what are ministers for?

There are lots of conversations about ‘deployment’ and ‘team ministry’ around the churches in Scotland at the moment.  The discussion is mostly driven by questions of money and the size of congregations and if pretty focused on where ministers are sent and how many there are and how congregations can be scoped and grouped so they can have a minister.

The current discussion assumes that ministry in its current form is a good thing and that every congregation benefits from having one.

I don’t think that’s a good place to begin.

No-one is really grappling seriously with the question ‘What are ministers for?’.

I worry that ‘training for ministry’ is really training to be a theologian.  Those aren’t the same things.

I think theological education is vitally important in training for ministry but it doesn’t address most of the tasks ministers undertake.  Community work, counselling, visiting, organising, encouraging, public speaking, marketing…

Until we answer the question “what are ministers for?’ then the conversation about where we put them is premature.

20 thoughts on “what are ministers for?”

  1. Hey,

    I agree we need to answer that question but I also wanted to point out that training today (especially at Northern College) includes many of the things you mentioned!

    I did placement work in both church and community and our course included pastoral care, counselling, etc! They trained me to be a minister as well as a theologian!


  2. I think theological education is vitally important in training for ministry but it doesn’t address most of the tasks ministers undertake. Community work, counselling, visiting, organising, encouraging, public speaking, marketing…

    As one currently undergoing said training with the Church of Scotland, can I point out that there is actually a fair amount of training in most, maybe not all, of the areas you mention. This is done either through formal teaching sessions at conferences or through the on-the-job placements. Candidates are also encouraged to find courses and conferences which allow development of specialist areas and interests. Undoubtedly there is room for improvement in much of the training, but overall it covers a pretty broad spectrum of activities that the average parish minister with the CofS is likely to come up against. That all said, this training programme is fairly new and is a tacit acknowledgement of ministers, in the past, suddenly being hit with all manner of situations for which they were ill-prepared.
    As for your key question, “What are ministers for?” then I would have to shift the bias towards the stuff that the theological training prepares you for. Why? Because there are many, many people within our congregations who are better able and better trained to handle much of the other stuff on your list. And, quite frankly, few, if any, of them require specialist theological training. Let’s be honest. In the ‘real world’ you wouldn’t train up someone, for example, to design spaceships then have them assist a dentist 90% of their time.
    Why else? Because it’s scriptural. The model we see of the early church was to have those able to teach, teach and for all the practical work and support to be done by those who are gifted and called to do it.
    Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not suggesting that the sole job of a minister is to lead a service on a Sunday morning and use the rest of the week to prepare for it. Much pastoral work is in enabling, encouraging, and guiding the congregation – all very much part of a ‘preaching and teaching’ ministry.
    And then there are the areas of civil religious life – funerals, memorial services, school services, chaplaincy. All, arguably, very easily bolted on to the functions of the minister and before you know it they are back to your original list.
    But back to your question – enablers, encouragers, supporters, teachers are the heart of ministry. Everything else flows from that, ideally through others.

  3. Some good questions here – and it’s good to see John’s view as well.

    Maybe some of this comes down to the paradigm of the people who make up the church. If it’s to be fed/nurtured/cared for through the (stereotypical) model, then the minister is the source of all light and life.

    If, however the church is a gathering where we can each build up each other, encouraging, listening to and equipping one and other then the minister is part coach/trainer, part facilitator, part educator. I agree with John’s last sentence entirely.

    I do think that the model of the early church – apostolic and local in harmony is one I’d love to see as *normal*. Where we connect to each other, resourcing one and other – which is far more than money (think of Paul and the mentions he makes of the churches thanking each other for their support).

    I’ve heard of people being “sent out” from larger churches that they remain connected to – in order to serve another, smaller church. not to take over, but to serve. I love that.

    That’s a minister. You are a minister. But then you know that, ‘cos you read Stewart’s blog!

  4. Big question and the goal posts seem to keep changing. Ministry is so often described by what ministers already do rather than what they ought to aspire a faith community to be. I wonder if ministry designed round a community of volunteers creates nice people rather than holy people. And we keep focusing it on worship, starting there and letting stuff grow from that.

