Friday, November 2, 2012

What is real ministry?

I recently heard someone say that they believe real pastoral ministry is about being available any time someone needs you.  Is that what real ministry is about?  Now, I do not know this person nor anything about him, so I would not begin to judge him.  I do know he is struggling with the fact that he may have to become bivocational soon, and it would appear that he questions whether such ministry is real ministry.  Certainly, anyone who has a second job cannot be available to everyone 24/7/365, but is this what defines real ministry?  Obviously, as one who has spent a lifetime as a bivocational minister and supporting those called to such ministry I don't think so.

From Ephesians 4 I understand the role of the pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  As a pastor my primary role is to train and equip others to minister to one another and to those outside the church.  Along with that I have a shepherding role where I am responsible to ensure the flock is cared for, but that doesn't mean I have to be available to them every moment.  There will be times when I am available, and there will be times when others will have to respond to needs.  If I have fulfilled my equipping role properly there will always be persons available to minister to the needs of the congregation.  From this, I believe churches that move from a pastoral care model to a congregational care model of ministry will be much healthier.

For much of our nation's history bivocational ministers were the norm.  As people moved west churches were built to meet the spiritual needs of the people.  Many of these were pastored by circuit riding preachers or bivocational pastors.  The circuit riders may have only been at a particular church one Sunday a month, and in his absence lay people would minister to the needs of the people.  The bivocational pastor may have been a rancher, a shopkeeper, or a teacher in the community.  He wasn't always available either, but that didn't mean the people didn't have others to help when they had needs.

This began to change in the 1950s.  At that time denominations began to emphasize the need for fully-funded pastors, and soon after that many pastors who had a second job became suspect as ministers.  Many of these would tell you they were treated as second-class citizens in denominational life, and some of those attitudes still linger among some groups although that is changing as the numbers of bivocational ministers continue to climb.  With the push towards fully-funded pastors the ministry became more professional.  Some denominations required the Master of Divinity degree for ordination, and without such ordination it became difficult to find a place to serve in some denominations.  Although I have not researched this I have a feeling that seminaries began to train their students differently about that time as well.  (If anyone knows of a study that has been done on this I would love to have that information.)  

Perhaps some would say my brief history lesson refers to a simpler time that cannot be compared to the 21st century.  Some might argue that the demands of ministry are such today that anyone trying to meet them as a bivocational minister will fail.  To that I would respond that Ephesians 4 has not changed, and our primary God-given role is still to equip others to do the work of ministry.  In recent years we have been challenged by some excellent books to return to a simpler form of church.  Perhaps we need to return to a simpler form of pastoral ministry as well.

I would make one more response to this issue.  In a large church of several hundreds or thousands the pastor is also not available to people 24/7/365.  In those churches much of the pastor's work is done with others in leadership roles who in turn leads others who leads the various ministries.  However, few would question whether or not this is pastoral ministry just because the senior pastor is not readily available to serve the members of the congregation.

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