Moving Beyond the Parish Bias to Celebrate Ministry in all its Forms
Earlier this year, I began telling people that when my parish ministry position ends next month, I’m planning to pursue work in faith-based advocacy and policy change in Washington, D.C. I’m always quick to add a reassurance that “it’s still ministry, just not in a church.”
I’ve gotten lots of encouragement, but I’ve also gotten some incredulous questioning. It isn’t that people don’t support advocacy work, but rather that they find it hard to believe that I would choose nontraditional ministry. This experience has made me realize just how much of a bias we still hold toward the parish—as if ministry is more legitimate if it happens in a church.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, our entire institutional structure is built around the traditional church model. When I started seminary five years ago, I assumed that ministry meant leading a congregation that met within a church building every Sunday. I knew there were missionary ministers who served around the world, but that was the only non-parish ministry I could imagine.
As with many of my assumptions, seminary disrupted my limited understanding of ministry. As we were informed about closing churches, declining memberships, and daunting employment prospects, we were encouraged to think creatively about what shape our futures in ministry might take. We watched videos about new worshipping communities that looked less like cathedrals and more like coffee shops and farms. We met ordained ministers who served as hospital and prison chaplains or led nonprofits or worked in denominational leadership. We attended pep talks about bi-vocational ministry and tent-making and ministry as a way of living rather than a job.
Ultimately I fell in love with this more expansive understanding of ministry. For me, being ordained clergy means that the first purpose of one’s living is to teach and reflect the love of God and to equip others to do the same. How we engage in this calling will vary as the landscape of organized Christianity evolves.
As I’ve begun to explore my call beyond parish ministry, I’ve gotten to know a lot of amazing ordained Presbyterian clergy in nontraditional ministries. They are college chaplains and directors of nonprofits and synod and presbytery executives. They are justice seekers and writers and speakers. And all of them are doing vital work serving God and God’s church. But as I’ve talked with them, I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who has encountered an unspoken sense from others that non-parish ministry isn’t “real ministry.”
One friend even pointed out that we call non-installed positions “validated ministries.” These ministers have to come before presbytery to prove that their ministries are valid, and they have to keep proving themselves year after year. Our language and our processes make a clear statement about the ministries we really value and the ones we merely accept.
Here’s the thing: parish ministry is not the beating heart of the church. Jesus is. Church has always been changing. And it will look more and more different as we move into the future. It isn’t that parish ministry isn’t valuable. It just isn’t more valuable than other ministries.
Everyone I know who has graduated from seminary in recent years thinks about what they’ll do when the church we’ve always known is no more. We entered the ministry because we knew that God was doing a new thing in this world and we wanted to be part of it—however that might look. Some of us are preparing for the possibility of a future beyond the parish and others are responding to that call right now. We could be afraid, or we could look at the varied ministries around us and offer genuine respect and thanks. After all, isn’t it amazing that the church and its ministry are bigger and broader than we might expect?
Layton E. Williams, Teaching Elder and Pastoral Resident, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago
Let us join in prayer for:
Rev. Barbara Bundick, Stated Clerk
Rev. Jan Edmiston, Associate Executive Presbyter for Ministry
Earnestine Norwood, Assistant to the Executive Presbyter/Office Manager
Katie Rains, Communications Coordinator
Deborah Rundlett, Transitional Executive Presbyter
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
God of all peoples, we offer you thanksgiving for your creation, and we pray that we may be attentive to your ever-changing world around us. Grant us your Spirit as you give us new opportunities for ministry. We pray that you will continue to transform our communities as you mold us into your people. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.