Ministry Reflection

Gift or Office: Etymology for Ministry

In April 1969 at the Institute for the Study of Christian Origins in Tuebingen, Germany Canon Douglas Webster began his lecture “The New Testament Concept of the Ministry:” with “…the idea of ministry is unique to Christianity.” He continued, “at the heart of the Christian Gospel…is this whole idea of ministry.” “In the New Testament, ministry is an attitude long before it becomes an office…” and “all ministry is a gift of the Spirit.”

Even in Restoration churches “the ministry” is now very different in practice from the early church in which charism (from charis, grace, kindness, mercy, goodwill) not Amt (German for office, official duty, or function) was the norm. Like much in Christianity, ministry is gift. The proper response to gift is gratitude. Our Lord said, “You did not choose me but I choose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit….”. (John 15:16) One receives the gift of ministry for service. A robust interiority (“spiritual life” and prayer) precede charism and calling, then sustain it.

Alexander Campbell opened Chapter 25 of The Christian System (1835/1839) with Ephesians 4:11: “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”.  (Campbell’s text and italics.)  He wrote “the standing and immutable ministry of the Christian community is composed of Bishops, Deacons, and Evangelists.”  Following Greek etymology, bishops, episkopos (from the verb episkopeuo, take care of, look after, “see to” as we say where I came from), suggests an overseer, administrator, an office (Amt).  “Deacon” (diakonos, from the verb diakoneo, to serve, wait on, care for, provide for) has the first definition “servant.”  Evangelists (verb, euaggenizo, to bring good news, to proclaim) we know as “preachers.”  Mr. Campbell apparently envisioned  “ministry”  as three distinct functions: oversight ( “administration”), service (to Christians and community), and proclaiming the Gospel, which might be first in the list. It is the origin and foundation of the other two. 

I hope you are groaning and thinking, “we know this.”  (Merit points to those who knew the Greek.) Here’s my point (and I am ready to be corrected): Mr. Campbell seemed to envision these three not as three activities of ministry, but as three ministers.  In most branches of the Christian family, a person in ministry is now expected to do all three: be the administrator, pastor/shepherd, and preacher/teacher. No wonder sociological studies of the ministry focus on “burn out” and the high percentage of the ordained who leave within the first five to seven years of service. We pew warmers expect way too much, inhumanly and inhumanely much, of our clergy.

This has been addressed  by adding to traditional seminary courses (biblical studies, church history, theology, Christian ethics, pastoral care, worship and liturgies) courses one might find in business schools: organizational management, finances and budgeting, courses on self-help and self care. Many books have been published on topics like personal effectiveness, parish management, and leadership.  I have read some of them and disliked most. The ones I read were based on principles of how to manage a factory or be the CEO of a large, secular company. They eschewed biblical language for the vocabulary of business schools and popular psychology. I’m not opposed to either business people or psychologists, but, I don’t want my minister to be either. 

Taking these courses and reading such books are intended to give one credentials. Credentials convey authority. But do they really? In Mark, the first gospel, in his first teaching and exorcism, Jesus “taught with authority, and not as the scribes.” (1:22) The hearers are “amazed.” “What is this: A new teaching—with authority!” (1:27) As you know, it isn’t long before the religious establishment questions Jesus’ authority. Where did he get it? They didn’t convey it on him. Soon they “conspired…against him.” (3:6)

Note how often “authority” occurs in the early chapters of Mark. Greek students remember exousia (authority, right, capability) combines the preposition ex (out of, as in exit) and ousia (a participial form of the verb to be, eimi, or  the noun meaning property). Either way, Jesus’ taught out of Who He was or What was His  (which was, and is. everything). This brings us back to charism and Amt: gift and office. A charism is a gift given, not an office conferred. It is an identity, not what one does. Ministry is a gift before it is a function. We might think about and minister differently if we understood this.

Take a deep breath as I introduce French and Latin. In spite of spending decades of my life teaching the Bible to “credential” ordinands, I am deeply convinced that ministers should be not “professionals” but amateurs. “Amateur” is a French word derived from the Latin amore, to love. (French. Of course it would have to do with love!) An amateur does something for the pleasure of it, for the joy of it, for the love of it. What if ministers thought of themselves as amateurs in this sense and were not driven by quotas, requirements, or acceptable minimums, not driven by material gain, hope for social status, or an admiring flock? The pastor’s reward isn’t an admiring flock, but “well done” from The Shepherd.

Amateurs  “do it  for love.”  Maybe God Who “so loved the world”  is this sort of amateur. Certainly St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians to “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”. (Ephesians 4:1-2 Italics mine.) When it comes to ministry (and most things) it is best to try to love as Christ loved and gave Himself. The gift of ministry calls people to give themselves away in response to that call and that overwhelming love.

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