Sunday, February 8, 2015

Whose business. . .

Everyone a minister and everyone a ministry. . . or at least that was the thought of it in the 1970s and 1980s.  Pastors were told to help people find their place (ministry) and their gifts (to minister).  So many of us in many congregations strained to discern what the unique ministry was for each of us and how we might live that out in the parish. Suddenly everyone in every congregation had a vocation -- one far more personal and specific than the baptismal vocation of worship, witness, prayer, and service. “Equipping the saints for ministry” (from Ephesians 4) became a slogan for an American Christian vision of how to structure the parish and how to get things done.  It was, after all, in the interest of the the business of the parish to be effective and efficient. But what is the business of the Church?  And whose business is it?

Every pastor has wished for a secret method to get people to step up to the plate and serve.  Whether in finance areas or teaching Sunday school or heading up a pot luck, the congregation is an engine that depends upon people sharing responsibilities and tasks. Enter the gift of the charismatic movement and neo-pentecostalism:  the spiritual gifts inventory.  Instead of recruiting people for tasks, here the appeal is to spiritual gifts -- discerned, recognized, and utilized in such a way that it promises relief from the ever present seeking of volunteers.

The idea of spiritual gifts has gone mainstream and is no longer associated with its origins in the charismatic and pentecostal movements.  It has become the promise of a Biblical alternative to the seeking of people for necessary tasks and jobs in the congregation.  But it is?

I wonder if any writing of an Apostle been more confused, abused, and misused than the contemporary treatment of spiritual gifts. From a letter to a divided, troubled, and error prone Corinthian congregation, St. Paul issued a plea for unity that would bring together factions and fragments in a cause for a higher way.  Yet this has become a blueprint for parish management, an entrance for a psychology of self-identity and self-esteem, and the cause to mirror managerial science within the work of the congregation. Gifts and talents are all the rage and surveys have replaced the task of recruiting and training lay volunteers for essential parish tasks and responsibilities. I must admit I am suspicious of it all.

Is this the "still more excellent way" that the Apostle had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians (after an excursus on the gifts of the Spirit). I have used such tools in the past but found them no less likely to result in the rejection of the needs and call to serve.  In one such instance, a person who was a gifted teacher insisted that she could not teach in Sunday school because her "charism" was leadership, not teaching.  Worse than a mere "no" was the cloaking of this "no" in the most spiritual of language that made it seem as if God were saying "no" instead of the woman!

It seems to me that spiritual gifts inventories and programs focus more attention on the individual instead of less and that is troubling to me.  Instead of the work of the kingdom, the center of it all is the individual and his or her spiritual gifts.  Instead of the good of the body and its edification, the goal tends to be either finding a place for the person to exercise his or her gift in the parish or to find the gifted one to fit the need and give them the venue in which to shine.  Perhaps I am all wet.  I have often been accused of it.  But this is hardly a panacea to counter the ongoing and difficult problem of finding people to serve where needed in the parish.

In the end the spotlight is on our business instead of His.  While this is certainly the weakness in every recruitment tool or methodology, it is a real challenge when everything is covered with a veneer of spirituality that trumps everything else.  It would seem to me that we have lost perspective of the need for us all to be about our Father's business -- whether or not it is appealing, convenient, or comfortable.  The cause is bearing the cross and some of this cross bearing happens when we take up the work and works that must be done to ensure that the local community of faith endures.  

That is not to say that everything a congregation does is all that important.  It is not.  In fact, a hundred years ago would have found the church building dark and empty except for worship (and absent all the other rooms and space that we have come to cherish -- fellowship halls, parlors, gymnasiums, etc...).  The things of the congregation still happened but they happened in the homes of the members (LWML meetings, counseling, Bible studies, etc...).  Was this better or worse than the situation today?  I do not know.  But we are all in search of a successful methodology to fill the jobs that we have deemed necessary to the survival of a modern day congregation . . . and I am not sure we have done the Apostle good service by turning his words on spiritual gifts into just such a program.  And, in fact, I am greatly troubled by the way that these agendas have stolen the spotlight from the real work of Word and Sacrament, especially confession and absolution, in the life of the baptized and the parish.


Kirk Skeptic said...

I heartily agree with you, but there's another part to this left untouched: the fact that many parishioners who would like to serve have no opportunity to do so due to turf wars, nepotism, and shortsighted leadership. While I too detest the psychologizing of church, I equally detest being told that, in effect, I'm but a tithing unit whose only function is to pray, pay, and obey while the inner circle whines about having no help. So, Pr P, what is your solution?

Janis Williams said...


..."pray, pay and obey?" Are you a member of an LCMS church that functions this way? (read: incredulity) That sounds far more like one of the megachurch agendas.

I think the solution (yes, I'm not Fr. Peters, and this probably isn't my 'gift') is ministry of Word & Sacrament. When that is done, the Lord promises to be there. Only our sinful resistance is then to blame if things don't "work."

Kirk Skeptic said...

@Janis: the phrase was actually borrowed from Papistry, but the principle is, sad to say, ecumenical. Yes, I'm in an LCMS congregation, but it is no megachurch.

The topic of the post is service, not Word and Sacrament - which I agree with you is of primary importance. But the seven churches in Asia had Word and Sacrament, and became seven mosques in Turkey. Corinth had Word and Sacrament, but Paul still had to bring them up short for factiousness. John had to put his foot down over ecclesial stinky personal politics. My point: choosing orthodoxy over orthopraxy is a false dichotomy; Word and Sacrament should happen in a community of mutual love and friendship rather than in a shark tank. We can deplore the psychobabble of spiritual inventories all we like (and should!), but should have a Biblical means of assuring that no believer is despised. This is the problem for which I aksed for Pr P's solution.