    I would want to question that. If I were to design a course for ministers it would start with a year or two as a community activist or a project worker that focuses on where the community is and how to build it and re-energise it towards a healthier, more just, grace-filled community (just like the one Jesus dreamed about). Congregations often exist for themselves, to keep going, to survive and the whole structure of the church makes ministry into that. The church designs leaders that are focused round worship rather than change and transformation of community. Should worship not grow out of our life, our acts of grace and justice and anger and passion rather than that grow out of our worship? If so then ministers are project workers, community activists changing the community and ought to be rained to do that.

    At the moment the Church of most denominations continue to fund a model of ministry that emphasises the wrong kind of things that will not help the church do what the church is meant to do, not even help it survive.

  5. I think it falls a lot on what a congregation thinks their minister if for – are they a leader, an enabler, or a manager, for example. There’s a similar issue in education: is a school’s head teacher (especially in a large school) still a teacher, or something approaching a manager/seeker of funding etc. The obvious difference being that ministers, in the Church of Scotland at least, aren’t promoted to the role. I agree very much that there are situations ministers haven’t been trained for but, as John points out, this is often covered by on-the-job training on placements. In my recent experience there are congregations that know what they want their minister to do: some really do just want a preacher on a Sunday and someone to do the funerals while the rest of the congregation resources itself. Others want to be led, and are happy to be taken on a journey by their minister. This is good, as long as they have the right person for them in the dog collar. Sadly, I’d say that an awful lot of congregations only know what they *don’t* want…I don’t mean this harshly, only that some people struggle for a sense of direction or to know what it is that they actually want (applies to all aspects of life) and are only energised when they get the sense that something is not for them.

    Interesting question, Stewart, and one that I am spending quite a bit of time working through at the moment.



  6. Ooh great question. I guess I do not see my self as a theologian but more of a community worker – like community workers in other settings my role is to enable people to grow by responding to their hopes/desires/needs. But I know that at times I need to be a manager (Session Meetings/Board Meetings), at times a social worker (this morning I attended a meeting regarding a potentially difficult situation as a representative of the church but also of the person the meeting concerned), at times a teacher/preacher/leader/administrator and oh yes I get to go and sing “Our God is a great big God” with a fantastic bunch of children.

    I do all of this with a real sense of call – a call that comes from God to be his representative in this particular congregation. He chose me for this role and I am in awe of him for that.

    I guess I am with Roddy on the training – I was lucky to work in community based work for a number of years. I have always seen this as where my call/training began.

    Do we need ministers? Yes – because having someone who is full time focussed on the growth and development of a community entrusted to them by God has got to be better that a team of volunteers. I have been a member of a volunteer team in charge of a project – doing it in my ‘spare’ time – not good for me or the project. (I know this is not always the case but it is my experience)

    But are ministers trained as theologians? 3 years of study (in my case) does not an expert make – so would argue that we are all theologians but with varying degrees of knowledge. But a minister does need some theological training, if for no other purpose that to be able to work out their own theology before inflicting that on others. I certainly can say that my three years at Uni were not a waste of time.

    The training I received via conferences skimmed the surface of a wide range of issues for the ministry today – but at times did feel just didnt dig deep enough.

    Allan makes a good point about what different congregations want or need from their minister. Not every congregations is the same – worship in the pub might be a great outreach in one parish but completely wrong in another. And dare I say it…..in some cases ministering to an aged congregation and managing its decline might actually be in God’s plan – believe it or not the aged need ministering to aswell.Being the right minister in the right parish at the right time is what we should be aiming for.

  7. I can’t really say much more than those before me. However as someone who is considering a call into the ministry later in life, I would say that there’s such a vast array of talents and skills that you need to “have” – not necessarily all of them, but certainly a good deal of them anyway. I’ve spoken at length with friends, ministers and family about it – we all agree that I shouldn’t go forward for training until I’ve had experience “outside” of ministerial life. This helps with the skills, knowledge and every day “struggles” of the life of someone outside the ministry. How can a minister aged 22/23 give advice to a congregation member about a mortgage if they’ve never had one? Like Shuna said – you often discover you’re learning skills for ministry in your “normal” life, which then leads you to your calling.

