing it. I know; this has been an ongoing conversation for hundreds of years, especially within Anabaptist (/Pietist) circles. However, I want to pose a theological question (or three) regarding this.

Before I pose the questions, I have some observations. First, having spent considerable time looking at scripture, I have noticed that when scripture speaks of ministry it is always in particular contexts. Even when Paul addresses ministry more universally it is always framed within a local context. It isn’t ministry generally applied but particularly lived out in community. Even when someone is called “to go forth” the individual(s) is called and commissioned by a local congregation and to a large extent represents the ministry of that community regardless of where the person is located. One may argue that there is an exception in that apostolic ministry seems to be representative of the ministry of the larger fellowship. However, even in this apostles are commissioned and ordained by local congregations. Secondly, it is apparent in scripture (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12-13, etc.) that the Spirit of God provides each congregation with the gifts necessary to administer the gospel effectively (locally and to the ends of the earth). Most significantly is Paul’s stress that the gifts are of equal value, and that the only differentiation is in the role they play within the community.

With these observations and considering the current formation and practice of the church (of the Brethren, et al), and if we believe that the Spirit gifts each congregation with the necessary gifts, what are the theological implications of the church removing those gifts (particularly of those leading to pastoral leadership) from the recipient congregation to serve a foreign congregation within the same larger fellowship? Do we carefully consider whether the spiritual gifts given to the individual ought to be removed from that congregation? It seems to me that we almost expect that if someone is called to “set apart ministry” that they are being called away. It also seems to me that by doing so we overlook some serious theological implications. First, it might be that God’s intention is for that gifted person to serve in the congregation of origin. Those gifts may be the Spirit leading that congregation in a particular direction that has yet to be discerned. Admittedly it might be that the Spirit is leading the congregation to send that person out to new ministry. However, even if that is so, from a scriptural perspective it  suggests that the ministry would be missional in nature (church planting?). My first question is then, “What are the theological implications of God’s people deciding where the gifts are needed without sufficient discernment?” If we are striving to be a New Testament church, then to what degree are we following scripture? I am becoming more convinced that the current process and organization of calling and ordaining ministers does a greater disservice to the congregations because we do not trust that God is providing the local congregations with the gifts necessary for the ministry of that congregation. If ministry is truly charismatic, then shouldn’t the church at least ask the question whether a young (or older) person called for “set apart” ministry from a small congregation in Northern Ohio (or wherever) should actually leave that congregation to serve a larger congregation that can offer a salary? Perhaps those gifts were given by God to that particular congregation for a purpose other than sending them away.

My second question is somewhat related to the former in regards to discerning and using gifts in a congregation. Again based upon the belief that God’s Spirit provides the gifts necessary to administer the gospel in word and deed effectively, how does a congregation go about such an endeavor? Over the last couple of decades there has been an increase in the use of gift discernment assessment tools. The majority of those with which I am familiar depend upon the individual to answer questions of preference. While there is some value to such tools, scripture tends to put the emphasis upon the community discerning the gifts in the individual members rather than members discerning their own gifts. Meanwhile scripture also emphasizes that the gifts aren’t for the individual but for the benefit of the congregation. Thus the discernment practice is highly communal in that it is the community’s primary responsibility to discern the gifts of each member. Most importantly is that no one is excluded from this process. Every member of the body is baptized into ministry and then commissioned according to their giftedness. It is in the administration of the gifts that determines the role they play in the believing community. Therefore, if this scriptural understanding is correct then what are the implications of the employment expectations of a pastor set by a congregation? Shouldn’t our organization and process reflect our theological understandings (beliefs)? Unfortunately, I think that we have adopted modernity’s model (that education is the answer) to such an extent that it now permeates our practice. How do we move from a model of education to one of spiritual giftedness and formation?

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Comments
  1. […] Who’s Gift? Or for Whom? (hermestable.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Shawn says:

    Andy,

    I really like where these thoughts are heading.
    To often we think about ministry in strictly global terms. Understanding that congregations are divinely equipped with the right “gift mix” to minister in their context should push congregations to remain focused on and tend the local mission. Think about it in terms of ministry strategy. When we observe the current landscape of churches we see time and again the latest and greatest church growth strategy being employed by everyone. I think this month it is “one church, many locations.” I can’t tell you the number of churches I see reshaping everything they do to become a church within this model. Its exactly the opposite of what you have outlined above. If in fact we believe that God has gifted groups of disciples for ministry that directly meets the needs of local communities, why would we then “outsource” the vision and strategy of that mission. You are right to suggest that these trends are based on a lack of discernment. I think in combination with the inability to discern collectively this tension is magnified by churches over-valuing (in very real dollars and cents) certain gifts (namely pastor/teacher gifts). It is for this reason that I think one of the task of a church centered on local mission must de-emphasis the importance of preaching. Certainly the story must be rehearsed, and those who lead that rehearsal must be well trained. But the church has lost sight of the practices of the larger vocabulary of NT spiritual gifts. In many context people understand church as a place to go hear a good sermon and nothing else. People are happy to come and have their ears tickled and then go back to their routine. If a church understands itself as those gifted to minister to the specific needs of the community, in a way no other church could. We will begin to value each part of the body equally. The sermon will be spring board for listening into the stories God is writing through the collective efforts of the entire body. In simple terms, it will be the beginning of the week, rather than the end.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks comment Shawn. I agree with you completely. The challenge is to bring our organization and practices in line with our stated beliefs (which is based upon our scriptural interpretation and spiritual discernment). In many circles right now the conversation surrounds whether the church should be attractional or missional. I think the most significant conversation concerns the fundamental questions of what it means to be the church and how that is lived out. As a good friend continues to remind me, “it’s all about praxis.”

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