Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence… and Me

I’ve been a development professional ever since I graduated from seminary almost (gasp) ten years ago. I’ve worked in higher education – both religious and secular – and in community organizations. I’ve volunteered with local congregations and middle judicatories. In my free time, I’ve read and written about charity and fundraising from a variety of perspectives. A couple of years ago, I felt that this career was more than a career… it was a ministry and a calling.

And on April 3, I was ordained into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ.

I won’t be changing jobs. I won’t be looking for a local congregation. I won’t be preaching every week or performing sacraments regularly or providing pastoral care. In a sense, very little has changed.

Except that my work is no longer my work… it’s the work of the church.

Ordination in the United Church of Christ begins with a process of discernment. During this process, the candidate meets with a committee from his or her local church as well as a committee from the Association (the geographically related group of churches of which the congregation is a part). Some of these meetings involve questions; and one of the questions that came up a lot in my process was why ordination mattered if I wasn’t going to be doing those things I won’t be doing.

My answer was that this was a ministry and a calling… and that my work isn’t just my work, it’s the work of the church.

So there was a certain joy for me when I read a post by Chris Xenakis at Vital Signs & Statistics, the blog of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD). Xenakis pointed to a recent-ish study by CARD entitled Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellent: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry. Today, I want to talk a little bit about that study and what it found.

The study asked members of the United Church of Christ to rate their congregations on a set of marks of congregational vitality and their pastors on a set of marks of ministerial excellence. CARD then took the ratings in each area – congregational vitality and ministerial excellence – and ranked them from highest rated to lowest rated. Finally, they looked at the relationship between the marks of congregational vitality and the marks of ministerial excellence.

Here’s what they found.

First, they found that there were four marks of ministerial excellence that were significantly related to a large number of marks of congregational vitality:

The ability to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith (related to 8 vitality factors)

The ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation (related to 6 vitality factors)

The ability to read the contexts of a community’s ministry and creatively lead that community through change or conflict (related to 5 vitality factors)

The ability to frame and test a vision in community (related to 5 vitality factors)1Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, William McKinney, Holly Miller-Shank, and Cameron Trimble, Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (2015), 30

Second, they found that these marks of ministerial excellence “were the lowest-rated items by congregants.”2Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 30

Think about that: the abilities that clergy might have that correlate most closely with congregational vitality are the abilities that congregation members were least likely to say that their pastors displayed!

That’s not good. But it’s entirely understandable.

Here are the four marks of ministerial excellence that were rated highest:

Preaches the good news, lead worship and participate in the sacraments in a manner faithful to the broader Christian heritage and appropriate to the characteristics of a specific culture and setting

A thorough knowledge of, and personal engagement with, the Bible

Demonstrates moral maturity, including integrity in personal and public life and responsibility to self, family, church, and community

Communicates biblical knowledge in an understandable way3Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 29

These, not the marks linked to congregational vitality, are the skills we learn in seminary and through the discernment process. I was never asked about equipping a community of faith, stewardship and social transformation, leading a community through change, or framing a vision for a community. Instead, I was questioned about my belief that a person doesn’t have to be ordained to preside over communion.

Let’s own this: the church is focused on preparing clergy who are functionaries, not facilitators. We’re focused on preparing clergy who do very specific things – preaching, leading worship, presiding over sacraments, communicating biblical knowledge, being a good moral example, etc. – instead of empowering a community to do all of those things together.

What lesson can we take from this? I don’t think it’s that members of the clergy don’t need a seminary education, deep knowledge of the Bible and the Christian tradition, moral maturity, and so on. Neither does Xenakis.

I think the lesson is that we need more people being ordained to more work. We can recognize that different pastors will have different specialties. Not everyone will be an excellent preacher, or youth minister, or pastoral caregiver, or administrator. But among all of us – among the entirety of God’s people – we have all of these skills and more. We could have pastors who specialize in worship, youth ministry, pastoral care, administration, community building, stewardship, and so on. And we could educate clergy who could do those things – who could develop those “marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills”4Chris Xenakis, The Politician-ization of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership, (Vital Signs and Statistics: Blog, March 20, 2016)  – with theological and biblical integrity.

We could, in other words, give clergy the opportunity to specialize in the same way that we do with youth ministry. And we could recognize that those clergy who do specialize are not ‘junior clergy’, but simply clergy whose calling is narrow for good reason.

So… what does this have to do with me? I know the challenges of being ordained to a ministry that doesn’t look like traditional congregational ministry. I know what it is to have to justify the church’s sanction of a call. I know what it’s like to be asked why I’m bothering to go through this process if I’m not going to be a traditional pastor.

And as much as this was a process I went through because I feel called to be ordained. I also went through it because I think that the church is being called to something new, and because there are people who will come after me and I wanted to do my part to open the doors a little wider for them.

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