Ministry as Meaning-Making

In my last blog post (which was almost a month ago, yikes! Sorry folks!) I promised that I would elaborate more on some of the conversations and topics I’ve been discussing both in class and outside of class. I believe one of the best ways to do this is to share with you some thoughts from a reflection paper that I wrote for a class a few weeks ago.

One of my courses, Ministry as a Profession, is probably the most unique class I am taking. There are many courses that seminarians complete while they are in school: courses that cover Bible, pastoral care, ethics, history, preaching, stewardship, etc. etc. All of these classes fall into various categories of knowledge and experience upon which as future ministers we will need to draw. These are important and necessary courses that you will find at most theological schools across the country. But rarely do seminaries teach their students specifically about ministry as a profession. What is ministry? How has the concept of ministry been changing as a profession? What professional skills and tools are necessary to become effective ministers, skills like communication, leadership, time management, collaboration, boundaries, and program evaluation? The goal of this course, according to our syllabus, is for students to “be able to articulate what it means to be a professional in the field of ministry from both a work orientation and a spiritual identity.” Cool, right?

A few weeks ago in class we were discussing the changing “jurisdiction” of ministry. In other words, where does ministry fall amidst other professions such as medicine, law, education, and business? In what realms of society does ministry have jurisdiction, authority, and relevance? In preparation for our class discussion, we read an article by Gilbert Rendle entitled “Reclaiming Professional Jurisdiction: The Re-Emergence of the Theological Task of Ministry.” I admitted in my reflection paper that I originally did not find his article to be particularly inspiring. Rendle seemed to be lamenting the changing state and the shrinking jurisdiction of ministry, and longing for a past to which it is impossible to return. Yet in class we discussed how the modern paradigm of ministry has shifted now that we are in what many call the “postmodern” era, and this helped me to better understand and define the jurisdiction of ministry for myself. Here is a segment from my paper:

The main conclusion that I drew from our reading and our class discussions was that the concept of ministry is and has been changing. In what we call the modern era (1850s-1960s), the role of the clergy was pretty clear and well defined. The image that we created in class of the circle where each discipline and area of life had its own sector was helpful to me. In the modern world ministers had their defined “jurisdiction” with clear boundaries and expectations. In fact, Rendle argues that during this era “ministry held the largest professional jurisdiction, with interpretation and authority over a host of problems and questions, including governance, health, relationships, family, individual behavior, and the interpretation of meaning.”[1] In part because of the pervasiveness of Christianity, no one questioned the importance and jurisdiction of the minister in society.

What we drew in class: the modern jurisdiction paradigm, where ministry has its own sector

What we drew in class: the modern jurisdiction paradigm, where ministry has its own sector

However around the 1960s and 1970s, the modern era began to give way to what is called the postmodern era: breaking apart institutions, redefining what we call truth, and changing how we understand power. Areas such as medicine, business, and law began to grow and deepen, while religious institutions as a whole faced criticism and often dismissal. Systems theory states that all parts of a system are connected and interrelated, so the changing nature of other professions and their jurisdictions meant that the jurisdiction of the clergy had to change as well.[2] Where once the minister was the most educated person in the room, or held and acted with authority without question, now there was no guarantee that the minister would be called upon in a crisis, for example, or that the office of the clergy would hold the professional and civic importance that it once held in the public sphere. Making way for the growth and development of other jurisdictions, the minister’s slice of the pie that we drew in class was shrinking, and (in my opinion) rightly so. As our knowledge of business or medicine increases, the jobs of those professionals should be done well and with the authority they deserve.

But then where does this leave the profession of ministry? Despite his lament of this inevitable jurisdictional change, Rendle does suggest that clergy are and must now return to the root of their existence, occupying “an immense new-but-ancient jurisdiction:”[3] where people ask and face the question of making meaning. In class we took this a step further by incorporating this into our visual of that pie. No longer is ministry one tiny, shrinking sector crowded out of relevance by other growing sectors. Instead ministry is and should be seen much like a blanket that covers all areas, helping people find and create meaning in all areas of life. In my opinion, this is a much more wholesome and biblical understanding of ministry.

The postmodern jurisdiction paradigm: ministry helps to creates meaning in all sectors

The postmodern jurisdiction paradigm: ministry helps to create meaning in all sectors

During our discussion of this “new-but-ancient jurisdiction” of ministry, I could not help but think fondly of a few of my campus ministry colleagues, who run a program at Juniata College for undergraduate students called Do-TEL Project (Doing Thoughtful and Engaged Living). The foundation of the project is that all aspects and areas of life are somehow connected and related to each other, and that God cares about all of these pieces and longs for them each to be reconciled back to each other and to God. Colossians 1:15-20 provides the biblical foundation for this specific ministry, and for the idea that, overall, ministry involves helping people find and create meaning in all areas of life.

In discussion of the person of the minister, Rendle references Walter Brueggeman, who “suggests that the task of the prophet is to perceive with an alternative consciousness.” The prophet, or the minister, can look at what other people see, perhaps a job as an accountant, or the sudden death of a loved one, or a misunderstanding with a neighbor, but then also view it with eyes and with a perspective that others do not have. Ministers can see the significance, meaning, and purposefulness that escape the common gaze.[4] In class, Rev. Amy McCreath discussed the necessity of ministers to utilize appreciate inquiry. Ministers must look beyond the questions of “What is the problem?” and “How can we fix it?”, and move into the realm of “What do we have here that is good?,” “How can the Spirit move within this situation?,” “What meaning can you find here?”, or perhaps more importantly, “What meaning can we find here together?”

What a challenging yet important task! I look forward to continuing to process and synthesize the concept of ministry as both a personal and a professional calling, in light of how the surrounding culture changes and affects the church and its leadership.

I am curious: What do you think? Whether you are a member of the clergy, a lay member of a church, or a person who isn’t religious at all… What is the job of the minister? Have the role of the minister and the concept of ministry shifted in your lifetime? What is your understanding of what a minister does and how his or her profession fits in with the rest of society? As a licensed minister myself, and as a person who aspires to the continual answering of God’s call to ministry in my own life, I’d love to know your thoughts.

As always, thank you for your prayers and support in this exciting journey.

[1] Gilbert Rendle, “Reclaiming Professional Jurisdiction: The Re-Emergence of the Theological Task of Ministry,” Theology Today (October 2002): 411.

[2] Rendle, 410.

[3] Rendle, 418.

[4] Rendle, 419.

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