    These (as already pointed out by some) are public speaking, mentoring, management, counselling – the list could go on and on. I was at a meeting with a few ministers this morning planning a holiday club from scratch – creativity is something else that is very important. How else are ministers supposed to keep the Word of God interesting? People change. Opinions change. People’s perceptions and society change. Surely a minister needs to keep the Word of God at the centre of all that they do – of that I don’t think there’s any question – but does it necessarily need to be done in the same way every Sunday? Quite often most people remember the children’s address on a Sunday because of that – it’s inventive and often quite informative in its content. How many people go away from a church and can’t remember the sermon a few hours later, but remember the children’s address?

    My church is about to undertake a MASSIVE project – a completely newly built church. Our plan is to have the church very much at the centre of our local community. It’s in the perfect place to make it a hub of activites for our local area. That’s where I see the future of ministry – building communities, helping them flourish and intertwining the Word of God with that. Churches should make people feel safe, wanted and encouraged – ministers need to be trained in exactly that. They should be at the heart of their community – they need support from their congregation to do that though, we can’t expect them to do everything, so I guess from that point of view I’m in agreement with John.

    Well, I’ve no idea if that’s of any use at all… but figured I’d add my thoughts.

  8. A lively discussion… Not sure about the 22/3 year old not being able to give advice because he hasn’t had a mortgage… where does that put priests and marriage prep ? The skills Kenny lists certainly weren’t part of any course I studied at college and I’m not sure we should even be thinking about being jacks and jills of all trades as it were. ach ministry is unique and it is the Spirit that matches up these skills with congregations. Admittedly this doesn’t always work out (and I’m not blaming the Spirit).
    Being ‘full time focussed on the growth and development of a community entrusted to them by God’ is a bit difficult as the undertakers fill your diary. Certainly this should be one of our aims…
    I hate to say this as a Practical theologian, but we need the theological training, (yes, even Systematics John!!)
    We’re there to be with people, to try to expound Scripture with the Spirit’s guiding, to encourage our flock to be the best they can be in the service of our Saviour.

  9. David,
    but funerals do offer an opportunity to reach out to those not normally in the pews – at least thats what I tell myself when, like yesterday, I looked out on a full church. I think there is development there.

  10. Shuna,
    I take your point that is well made. I just didn’t take your comment that way in your original post. Sorry.

  11. David – thanks but I do also accept that when the undertaker calls any plans you had to spend a few hours planning or even developing other ideas gets thrown out the window – last year my parish only had 17 funerals – I have been here three weeks and had 3!

  12. I wasn’t suggesting that minsters be Jacks and Jills of all trades – far from it, and I agree that it’s the Spirit that places ministers in congregations for reasons, but why not have them as prepared as possible? My point on the 22/23 year olds was, from discussions I’ve had with a few ministers about my calling, a fairly valid one – I’m not sure a 50 year old with mortage/debt problems would relate very well to a 22/23 year old straight out of university/college trying to give them advice on it? Surely if they’d been trained it how to *roughly* handle a situation like that, it’d be better for them in the long run?

    Your point on Priests is valid too, yes – but they can have training for it, can they not? That’s my point – people need to be as prepared as possible. Yes, there’s a natural learning curve that needs to be kept there (how else would we learn from mistakes?) – but it doesn’t mean we don’t have to teach canditates as much as we can to prepare them for it, does it? Or, indeed, that they learn about things in a non-Christian environment before they go into the ministry?

  13. PS – I know it reads like I’m saying that ministers *should* be Jacks and Jills – but I’m meaning that a wee bit of training/life experience can go a long way to help a minister’s development throughout their ministry.
    Ministers are in a church to preach the Word of God and provide support to their congregations, helping them carry that Word into the local community. They receive training in theology, preaching and the laws of the church – so why not have them go through pastoral/public speaking/management/mentoring training, even if it’s only to help them recognise people with in their congregation with gits for those particular aspects of ministry?

  14. Presently, as one who is a paid ‘pastor’, I am really struggling with the whole paid pastor/minister/leader model currently employed in most institutional church systems. It seems that the early Christian church seemed to function well, or even better, without the notion of such a position. It strikes me as really strange that a whole position of leadership has grown from a word that only appears once in the whole of the New Testament! Justification for the role is given often by reading back into the NT and making parts of it fit, instead of reading out of it to find out what it really is saying in the context of its day.

