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A pastor by any other name…

Moving beyond the parish bias to celebrate ministry in all its forms

by Layton E. Williams | Presbyterians Today

Layton Williams. Photo provided

Layton Williams. Photo provided

CHICAGO – About a month ago, I began telling people that when my current parish ministry position ends in August, I’m planning to pursue work in faith-based advocacy and policy change in Washington, D.C. I’m always quick to follow this with a reassurance that “it’s still ministry, just not in a church.”

I’ve gotten lots of support and encouragement, but I’ve also gotten a fair number of confused looks and incredulous questioning. It isn’t so much that people don’t support advocacy work, but rather that they find it hard to believe that I would willingly choose nontraditional ministry over parish work. This experience has made me realize just how much of a bias we still hold toward the parish—as if, somehow, ministry is more legitimate if it happens in a church.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this fact. Our entire institutional structure is still built around the traditional church model. And when I, myself, was starting seminary five years ago, I assumed that this was the only way that ministry could look. To me, ministry meant leading a congregation that met within the four walls of a church building every Sunday morning for worship. I thought ministry was preaching and sitting through a lot of committee meetings, leading the youth program, or focusing on the mission or education aspects of such a congregation. I knew there were missionary ministers who served in the far corners of the world, but that was really the only non-parish ministry I could imagine.

As with many of my assumptions, seminary disrupted my limited understanding of what ministry is. As we were informed about closing churches, declining memberships, and truly daunting employment prospects, we were encouraged to think creatively about what shape our futures in ministry might take. We watched inspiring 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 were inundated with pep talks about bi-vocational ministry and tent-making and ministry as a way of living rather than a job.

Though I suspect that they were merely trying to give us something to hope for when the time came to look for jobs, ultimately I fell in love with this more expansive understanding of ministry. I sometimes joked with friends that I thought I was called to a ministry that didn’t yet exist. When I answered the constitutional questions on the day of my ordination, I felt that I was committing my life—not to a career—but rather to a way of being in the world. 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 might vary—in fact it definitely will as the landscape of organized Christianity evolves.

As I’ve begun to explore my own call beyond the bounds of parish ministry, I’ve gotten to know a lot of amazing ordained Presbyterian clergy engaged in their own nontraditional ministries. They are college chaplains and executive directors of nonprofits and synod and presbytery executives. They are justice seekers and writers and speakers. And all of them are doing vital work in serving God and God’s church. But as I’ve talked with many of them, I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who has brushed up against an unspoken sense from others that non-parish ministry isn’t “real ministry.”

One friend even pointed out to me recently the significance of the fact 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. Still others, serving outside the parish, presumably in invalid ministries, function as members-at-large. Even 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. And we would do well to remember that Jesus never darkened the door of a Christian sanctuary. Church has always been changing and it is changing now. 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. We all need the ministers who are serving beyond the walls of the church—their ministries are vital to the church’s current wellbeing and to its future.

Everyone I know who has graduated from seminary in recent years thinks about what they’ll do when the church that we’ve always known is no more. We entered the ministry not because we expected it to look how it’s always looked, but because we knew that God was doing a new thing in this world and we wanted to be a 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 all the varied ministries around us and offer genuine respect and thanks. After all, isn’t it amazing that, even now and always, the church and its ministry are bigger and broader than we might expect?

Layton E. Williams is a teaching elder currently serving as the pastoral resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Her ministry focuses on young adults, adult education, and a jazz worship service.

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