    I’ve watched a number of congregations come together and work better when they have had to function without any form of paid leadership. It is at times like these that people often discover the gifts they have and their purpose within the body. Unfortunately whenever they have returned to the previous system the old patterns of ‘that’s the minister/pastor’s job’ have reared their ugly heads again.

    During my training I was given instruction on how to do things for which I’m not gifted, but because of the position I find myself in I am expected to do. I think that in the coming years we will see the demise of the paid pastor/minister. It probably is not a bad thing, other than I my have to find something else to do 🙂

  15. Some great comments! I don’t want to stop the conversation and I’ll post a longer response to more of the points soon, but first I wanted to pick up on something Kenny said.

    I don’t think age has anything to do with ministry. I know older ministers who worked for years before they went into a parish who don’t relate well to people and I know people in their late teens who do. You don’t have to experience something to have empathy. If you follow your thought about experience, would you apply that to, for example, people who have lost a child or a partner? Of course not.

    I think too much is made of age and experience. From what we know of the disciples some of them must have been your age. Were they too young? If God is calling you then he’s calling you. That’s often inconvenient and doesn’t always make sense. Look at Samuel. I wonder how happy Eli was about God calling him?

    Anyway, to the rest…

    I worry, like William, that the role we call minister is one that we have developed to fit a model of church that doesn’t exist anymore. My question came from a concern that we are rearranging church to fit ministry rather than the other way around. I hope I’m wrong but I’m not convinced… yet.

    I see our prevailing model of ministry (and I know that’s a generalisation) as one which has huge potential to de-skill people. Experts do that. When we set people apart we create levels of authority, access and power. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus had in mind.

    The tearing of the temple curtain keeps returning to me as an image of a God that doesn’t need or want to be mediated. God came here in person. Jesus didn’t like when the disciples tried to decide who got access and who didn’t. He didn’t like fancy prayers. He didn’t build any new church buildings.

    I’m not sure where that leaves us but I’m pretty sure it’s not where we are. What do you think?

  16. Kenny,
    I would never be against training in ministry. I’ve tried to choose appropriate study leave opportunities to do some personal development that will help my congregation, (and it is suprising how many colleagues don’t use any of these opportunities – or use them for very obtuse and not obviously helpful courses) and I would expect training to be extensive and appropriate in college. The only problem with an extensive approach is that we train ministers who are given a little bit of training in a lot of areas giving the impression of the Jack/Jill of all trades.
    There are churches out there that collude in this thinking, quite happily letting the minister lead everything and be seen to be doing almost everything, and ministers go along with this (some more than willingly accepting the control aspect of this relationship). And we know to our cost as a church from ministers who couldn’t take the pressure and unreasnable expectation that was foisted on them.
    I heard one preacher say that when someone comes up with a good idea, his task was to encourage and then get out of the way.
    I came into ministry reasonanly late having worked for five years in a totally different but not unrelated field. I would certainly advocate a bit of life experience before going to Uni, but that doesn’t always work like that. There are perpetual students out there who have no ‘real’ life experience before they exit with their PhD’s and launch themselves on unsuspecting congregations. I did go through a speech training course in college and possibly would have benefitted from some management training too. I chose not to, specialising in worship aspects of the course. What we are about is equipping the saints, and there are saints out there that you acknowledge are differently gifted to us. (Thank God) When we spot these gifts we should ‘encourage and get out of the way’ otherwise we are likely to be stoppers in the bottle rather than conduits of the Spirit.

  17. I think that’s fair enough Stewart, I’d never really thought about it (properly) from that perspective before. I’d agree that age is often seen as a “stumbling block” for people entering the ministry (particularly in the CofS – how many “young” ministers do you see there?). It’s quite possibly that experience that’s swaying my judgment on that matter – I’ve seen a lot of people go for the ministry at a young age to be turned around and told they weren’t being accepted, maybe that’s made me a little bit cynical about it all. Most of the people I’ve spoken to about my calling have all agreed with me that when I know, I’ll know (some saying that it’s because I need that “life experience” first). Right now, I know my calling isn’t for a while yet – I’m being a bit over-reactive and suggesting that because I’m not ready, no-one else my age could possibly be ready – which is wrong, and I acknowledge that now.

    I made a point in a conversation with a friend last night about Jesus not starting his ministry until he was 30 – but I guess the point of the different examples in the bible is like you said – when God calls you, he calls you!

    David – my apologies for suggesting you were against training – I didn’t mean it to come across like that, I mis-interpreted your earlier post. You also make some very, very good points in your later post – I particularly like your quote from the preacher in the middle, very thought provoking!

    For your second point Stewart, I very much agree. I was co-leading a seminar the other week at the GEAR Up conference on how to integrate young people into your church. One of my co-leader’s (Jonny Buwert) points was that quite often, creating a job for a young person in the congretation (that suits their skills and interests) works better, as they can flourish in that role – rather than feel stuck in one they didn’t particularly want to take on, but were given because they were “young” and obviously ALL young people are good at youth/children’s work (!)

    The same can certainly be applied to elders, members and people that come to our churches on a Sunday morning – they all have a role to play in the church, all have a ministry. Our current model doesn’t help people flourish – sure, it helps some flourish because they’re part of the nominated “elite”, but that’s just plain wrong. Just because you’ve been a member for 30 years, doesn’t give you the right to take a job away from someone 10/20/30/40 years younger with more experience/a greater understanding of the topic at hand. A church is about enabling – not preventing.

    You’re right to question the models we have – what would God think of our churches? My minister’s working on a PhD thesis about why the CofS is dying – it’s focussed around the roles that elders were laid out to have in a church by the reformers and how far removed elders in the present day are from them. I’m not for one minute suggesting that the reformers’ church was exactly as Jesus intended it to be, but they certainly had a good model – it just has to be maintained and carried out correctly.

    (I have a feeling that’ll be picked to shreds, but I’m 10 minutes late for first aid duty at the football, so I’ve done it in a rush!)

  18. Kenny,
    Like others I wouldn’t put age as a barrier to ministry. But you’re correct in suggesting that the CofS do tend to discourage younger applicants. They would never reject the correct candidate, but they do have ways of spinning things out. As for Jesus not starting ministry until he was 30, that’s really a cultural issue. The eldest son was expected to stick around until the rest of the family were old enough to look after themselves. They were then free to pursue their own path. 30 was about the age this normally happened.
    I think you’re also correct though that you’ll know your own calling and its timing. It can’t really be explained. There’s just a ‘knowing’.

    Your comment about our current model of ministry de-skilling people concerns me. I’m not sure there is a ‘model’, but rather it is how things have come about (wrongly). It may even be the case that ministers have been complicit in supporting it. But I’m not convinced it’s systemic in the sense that it is being promoted as a ‘model’. But I’d be interested in hearing why you think there is such a model.
    I’m also not sure I fully agree with your comment about ‘mediating’ God. I agree that all now have direct access to God without the need for a priest-intercessor. And as a member of a Reformed denomination I would endorse the need for individuals to read the Bible for themselves and explore their own relationship with God. But once again, it’s back to the role of the minister. When it is restricted to teaching and encouraging, then it is enabling that ideal. As David said, get things going then get out of the way. There needs to be that initial ‘kick-start’ otherwise people would not, generally, establish a relationship with God. Sorry to be Barthian, but I agree with him when he identifies one of the main sins of humanity as apathy. Once people are moved out of apathy, then the need for a minister diminishes, but never disappears. It’s not about mediating God though; it’s about continuing to be the prophetic voice to God’s people.
    In fact, that’s probably one thing that’s been missed out in the previous conversation – prophecy. Doesn’t need to be a minister of course, but it’s a part of their function. There will, of course, always be a need for prophets outwith the establishment.
    I was skimming through the Didache earlier (sort of an early church manual) and interestingly, it says that any teacher who asks for payment should be considered a false teacher, but prophets could be paid. Teachers could be given provisions for the duration of their stay, which was to be three days maximum. Any longer and they were obviously milking it and should be considered false teachers.
    Time to look out my rucksack I guess.

  19. Thanks Kenny for your apology which is accepted. I can’t claim to be the author of the comment you found so thought provoking. It came from a sermon I heard preached by William Willimon. His books are worthy of study.

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